War in Iraq or Afghanistan was not about fighting a religious battle, says VC recipient Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith.
“I fought against pure evil. When you strap a body bomb onto a 10-year-old, that is not fighting about religion, that is evil.”
Roberts-Smith says Australian soldiers were deliberate targets of war as “they would always stop and speak to the kids and give them food or lollies”.
The SAS hero and Victoria Cross recipient has previously given his support to Australia's mission in Iraq. For him, evil should not be allowed to triumph. It has no place in the world of humanity.
Now retired from the Australian Army, the former corporal and war hero goes by many other names. Father, husband, businessman, humanitarian, student, passionate speaker. Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG has many roles.
In less than 20 years he has seen more, done more and possibly achieved more than most people. As a soldier Roberts-Smith travelled the world, fought in wars, saved lives, briefed politicians and other dignitaries on world and veteran affairs.
He served in the Australian Army and Special Air Service Regiment with operational deployments to East Timor, Fiji, Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former corporal is a recipient of the highest award in the Australian military honours system, the Victoria Cross for Australia. It was awarded to him in 2011 for the ‘most conspicuous gallantry in action in circumstances of extreme peril in Afghanistan’ during a helicopter assault on June 11, 2010. His mission in Tizak, Kandahar province, was to kill a senior Taliban commander.
“Demonstrating extreme devotion to duty and the most conspicuous gallantry, Roberts-Smith, with total disregard for his own safety, stormed the enemy position killing the two remaining machine gunners,” read part of his official citation.
He was also awarded the Medal for Gallantry in 2006 and the Commendation for Distinguished Service in 2013. He is the Commonwealth’s most highly decorated serviceman from the war in Afghanistan.
For him, success and acknowledgement for a job well done is about being the best you can be, “achieving excellence in all you do”, he says.
There is more to the man than military soldier. After serving in the armed services with distinction for 18 years, Roberts-Smith left military life to pursue a career in business.
Those army values of courage, respect, initiative, and teamwork he has lived and breathed since he was a 17-year-old are still with him today. They are ingrained in his physiology.
“I wanted to be a soldier,” he is on the record as saying. He achieved goals of becoming a professional soldier in the regular army, and later a patrol commander in the Special Air Service.
After life in the army, he found his niche and is keen to share his passion for good leadership with others. In the past 12 months he has enrolled in an MBA, and moved his family from Perth to Brisbane to not only pursue his studies but to enable his wife Emma to be closer to her family. They are the proud parents of twin girls, Eve and Elizabeth.
The awards are some of Roberts-Smith’s more public achievements, though awards are not what life is about, he says. His transition from soldier to business leader is well underway. While people remain engaged with his story of war and mateship, they are also fascinated by how he has almost effortlessly shifted gears into a new and very public career.
To Roberts-Smith though, the story of his transition from army to business ‘has been done to death’. He now prefers to speak about leadership and its affects on people in all walks of life.
I am more dominant in a democratic style of leadership and appreciate people’s opinions
“Leadership is about making the right decision,” he says. “Not because it is the easy decision.”
In the past 12 months he has become a sought-after speaker on the business circuit, talking about his experiences in Afghanistan and a subject close to his heart and mind - leadership. He has turned his story of courage under fire in Afghanistan and years in rallying his men in the army to one of inspiring others to achieve business success. He is leading by example.
For him, success is bringing out the best in people; being the best you can be, “achieving excellence in all you do” and showing good leadership.
“I am more dominant in a democratic style of leadership and appreciate people’s opinions," he says in describing his own leadership style. “But I understand that at some point you have to make a decision and that is where command comes into it.”
As in the armed forces, transformational leadership remains a key component in everyday business life.
“I aspire to bring everyone along for the journey and make sure that everybody understands what each other’s goals are. If you can do that in work and in life that’s a win-win… every individual person is going to succeed. That’s very important for an organisation.”
As he speaks to more than 200 business leaders in Bendigo you can see the transition from soldier to business leader is more than underway. He is becoming a force in helping business, big and small, in achieving organisational objectives, undertaking change management and seeking greater efficiencies. He advises clients across a range of sectors in relation to corporate culture, strategic restructuring and change management. He is, he says, focused on assisting companies during change management processes and on helping industry to reap the benefits of a high performance workplace culture. Clients include Toyota, PWC and Ford. He has done extensive work with billionaire Kerry Stokes in his equipment management company, WesTrac.
As he speaks, all eyes remain on the large guy at the front of the room. His movements are precise, no doubt a by-product of years of training. There’s no wasted energy and he maintains control at all times. His voice is commanding, level and sure. At 196cm, Roberts-Smith is an imposing sight.
One audience member almost dared to whisper: ‘how could you miss him in battle’. Add 80kg of military equipment and the target becomes even larger and more robust.
Sheer size can also come with agility and smarts to control and outwit the opposition.
Business leaders were absorbed as he spoke. His strategic and operational experience in domestic and international environments is unique in the corporate consulting market. Tactics learned in battle are easily transferred into the boardroom and to the business arena.
“It’s important to get involved with as many regional communities as possible and not just go to head offices in capital cities,” Roberts-Smith says of visiting the city. “It’s important for any Australians in any industry to get access to as many insights as possible. I am not saying I have all the answers but I do have a pretty unique insight. I think coupled with some understanding of the business world that I now have … I can help business people focus on doing things the right way.”
This includes ensuring open lines of communication throughout a business, “to remove any chance of a toxic culture”, planning, briefing and execution for “the best possible outcomes”.
“Casualties are not an option,” Roberts-Smith says, for business and in war.
Achieving things the right way is not necessarily the easy way, he says, citing his SAS instructors for sharing their insights into achieving outcomes.
“They taught us the easy way is not necessarily the best way.” Personal and professional values drive our behaviour and our approach to life, he says. The five values integral to his character are “integrity, empathy, humility, courage and the endless pursuit of excellence”.
“As a leader you will be judged by your actions. You must lead by example,” he says.
Courage, he adds, is physical and moral. Fear, is the “biggest killer of innovation”.
“Physical courage faces down physical pain, hardship, death, or threat of death whilst moral courage is the ability to act justly in the face of popular opposition or discouragement,” says, referring to the debate about war.
“Physical courage is easier to come by,” he says. “Moral courage is harder - to stand up for what you believe in against popular opinion, speak the truth and acknowledge mistakes rather than cover them up. Everyone wants to deliver good news, but true courage is delivering the bad news about battle, even in business.”
Roberts-Smith’s Victoria Cross was for his efforts in drawing fire from enemy machine gun posts while his men were “being slammed” by enemy bullets for hours. To serve with the elite SAS unit, he had to show an early glimpse of the courage he had within by enduring hours of sleep deprivation while undertaking arduous physical training exercises. The goal was to find the soldiers with the most tenacity, strength of mind and willingness to not be beaten.
He tells the audience that on each morning of his SAS training he stood in front a mirror telling himself “he will succeed”.
“The biggest intelligence is understanding about the need for continually learning no matter how old you are or what qualification you have. There is always an opportunity to pursue excellence,” he says.
A strong message he imparts is knowing your team members or staff, and removing emotion from discussion and decision making as it “can cloud judgement, even positive emotion”.
“Get to know the people you work with. If you don't have the ability to interact and communicate, you will never truly know that person, what they want to achieve and what their goals are. If you don’t know the answers, how do you align that with the organisational goals.
“As a leader you are responsible for the plan… but you should use the insight of your team. Not one leader has all the answers. If a team member feels responsibility for the outcome of the plan then they will act accordingly,” he says, especially if the plan has to change during implementation, as in war.
“Briefing intent to your employees empowers them to make a decision if the plan changes. This briefing intent is imperative and saves the need for micromanagement. “For us (in Afghanistan) intent was critical, because when you are being shot at you don’t have time to ask the boss if you can go left or right.”
He mentions his army colleague Matt who single-handedly waged a gun battle for three hours during one of his tours, to protect his colleagues. “He did what he had to do,” Roberts-Smith says.
“Matt showed courage. He did that because he believed in the outcome and his own personal ethos,” he says. “Army to business is a steep learning curve and a challenge. It’s not just cut and dried. It’s constant learning.”
As with many in business, having a mentor can be important to success. Kerry Stokes is his.
“He was a normal Perth boy who had quite a hard life. He has achieved through absolute determination, hard work and self belief. That appeals to me because I like the type of person he is.”
As the business career grows, Roberts-Smith is not averse to continuing to serve his country, but politics is “not something that excites” him, he says.
He prefers being behind the scenes. He has been a leading strategic advisor to government and industry on defence, security and personnel issues. He is the Deputy Chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council for Veterans Mental Health. He is patron of the White Cloud Foundation, which assists sufferers of depression, and Wandering Warriors, which supports current and ex-servicemen. He is also a national ambassador for Legacy.
Roberts-Smith has been quoted as saying he was lucky he wasn't affected by post-traumatic stress disorder after 18 years' service; but he empathises with those who do.
“I like to be able to make some positive impact, to help make a positive outcome for others.”
This is the first in a series of interviews by Fairfax Regional Media on leadership. Join the discussion by commenting below.