Here's the leadership lesson one of Australia's most decorated officers learned during operations in Iraq

Leadership takes many forms. Arguably though, it is in battle where a leader can learn the most about themselves.

That’s the situation one of Australia’s most senior army commanders faced when he was a Major commanding armoured personnel carrier (APC) during the Gulf War.

Major General John Cantwell (Ret) told leigh Sales on Wednesday night that he was on exchange with the British Army in the first Gulf War when he was faced with a mini-mutiny inside his APC.

We were in a really bad situation. We’d been in combat nonstop for a couple of days and we were taking a pounding, stuck inside this little armoured box, a metal container. And, you know, while all hell was breaking loose outside. But we needed to get radio communications. And at a brief time when the artillery had moved away, I said to the guys, ‘Boys, we’ve gotta get the big antenna up,’ which was a thing we assembled. That was stored up on the roof. It meant we had to get outside. I said, ‘We’ve gotta get outside and put this bigger antenna up'” And they essentially said ‘No’ in a muted way.

One of the soldiers told Cantweel to “get stuffed, that’s stupid. We’ll get killed.” While the other was mute.

Cantwell said he understood their fear, “cause I was damn scared as well.”

He said it’s not like the movies where “Clint Eastwood says, ‘Follow me, men,’ and they all go. It’s not like that.” Rather, Cantwell said “you’ve got to overcome your own fear and you have to lead. And I remember having that flashing word before my eyes: lead, lead. Come on, these guys need leadership now.”

So what did he do?

I gave ’em a little pep talk which was pretty crappy, but, you know, it got the message across. I explained why it was important, what was expected of them, how proud I was of them for what they had done and, ‘Now I need you to do something else, I need you to follow me. And I’m gonna get out that door at the back of the armoured vehicle and gonna go outside and you damn well better be behind me.’ And when I went outside and flopped down on the ground, I spent a very uncomfortable 30 seconds or so alone in in the darkness with artillery booming away wondering was I going be on my own. They joined me and we got on with the job.

And the key lesson he learned from this experience he said was to show his humanity. “I try to be a real human being. You know, I’m the officer, they were the soldiers. But you can communicate and relate to people in ways that show you have some humanity. You’re not just some mandarin who issues orders,” he said.

But don’t confuse that with being mates with everyone Cantwell added. “In fact, that’s a recipe for a failed leadership,” he said.

The answer he says is balance.

There is a time where you have to step back and sometimes you have to have a bit of mongrel in you. You’ve got to make hard decisions. You’ve got to sometimes deal with people who have disappointed you, failed the team, let themselves and others down. You’ve got to sometimes be the disciplinarian. But as a general approach, if you’re able to open up a little bit, communicate, show you actually care about the people you’re trying to lead, ask about their family. If they’re not well, give them the afternoon off and don’t worry about docking their pay, for God’s sake. You know, the loyalty you’ll get back from a few hours’ lost work is more than compensated.

He also warned about bullying people, “all you get is compliance, but you won’t get loyalty.”

Again he doubled down and said it’s about the people, your staff.

If you show people that you care about them, if you genuinely care about them as people, not just as some commodity. The person working for you isn’t like, you know, ink for the printer or office furniture; they’re a real human being. And they come to work with worries about kids and their mortgage and the bill they just got in the mail and work is just one of the things in their lives. Well you’ve got to deal with that whole complex person. And if you recognise that and give them things that would make them admire what you’re trying to do or attach loyalty to you and the company by showing them that you believe in them, by giving them opportunities to excel, by training them better, by forgiving them their mistakes, helping them learn to overcome their fears and concerns, help them learn to be leaders themselves, you get loyalty back and it’s gold. It’s gold! Because people who are loyal will do things that they would otherwise not do. They will choose to do what you want; you don’t have to tell them to do it. It’s a really, really powerful idea.

Leadership, it seems in Cantwell’s view, is not about the leader but who they lead.

That is a powerful idea indeed.

You can see the interview in full here.

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