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Networking Breakfast - April 2017

Friday, 21 April 2017, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

On Anzac Day we don’t celebrate victories we celebrate character, the debt to those that when tested have delivered and the acknowledgement of the high bar to which we all must rise.

– Rear Admiral Stuart Mayer, Commander of the Australian Fleet, Royal Australian Navy

The ANZAC Character

Presentation by Rear Admiral Stuart Mayer AO CSC & Bar
Commander of the Australian Fleet, Royal Australian Navy

I would first like to recognize that our event this morning is being held on the traditional lands and adjacent waters of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present and any other elders of Australia’ first peoples that may be with us today.

What I want to talk about today is the enduring character of ANZAC and to test just a little the difference between values and behaviour in adversity.

In just a few days’ time many of us will roll out of bed some time before 4.00am and make our way to our local dawn service. People will do so with different motivations:

-  for some it will be a connection to family,
-  for some it will be to remember a friend,
-  while for others it will be a matter of respect and recognition of service.

For whatever the individual reason, it is a decision to put aside personal comfort to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Interestingly more of us are getting out of bed and going to a Dawn Service despite the numbers of the veterans themselves diminishing.

Objectively this should be a good thing, but the important question to be answered is what lies behind the growth – is it a desire to reflect on service and sacrifice, is it a personal need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves to understand who we are, or is it a desire just to be part of a ‘special event’ that drives this growth.

John Coyne, a veteran of Bouganville and East Timor explained in the Herald last year why he won’t be one of the increasing numbers at the Dawn Service. John wrote:

There have been well-meaning but disrespectful changes. In many cases, Anzac Day has gone from being a solemn event to one with a carnival atmosphere. Images of casually dressed young men with Australian flags tied around their necks are hard to look at when I'm reflecting on a friend who recently tried to commit suicide because of the burden of his military service.

Rather than being a time for us to reflect on sacrifice and service, it's increasingly become a celebration of nationalistic spirit and identity. This isn't a criticism, but the focus on our national Anzac identity has left behind those who have served.

John’s story provokes an interesting question. Has Anzac Day grown because it has become an event like a music festival, or has it grown because more of us seek to reflect on sacrifice and service and pay respect to those that have gone before.

Anzac Day is not Australia Day. The two days are different or at least done correctly they ought to be. But if the two days are reduced to a celebration of nationalism only they lose the unique purpose that inspired them and the reasons for the different days will blur, and their role in our society will diminish.

Anzac Day and Australia Day are similar in that they only work when they balance the intrinsic tensions within their purpose.

Australia Day must balance the celebration of a modern, democratic, pluralistic and culturally diverse nation alongside a history of settlement from the first custodians of the land through the waves of migration from the 18th century to today. Some of this history is empowering, much of it is confronting. Emphasising one over another from a misplaced sense of correctness or nationalistic fervour robs the day of its total meaning.

Similarly, Anzac Day must balance the critical need to renew our commitment to never forget those that have served, those who returned scarred, those who perished, and the families and organizations that supported them and endured their own special suffering. Alongside this we remember what the ANZAC spirit says about the character of an Australian, the stories that tell us who we are, or perhaps who we can be.

These two elements can also be empowering, and similarly they can be confronting; particularly so when we consider the plight of veterans and their families that carry their wounds both physical and mental in our society today.

The importance of these two days is that they share the common need to hold the contrasting messages together if they are to have true resonance. If either event loses the balance of one element over another then the power of the commemoration is skewed. Simplifying the message for a sound bite puts at risk the potency of the message, and each day becomes little more than an outpouring of unguided nationalism.

When we stand in that pale light of dawn and we promise each other We Will Remember Them – we promise to never forget, to never diminish and to never ignore the sacrifice of the men and women, black and white, young and old, from the bush and from the city… Australians all … that served our nation in war. It is a promise that adds to the dignity of our nation that people would annually recommit to the promise to remember them.

This vow is a very powerful and unique way of connecting generations through a shared commitment to remember people, service and sacrifice. This promise is as important today as at any time in our past. While some of our largest conflicts are now almost a century old Legacy today still cares for around 70,000 widows and 1,900 children and disabled dependants throughout Australia. The need to continually commit to remember them and their families remains very real.

Yet equally important as this promise to remember is the commitment to reflect on what our ANZAC story tells us about our character, a character that has played such a role in shaping our unique national identity, and it is to this theme I would now like to turn.

It is true that our national character has been shaped by many influences, the sea, the land, isolation and endurance, the poetry of Paterson and the music of Midnight Oil, but amongst this – or perhaps distilled from these influences is the character of the ANZAC.

In 1915 when this story was born our country was just 14 years young. Like the other dominions we had ties to the mother country, and like the other dominions we were each of us a little different to one other. We weren’t just transplanted Brits, there was something that had happened to us to make us unique, and this unique character was evidenced in the behaviours demonstrated by the Australians that went first to Gallipoli and became the ANZACs.

Importantly note I don’t say we are better than other countries, it’s just that we are different, the way we see the world is different, the way we deal with adversity is different, understanding this and using this in the way we lead, mentor, coach and generally develop our people is critical.

The name of the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC is bigger than Army, it is bigger than the First World War, it is bigger than the military, and it is bigger than our elemental tie to our cousins in New Zealand. The term ANZAC now transcends its original intent.

In my career I have had some wonderful opportunities. I have commanded ships, I have commanded coalition forces in the Northern Arabian Gulf, I have commanded Australian and New Zealand forces in East Timor and now I command the young men and women you saw in the video earlier this morning – I had to get a tie in somewhere.

One of my first commands was the frigate HMAS ANZAC. Frequently when we visited a port I would be asked why it was that a Navy ship was named after an Army formation. I always responded in the same way, and that was by saying that ANZAC stopped being a noun 100 years ago and now it is an adjective. It’s an adjective that speaks of the promise of what you get when you see Australians in adversity.

To my mind the best place to understand this unique character is at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Hall of Memory.

The Hall of Memory was rededicated on 11 November 1993 when an Australian soldier from the western front was returned to Australia. In what to my mind is one of the most powerful speeches of a career of powerful speeches, the Prime Minister of the day Paul Keating recited a eulogy that included the following section:

That is surely at the heart of the ANZAC story, the Australian legend which emerged from the war. It is a legend not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity.

It is a democratic tradition, the tradition in which Australians have gone to war ever since.

This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier's character above a civilian's; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later.

The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia.

His tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained.
We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy.

We have gained a legend: a story of bravery and sacrifice and, with it, a deeper faith in ourselves and our democracy, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

But to understand what this legend that Prime Minister Keating refers to is you need to step inside the Hall and look up to the stained glass windows that surround the tomb.

As you enter the hall and face to the south you see the characters that represent personal qualities.

-  Resource
-  Candour
-  Devotion
-  Curiosity
-  Independence

The figures of the west window represent social qualities.

-  Comradeship
-  Ancestry
-  Patriotism
-  Chivalry
-  Loyalty

The figures of the east window represent the fighting qualities of youth and enterprise.

-  Coolness
-  Control
-  Audacity
-  Endurance
-  Decision

Now it may be that many of you recognize these words from the values that you aspire to in your business or place of work. Establishing these values is an important work of setting cultural expectation, but you are never sure if values will translate into behaviours until you come into contact with adversity.

The critical thing about these behaviours is that they are uniquely Australian – and I can assure you that you’re never going to see the US or the UK hold up Candour or Curiosity from the troops as being a good thing – and they are observed behaviour that comprises our Anzac Character – they are what can happen when Australians meet adversity.

Helen Keller has said ‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved’.

The difference between values and behaviour – or what I am calling character - is that one is aspirational and the other is observed. We must set our values, be true to identity, honour our heritage and commit to excellence to illicit the sort of behaviours we seek. In the same way that the window acknowledges the quality of ‘Ancestry’ we need to hold on to that which has gone before to ground and inspire us.

To my mind the story of ANZAC is a critical part of connecting us – both military and civilians to a part of our character; to something that is bigger than ourselves and which enriches us.

In my role as the Fleet Commander I find that I talk a lot more about culture and attitude than I had expected. The reason that I do so is because I have found more and more that the key to excellence lies in triggering the voluntary contribution of my people.

Voluntary contribution is that piece of themselves every individual withholds until they are personally invested. For a salary, or a similar extrinsic motivator, people will come to work on time, they will wear a uniform and they will do what they think is a fair days work.

But what I want is what I have described as a Ruthlessly Professional team. That is a team that is intrinsically motivated and stories, standards and culture are a key part to activating this.

Now some of you will be able to tell from my delicate frame that I did not grow up as a dancer. As a New South Welshman, I was and will always be a Waratahs and Wallabies guy and it pains me to say that the best example I have to offer when I speak on this is the culture of the All Blacks.

The All Blacks are now; but have not always been, the world’s most successful sporting team. Yet in 2003 after a disappointing campaign at the Rugby World Cup this was clearly not the case.

After an excoriating recounting of the failures, New Zealand conducted a thorough review into the team’s culture and found that it had lost its way. Part of the journey back was a renewal of that culture around a series of principles. A series I discuss in detail during mentoring events in Navy, but for the purposes of today it is enough to note one. That was;

Honour the jersey, leave it stronger then when you picked it up.

In order for the All Blacks to reach their potential part of the solution was to reconnect with their heritage, to honour their stories, to act consistently with All Black values and to leave the legacy in a stronger place. To understand they were a unique character, with a unique history and with a duty not to themselves but to their nation. This was part of how they became the Ruthlessly Professional team they are today.

Similarly, part of the reason we remember the Anzac Character is because it grounds us, it can inspire us and it identifies what makes us unique. It can empower us with a sense of belief that triggers the dormant potential in each one of us.

In celebrating the unique character of ANZAC we should not do so boastfully, indeed ANZAC is not the story of victory, but of dealing with adversity. We are blessed that we have ultimately prevailed when tested, and as a consequence enjoy this unique Australian life, but on Anzac Day we don’t celebrate victories we celebrate character, the debt to those that when tested have delivered and the acknowledgement of the high bar to which we all must rise.

Anzac Day has two parts – we reflect upon a character that inspires ordinary men and women to do extraordinary things. We also look at each other and we make a solemn promise that We Will Remember them. This promise is a test of our character – how do you remember them, the dead, the living and the families that endure; is this promise just an annual ritual – or when it is tested has this value become part of your character – part of your observed action. On Anzac Day we remember, but we must also remember them.

That’s how we honour the ancestry, and that’s how we hold the two strands of ANZAC in one day.

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