The extraordinary tale of Ben Roberts-Smith

Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. Photo: Damien Bredberg

When faced with a tough decision, make a decision. Anything else is failure, says Australia’s most highly decorated soldier of the modern era.

IT IS AFGHANISTAN, June 2010, and in the heat of an intense battle Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith remains calm and focused.

Outnumbered and under heavy fire from machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades, Roberts-Smith and his fellow soldiers persevere.

Things haven’t gone to plan, but they all know their mission, are highly trained and have utmost faith in their team.

It is in this moment that Roberts-Smith – the ­second-in-command of a Special Operations Team from the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), dropped in by helicopter with a mission to capture or kill a senior Taliban leader – makes some split-second decisions that will prove instrumental in accomplishing the task. But to reach the goal means risking death. Twice.

Back home is wife Emma, pregnant with their twin daughters, Eve and Elizabeth, after seven years of attempts to start a family.

But ­Roberts­-Smith is not thinking of himself that day. He knows he is fighting for the lives of his patrol as much as his own.

It is both instinct and thorough preparation that prompt him to purposely attract the enemy’s attention and draw the Taliban’s fire towards himself.

His brave action allows his fellow soldiers to get the break needed to send off a grenade that silences one of three enemy machine-guns, which in turn provides an opening for Roberts-Smith to storm in and kill the two remaining machine- gunners before they kill him.

That day, the SAS operations team goes on to gain control of the village and force the Taliban’s retreat from the area.

“Our unit motto is Who Dares Wins,” Roberts-Smith says. “If you attempt it and get it right then you have succeeded; if you get it wrong, then you will learn. But if you don’t attempt it at all, you have failed. That’s what Who Dares Wins is to me – you have to have a go, you can’t be afraid of failing.”

When asked about the effects of fear, Roberts-Smith says it can be damaging when it stops you trying, but it can also drive people to greatness. 

“Fear is a very powerful emotion ... in that I need to do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t let down my mates, that I don’t let down the team. That fear brings out the best in people and pushes them to go that little bit harder and further,” says Roberts-Smith. “If you can instigate that as part as your culture – that willingness to serve the team and not let people down – it is very powerful.”

Ultimately, culture will trump strategy any day of the week, he insists. “You can have the best strategic plan in the world but if you do not have the culture to suit that plan you will fail.”

Roberts-Smith received the Victoria Cross for Australia, the highest military honour, for his incredible bravery in that battle in 2010.

He is the most decorated modern Australian soldier, wearing the Medal for Gallantry for courage and devotion to duty on ­another operation in Afghanistan four years earlier.

Roberts-Smith joined the army at 17 and since then barely a year has passed where he has not served overseas – in East Timor, Fiji, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now 35 and a Patrol Commander in the SAS, Roberts-Smith says his role is to prepare and ­deliver strategic outcomes of national importance – a job in which an ­error of judgement can have serious implications for Australia’s reputation.


The extraordinary tale of Ben Roberts-Smith

The extraordinary tale of Ben Roberts-Smith

The key to successful strategic thinking, he says, is to be clear about its intent. A plan is prone to change but knowing what that plan intends to achieve sets up the boundaries.

“To impart intent is critical,” Roberts-Smith says of a strategic leader’s role. “For example, if you are in the field and something changes – say, we get into a gun battle – knowing my commander’s intent means I now have the parameters that I must work between while I change the plan.”

As a patrol commander, Roberts-Smith understands the value of good communication. He believes it is a critical element in any organisation’s vision for success.

The military uses a system known as “Two Up One Down” to ensure everyone understands the direction in which they are heading.

It means you should always understand the intent of your immediate superior, but also that of the next level up.

Similarly, you should impart the relevant elements of that intent to the people ­immediately below you.

Roberts-Smith says doing so gives a broader perspective of your ­organisation, so when forced to make a decision you don’t just consider what is important to your boss or your small team, but what is relevant to the ­entire ­organisation.

Just as important, he says, is the backbrief – making sure each team member can repeat back clearly what your intent is.

“When we go out there it takes away any need to micro-manage them, because they know they have the ability to make a decision as they know the parameters. It is a more efficient way of doing business.”

Roberts-Smith grew up in a defence force family. His father, Len, is a former Judge Advocate-General of the Australian Defence Force. So it was no surprise to anyone when Ben followed a similar path and enlisted in the army.

He was posted to the 3rd Battalion (3RAR), a parachute unit, when at the age of 19 he met Emma and started to give more thought to his future.

Having grown up in Perth where the SAS Regiment is based, Roberts-Smith yearned for a place in this elite special missions unit where mental toughness is just as important as physical endurance.

During selection, candidates are put under extreme duress and expected to retain the mental alertness to assimilate information and adapt to changing scenarios.

Of those who try out, very few make it all the way. He trained hard, but on top of the physical training, Roberts-Smith prepared his mind. The most powerful training proved to be his ­daily affirmation.

Standing in front of the mirror he would tell himself: “I will not give up on selection.” This phrase came to the fore when, after long, hard physical hours on no sleep, he was on the brink of collapse – an action that would have ended his selection hopes.

“I started to go to tunnel vision,” he says, ­describing the blackness in his head and numbness in his body when he thought he could physically go no further.

With his cognitive functions almost gone and as he was accepting the fact he was about to fall over, he heard this affirmation in subconscious will him to keep going.

It was a powerful moment that remains as vivid to him today as it was then. “To see the mind outlast the body empowers you, because then you realise your perceived limits are not real at all. That was a game-changer for me, not only on selection but in my ­working life.”

On active duty in Afghanistan.

On active duty in Afghanistan.

Out in the field, having a mental checklist remains crucial. In the SAS they call it “Actions On”. Each ­operation is broken into phases.

For example, going in may be Phase One, carrying out the operation is Phase Two and getting the troops out is Phase Three.

For each phase, all the possible actions that may be required are ­prearranged: if they get shot at when they hit the drop zone, they have a plan; if the helicopter breaks down before departure, they have a plan.

Training involves realistic scenarios so they can react instinctively when needed. It ensures each team member can anticipate the decisions others are likely to make when things start to go awry.

Inevitably there will be times when things arise that are impossible to foresee. It is here that good leadership counts.

“Sometimes in life things just go wrong but at those times you must remain emotionally detached from the situation so you can stay objective and make the decisions that are necessary to succeed ... take a few seconds to assimilate and think ‘what do we need to do?’,” Roberts-Smith says.

As a leader, he says he learned from his own patrol commanders about remaining true to his core values.

Outside the military, the person who inspires him is Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, whose media holdings include Channel Seven and The West Australian newspaper.

The billionaire’s business interests are broad and include mining, property and construction, but he has also won awards for philanthropy.

He has bought and donated several Victoria Cross medals to the Australian War Memorial, is a member of the Australian War Memorial Council and has life membership of the Returned Services League of Australia.

“I have absolute admiration for Kerry and it has nothing to do with where he is now, but everything to do with how he got there,” says Roberts-Smith, referring to Stokes’ rise to success from his early years in an orphanage then an underprivileged foster family, his time on the streets as a teenager and, later, as a single parent. “A lot of people don’t have the moral courage to stand up and have a go. He was never afraid of that, and that is something I admire.”

Roberts-Smith feels he has reached the pinnacle of soldiering. He says the key to maintaining motivation is to be a good communicator and to control internal competition, because a culture can become toxic in a flash.

“A high-performing culture includes high-performing individuals, but people who are wired that way need results,” he says. “They need to see they have achieved their goals ... if that is not happening they will seek praise or success by becoming competitive. Competition in an organisation needs to be managed very carefully.”

After almost 20 years, Roberts-Smith last month retired from the regular army. He will remain in the Army Reserve, where he hopes to pass on his vast knowledge, while also working with military-related charities.

Much sought-after on the speaker circuit, he is keen to start a business career, has completed a company directors course and started an MBA at the University of Queensland to add commercial knowledge to the strategic thinking and leadership skills the army has given him.

“I’d like people to say ‘I met Ben Roberts-Smith and he’s a great businessman – oh, and did you know in 2010 he got a VC’. That’s how I’d rather be known, not the other way round,” he says, explaining that the Victoria Cross was for what he did in a fleeting ­moment in time.

“I am proud of it, but I am more proud to count myself among the brave men who did a lot of great things on that day, in that battle. That means more to me. I am very proud of it. I just don’t want it to define me.”

Fact file

Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG was born in Perth, Western Ausralia, on November 1, 1978. Enlisted in the Australian Army in 1996.

Joined the Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment in 2003. Has served in East Timor, Fiji, Iraq and Afghanistan (three tours of duty in 2006, 2009 and 2010).

Awarded the Medal for Gallantry in 2006 for his actions in Oruzgan Province in May 2006; awarded the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous gallantry in circumstances of extreme peril during an engagement in Kandahar Province in June 2010.

Until he retired from the regular army on 2 October,  he was the most decorated soldier currently serving in the Australian armed services.

Married to Emma, father of twin daughters Eve and Elizabeth, this year’s Australian Father of the Year, Roberts-Smith is also No 1 Ticket Holder of the Fremantle Football Club – you can’t win them all.

What I've learned

Never question the man on the ground. If you are not there and a commander makes a decision in battle you can never second-guess it in hindsight because you never understand the full complexity of the situation in which they are making their decision while on the ground, under fire.

What it also means is you don’t question yourself either. In hindsight everything seems very obvious: there are rockets, there are bullets and people being wounded, and things are not going to plan but you make the decision in the best interests of everyone there.

Could you have done it a better way? Sure. Could you learn from that? Sure. But at that time, on that day, in that moment, making a decision is the bit that matters, because not making a decision is far more detrimental.

Physical courage is very easy to come by. There are not many people that I know who wouldn’t stand up and be counted if they were called upon to do so.

But what is a rarer commodity is moral courage – to stand up for what is right regardless of perceived public opinion, to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences, or to acknowledge mistakes rather than cover them up.

Physical courage is very easy to come by. 

Displaying moral courage in business is honest reporting ... everyone wants to go to the boss with good news but not many people want to deliver the bad news, so the battle is being courageous enough to deliver the bad news in its entirety because watering it down only leads to more issues.

A lot of things in life are just a blip on the radar. You need to remain focused on that strategic goal, because along the way things flash up and that is when you need to step back and think “is this going to be catastrophic or is it just a speed bump?”

A lot of time it is just a speed bump and you make a lot more out of it than it really is.

Cherish your family every single day. It can all be taken away from you in a heartbeat and, in the end, they are the ones who will always be there no matter how hard you work or how many hours you put in at the office. And the only time you realise that is when it is too late.

This article is from the November 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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