Unlocking our Intellectual Edge

By Mark Bell

Life in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is chock full of detailed work, be it flying, planning, maintenance, writing reports, training, or personnel administration. Our workplaces are busy, and there is always a looming deadline. Historically, the performance of the RAAF proves we thrive in this environment.

However, this collective busyness is not conducive to reading, reflection, and the development of new ideas. There is just too much going on. Our home lives are similarly hectic with children, commuting, sport, social media, etc. As a result, the lack of reading and reflection will inhibit individuals and the institution from reaching their potential.

Despite this chaos, the RAAF acknowledges the importance of reading and self-development. The promulgation of Chiefs of Air Force’s (CAF) carefully curated reading lists (CAF Reading List: 201720152014, and further back) demonstrates this.

Recently, multiple RAAF leaders (Flight Lieutenants to Group Captains from a diversity of specialisations; LewisHallenHigginsJovanovichBrickYildirimMcInnesBegley) wrote about the importance of writing and, incidentally, reading as a mechanism to the maintenance of the profession of arms. Other authors in this same series considered writing and intellectual development to be a core professional responsibility of military professionals (LangfordO’Neill).

The recent launch of fifth-generation behaviours prioritises command commitment to the intellectual development of the RAAF’s people. These fifth-generation behaviours focus personnel development towards the requirement for informed, collaborative, resilient, integrated, and agile people. The RAAF developed these behaviours to ensure that airmen have the capacity to operate successfully in a complex environment, work with large quantities of data, understand and embrace new technologies, and operate as part of the joint force.

Fifth-generation behaviours are a suite of individual and collective attributes that are to be inculcated into RAAF culture.

Looking objectively at these behaviours, it could be noted that these attributes are designed to establish and maintain the RAAF’s strategic intellectual advantage.

Collectively, these behaviours could also be considered an evolution of the OODA loop, adapted to the hyper-connected environment of the early 21st century. While it is anticipated that computerisation and human augmentation through artificial intelligence will typify the extensively connected and information-rich future, these technologies will not be a substitute for the intellectual competency of our people.

Many of the attributes and behaviours noted resilience, systems thinking, using emerging technology, and the centrality of human relationships are not unique to the military environment.

Consequently, the ability to effectively develop these capacities does not need to rely on conventional military literature.

The above discussion establishes that people with strong intellectual capacities is a foundational characteristic of an effective fifth-generation air force. It also identifies that we will develop this intellectual core at a personal level through life-long, self-directed learning.

This all leads to the core purpose of this post. RAAF leaders at all levels need to support self-directed learning through the encouragement of reading, reflection, and the discussion of ideas. This site and other resources in the professional military education (PME) eco-system (The RunwayThe ForgeThe Cove and other privately-run sites) are fostering the discussion of ideas.

However, currently, there is a minimal focus on reading.

One-way RAAF leaders could encourage reading is through asking this simple question of their subordinates and peers: “What are you currently reading?”

This is not management sleight of hand or trickery. There are no predetermined right or wrong answers to this question. This question is posed as a genuine enquiry into the individual and their attitudes towards intellectual development. While the person who posed this question would almost always like to engage in a robust discussion regarding the respondent’s diverse reading habits, a response of ‘nothing’ accompanied by a blank stare is acceptable too. A lack of curiosity or of any self-initiated learning could give a leader insight about their people not otherwise available.

Intellectual development is not isolated to the field of traditional military writing.

Works of fiction, self-help, magazines, etc. can also have a role in intellectual development. I would suggest that popular non-fiction books such as Grit by Angela Duckworth, which considers goal actuation in the face of adversity, or The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which considers human understanding of rare and unpredictable events, may be more valuable reading materials to many RAAF members than theories of war that predate the establishment of the RAAF.

The principle here is not to judge our peoples’ reading habits; it is to foster an attitude of self-development through reading.

This process of self-development is one of the sources of the RAAF’s strategic advantage.

Lastly, if you encounter a non-reader, you could set a goal for them to read a particular book, or give a presentation on an idea, which may require some reading.

Alternatively, send them a link to your favourite The Central Blue posts and start a conversation.

As leaders, we must take collective responsibility for the intellectual development of our people and must give it a priority. Conversations with our people about reading is one way to impress on them the importance of self-development to the actualisation of the fifth-generation air force. I have done this and had some great conversations along the way. All references to books and blog posts above have resulted from such discussions.

Proactive intellectual development underpins all fifth-generation air force behaviours, and it needs to be encouraged by leaders at all levels, regardless of specialisation or mustering.

So, while grabbing your ‘large flat white, no sugar’ ask your coffee mates what they are reading. The answers may surprise you and inspire you to add the title to your reading list.

Squadron Leader Mark Bell is an aeronautical engineering officer in the Royal Australian Air Force who has spent considerable time in aircraft acquisition and sustainment. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Aeronautical), Master of Business, Master of Project Management and is studying for a Juris Doctor. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

This article was first published by Central Blue on December 8, 2019.