Ben Roberts-Smith: Leadership that Defines a Nation
“No matter how hard you think you are, you can’t stop the thought of ‘will I see my family again'”
Ben Roberts-Smith is his generation’s most decorated serving soldier in the Commonwealth. He joined the Australian Regular Army in 1996 and was posted to the 3rd Parachute Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. In 2003 Ben attempted and passed the legendary SAS selection course.
It was on his second operational tour of Afghanistan in 2006 that he was awarded the Medal for Gallantry. On his fifth tour of Afghanistan in 2010 he was involved in an action that led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross.
He took the audience on a step-by-step recount of the circumstances under which he was awarded his two medals, drawing parallels between his military experience and civilian life.
In the military, there are very distinct levels of leadership, but he explained that in times of desperation and survival, it doesn’t matter who you are, or what rank you are, if you have an idea, a thought or a solution, you should be heard.
“There is no monopoly on good ideas… Any one time, any one person can be a leader.”
He spoke about a mission where his team of just six men, each carrying in excess of 80kg, trekked over 12 hours to a vantage point which eventually became compromised and resulted in a contact with the Taliban. At this point they were outnumbered three to one, with only four working rifles. They called for air support but were told none was coming. They had to make-do with what they had to try to survive, with one soldier scaling a rock face with all his gear, and no ropes or safety to help the team gain an advantage. Tough decisions were made to keep the team alive and Ben explained that
“leadership is about making right decisions because they’re right, not because they’re easy.”
With the audience silent and hanging on his every word, he began to share the intimate details of the battle which earned him his Victoria Cross. He spoke of the predicament his patrol found themselves in; completely surrounded, in a fig orchard, with constant enemy fire. He recounted his drastic actions to run forward at three firing machine guns hidden behind a brick wall, where he managed to take out the shooters, allowing his fellow soldiers to advance forward to safety and take hold of a compound.
“Physical courage is not hard to come by, but moral courage is a far shorter commodity… My family can live without me but they cannot live without their honour.”
He discussed the fear everyone will come across in their lives, one of the hardest fears to overcome – fear of failure. Often when it seemed like all hope was lost, Ben fought through the fear of failure and thought back on a time when he was preparing for selection. He would look in the mirror every day and remind himself that no matter what would happen and what was thrown at him, he would never give up. He remembers the exact moment he overcame this fear. On selection, during a physical endurance exercise, his body was fatigued, broken and he was on the brink of either giving up or passing out. It was at this exact moment that all the time spent in the mirror saying those words finally kicked in and he kept on going.
“It’s a powerful moment when the mind outlasts the body.”
Ben concludes his courageous and inspirational presentation with an insight on leadership that all delegates can take back into their own lives and businesses:
“The best trait a leader can have is the ability to acknowledge fear…”