Air Force’s HR leader: how to develop social mastery

Social mastery is essential for effective leadership, improving employee engagement and boosting discretionary effort on the part of employees, according to the Director General Personnel for the Australian Air Force, Air Commodore Robert Rodgers.

The most remarkable examples of business turnarounds or even military success often come down to the effect created when the people involved are self-motivated, self-initiating, empowered and conscious of bigger goals – which he said are all underpinned by social mastery on the part of leaders.

“Leaders who understand the value of social mastery in the workplace create this affect,” said Air Commodore Rodgers.

Social mastery has several dimensions, however, he said the most germane in the leadership context is mastery of self as a necessary precondition for understanding and having empathy for others.

This is the first step in establishing individuals’ and teams’ willing participation in a leader’s vision or intention, and he explained that social mastery is an expression of skills and proficiencies that underpin a range of contemporary leadership models focused on motivated commitment, such as servant leadership and transformational styles.

“The possession of well-developed social mastery skills underpins a leader’s capacity to utilise the full range of leadership styles and techniques tailored to the needs of the individual, team and objective,” said Air Commodore Rodgers, who was speaking ahead of the 26th Macquarie University Women, Management and Work annual conference, which will be held on 12 November in Sydney.

“At times these may be transactional or even traditional command models. It is the adroit use of a broad repertoire of skills and techniques, based on the ability to understand your own responses to stimuli and the response of others, that allows the most effective use of the most expensive and critical capability of an organisation – its people.”

An Air Force case study
The Australian Air Force sought to develop sensitivity among its most senior leadership team around understanding the importance of the workforce from an emotional context, particularly with regards to the value of motivated commitment, according to Air Commodore Rodgers.

He said the leadership team was taken on a journey through a “deep subordinate interview program” to identify how they were perceived and how they perceived each other, both in terms of style and effectiveness.

This initiative was then expanded to the Air Force more broadly, through a values team engagement program which took in about 10 per cent of the workforce.

“The intent of these activities was of course to open the door to insight that further learning is possible, even at the most senior level of organisation, and that action was necessary,” he said.

Each participant then undertook an individual style inventory on behavioural preferences, and as a group, different facets of leadership behaviour and organisational context were explored.

This work began in 2000 and he said this continues today with existing and new members of the Air Force’s senior leadership team.

“In fact, my role is the group storyteller, giving new members insight into why and how it was created and for what purpose – not as a decision-making body but as a way of exploring and enabling a specific leadership model,” he said.

Since this time, the majority of the focus of the broader organisation has been on education and training, and Air Commodore Rodgers noted that the Air Force also authored a “leadership companion” to acknowledge and position social mastery as a core proficiency.

The importance of education, training and social mastery have also been recognised through tying these to the Air Force’s reporting and performance appraisal system.

“On the whole, we have achieved great success in developing our leaders to deliver Air Force capability to the Australian Government and people. That said, we do not rest on previous successes, as purposeful persistence is required,” he said.

Barriers to social mastery
One of the most common challenges organisations and leaders face in the process can include pressure to use labour as nothing more than a commodity, “to be expended as pressure and budget demands”, Air Commodore Rodgers said.

“This paradigm might have been possible decades (or centuries) ago, but no more – not for sustainability,” said the Air Commodore, who also observed that unconscious bias is pervasive in most organisations and across all aspects of human interaction: “not just sexuality or gender, but even subliminally around organisational roles, methods of entry [and even] the clothes people wear.

“It is an insidious effect that can only be seen when it is sought out – or when you’re the recipient of it,” he said.

HR and social mastery development
For a leader to develop social mastery, Air Commodore Rodgers said first and foremost they must have the desire to develop such skills.

“This implies a recognition of the role of social mastery and the appreciation that they, as individuals, have something to learn,” he said.

“These seem self-evident, but it is remarkable how many leaders are absolutely certain they ‘know boats’.

“Sometimes, they need to be led to the discovery; whether by an insightful peer, superior or even more remarkably sometimes through subordinates.

“The role of the subordinate comes when the normal approaches they have applied fail to be effective, or generates a behaviour antithetical to the leader’s intent,” he said.

The three primary domains in which leaders develop social mastery are formal learning environments, workplace contextualised learning and self-learning, and while formal learning environments receive the predominant focus, “in my opinion, equal learning is gained from day-to-day experiences and a commitment to self-development,” according to the Air Commodore.

He said it is important for HR professionals to understand and know why their organisation believes that the attributes of social mastery as a base leadership skill are important.

“How do these skills support the aims of the organisation and, as importantly, the aims of the people who comprise it?” he asked.

“The organisation’s leadership must understand that it takes time to achieve motivated commitment and a purposive focus on the higher order motivators of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

“It does take investment, however, the cost benefit in any organisation of leveraging the intellectual capital of its employees cannot be ignored – notwithstanding the retention effects and subsequent cost of training too.”