IP23 Sea Power Conference, The Sailor’s Forum

09 Nov 2023

Sailors enable sea power. Our ships cannot sail without them. Two of the biggest factors that loom in my mind are sea readiness and retention. And in this context, deck plate leadership is what really matters. So I am going to take this opportunity to talk to you about leadership in the context of how to grow and sustain fleet readiness. So, I’ll start by talking about chess players and gardeners.

Chess players are by themselves. They are above the board, analysing and making decisions about the pieces below. No one eyes the board and suggests moves to them and none warn of danger. Chess players watch, they decide and they act on their own. They think purely in strategic terms. They treat the pieces as predictable – only moving so much this way and so much that way. The pieces on the board have no agency – they are pawns amidst a greater game. Every move is transactional, with the express aim of winning. No matter if some pieces are sacrificed along the way. For the game of chess is more about the player than the pieces.

Conversely, gardeners look at the whole ecosystem. They tend to all plants in the garden. Gardeners water and fertilise the plants. They check for bugs and for sickness. Sometimes they put in a stake to support new plants. They spend time moulding and shaping them with care. They can work alone or in teams with others. Gardeners take responsibility for and value each of the plants. They understand that a beautiful garden is not made from one single plant, or one single action. Rather, the effect of every day actions and the qualities of each plant make the entire ecosystem thrive. For them, gardens are more about the ecosystem than the gardener.

Gardeners are focused, capable and people-oriented leaders. Chess player leaders can be effective to a point, but at the expense of their people. Their leadership is about themselves. There comes a point for chess players where they realise this style can only take you so far, because people are our capability. So I put this to you – are you more of a chess player or a gardener?

Workforce is an existential issue for our Navy and our ambitions under the Defence Strategic Review. We have a mandate to and an expectation that we will grow the navy by another 5,000 people over the next decade. We need to attract more people. We need to keep more people. In my mind, a fleet’s readiness is determined by its people and their families that enable their service. And today there is more than 1,400 sailors and officers underway as we are gathered here. Which means there is more than 1,400 navy families who are missing their serving member and getting on with life without them. Our ships, our boats and our aircraft are ultimately just inanimate objects until they are brought to life by our people.

There is a reason there are more of you than me – the animation of our fleet is performed by you. Sailors have the greatest every day influence upon our workforce. Do not underestimate your individual and collective impact. Particularly in the uncertain times we find ourselves today. And please know this – the way you treat each other, the way you carry yourselves determines the character and reputation of the Royal Australian Navy. And indeed, when you are abroad, of Australia itself.

The Indo Pacific has dramatically changed. Order and stability is now challenged by coercion and contest. The prosperity and peace we, and our neighbours, have enjoyed for the last eighty years cannot be assumed. Therefore, it must be assured in the maritime domain by strong, professional, committed navies.

The passage ahead may be uncertain. Workforce shortages, capability challenges, budget constraints and all amidst the greatest re-capitalisation of our Fleet since WWII. And whilst I acknowledge that clarity about the future to the surface combatant fore is elusive today, within a few months we will have a very clear articulation of what that future looks like by the Australian Government. I assure you this. It looks a heck of a lot bigger and a heck of a lot more lethal than what we operate today. That is why growing and sustaining readiness in the fleet is more important than ever before. It is up to each one of us to contribute our part towards fleet readiness.

I shared with you the leadership perspectives of the chess player and the gardener. Here’s why. You’ve probably heard of servant leadership, where leaders opt to prioritise service above other motivations. But, as highlighted through the example of the gardener, today I ask you to think about the idea of custodial leadership. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘custodial’ as having responsibility for protecting and caring for someone or something. In this way, custodial leadership takes servant leadership to the next step. Instead of just prioritising the value of service, it makes it a responsibility.

You have the responsibility to care. About what you’re doing, about why you’re doing it, about how you’re doing it and about how it effects our people. You can only care about what you’re doing if you display character and competence. Let your work and your conduct speak for itself. The bestselling author, Robert Greene, once said:

“Do not leave your reputation to chance or gossip; it is your life’s artwork, and you must craft it, hone it, and display it with the care of an artist.”

You have a far greater day to day personal impact on the Fleet than I could ever have. At the water front, on the front line of our Navy, sailors look to you as the example. A junior sailor can see a chess player a mile away. A leader that is transactional and is motivated by personal desire or career ambition. Cultivate focus and professionalism in your tradecraft. Safe, ethical and professional environments are infectious and drive others to achievement. Competence and character will ready us for the voyage ahead.

Secondly, a custodial leader cares about why they are doing something. The desire to serve and the desire to continue serving. Custodial leaders understand that leadership is not about the leader, it’s about the reason. When I took up office as Chief of Navy, my inherited motto was ‘to lead’. I changed it. Now my motto reads ‘service before self’. It is a personal, daily reminder. Because what I do, what we all do, each day is not about us, it’s about the reason. If we remember this, it helps motivate us when times are tough. And ultimately, to lead is everyone’s responsibility, not just mine.

Take Chief Claude Choules. He started serving in the Royal Navy, but transferred to the RAN in 1926, serving as a Torpedo Officer. He served in both world wars and rare for that era - stayed on until retirement due to his passion for service. He was the last surviving veteran to have served in both world wars at the time of his death in 2011. He was the second Australian sailor to have a ship named after him: HMAS Choules.

Achievements like these are only realised through passion, humility and understanding why you’re doing something. A gardener has an image in his or her mind before they pick up the hedge trimmers. We are but custodians of our ships and of our Navy and of our international reputation. Whether your reason is putting on the uniform every day, our links to the history behind us, excitement for the future, an itch to travel the world, or your desire to protect those you love at home – let your individual ‘why’ give you focus and motivation.

Finally, custodial leaders must tend to their garden. A neglected garden produces no fruit. Caring for our people means understanding that humans are not chess pieces and it’s not okay to sacrifice some pieces for personal interest. It can be tough. People are complex. None of us are perfect and we won’t always rise to the occasion. But decades of research show that people often quit their boss, not their job – so we must try. Be the leader that makes someone want to stay, not drives them to leave. Create the environment in your workplace that makes people want to get out of bed and come to work because of what we do and how we do it. As deck plate leaders, I rely on you for our fleet readiness. Achieved through custodial leadership – by caring about your what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and caring for our people.

As our Fleet must operate in an era defined by competition and coercion – we are investing in a range of credible capabilities. We may well operate a hybrid fleet to include reduced crew vessels and autonomous and unmanned vessels. We might invest in quantum computing for lightning quick, impenetrable communications solutions. Or perhaps we will have artificial intelligence enabled underwater sensor systems to be on watch while we cannot. Whatever capabilities lie in our future – the greatest capability is already in this room. To my mind, our people that serve and those that support them are the cornerstone of growing and sustaining readiness. We cannot encourage people to stay nor attract more to join if we do not treat our people right. This includes acknowledgement of our families, who also contribute to and underpin our fleet readiness. I firmly believe that our power at sea is derived from strength at home, whatever home looks like for you.

I thank all of you, and your families for your service. The unprecedented changes and number of ‘firsts’ we have achieved in the last 18 months, could not have been done without you. There are many more firsts that we need to achieve moving forward. This can only be done through and with our people, not at their expense. It takes a custodial leadership mindset. It takes concentration, it takes resilience, it takes determination – but the fruit is worth it. Leave the transactional moves to a game of chess, not leadership. Take responsibility for your garden, for our garden and tend the plants to make them thrive. Together, we can create the ecosystem of Navy’s future that every Australian will be jealous of, will admire and will want to be a part of.

Which is why it gives me great pleasure to help open this forum today – for it is about you, our deck plate leaders. Senior enlisted leaders will speak at this sailor’s conference and I hope it provides an avenue to discuss, analyse and suggest ways we can sustain the readiness of our fleet today and into the future. And as the Warrant Officer of the Navy mentioned at the beginning, my journey started in recruit school. And although I wear the uniform of an admiral today, when I look in the mirror, that is not what I see. I see the scar tissue, I see the experience, I see the many, many miles steamed away from home. I remember the life in the mess deck. I remember scrubbing the urinals I remember polishing the two deck passageway on a destroyer escort in the South China Sea. I remember the games of uckers and losing more than I won. And I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

In closing, thank you for your service. I could not be prouder to be your Chief of Navy and I commit to do everything humanly and legally possible to set you up for success. Thank you.