Lessons From The Front Line

Photograph by Glenn Hunt


Despite a hugely successful and decorated career, it is the failures that have shaped Major-General Stephen Day’s leadership philosophy.

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INDUSTRY: LEADERSHIP Any senior executive about to become CEO for the first time, doesn’t want to know about mechanics of management. They want to talk about fundamental human challenges and issues. And that’s where Major-General Stephen Day comes in.

Day is a highly decorated soldier, who led forces in Namibia, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, regularly making life and death decisions. More recently, he oversaw a battle of a different kind as head of cyber security at Australia’s Department of Defence.

Day joined PwC 18 months ago, as an adviser on leadership and cyber security, after four decades in the military. And it’s his stories about the lessons he learnt that resonate most with newly minted CEOs.

In fact, learning to talk about failure is one of his lessons. “At this time in our national journey, there is a reluctance to talk about failure and I think it’s a problem. When you talk about your failure, those who work for you realise you are a human and it builds a better atmosphere for your team. And acknowledging failure is half the lesson, the other half is what you take away from it, so you don’t ever make that mistake more than once.’’

Day’s first lesson is this: lead with emotion, integrity and reason. When he was in East Timor, one of his reports requested leave to see his dangerously ill sister. Day said no, sticking with process, and she died before her brother got leave. “I can never forget that mistake. It fundamentally changed how I approach leadership.”

He says most leaders in public life are highly capable of reasoning and can engage emotionally, but lack the integrity critical to being an effective leader. “Don’t let your integrity and humanity be dominated by rules or processes.”

The second lesson is that great leaders are great simplifiers. Leadership also means being able to answer this simple question: What does success look like?

“As one of the leaders of coalition forces in Iraq, we would often confuse the mission with the task,’’ Day says. “We thought we knew what we were trying to achieve: improving security in some places, helping protect the political processes in others, but we never described what the end looked like at the end of those tasks. That is quite common in senior leadership ranks.”

The ability to explain what success is, what you are trying to achieve and be compelling about it, is key.

Third on his list is moral courage. Day talks of chilling decisions he needed to make on the battlefield, often going against his immediate superior in order to save civilian lives.

“It’s about avoiding the path of the easy wrong and taking the path of the difficult right,” he says. “Furthermore, leaders also should create an atmosphere where their teams can also display moral courage. Physical courage is in plentiful supply in Australia. Moral courage is much rarer and harder, and you have to be comfortable sometimes being unpopular. But if you don’t have moral courage, you can’t live by your values and you’ll waiver at the hard decisions.”

When conditions look impossible, providing hope for the team – provided it is not based on ridiculous assumptions – is fourth on Day’s list. “It’s remarkable how the tone and mood of a leader sets the mood of the organisation. Stand up and inject hope, and get the team to move in a direction they can’t see,” he says.

His fifth lesson, humility, was also learnt the hard way. “I was leading a military training competition and got us hopelessly lost, when all I needed to do was ask my team. As a result, we spent another night and day in the bush without food or shelter.”

Day says embedding humility as a core character trait within a team is what separates a good team from a great team, and that comes from the leader. “Executives often think they are expected to have all the answers but this is often insecurity talking and that leads to defensiveness, which is a barrier to creating great teams. But being the leader is a role within a team. That role can often mean not being at the front. If you as a leader think it’s about you, you will be a temporary leader.”  

If you as a leader think it’s about you, you will be a temporary leader.

Major-General Stephen Day

Day also sees many leaders who break his sixth piece of advice: they don’t realise their health is in the best interest of their teams.

Looking after our intellectual, emotional and physical health prepares us for times of crisis, Day says. “Sleep deprivation is the obvious example and we see it in the corporate world as much as the military. It is one of the key factors in poor decision-making, so you as a leader have a responsibility to limit the times that you are tired.”


Day’s leadership lessons

  • Lead with emotion, integrity and reason
  • Separate the what from the how
  • Find moral courage
  • Deal in hope not hype
  • The importance of humility
  • In health, in leadership
  • Explain what success looks like

The Press is a publication by PwC Australia, aimed at sharing expertise, capturing insights and working together to solve important problems.

This article first appeared in Edition 5 of The Press
By Charlie Carter, Senior Reporter, The Press

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