Jim Molan AO DSC: “I expect to challenge every order and be challenged on every order I give”

In August, the Sydney RBN welcomes ex-Major General Jim Molan AO DSC as a guest speaker, along with his daughter, journalist Erin Molan. The RBN’s Alison Nolan caught up with Jim to get a few insights into his vast wealth of knowledge on leadership and operating in challenging environments.


Jim spent over 40 years in the Australian Defence Force and in 2004, he was deployed to Iraq as Chief of Operations to lead a multi-national force of 300,000 troops in a rapidly-changing situation. Jim retired from the ADF in 2008 and released his first book, Running the War in Iraq’, an insider’s account of what modern warfare entails, the complex decisions which will mean life or death and the divide between political leaders and foot soldiers.

How can leaders create an environment in which good decision-making can thrive?

There are many different types of decision-making situations, but what the military offers as a real model for the civilian world, which I have never seen taken up by anyone, is what we call Operational Decision-Making (ODM). ODM is based on intuitive decision-making, where I as the boss might have the ability to get 80% towards perfection with decision-making based on my experience and it is likely I understand the problem best, but everyone around me can take me from 80 to 100% on the decision and ensure I am not 180% out-of-sync to the problem. In the operational sphere, we do this 5-10 times a day.

So reflecting current business language, this is an extremely agile way to operate?

It is extremely agile, where speed and consistency in decision-making are everything, and correctness of decision-making can be measured by the dead body count in two hours’ time.

So, in terms of the operating environment, this is quite different to the view that many have of the military?

The stereotypical view that we give orders and everyone obeys them is bizarre. It is just not true. It does not happen. The only order I have ever obeyed without question is ‘duck’. I expect to challenge every order and be challenged on every order I give. A manifestation of failure would be to have two officers standing outside your office saying, “We tried this before, it failed before, he didn’t listen, he’s on his own”.

The ADF operates in a ‘Command Climate’ with an ethical leadership focus. Command relates to your area of expertise, not giving commands. There is an expectation of a leader that those who work for you or around you are prepared to take you on and the leader is prepared to receive the challenge, listen to it and create an environment where it will be offered.

This is not an environment that is easily created, correct?

In Iraq, we had to train for this environment. If you go into it cold, no-one knows your attitude and background so they will be reluctant to give a view, so you have to prepare for this environment. As COO of the war, I was managing today’s problems.

You have to be fast and accurate in your decision-making, and I had a team of 245 people to assist me, working in shifts where we developed a rhythm to get from one day to the next. As an Australian running a largely American team, I had to establish the trust to be effective.

Which brings us to the issue of developing and building trust. How did you manage that?

In many ways you can never guarantee that you have got trust, so you should assume that perhaps you don’t have it or don’t have it sincerely. That often requires you to run parallel plans – one plan where everyone trusts you and will do what you want and a fall-back position, where you are able to test the trust at every possible stage to see if it is there at all or is surviving.

When you are asking people to do things which are well beyond what would normally be expected in their contract, or where there is a situation of considerable physical or reputational risk you really do rely on trust and empathy for people to perform at their best.

How does leadership in the military compare with that in any organisation?

The overwhelming factor would be the ethical approach (Ed: in the ADF) that you take to the job that you do. As a consultant, if you are asked to do certain things, people will trust you if they see you are taking an ethical approach – not cutting corners, not trying to be smart, being open. Back to the ADF concept at the top level, we very strictly concentrate on ethical leadership to influence people to do the right thing for the right reason. In any business, you can develop the concept; it might be expressed in different terms, but leading by example is key.

Joining Jim at our event on 15th August is his daughter, journalist and co-presenter of Channel 9’s ‘The Footy Show’ Erin Molan. Trust and ethical leadership are just as relevant to explore in the sporting landscape with the Olympics around the corner and the ongoing challenges that Rugby League has faced in the past couple of seasons. These are just two of the areas that will be explored at the event, so ensure that you are booked in and we look forward to seeing you there for a thought-provoking evening and some great networking.

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