The realities of logistics and strategic leadership: lessons from the ADF’s senior-most logisticians

By David Beaumont.

Through the course of 2017, and because of my academic research, I have been extremely fortunate to interview a range of senior military officers and public servants. These officials were responsible for key decisions with respect to the transformation of logistics as it applied to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Department of Defence during a period of major transformation lasting twenty years. Through anecdotes, insights and the narration of history valuable lessons were given by these leaders with respect to a wide variety of strategic issues in Defence logistics. Moreover, these conversations and interviews confirm the real transition that military personnel face as they stare, mid-career, at their future in Defence bureaucracy, into an environment where the definition achieved in operational planning is not possible, and where institutional functions and logistics processes are completely integrated through the span of the strategic level.

This post is a collation of pertinent points imparted through these conversations. They are general in nature, raw in content, deliberately unattributed and paraphrased. Although discussed in the context of strategic logistics they are broadly applicable, and many are clearly relevant to effective strategic leadership. This reflects the inseparability of logistics from the institutional activity which defines the strategic level of defence forces. Moreover, the factors and issues described here deal with the complexity of generating institutional strategy (as distinct from a military or operational strategy) and leadership within a complex environment.

Strategy

  • Strategy is a concept of relating means to end; it is complex and subtle and is about thinking, vision, learning as opposed to planning. It involves choices and trade-offs and consequently is much about decision what not to do as deciding what to do.
  • Realised strategy is usually a combination of what was intended and what was learned along the way.
  • The key to understanding policy, strategy and concepts is to be found in knowing who the formulator is and what he or she is about.

Strategic failure

  • Strategic failures emerge when ‘thinkers’ are separated from ‘doers’, ‘strategists’ from ‘planners’ and ‘soft data’ from ‘hard data’. It occurs when strategy is neither understood nor communicated effectively, organisational capabilities and resources are not linked to strategy, and people’s competencies do not reflect strategy. This is often the case with respect to logistics.
  • Strategic failure occurs when there are poor linkages between strategy, goals, budgets and performance measures. The quality of linkages can often be seen in the substance of logistics activities and processes. Similarly, strategic failure can occur when circumstances change but strategy and plans do not.
  • The risk of strategic failure exists when excessively complex implementation plans are developed which emphasise control rather than personal accountability, and are issued ‘fire-and-forget’.
  • Cultural clashes, Service and departmental rivalries, and internal institutional politicking increase the risk of strategic failures and prevent the resolution of many strategic problems.

The strategic basis for capability

  • The basis for capability is enshrined in Government endorsed strategic policy but will change because of changed strategic circumstances, technological enhancements, doctrinal leaps, the planned withdrawal date of equipment, and the availability of replacements.
  • The introduction of capability has traditionally been influenced by a number of intellectual capital shortfalls including conceptual and analytical skills, policy writing skills bureaucratic skills, systems engineering, financial management and corporate risk management.

The realities of capability development and sustainment of materiel and capability

  • All logistics processes at the strategic level are joint; moreover they require military and public service input
  • Military advice is always tested and compared with the views of others. Contestability is at the core of decision making, and decisions which emanate from the military aren’t always trusted.
  • All strategic processes must observe probity, transparency and efficiency in dealing with public money.
  • Institutional decision making is primarily concerned with financial management and the balance of competing demands for limited investment and sustainment funds.
  • It is highly development upon multi-functional teams and effective committee work.
  • Effective processes relevant to the generation and sustainment of capability must reflect a Defence perspective rather than parochial – usually Service – interests.
  • The protagonists (Services and the Department) have diverse and sometimes irreconcilable cultural backgrounds. This is the reality of a large organisation with many competing requirements imposed upon it. Mutual understanding, however, can be achieved and should always be aspired to.
  • Symbols are prolific, and much of what happens is ‘theatre’ that gives legitimacy to logistics and capability processes, as well as other decisions.
  • Rather than using intuition to inform decisions, people often retreat behind analysis to avoid choosing between difficult options. This is especially the case with logistics. Even if analysis is used to inform judgements, decisions at the highest level will tend to be intuitive and influenced by a range of factors.
  • The control of logistics resources, especially in capability development, is influenced significantly by the desire to attain and exercise power within the institution. Logistics processes can be highly adversarial and mutually destructive – especially in the context of readiness – or highly cooperative and constructive although not without the need to resolve ‘creative conflict’.
  • Changes in financial guidance are an especially ‘capricious influence’.
  • Opinions always outnumber facts.

The nature of public service involvement

  • Public servants have an institutional memory and know how to work both the official and unofficial bureaucratic organisation.
  • They are analytical rather than doctrinal, and possess good policy skills.
  • Public servants know ‘words are bullets’ and can bring a broader perspective to any logistic process and a capacity to look at things with a ‘fresh eye’.

The nature of military involvement

  • Military staff are, in general, not well prepared for operating within an institutional bureaucracy. There are few, if any, other roles in society where the mental attitudes cultivated for operations are so different from those required for long term policy making.
  • In order to present the ‘military’ view of a problem in a judicious and ultimately successful manner, military professionals must understand the total concerns of the problem. Many of these concerns are not ‘military’ in their origin, or consideration.
  • Military staff must be more dispassionate about their work, especially when it is criticised.
  • Officers do not have good conflict resolution, lobbying or negotiating skills. This is the biggest source of success or failure for military officers operating at the most senior levels of defence organisations.

The expansive nature of logistics, as a process that straddles activity from the acquisition and sustainment organisations operating at the strategic level of militaries to the tactical units deployed on operations, often means that logisticians encounter the problems of strategic leadership early in their careers. Many of the issues they face are inseparable with the general functioning of a military prior to its operational use; as such, they must be understood. As cited by Nicholas Jans in the excellent study The Chiefs, ‘if they [strategic leaders] do not clearly understand the nature of the entity they are to lead, how can they possibly lead wisely?’[1] The collected thoughts summarised here provide a brief insight to revelations achieved after years of Service, in circumstances where logistics leaders have been required to embrace radical transformations to the way in which logistics process occur. However, I argue, they are unequivocally timeless and should be held in high regard by those who aspire to any success at the strategic level, and as a logistician more broadly.

[1] Leonard Wong and Don Sider cited in Nicholas Jans, The Chiefs: a study of strategic leadership, Commonwealth of Australia, 2013, p 90 [http://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/Chiefs/TheChiefs.pdf]