Defence chief turned chair Jeff Sengelman on why accountability matters

Monday, 01 March 2021


    Jeffrey Sengelman DSC AM CSC, former Defence commander and now chair of Harvest Technology Group, believes character is the foundation of good leadership.

    Five years ago, a series of events unfolded in the world-class, internationally respected, high-performing organisation I once led. These events would ultimately question our culture, diminish our reputation, shock the nation and elevate the prospect of serious criminal and legal proceedings being pursued against those involved. Governors-general, prime ministers, presidents and ambassadors became involved. It was on the front pages of every major Australian media publication and the subject of intense international coverage. Many were upset, disappointed, shocked, confused or angry. Many still are.

    [The report of the four-year inquiry by NSW Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton into alleged war crimes by Australian Special Forces soldiers, released in late 2020, found credible evidence of up to 39 murders — with 19 current or former soldiers, mostly from the SAS, to face criminal investigation, possible prosecution and the stripping of their medals. The bulk of evidence came from whistleblowers within the SAS.]

    Those events — and the wider circumstances in which they are nested — are still very raw and imperfectly explained. But I also recall the incredible people around me and how, as an organisation, we confronted the sober truth of our predicament and, with considerable trepidation and determination, collectively acted in that initial chaos and adversity to do the right thing.

    Leaders who experienced 2020 know that uncertainty, complexity and adversity are the new normal. Senior leadership teams must constantly strive to maintain and apply professional mastery if they wish to prevail where others falter or fail. How well an organisation performs in significant adversity is the true measure of both their calibre and the value of leaders. In those circumstances when authentic leaders step up and lead, that’s when high-performance teams coalesce and become greater than their challenge. When leading in adversity, I’ve found character is the foundation upon which everything else rests.

    I have done many things in my life, but arguably the greatest privilege has been serving with and commanding Australians on combat operations. After almost 40 years of service, much of it in Special Forces, and now standing in the spotlight of the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes, I find myself seeking honest reflections when I look deeply into the mirror.

    While acknowledging I was the individual who initiated many of the events that eventually led to the Brereton inquiry, I have no intention of commenting directly. These are matters for Defence and government. But at the risk of controversy, given the seriousness of the findings and recommendations of the inquiry, let me declare upfront that as the former Commander of Special Operations Australia, I was and remain unambiguously accountable for all that my organisation did or failed to do.

    It is my enduring view that to be a leader is to be accountable. While for me this is accepted and clearly implied, for many, unfortunately, it sometimes has to be specified. In my experience, some covet the title of leader and are swift to want to wear it as a crown, rather than shoulder it as a demanding accountability. While these people might wield power, have a public profile and exercise authority over others, their behaviours are often more analogous to a boss than a leader.

    Leadership that inspires, encourages and unleashes the full potential of an organisation is about others. It’s not about “me”, it’s about “we”. Whether leading an SAS patrol of six, commanding 30,000 soldiers, directing the operations of 250,000 troops on a foreign battlefield, or chairing a board, the fundamentals of authentic leadership absolutely matter.

    Leadership in adversity

    Many recent AGMs have featured discussions on board renewal. It has become evident that many boards struggled with increased accountability and scrutiny or were too slow to adapt to the dynamic challenges of COVID-19 and global competition. Leading in predicable times can be rewarding and enjoyable, but such times are fleeting. Markets, like battlefields, are fiercely contested domains full of risk, complexity and uncertainty. Sustained success requires leadership teams and organisations to be agile, resilient and innovative in good times and bad.

    In peacetime, generals might covet and enjoy popularity with subordinates and excel as administrators, but their primary purpose is to fight and win wars. An army whose leader is not first and foremost a master of the battlefield, risks defeat. History has taught this lesson many times, and for millennia, armies have worked hard to ensure their chosen generals were effective leaders in the chaos and adversity of war. If they can do that, they can usually also lead in peace. The converse is rarely true.

    It seems to me that the same holds true at the corporate level and in the commercial domain. Selecting leaders and developing leadership teams that perform or excel in adversity and uncertainty will differentiate between those who succeed and who falter during challenging times such as we’re now experiencing.

    People always matter

    There are two key ways to influence people — manipulate them or inspire them. While every director or CEO knows the superior answer is to inspire their people, and will talk the talk accordingly, it is easier said than done.

    Manipulation can sometimes be the easy option, especially for those with short-term outlooks. But manipulating people is not a positive approach if you wish to call yourself a leader. In my experience, it doesn’t ever lead to a positive place. I’ve seen this happen when leaders try to personally control the message out of a desire to avoid risk — instead of disclosing the truth to their people, trusting the team and confronting the risk. Employees in organisations where this occurs tend to exhibit low internal trust, low personal initiative and feel underappreciated.

    Inspiring people requires significantly more personal investment and commitment from leaders, but the long-term dividends are significant. It’s what makes people believe in each other and want to do more than just their job. Workforces and teams, if they believe and are inspired, can achieve great things. This results in value for the company and its reputation, greater competitiveness, improved innovation, stronger loyalty and greater resilience in difficult times.

    Trust counts

    I’m proud to chair Harvest Technology Group. When I conducted my first AGM last year, I found myself staring at an audience of over 100 faces, all seeing me for the first time and probably wondering if I was up to the job.

    I realised these investors were being asked to place their trust in me. In many ways, it felt just like addressing an SAS squadron before launching a counter-terrorism mission. Soldiers want to understand, believe and trust because their lives depend on it. For shareholders and clients, their investments matter deeply to them — and therefore, to me.

    I dispensed with my polished speech and instead talked about trust, belief, vision and our purpose. I spoke with sincerity and authenticity, giving a solemn undertaking I would do my best to represent them, deliver positive results and lead with integrity.

    My simple message was, whether it’s an AGM with 100 people in the room or a telecast to 10,000, it’s about authentic leadership. If you are of good character, embrace accountability, commit to doing your best and strive to deliver on your undertakings, that instils confidence in people. When it comes to trust and inspirational leadership, shareholders and markets yearn for it as much as soldiers.

    Owning the responsibility

    Sometimes, despite doing everything right, things can still go wrong. Astute leaders should count on this. I recall an operation in the Middle East, commanded by regional forces and supported by the coalition. For weeks, a grinding battle had been underway as Al-Qaeda defended a city, using civilians as human shields. Casualties were high and the collateral destruction was catastrophic.

    Al-Qaeda fighters had occupied a building that dominated a key intersection, which otherwise appeared deserted. After the usual checks and procedures, a bomb was released to target the Al-Qaeda fighters. Everything around that target building looked empty, but in those few seconds before the bomb struck, a group of people ran across the street. Nothing could be done. The message is, despite trying to tick all the boxes and take all the precautions, sometimes things can go terribly wrong.

    How teams respond when things do go wrong is critical. When they decisively step up, that’s when they shine. Senior leaders must anticipate these times and lead teams who know how to respond to a crisis and, if possible, prevent that crisis spiralling into disaster.

    In war, terrible things happen, many beyond our control. Yet we still need to continue with the mission. We have to swiftly and transparently report and reflect upon the meaning of these things. Then we have to honestly learn the lessons and work together to avoid similar things happening again. It’s as important in a boardroom as it is on a battlefield.

    Another time, I was embedded in Baghdad coalition headquarters working for General Petraeus, the four-star US general in charge of all forces in Iraq during the “surge”. I was director of strategic operations. A high-value, dangerous individual had been located in a building in a regional city. A ground approach was assessed as too dangerous, so the preference was to drop a bomb or missile.

    It was early evening and we had been working 18-hour days. The target packages that came through me needed General Petraeus’ clearance. As a staff officer, one of my duties was to check the package for accuracy and completion before submission to him. It had been signed off by a long list of senior commanders and the exhaustive document met all the legal criteria to support approval. I was about to send it to Petraeus when I noticed that across the road from the targeted building was a school. The intelligence assessment noted the possibility children could still be in the school, even at night. The target was vital, but there was still risk, which was why Petraeus’ approval was required.

    A voice in my head asked me if it was the right thing to do? While it wasn’t my role to formally approve that document, I agonised for 30 minutes and finally added a note saying I disagreed with the package. It was a tough call, I had probably exceeded my responsibilities and it would have been so easy for me to just tick the box as I’d done many times before. But I chose to listen to my inner voice.

    I encourage all leaders faced with difficult decisions to ask, is this the right thing? It might only make a difference occasionally, but when it matters most, it will make a positive difference. If you’re a leader in a key position with accountability, often organisations will be lined up in your diary encouraging you to make decisions on how to realise a profit or share price increase, or achieve whatever KPI represents success. Remember that in the end you are the leader and sometimes your accountability requires you to ask hard questions that those who work for you won’t.

    Battlefield success is almost always less about pursuing “victory” and more about “how” you win. Lest our outcomes be pyrrhic, perhaps a version of the same question might be asked in the boardroom? Good leadership is built on a foundation of character that includes personal integrity, authenticity, compassion and respect. It is about selflessly helping and inspiring people to be the best they can and having the moral courage and professional curiosity to unambiguously own the accountability that comes with your appointment.

    The advice I’d give to my younger self would be to believe in yourself. When in doubt, do the right thing and inspire good people to share your way. Their successes will be yours. And that target package near the school with which I disagreed? It didn’t proceed.

    An edited excerpt from the No Limitations podcast series produced by Blenheim Partners (

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