Ep 19 Nick Jans talks about 'Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army' and WHS/OHS lessons

by Brendan Torazzi

May 21, 2019

Brendan: Welcome to Episode 19 of the Australian Health and Safety business podcast. I’m Brendan Torazzi, the host of the show. Today, I’m joined with Nick Jans. Good morning Nick, how are you?

Nick: I’m good. Thanks Brendan and you?

Brendan: I’m having a great start to the day. Tell me a little bit about you’ve recently written a book. Tell us about that.

Nick: It’s Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army. It was published about the middle of last year by Allen & Unwin. It’s about the way that the leadership practices, the long held leadership practices that have been used in the Australian military translate very readily into other spheres and about my analysis of what those practices are and why they translate so well. The sort of part of the subtext is my frustration that A, the Australian military doesn’t do a lot to even recognize just what this translation might be and how it might benefit the rest of Australia. Secondly, therefore Australians in general have a fairly distorted view of what military leadership is all about. They see it as being very dictatorial and autocratic and command and control and men shouting at other men that sort of thing.

Brendan: In other words what we’ve seen in movies.

Nick: Yes, precisely so.

Brendan: You’re really well placed. You’ve had a really long career with the army. When did you first get involved with the Australian army?

Nick: I joined in 1961. I went to the World Military College in Duntroon and subsequently graduated. I went into artillery. I served for 25 years full time. I separated for about a decade while I pursued academic and management consultancy activities. Then the military became one of my clients and then I gradually sort of drifted back to them and ended my career with a number of years as an army reservist attached to the Australian Defence College in Canberra where I could actually contribute to their leadership program and just as importantly study all of the really interesting stuff that was starting to come out about research into leadership to help us understand that magical process better.

Then there was a sort of turning point. I live in a delightful little Victorian country town called Marysville which just over 10 years ago was devastated in the Black Saturday bushfires. My wife and I were amongst those who joined the community leadership group to help the community get back on its feet. That particular experience which was the first time that I really practiced leadership since I had hung up my military boots some couple of decades earlier. That was the first time that I relay had the opportunity to practice leadership but had some inkling of what it was all about. Previously I would just be sort of working by instinct or working with kind of a script or formula which I really didn’t understand like the vast majority of leaders I suspect. That gave me some deep and intellectually exciting insights into the leadership process and I thought I’ve got to write a book about this because everybody should know about this stuff.

Brendan: Leadership these days, I mean you’re constantly seeing it bandied around particularly in health and safety is the industry that I’m involved with. Often we say that the middle managers, supervisors trying to put them on leadership courses and teach them those skills what do you think if anything is lacking these days?

Nick: A lot of stuff really. Number one, a proper understanding of what leadership entails and how it actually happens. I’ll just give you one particular example of how these misunderstandings manifested. That is that people imagine leadership as a sort of someone who rallies the troops in times of emergency and gets people around him or her and takes the team through to a better place. That of course is part of it and what people don’t understand is the ability to do that is founded invariably on a long term set of connections between that person who becomes a leader and the other members of the team whereby that leadership group builds up credibility and trust and what not that I’d like to call leadership capital that they can draw on when those sorts of emergencies happen. That is the first thing. Leadership is a poorly understood process. Who can blame people? It is fairly nebulous. It is one of those things. It’s like falling in love. You know when it’s happening but you can’t really explain it.

Brendan: It takes some time to build and I guess it can be lost pretty quickly as well.

Nick: That is the ironic thing. It’s very much a trust thing. It’s very much a sort of an emotional process leadership. It can vanish very quickly if a leader is clumsy or inauthentic or dishonest.

Brendan: Is there a leadership bank as well in your opinion? For example we’re all humans so we’re bound to make mistakes including leaders from time to time.

Nick: If you build up that leadership capital and you make an honest mistake then your team will forgive you especially Australians. We are a very egalitarian mob and a very understanding mob. We have a good feel for human frailties. If you mess up your team will forgive you so long as you’ve been building that trust and so long that it isn’t a big thing and especially if like the best Australian leaders you come back afterwards and say sorry guys, I cocked up here. This is the reason and I’m going to make sure it won’t happen again.

Brendan: In other words you need to authentic. People can smell it if you’re not I would take it.

Nick: People can smell it if you’re not. This is another thing. There’s this expression authentic leadership is bandied around a lot. I don’t think that is understood particularly well. To me the fundamental criteria of authenticity is are you pursuing the goals that you are pursuing? Are you doing that for the team or you’re doing that for you? People can very quickly smell whether you’re doing it for you. If they sense that it’s for you and not for the team they will drop you like a hot potato.

The other fundamental reason why leadership doesn’t work in sort of take a group and middle managers and bang them on a course kind of model is that is way too late. Leadership development has got to start very early. It comes out of the fundamental character of the individual. You’ve got to begin, it really should begin with a person thinking about themselves as someone who is prepared to do what leaders do and that is step forward in times of need whether that need is critical or impending and do what is needed to be done for the team. Leadership is a very complex set of skills and it takes a long time to develop. The earlier you start the more likely your leadership attributes are likely to be found reliable in times of test.

Brendan: It’s a skill that I guess you need to chip away at but some people are just like you mentioned the fires that you’re involved with. Obviously you have that background to be able to lead. How were you able to step forward in that time and for people that didn’t know you and command that leadership?

Nick: I was known within the community. In times of emergency people will look to anybody who seems to be plausible. There were members amongst the leadership group who were brand new to the district. Because they were accepted by the other members of the leadership team and because they were saying things that made sense and seem to have benefited the community they were accepted but in my case and in the case of most of the other members of the leadership team we had been people who had the opportunity to build up relationship within the community and to build up some sort of reputation for respect I suppose if it doesn’t sound too pompous. For example every year on Handshake Day it would be my privilege to lead the march down the main street. Basically command the Handshake parade. People got to know me as that kind of person who wore uniform with a fairly senior rank. There was some level of trust that extends from that kind of activity. I have been involved in the golf club and I was known as a person who called out penalty shots against himself.

Brendan: I’m hearing some context in the authenticity side. Just getting back to this you’re saying that a lot of business these days it sounds like they’re becoming more reactive rather than proactive developing leadership skills.

Nick: I think so, yes. In part it’s not their fault. They don’t really understand the process and they’re going on yesterday’s model but this is where I think my book is important. The book clearly points out the reasons why that doesn’t work and will not work too well in the future and suggests some ways in which contemporary organizations can take their leadership development program by the scruff of the neck and work out a better way to do things.

Brendan: How long did it take you to write the book?

Nick: A lot longer than I thought it would because I was searching for a simple but not simplistic model in which to construct the leadership process. I did by I finally came by what I call the three Rs of leadership and that is Represent, Relate and Run the team. A leader is someone who is seen by the team to represent their interests. This is who also someone who is a worthy representative of what they stand for. That is the first R, Represent.

Relate, you relate to people in ways that show that you consider them to be important contributors to the total process that you respect what they are going to offer and further that you will do what you can to build the potential for contribution even more by giving them coaching and mentoring and so forth. The third is Running the team. You run the team in ways that firstly make working with you intrinsically satisfying, that the journey becomes just as important as the actual end point. Secondly that people as part of that become bonded and thinking about themselves as unified entity as a cohesive group. When people think of themselves as a team it’s so much easier to actually direct the process and to influence the process.

Brendan: That is brilliant. I love that model. As you were saying that I’m thinking about a side project that I’m working on at the moment where I’m bandying a group of different stakeholders and I could really relate to that three Rs. It really fits nicely. The simple ideas are not always easy to come up with but they’re universal aren’t they?

Nick: Indeed they are. I really do think that this is something which is universal. You look at any good leader, any good leadership team you’ll see that it fundamentally comes down to the three Rs. The important thing about is once you as an embryo leader, as a potential leader, as a would be leader have got these three Rs in your mind it becomes comparatively easy to test your preferred reaction to any particular situation against that particular model. You’re doing something and you’re sort of checking off is this one of the three Rs and how does it connect with the other two elements of the model and so forth. It’s very useful to have a simple but powerful model in the back of your mind to guide you in what you do and to help you evaluate how well it went afterwards.

Brendan: I’m curious. Did you write the book and then take it to publishers or did you start first with the concept?

Nick: I got it half-finished and then I sent it the concept to a couple of publishers. Allen and Unwin was the second in fact. To my delight they said yay.

Brendan: That is amazing. You hear all these stories that people get rejected by all these 60 to 70 publishers before they found someone. The second one must be hitting the nerve out in the community.

Nick: I hope it is.

Brendan: Allen and Unwin, do they have you out promoting the book? How did people find out about it? When I heard about the title I went wow that is such a catchy title. I can imagine that would be of interest to a lot of people.

Nick: The title was the idea of my publisher Elizabeth Weiss at Allen and Unwin. It wasn’t my idea but I thought it was a very clever one because you often hear about titles which have those sort of The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun for example. It makes the person oh, I wouldn’t have thought that Attila the Hun have leadership qualities, more a dictator. When you think about it you realize that it must have been a lot more than that. The same with the Australian army. People don’t think about army leadership in any other way except autocratic. The possibility that it might be different as of course would sort of pique your interest.

Brendan: Have you been doing the rounds, talks, book signings that sort of thing?

Nick: Yes, we had all that stuff happened in the middle of last year. It was a mad flurry of weeks and it still goes on to a certain extent. I talk to community groups and I take a box of books with me. Afterwards there is a nice little sort of book signing series of events.

Brendan: The other question I had for you is do you know whether it’s available as an audio book?

Nick: I don’t know about the audio book but it is available on Kindle.

Brendan: Tell me a little bit about your views with leadership within health and safety.

Nick: I think it’s fundamental Brendan. It’s not just through personal example and so forth but there are at least two main ways in which leadership can affect the degree of diligence of OHS observance within a team. The first is to take that level of observance, OHS observance from just compliance to commitment. When a team feels well led and it feels well knitted together by a good leader. That is one of the things that good leaders do. They knit things together and make them feel a cohesive entity. Everybody wants to contribute to the effectiveness of that team and when the leader makes it known that part of this is OHS practices apart from the self-interest involved then people will go along with that because they believe if that is what the rest of the team stands for then that is what I stand for too. We are observing OHS because we are a good team. We are a professional team.

The second way, off the top of my head, is a more indirect way. It’s the effect that good leadership has on team stability and on staff turnover. People in teams that are well led want to stay with those teams. The longer they stay with those teams the more they get in the groove of what that team does is a matter of routine including compliance and commitment to safety procedures. It’s a bit difficult to make those OHS requirements work if every two or three weeks you’ve got a new member of the team. He has to learn the process all over again and you have to keep close watch on them and so on. The fact that people will tend to stay with you if you’re running a good, cohesive team is a great asset in that sense.

Brendan: That’s been great Nick. Thank you for sharing your journey and all about the book. I think there would be a lot of listeners out there that would be keen to read that. Can I just ask you a few short questions before we wrap up?

Nick: Sure.

Brendan: I wanted to ask how old you are.

Nick: I am 75.

Brendan: What do you like to do to keep active?

Nick: I am a keen gardener. We have a wonderful garden in Marysville. It’s something that we built up before the fire and then it was devastated in that bush fire. Then my wife and I brought it back. She is the leader in this particular process by the way. I’m just a team member. I also cycle a lot.

Brendan: On average how many hours sleep do you get each night?

Nick: I’ve just returned from an overseas trip and getting over jetlag so that is a difficult question. I reckon seven or eight.

Brendan: The last question I have and this is a bit of a funny one. What would you like to be most remembered for in business or personally, anything you like?

Nick: The way that I judge the success of my life is I look at my grandchildren and see what terrific kids they are turning out to be. I think anybody in that lucky situation can say to themselves I must have done something right.

Brendan: That is brilliant. If people want to connect with you LinkedIn is the best place would you say?

Nick: LinkedIn or they can go to my website which is LeadershipSecrets.com.au.

Brendan: The name of the book for anyone who is interested is Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army published in 2018 by Allen and Unwin. Thank you very much Nick for your time today and great to have you on the show.

Nick: Thank you very much Brendan. All the best and good luck with your podcast.

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