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Brigadier Ana Duncan, CSC


Ana is the commandant of the Royal Military College of Australia, overseeing the recruit training of officers and soldiers into the Army, and their ongoing professional education. She is also the Director General Army Leadership, a program to enhance the leadership, character and ethics of Army’s people. For her first 15 years’ service she did a lot of ‘soldiering’ across Army’s brigades, while more recently she has worked in national security policy areas. This has included Strategy Policy Division in the Department of Defence and the National Security Division in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She has commanded units in Australia and on operations, including service in Timor Leste, Solomon Islands, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thank for agreeing to chat with us Ana! Can you tell us about how you first started your career in Defence? What inspired you to join the Army?

I was actually studying international politics and languages with a view to a career in foreign affairs. On my commute into university each day I crossed the Adelaide University Regiment parade ground. One day I saw a sign offering a part-time opportunity to improve yourself, to lead others, and to have some fun on Tuesday nights and weekends. I do believe the tax-free pay may have had an allure too, as I was juggling a few jobs with my uni studies…

It was once I was in the Australian Army Reserves that I realised I was drawn to the character of the people, the Army’s values, and to service. It never felt like ‘work’, rather a vocation and a way of life. With this insight, I applied for full-time officer training at Duntroon, thinking if it did not work out, I could always return to plan A. Many adventures and 27 years later, Plan B still makes me feel that way.

Can you tell us about one of the challenges you have faced during your career in the Army?

I’ll talk on something that may be more relevant to the young women who wonder how they will ever package it all to achieve their ambitions. Namely, the challenge of how to live a fulsome life alongside a meaningful professional life. And how to evolve it to suit your age and stage of life.

I have got to say, it was easier as a younger officer. No challenge was too great, no deployment too long, no development opportunity missed. I worked hard, while investing in my development for the next job. Like many of you, I also relished the opportunity to study extensively, to travel, to be competitive in my sport, and to be engaged with friends and family.  I have been married nearly all of my career, and have supported, and been supported by, my husband and his concurrent career in Army.

Having my children helped make me a better officer. Motherhood also introduced me to a mother’s guilt. There were too few roles models as I was coming through the Army who had achieved the marriage, family, and career equation I was looking for. So I continued to work hard, doing what Army asked, which meant a lot of time away from my family on operations and exercises. Were it not for my incredible mother-in-law Gwen, and a few special au pairs, my husband and I would not have managed to serve in the way we both have.

Service with a family is now so well supported and enabled for both women and men. As I have been afforded greater responsibilities over time, I am mindful of what sort of a model I present for women and men alike. With two brigadiers and two children in the family I am asked how my husband and I manage. The honest answer of not very well, but we are actively trying to get better, brings a look of relief to most.

What advice would you give to women who are interested in pursuing leadership roles?

Be authentic. There is plenty of theory and advice out there, and you should invest in understanding it, but nothing beats authentic leadership. The impactful leaders I have worked for were humble, intelligent (both cognitively and emotionally), proficient, and inspirational in their own unique way. I have often thought about this latter characteristic because this is what made them authentic leaders.

Find your roles models. Necessarily and disappointingly, we learn as much as much from poor leaders as we do from stellar ones. Try and define their leadership style, and how it applies (or does not) to how you want to influence people to do what you need them to do.

Doubting yourself is natural; leadership is hard work. And it should be, because as a leader you are responsible for your people, no matter how large or small the team or the individual contributions of the people in it. On a low-ebb day, back yourself and get through that day. In high-pressure jobs like Army, we plan for the best outcome, yet we allow for practical outcomes too. Accepting that an 80 per cent solution on time is better than the perfect one too late is one way to get through the hard days as a leader.

Evolve your style. Leadership is a life-long practice and study. As your responsibilities evolve, so must your leadership style. I command a large organisation now, as opposed to my first team of 28 people. My style has had to adapt. Defining your intent and your requirements – why and what you need - is fundamental to good leadership. If you must tell your team how to do something, you are doing their job, or you have not developed a good team. 

What has been one of the most rewarding experiences of your career so far?

One is my recent year as the Director of Campaign Strategy, Planning and Assessments within the military coalition fighting to defeat Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. I worked for the U.S. commander of coalition troops, in a role not before undertaken by a female officer. The responsibility allowed me to experience the challenges of designing and implementing the military aspects of Nye’s smart power concept.

One of the more rewarding ‘days in the office’ was accompanying my boss, then Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, and Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement/Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, into a day of their meetings with the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces. These were geo-strategic negotiations to address growing northern Syria/southern Turkey border tensions as the region normalised following the military defeat of Daesh. It was a professional privilege and masterclass in negotiation between partners.

What podcasts are you currently listening to? What books are you currently reading?

Most recent podcast was The Unforgiving 60. Ben and Tim are pretty good at interviewing people living a life less ordinary.

The books occupying my bed side table are Legacy: What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life by James Kerr (an easy read and ready-reckoner); Dragons and Snakes: how the rest learned to fight the west by David Kilcullen (my ‘new’ book); and Harp in the South by Ruth Park (because I recently recommended it to my 12-year-old son, who loved it, so I thought I would revisit it again years after I first read it).

Finally, who inspires you?

I am inspired by people who do meaningful things, while being approachable and well rounded. Some women who have impressed me over the years are Annabel Crabb and Major General Kathryn Toohey. They are at the top of their game, and make time for other women. They have also shared life is not perfect, so revel in that fact.

Updated: 18 Aug 2020