Trust and Obey – leaders in the Australian Army


The Association of the U.S. Army, Trust and Leadership: the Australian Army Approach to Mission Command, University of North Georgia University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Ted Witham 

All organisations have leaders who organise and inspire their members to promote the mission of the organisation. Leaders should be accountable for their work as leaders continuously improving their actions.  

Trust and Leadership explores how well the leaders in the Australian Armed Forces have used the official doctrine of mission command. The concept is that leaders should provide orders that clearly state the end result of their troops’ activities. Junior leaders are left free to work out the methods and tactics by which these effects will be reached. The principle is that the closer they are to the action, junior officers will have a better understanding of the situation on the ground, so are the best to decide how to carry out the superior’s orders.  

This book is a series of essays arranged historically from World War I to disaster relief in Queensland in 2012.  The authors are both academics and officers providing a breadth of commentary from the practical to the theoretical. It’s worth noting that some of the serving officers who wrote these essays also have academic qualifications, resulting in a thoughtful and authoritative account. 

The thesis of the book is that the concept of ‘mission command’ has been used by officers since Gallipoli, even before the term entered official policy. Australian soldiers should be adept at taking responsibility at their level, partly because of the Australian character and its scepticism towards authority. 

This willingness of soldiers to forge their own way turns out also to be a weakness. The account of the 2RAR Battalion in Afghanistan is searingly honest. Colonel Chris Smith describes the disbelief of a few soldiers when he attempted to enforce discipline. Their passive-aggressive response to his orders arose from the soldiers’ sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they saw fit without supervision. ‘It seemed as though some were confusing mission command with “hands-off” leadership,’ Col. Smith comments. (p. 291 Advanced Reader’s Edition).  

In recent weeks, Australians have been shocked by accusations of murder and mistreatment of Afghan prisoners by Special Services troops. These allegations have of course coloured my reading of Trust and Leadership. Is it possible that these attitudes towards mission command and supervision by superior officers created the culture in which crimes could be committed? I hope that leaders’ role in these prosecutions will be carefully examined by the prosecutors, otherwise the concept of mission command will itself be bankrupted.  

As a (retired) leader in church organisations, I found Trust and Leadership to be a helpful analysis of the role of leadership to embody the purpose of the organisation and to inspire others to work towards that purpose. In reflecting on leadership, former Archbishop Peter Carnley AO used a similar concept of ‘subsidiarity’ (decisions to be made at the lowest level possible).  If this book helps our armed forces to continuously improve subsidiarity, it will have served a useful purpose.  

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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