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.  

Heartfelt obedience?

If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will.


Matthew 21:23-32

None of us likes to be on the receiving end of direct orders. Even when the order comes from a legitimate authority, the moment the order is delivered, we bristle. Our autonomy – to do what we like when we like – is threatened.

Even in institutions which function by giving and following orders like the military, the wise officer only gives direct orders in the context of a shared mission: this order is for us, rather than for you.

We recognise in ourselves the two sons ordered to work in the vineyard. We too can say ‘Yes’ to an order and then work out how to get out of doing it. We too can say ‘No’, and then grudgingly turn to obedience. In our fear and timidity, we can also find a dozen other ways of passive-aggressive obedience or disobedience.

Jesus asks, ‘Which of the two did the will of the Father?’ (Matthew 21:31a) His listeners sided with the son who obeyed after initially refusing. But his was the ‘least worst’ option. Neither of the sons responded with a heartful ‘Yes’ and went out and diligently worked the vineyard. That would have been their father’s hope.

The father, the owner of this vineyard, got it wrong. God is not like this father. This father needs lessons in human resource management and parenting. Jesus is teaching a better way of leading than giving direct orders. If someone in authority shows empathy and cares, then we are more likely to want to do their will. This kind of authority neither the ‘chief priests [nor] the elders of the people’ (v. 23) could understand.

God generally does not give direct orders. God builds relationship and empathy. God invites and calls. God knows what we are like. God knows we trip over our autonomy when told what to do.  God always leaves us room for a free response.

We as Christian leaders can do better than the owner of this vineyard: we can lead by love and example, as Jesus did. People will respond according to the authenticity they see in us.

As Christian followers, our challenge is to discern God’s will and try to do it in heartfelt obedience.

Alan Blackwood: Builder of Men


Alan Blackwood is dead, and I salute my former house-master and colleague.

Boys nicknamed Alan “Hoont”, and it was a sort of joke that we all knew why. I never did. I always spelt it in my mind “Hund”, as in the German for “dog”, but that’s the last thing you’d call Mr Blackwood.

As a figure of authority – he was Deputy Headmaster for over 30 years – Alan Blackwood had an extraordinary sense of justice. He believed in corporal punishment and regularly handed out 4 or 6 lashes of the cane for serious offences, but boys rarely felt treated unfairly.

He was always for me an exemplar of manhood. Alan was a big man who held himself well with practised military bearing. He carried the mystique of having served in Special Forces during the war. He spoke less about this experience than Headmaster Peter Moyes, who was also reticent to describe his time in Z Force.

When I returned to the school, I worried about how he would receive me as a colleague. On my first day as chaplain, I called him “Mr Blackwood.” He surprised me with a warm smile. “It’s Alan,” he said, “now you call me Alan.” He turned out to be the easiest of colleagues, supportive, friendly and helpful. In particular on the five-man School Executive, Alan was the encourager, the man who could see how others’ vision could be put into action.

As his chaplain, I never really found out what Alan believed. I suspect he had seen things so horrible in the war, things that human beings should never see, that he had suspended his belief in God. But he also must have seen some special padres, and he held my office in high respect. He fought against measures to dilute the effects of Chapel-going. On the other hand, he did not disguise his contempt (in private, at least) for a chaplain colleague who was not, in his opinion, up to scratch.

Many Old Boys and staff were closer to Alan than I was. But I knew him as a decent, upright human being who loved Christ Church and showed many boys how to be men.

Francis – program notes


Program notes for the play Francis, presented by the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, November 21, 22, 23 and 24, by Julian Mitchell and directed by Drew Stocker tssf.

By Ted Witham tssf

Poster for the play “Francis”

Saint Francis of Assisi became a leader by giving power away. Francis Bernadone was born in 1181 or 1182 and grew up in a wealthy merchant’s house. As a teenager, he became a leader of wild parties through the streets of Assisi. He was known as ‘The King of the Revels’, and used his money to attract friends.

Like all young men in Assisi, Francis chose to join in the little wars the town fought – for the Emperor (against the Pope) and against the neighbouring hill-town of Perugia. After one battle Francis was taken prisoner in a dark prison in Perugia. Having a wealthy father meant that he was held for ransom.  It took a year to negotiate a price for his release. He began to realise that even with money he couldn’t have what he wanted when he wanted.

After his release he bought a knighthood to fight in the crusades. Instead of a glorious tour in Palestine, Francis returned home sick. In a vision God showed him that he didn’t want him to be a knight, so he gave away his lavish armour.

Everywhere around him, Francis could see people fighting: fighting to keep their possessions and power. Assisi had always been a barter economy, but now, as Francis grew to manhood, it was becoming a greedy money economy. Instead of giving each other life’s necessities, the people of Assisi began to amass cash. The division between the privileged and the poor grew rapidly.

Francis saw a solution to this greed. All people should treat each other as members of their family. Instead of grabbing resources for themselves, they should share with their brothers and sisters what they had. Francis started a community of those who would follow this way. He dreamed of a new world where people gave everything away to each other, so all would be equally rich.

Francis struggled for the rest of his life to find the best way to be the leader of this community. His idea of a leader was someone who did not have power over others. Like Jesus, Francis wanted to be the leader in serving others, a servant leader, a leader in giving power away. The concept was – and is – difficult to put into practice, but the communities Francis founded continue to try to make it work.