There is no need for Brendan Nelson to conduct a “complete, independent management review” of his department. It has already been done. As someone who served in the Army for more than ten years, who departed on excellent terms and has since worked on a number of major equipment projects, I can attest that Norman Dixon’s 1976 book, The Psychology of Military Incompetence, describes the current situation in the Australian Defence Force adequately.

Dixon explained how people who are typically recruited to the military – intelligent, altruistic, sound of mind and body – are slowly inculcated into a way of thinking and behaving that is actually counterproductive to the success of the organisation. Unlike most other organisations in Australia, the Defence Force chooses all of its leaders from inside the organisation. If you didn’t join it when you were about 20, you will never lead it. It is a long way to the top.

In an organisation that is normally not at war and produces very little that can be measured, mistakes become the single determinant for promotion. Should we expect anything more from an organisation that is led by people who will not act for fear of making mistakes? The solutions are complex but I have a few starting points for the Minister.

Seek to understand the reasons people are currently promoted and ask yourself if that guarantees that the best people make it to the top. Think how to reward people for taking calculated risks (this is, after all, the art of war). Ask yourself whether generals, admirals and air-marshals should be 30, 40, 50 or 60. People who are prepared to wait 40 years to reach the top are understandably jaded when they get there. Moreover, their experience as a 20 and 30-year-old is often no longer relevant. Make them about 40 and then allow them to climb back down the ladder and specialise. To paraphrase one of your clan (formerly the Shadow Minister for Army) – this was never meant to be easy.

PS: I have no axe to grind. I departed well before entering the zone of subjective promotions. I am still passionate about the ADF despite its shortcomings. It was home for 15 very happy years.

Peter Fray

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