Ben Pronk on SAS leadership, elite fitness and why specialisation is for insects

Speaker Key:

BP              Ben Pronk

AL              Andrew Leigh


BP              What we want our special ops to do and our SAS, in particular, is to be able to tackle those missions without precedent, to be able to come up with novel solutions to problems that we haven’t thought about before.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy, and ethical life.

                   In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning, and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs, and carers about making the most of this one precious life.

                   If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.                     

                   Ben Pronk is a soldier’s soldier. At the Australian Defence Force Academy, he was the Academy Cadet Captain. He gained entry into the elite Special Air Services Regiment, a unit of 700 soldiers based in Perth.

                   After 9/11, he served on multiple deployments and was decorated for leadership in action. He finished his career as Commanding Officer in the SAS and recently retired after 24 years in the army. Ben’s now Managing Partner at Mettle Global Holdings, a consultancy focused on risk and crisis leadership.

                   Ben, thanks so much for joining us in The Good Life podcast today.

BP              My pleasure, Andrew.

AL               So, did you always want to be a soldier growing up?

BP              I think I did. My father was an army officer, he flew helicopters. And not through any coercion from him, I’d just seen what was on offer as a military officer, how much he’d enjoyed his career. And I think a bit of that boy’s own adventure, starlit things. He’d tell us wonderful stories about flying survey missions in Papua New Guinea and in the Northwest of Australia. And so, those kind of lifeless, ordinary options that seemed to be available through the military were pretty attractive.

AL               So, what is a high schooler, who wants to have a great career in the military, do to prepare themselves?

BP              Probably not what I did. I was always… Academically, I was okay and relatively driven on the academic side. But certainly not the sporting sort of guy. In fact, I still get a lot of static from my friends about my complete lack of sporting prowess.

AL               Is that because you didn’t try? Or because you just weren’t very good?

BP              I’d like to say it’s because I didn’t try. I think it’s more because I wasn’t very good. And also, the bug hadn’t bitten me. And so, it took me a while after leaving school to really get it. And, I think like yourself, I got into distance running as a bit of a first step. And again, probably exactly like yourself, once you get that bug and you find the satisfaction and the personal development you can gain from that. That was definitely a steppingstone in that direction.

                   So, to answer your original question, I think some level of physical activity would probably be a good thing. And, look, the academic side of things is super important. I think it’s getting less so but certainly in my father’s day and age, there was a bit of a perception that if you couldn’t get a proper job, you could always join the army.

                   And so, I think that there was a bit of a stigma in some cases about being in the army as it pertained to intelligence and flexibility of thought which certainly in my experience is almost the polar opposite these days.

AL               So you went to ADFA straight out of high school?

BP              No, I took a year off. I was graduated from high school relatively young, up in Queensland, and wouldn’t have been of drinking age by the time I hit ADFA. That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? That that was the deciding factor. I think for a bunch of reasons, my father and I actually… I took a gap year, although they weren’t calling it that back then, and we did a lot of travel around Australia. Which was just this incredible formative experience and wonderful time with Dad.

AL               Just the two of you?

BP              Yes, so we did a bunch of different trips. I guess the combination of it was actually supporting an army adventure training exercise that was walking across the Great Sandy Desert with camels. We’re in the support crew and we’d meet them every six days and did this incredible driving and resupplied this camel train. Just an amazing adventure and a really special time.

AL               Had your dad retired by this stage? How did he have the time to do such wonderful stuff with you?

BP              He had just retired. And, in fact, it’s a funny, not dissimilar career arc. He’d got to the point… We’re living in Tomewin in South East Queensland at the time. I’d just finished high school, my brother had a couple of a years left. And they were about to post the family back to Canberra and it was that real familial job decision point for him. And so, he’d just retired at that point. So, it was a nice little bookend, I guess, to his military career and to my school years.

AL               Has it made you think you want to do the same thing with your kids at that age?

BP              Without a doubt, yes. My father passed last year and so, I guess, I’m getting sort of sentimental looking back on it. But it was a very special time. In all this transition from boyhood to manhood-type thing, it was a very formative year. And I’m very glad I’d done that prior to joining the army. I think, at that point, I had been a schoolboy and then having that year, I think I was in a much better position to go into the army and into the Defence Force Academy.

AL               Yes, it’s interesting. I’ve talked to other interviewees about the way in which they, as parents, try to create something which is, in a way, akin to the old tribal rituals that mark that transition from boyhood to manhood. And just highlighting the fact that we, as society, don’t do this particularly well. So, what were your impressions of ADFA when you got there?

BP              Look, I loved it and I still am an enormous advocate of ADFA as an institution. It gets periodically bad press for a whole bunch of different things but particularly, in our day, it was tri-service, everyone was mixed together, both genders, three services. The three-year levels were all put together into a divisional structure. And so, it was a wonderful networking, if nothing else, opportunity.

                   And when you look at like militaries across the world, not many of them do that. And certainly, as I progressed through my career, I reckon it was the first decade, I couldn’t get on a navy vessel or an aircraft without knowing someone on board which was just fantastic.

                   And that structurally, institutionally, I think was very positive, but it was really good fun. Good, hard training, obviously, the academic side of things and that great… I think we’ll probably come back to talk about initiation rituals or tribal-type concepts. But it was certainly that any form of shared hardship can really bring people together. And you develop those closenesses that last throughout life. 

AL               You said you weren’t that sporty at school. Did you find that initial training at ADFA pretty tough?

BP              I’d had a bit of a metamorphosis in that year off. I’d recognised that things have just got real, I’m about to join the army and I probably needed to be in better shape. And so, I had quit my niacin smoking habit and started running to the point where I found myself actually as one of the fitter individuals at ADFA.

                   So, the fitness was pretty good. My coordination, to this day, remains pretty embarrassing and unfortunately, I think I’ve passed that on to my kids as well at some point. My wife’s extremely sporty. She played basketball for the State and stuff, and she despairs at some of my genes coming out in our children.

AL               So, how do you become the Academy Cadet Captain which is, I guess, the equivalent of the Head Prefect of ADFA?

BP              As my wife says, the hall monitor. Look, it was a combination of what they called officer qualities and your academic results. And so, look, it was by being a bit of a goody two-shoes. Again, I look back and wonder if I should’ve enjoyed some of the more traditional university pursuits a bit more.

                   But look, I was very focused at that point and, I guess to an extent, I’ve remained that way throughout my life. But really wanted to achieve in both the military and the academic side of things. So, I did buckle down and pursued those goals.

AL               At what stage did you then go on to apply for the SAS?

BP              It was a funny journey. I’d always had that as this, I guess, pedestal idea. In fact, I remember coming home from, I think, first year ADFA and saying to my dad, who has obviously spent his career in the military, I said, look, dad what’s this SAS stuff all about and what do you think about that? And he said, mate, you don’t want to do that. He said that these SAS guys, they’re nutcases. As you’ll be going out to drink a beer on a Friday night, they’ll be walking around with rocks in their pack. And, you know, it’s the wrong sort of thing.

                   And actually, life imitating art. About five years later, I distinctly remember in Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, where I was, training for selection on a Friday night. My mates’ driving past on their way out to a pub, throwing beer cans at me, calling me a moron and other… Yes, Dad, you were right.

                   But, no, Dad’s view was always very much you got two choices. You can either carry your house around on your back or you can fly home to a five-star hotel. He obviously chose the latter. But I’d always had a bit of an inkling.

                   And then in our third year, the adjutant at the academy, who’s actually now the Special Operations Commander, as the Head Prefect, the head hall monitor, I had a relatively close relationship with him. He was an ex-SAS guy and got a lot more understanding of it there which really sowed the seeds. 

AL               As I understand, there’s two screens. There’s an initial physical and interview screen that takes out about a third of people. And then there’s the three-week selection course that takes out about two-thirds of those who started it. The first sounds fairly straight forward but that 21-day course, what’s it like? What do people do? Because you’ve not only done it, you’ve run it.

BP              That’s right. It’s really interesting seeing both sides of it when you’re on it, particularly, the first time. Particularly, relatively naive as I was, I think people these days are a lot more sophisticated towards what the process is designed to test and prepare themselves better. But when you’re on it, you just seem to think things are coming at you in a very random and barbaric order. But, obviously, there’s a lot more structure behind it.

                   Look, as a candidate, it is what it says on the tin. It is designed to test your ability to continue functioning in very arduous, ambiguous circumstances. It’s very interesting for me looking back both as a candidate and as directing staff running it. Very little of it is actually about physicality. There’s a base level of physicality which is required for the job. Certainly, the most arduous military thing I’ve ever done was in Afghanistan and not on the selection course. So, it gets harder. And it does need to prove a base level. You need a certain level of fitness.

AL               Keep it concrete for us, Ben. What sort of things are people being asked to do?

BP              So, it is heavy… Food and sleep deprivation is a base. So, on a number of these activities within that selection course.

AL               How much food? How much sleep?

BP              Sort of none. Couple hours of sleep at night, no food for about a five-day period, give or take. So, really designed to simulate… To get you to a relatively low eb. It does a couple of things. First…

AL               So, zero calories for five days?  

BP              Yes. Actually, I tell a lie. There is traditionally one meal in it, designed to be as unappetizing as possible. It might be some form of genitalia in jelly or something like this. Again, designed to put you in circumstance where you need to prioritise caloric intake. So, you’ll eat things that are unappealing. But, by and large, no food and couple of hours sleep periodically throughout a 24-hour period.

                   It really served the function of just stripping you down to who you are as an individual. You get a lot of people who can put on a show or some kind of façade and get through certain aspects of it, but it’s very hard to keep that up when you’re at that level.

                   So that’s one thing it does. And the second thing it does…

AL               What are people doing? Sorry to keep on interrupting.

BP              No, no, no.

AL               I just…

BP              We call it DS watching, directing staff watching. So, they’re performing spectacularly when the assessors are around and they’re saying all the right things and they’re doing all the right things or pushing heavily on the trailer but not actually exerting any effort. These kind of things.

                   Those kind of, like I said, façades get very difficult to maintain over time when you’re completely exhausted. And so, you do, you see the real person which is quite insightful in a number of cases.

                   The other thing is you really see that mental drive, that ability to keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other towards a goal when it seems hopeless or completely ambiguous.

                   In actual fact, that’s what we’re screening for. And in my opinion, if we could conduct that same screen without so much emphasis on the physical as the vector to do it, we’d have a really powerful tool. Because there are a lot of people…

                   We’ve recently opened selection up to both genders. I think we lose a lot of good people of both genders on the physical side of things that could otherwise be employed for that mental drive and that mental ability to keep continuing, functioning, thinking relatively clearly in those arduous situations, just because they haven’t got that physicality. I know we’re constantly looking at ways of finding those characteristics. But so far, the physical one is the most powerful and most really cogent way that we’ve found.

AL               So you mentioned the task before of pushing a trailer. What other sorts of tasks are comprising the days over this three-week period?

BP              Again, that’s the difference between the participant, the candidate, and the staff. As a candidate, you think it’s just pure bastardisation. It is these patently impossible tasks. Carry these extremely heavy awkward objects down this ravine up to the other side. You do that, 12 hours later, you finally get to the other side. And then they’ll say, no, you’ve got the wrong parts, you need to take them back and replace them.

                   Another one we had, which was, in hindsight, hilarious. We had to carry these chickens, live chickens, in our pack. That was our food, and it was a scenario. We were led by this guide who was supposed to be an indigenous leader and he told us all that chickens are revered in his culture and if you caused the chickens pain, then you’ll have to do physical punishment, sort of thing. Of course, these chickens are… We’re carrying stretchers in our packs and every time the chickens squawked, we’d be doing burpees.

                   I think most of us got it, that this was just designed to be something difficult. Almost that stoic approach where you accept that you can’t stop the chickens squawking. You just need to deal with what’s in your power to control.

                   And, yet, I vividly remember one person, he couldn’t get it out of his head. If he could just stop the chickens squawking, then it’ll all be rosy. He was in tears, saying, look, stop banging the… He missed the point of what was in his own control.

                   So, it was things like that. And again, there’d always be the… The scenario would dictate that you needed to have someone on security and then all of a sudden, they’d say, no, this person’s injured so you need to carry his pack. Just to add the weights on top of it.

                   And I remember at the time just saying, this is just pure bastardisation. They’re just trying to get people to drop out. But very amusingly, three years later in Afghanistan we had a situation. Five-man patrol on the border with Pakistan. Did a night in… Sorry, no, resupplies. So carrying very heavy packs, 60-odd kilos worth of kit.

                   As we stepped off from the resupply, our signaller rolled his ankle and couldn’t walk, couldn’t get the helicopter back in. And so, we had to help him carry his pack, have people out looking for… It was like this bastardised selection stand, except for real. And I remember, at that point, very clearly thinking there’s method behind the madness in terms of what they’re assessing for.

AL               And the drop out process, do people get told that they’re out or is it mostly just self-selection out where they put their hand up and say, I can’t take anymore?

BP              Yes, mostly self-selection. There’s a few formal gates, there’s a couple of physical tests and there’s a couple of periods where we will formally have gates and if people just aren’t displaying the characteristics that are required then they’ll be told they’re off. However, the vast majority of it is people WOR, Withdrawal at Owner Request.

                   In fact, I remember you get issued a slip. You’ve got to sign this slip to say, I want to withdrawal, and it’s a bit formalised. The Navy SEALs in Coronado in the US have a bell, it’s a quite famous thing. They ring the bell and they’re out. It’s not quite as formalised as that but you have to actually go through a process.

                   I remember as soon as I got the slip, I tore it up and discreetly burnt it at one stage. So, I figured that might act as an insulation. I’d have to go through the embarrassment of asking for a slip before [overtalking].

AL               Like the reverse of burning a draft card. It’s great.

BP              Yes, exactly. I’m in, I’m here to stay.

AL               So, in some sense, you’re selecting for a pain threshold but also, as you say, those stoic qualities as well. Did you feel that you gained something from that selection process or did you…?

BP              Without a doubt. And I’d be interested, because I never have heard of anyone saying that they didn’t learn about themselves throughout that. Again, it’s, A, that shared hardship, so you become very close with the people you’ve done selection with.

                   But that pushing yourself beyond limits, all those cliches, it really does go to show what you as an individual are capable of. I think it’s a very strong platform to then face challenges further down the line. There are few things… I’m certainly nowhere near as fit as I was back then but there are few physical challenges that I don’t think I could face and overcome as a result of having gone through that process.

                   And of course, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. Such that when you’re in Afghanistan with a guy with a rolled ankle, you got to walk however many kilometres to an extraction point, carrying his pack, you know you can do it. It’s going to hurt but you know that it’s feasible.

AL               So then you’re in training, and the training is famously tough. I understand the SAS has lost more people in training than in combat. Everyone has to learn to jump out of a plane, for example. How does your typical day look at training?

BP              If I look back, professionally, certainly, it’s the most amazing period. You’ve trained for selection. It’s this crucible moment. You go through it all. You have this awful anticipation right at the very end where they say, okay, the course is over, and you don’t know if you’re selected. And then all of a sudden, you’re in and you’re just amazingly elated.

                   Then, from there, there’s a very distinct switch in focus. So, at that selection point, essentially, you’re trying to weed out… You’re trying to select the people you like. But you’re trying to get rid of people who don’t display those attributes. After that point, it’s within the military’s best interest to get you to the end state. So, you’re really trying to keep the people you’ve got. They’ve demonstrated that they’ve got the trainability. Bear in mind, the selection course is all about searching for someone who is trainable.

And so, we very famously, had people from non-infantry backgrounds, F-18 pilots who do extremely well historically, submariners. These sort of characters who have sometimes never really put a pack on their back before the training process. We’re looking for the ability to train them in the skills, not the fact that they have those skills coming in the door.

                   So, the next phase is giving them that suite of skills. I spoke about boys’ own adventure, this is over a year worth of these incredible parachuting courses and diving courses and driving cars fast and blowing things up and all sorts of weapons. It’s just an amazing period of doing things that are at the acme of the military profession. Really exciting, interesting course.

AL               And then there’s a great deal of flexibility too in terms of the weapons that SAS officers are allowed to take into combat, their ability to modify weapons, people have beards, are allowed to grow their hair the way they want to. Why is there that almost flowering of individuality within the SAS? What’s the thinking behind that?

BP              Certainly on the weapons side of things there’s probably not as much flexibility as may be perceived externally. They’re still obviously issued weapons and there’s a lot of clever reasons why you can only use things that have gone through that quality control process. But your point is very valid. There is more autonomy within that range of approved equipment.

                   What I think, at the core of the answer to that question, is the concept that, in many cases, what we want our special ops to do, and our SAS, in particular, is to be able to tackle those missions without precedent, to be able to come up with novel solutions to problems that we haven’t thought about before. So, we’re very much trying to develop that autonomy and that lateral thinking and all those characteristics within the regiment. So that removal of some of those more traditional military hierarchical boundaries is part of that.

                   Bear in mind, it works because we have done that thorough screening process. We are looking for people who are generally more mature, that don’t need those imposed disciplines and rank relationships. They can respect that an individual is in charge and that we can have a spirited debate about the way to go ahead but once that decisions made, we’ll get on with it.

                   These kinds of things which don’t necessarily translate into a larger army structure. So, yes, that ability to come up with new ideas, to think under pressure and to come up with novel solutions is at the heart of the more relaxed and greater levels of autonomy for members of the unit.

AL               So what sort of agile problems did you strike on deployment? I understand there’s limitations as to what you’re able to talk about, but are you able to give us some broad examples of complex challenges in the field?

BP              Yes, I think, certainly, I was involved in a number of ship boarding operations as a troop commander. The MV Tampa was one of those. And I think that was a really good example of using a military force. Mainly, because the problem presented was beyond the capabilities of the civil powers. The police didn’t have the reach to get out or the vehicles or the deployment time or the boats, etc. etc.    

                   And so, this was a situation where we were able to adapt a suite of military skills. So we were well trained in boarding hostile vessels and taking down terrorist forces on a ship. We were able to adapt that into a very sensitive political situation and achieve an outcome.

                   Now, all sorts of debate about whether we should’ve gone or whatever. At that point, ours is not to reason why. But we were very clear on the political ramifications of this and that if we went in with a sledgehammer and an overt or more militaristic approached that could have negative consequences in the long run. So that ability to use that military tool in what was essentially a political capacity is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

AL               I should remind the listener that this is a no politics, no policy podcast, in case people wonder why I’m not pursuing all of the political context that sits around the Tampa. But what’s interesting about that, Ben, is that just preceded 9/11. And then post 9/11, the SAS becomes very much an active tool of Australian foreign policy. How did you find your first deployments to the Middle East?

BP              The word that was right on the tip of my tongue when you asked that question was exhilarating. A lot is made of, rightly so, the horrors of war and, by no means, through this response am I saying that war is anything other than, generally, a miserable experience for everyone involved.

                   However, there is still some kind of professional satisfaction in terms of being used for what you’ve trained for. So that level of excitement is a fairly common reaction across the board for people deploying for the first time and being able to put into practice the training that you’ve spent, in some cases, a lot of time leading towards.

                   But, also at that stage, we went in very early after 9/11. There was still a very clear, in my mind, link between the transnational terrorism, the AQ training camps that had spawned 9/11 and what we were doing in Afghanistan. So, I think there was a very clear requirement down at the military level. Obviously, as things evolved, I think that probably became more opaque. But at the time, I think it was a justified mission and, as I said, professionally, quite an exciting one.

AL               You would’ve been working quite closely with the UK SAS, and American Special Forces. What marks the Australian SAS out from the regiment and the Green Berets?

BP              Certainly, that is quite correct. We have worked very, very closely with those organisations since that time. And I’m extremely proud to say that I consider our soldiers of equal calibre in terms of an individual level. What I think you just can’t replicate is the kind of scale of particularly the US approach to special operations. So, all those enablers, the technical enablers, the equipment, the assets, the manpower that really drive the special operations.

                   We don’t have that same sort of scale. We’ve certainly got the capability on an individual level but not all of the machinations behind it. I think there’s some level of commonality and I reckon there’s probably a PhD in there somewhere, that the people who go through these processes, you tend to get a similar sort of person. And there’s that shared bond even though you haven’t been through the same course, you share a same sort of tribe.

                   So, we had very fond and close relationships. And like I said, pound for pound, I think certainly on a comparable level with our British and American counterparts.

AL               What do each of those forces do better than us? You talked about the American access to equipment, in particular. What is it that you look to the British to inform the Australian SAS on?

BP              I think in many cases the big differences are how their governments chose to use the military. Obviously, US foreign policy has a very different slant on the use of military force. And I think the British, still from the days of empire, still view their military as a probably more active tool of foreign policy than Australia would. And so, it was interesting to compare and contrast the kind of approaches that the US and UK militaries were getting directed to take.

So that was quite instructive. As I mentioned before, I think particularly the US, their integration of intelligence and developing particularly in the height of Iraq, that kind of period developing target packs from multiple sources of information and different sort of means. It was very mature and very sophisticated.

The kind of stuff that Stanley McChrystal talks about in his Team of Teams book. That kind of multi-disciplinary integration I think is something we learnt a lot from. And to tell you the truth, I think has a lot of applications. There’s a reason why that book’s a bestseller in business fields as well. It’s got a lot of applications outside of the purely military on national security arenas.

AL               Yes, indeed. A bit like Sun Tzu being perennially updated for using it’s audiences.

BP              Yes.

AL               How do you think about your leadership style in the field? I know one of your soldiers, Andrew Hastie, says that the enduring story he has about you is that rather than leading from the back when the bullets were flying, you were somebody who people would look over to and see you right next to them. What is it about that do you think about your leadership in action?

BP              I think one of the big things within the unit… One of the very interesting things about military leadership is you’re often in a position where you’re the leader but you are least experienced person in that organisation, particularly at the junior levels.

                   If you think of a platoon commander, so a young, maybe 19, 20-year-old individual straight out of Duntroon, you might’ve had 18 months of training and then all of a sudden, you’re in charge of 30 Australian soldiers. Some of whom have had a full career, the platoon sergeant will have had a full career in the military.

                   So, instantly, that makes a very interesting dynamic where you need to be able to leverage off the skills and capabilities of the people below you. And you need to be very reliant on them. But you also need to have some ability to back your own decisions and to have the confidence to get up in front of those people and say, we’re going to charge that machine gun nest, and follow me. So that kind of dynamic is, I think, a really good formative one.

                   Certainly, within the regiment, as you come in as a young troop commander, you, again, are the least experienced person. Main difference is that, in the regiment, people will remind you of that fact. But, again, the machine works very well. They recognise that you bring different skills and characteristics to the dynamic and that it’s there all as much as anything to help you along to make the right decisions for the organisation.

                   I was always very acutely aware of that and very much sought to use the expertise within the organisation. And I think looking back, the greatest challenge that I would find is making that decision. When do you use the advice and when do you trust your own instinct? That’s constantly a judgement battle going through.

AL               How important was being physically fit to this? Others have talked about you as being pretty hardcore, a triathlete and CrossFit, and that being important in terms of somebody in their late 30s, early 40s, garnering the respect of a more junior solider in their 20s?

BP              I’ve got some pretty strong views on the importance of that. So, to answer your question, yes, I think that is really important. I think two things as an army officer, if you can demonstrate a level of physical fitness and look the part, and if you can string two words together in front of a group of people with some level of confidence. That can cover up for a lot of ineptitudes, and in my case, has very much covered up for a lot of ineptitudes.

                   On reflecting about that, I do a little bit of work with the AGSM, teaching a leadership subject there. I talk about this theatre of leadership and it’s not to say that you need to be fake or pretend you’re someone you’re not.

                   But it is to say there is an element of perspective in leadership and while not everyone’s going to be that 6-foot follow me, men type character of a leader, you do at times, particularly in high pressure times, need to be someone that people can look to with some level of confidence that you know how to get the organisation out of that problem. So, a lot of those more physical based ques that you look the part and that you can speak confidently can greatly assist in that regard.

AL               How did you find the interpersonal challenges? Because a lot of your work isn’t firing guns, it’s having endless cups of chai tea with village elders, right? That must’ve been a massive shift from a lot of how your basic training is setting you up.

BP              To an extent, however, and this is another one of those, I think, misperceptions about life in the military. I think, and certainly had reflected back to me, that a lot of people think, oh, it must be so easy in the military, you just give an order, and it happens.

In many cases, and particularly in a unit like the SAS, where you’ve got really smart, proactive lateral-thinking subordinates, it’s definitely not a directive environment. You need to be working with people and understanding different perspectives, working out what the incentive mechanisms in any given structure are to try and progress an objective. So, much of that is translatable, not only in that the military context you just described, but also, I think, in a wider business environment.

                   So, yes, I think we’re pretty well prepared for that. And, particularly, I spoke about that Team of Teams thing before, when you are working with inter-agency partners and diplomats and police, indigenous partners and all that sort of stuff, you very quickly become attuned to working with a whole bunch of different stakeholders with different agendas and trying to balance those in terms of achieving what you need to.

AL               Did you enjoy the tea-drinking side of Afghanistan?

BP              Very much, yes. It was a fascinating insight. I, increasingly, as I get older, believe that if I’ve got a black and white opinion on any subject, it’s a real warning sign that I don’t know enough about it. So, you go into these environments where… And I think it…

AL               He even knows only his own case, knows a little of that.

BP              Well, yes. We tend to demonise our enemies and the media’s very good at trying to make a reductionist, polarised worldview. So, you go in and, well of course, the Taliban are all bad. These can’t… They must be some other, a different kind of evil person.

                   Then you get to understand the tribal overlays, the dynamics in there and it very quickly becomes shades of grey. And I think one of the most telling situations one of the soldiers reflected that if we’d grown up in Uruzgan Province instead of Perth, we’d probably be fighting for the Taliban. It’s just the kind of path they were on and did.

                   So, many of these people weren’t the stereotypical enemy character that they are made out to be. So, very complicated. And getting an understanding of that and a more nuanced appreciation for all the dynamics that were going on in that theatre, I felt was a real honour that we were able to be in that position to really start to look at some of the grassroots problems.

AL               I guess because you were in there early on, you saw that arch of counter-insurgency and the insights of people like McChrystal and David Kilcullen in pointing out that an overly aggressive approach simply creates more and more adversaries.

BP              Without a doubt. And I think Iraq’s probably an even more acute example of that. That these are… Or in both those cases, I think they were viewed as military problems. But of course, they weren’t. There were governance issues, there was a whole law and order factor, there was industry employment. All of these root-cause problems, that the military tool can’t solve.

                   You get into… Again, this is a reductionist view, but the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, all you see is nails. Without the ability to have your state departments or, in our case, obviously, DFAT, or DFID in the UK example, right alongside from that early point to try and rebuild the infrastructure that the wider society is going to need. Then you just perpetuate this military problem, and you have the second order effects that we saw.

AL               Now, you’re a big fan of having multiple skills and you had this quote from Robert Hineline’s science fiction novel, Time Enough for Love in a recent presentation which goes as follows, a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, con a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.

                   It’s about the most anti-economics quote I can ever imagine given that my discipline is one that lords specialisation. What do you like about it? 

BP              I came across that quote through CrossFit actually. Greg Glassman, who started CrossFit, I think used that specialisation is for insects bite as a bit of a justification for the physical approach they were taking. That you want to, whatever he says, outlift to runner, outrun a lifter type thing. I think that’s a wonderful synopsis of what it means to be a human being and what we should aspire to.

                   Certainly, from my perspective, I spoke about this Team of Teams concept. And we were just talking about the military tool trying to do other things. I liked that idea of having the exposure to a whole bunch of different ideas and even just a base level understanding of the different requirements of a wide spectrum of vocations.

                   I think it makes you a richer human being, but I also think it makes you fundamentally better at your job. And, in fact, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway, talks about having a lattice work of models. Which is a very similar concept. He talks about getting these big ideas from big disciplines, so you understand a bit of psychology and you understand a bit of medicine, a bit of economics, and bit of what the military does, and bit of how government works.

                   And that kind of lattice work gives you a much richer worldview and it provides a better, more sophisticated lens through which to look at a problem. It guards against that, the only tool I’ve got’s a hammer. Maybe this isn’t a military problem, maybe this is a primary care medical problem or something. So, I like that idea.

                   And look, I love the sort of renaissance man, renaissance person concept. None of these individuals were one-trick ponies. You’ve got the poster boy, Leonardo DaVinci, painting and sculpting and inventing and drawing and coding and all sorts of things. Which even from my… Please do not think I’m comparing myself to DaVinci or even putting myself up as a renaissance individual. But having pursuits outside of your primary vocation, I think, is a very healthy thing.

AL               So, you’re in this interesting position being in your mid-40s and now having finished your career. What are the other lattices, to use Charlie Munger’s term, that you’re looking to acquire over coming decades?

BP              Look, I am very much enjoying the business aspect of what I’m doing at the moment. I’m extremely relieved because it probably means we can keep paying the mortgage. But I’m extremely relieved that a lot of the military skills are very transferrable.

                   And I think we are offering, through our consultancy, different ways of looking at things. Maybe another different layer in the lattice work to a lot of businesses. So that’s good. But one of the things that I’d never done in any great depth is that business, the hardnosed profit loss statements type work, and this is a wonderful new challenge as part of this new business.

                   I’ve also, over the last, I don’t know, five years, really got into painting as well. Which, again, is something outside of that primary occupation. And I’ve been really enjoying that and want to keep pursuing that throughout the remainder of my years. So, yes, those kind of things. I think always having that next challenge is pretty healthy.

AL               Did you get to know Ben Quilty when he was over in Afghanistan?

BP              I didn’t, no. In fact, his cousin, Andy Quilty, is an artist out of Rockingham, who I’ve had quite a bit to do with. He worked as part of the military arts programme, so he’s donated, very generously, his time toward a number of classes. I got to know him through that and just a spectacular guy, real champion.

AL               Ben, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

BP              I would tell myself to lighten up a little bit. I think I was very serious as a teenager. And I mentioned before, at ADFA, my probably one regret is not pursuing some of the traditional university pursuits as much as I should have.

                   But I would certainly seek to... I explained a bit earlier, the idea of benchmarking small little accomplishments as steppingstones towards other things, I would’ve started that process a little earlier. And so, the physical side of things, as we mentioned before, I would’ve done that bit earlier.

                   But I really think that idea of exploring a whole bunch of different things and not being so concerned about just getting the good grades. I think we tend to put a lot of pressure, and I think it’s increasing on kids that, you’ve got to do well at Year 12.

                   My brother’s a great example, who just never really got into a groove at high school, and everyone thought, he’s going to drop out. Anyway, he subsequently became a doctor and ended up in the military as well and has done these amazing things from there. It was just a timing thing for him. And I think there’s so much pressure that you need to have it squared away by age 16, 17.

                   Yes, I think I’d suggest lighten up a bit. There’s a whole bunch of stuff after the teenage years where you can still choose your path.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

BP              I have drifted away from formalised religion. I was christened and baptised and all that sort of stuff as kid. I do still have faith. I know that always sounds like a cop-out, but I do think there is a concept of goodness that is bigger than just the day-to-day transactions on a purely existential level. But the more I’ve seen, and I guess my military experience has played a big role in this, the concept of formalised religion I increasingly struggle with.

AL               Did that shift come post deployment? There’s the old cliché, there’s no atheist in foxholes.

BP              Yes, and I think that probably speaks to this idea of faith and idea of a goodness. My father was a great example. He was not a religious person, certainly not in a practising sense, but he was the most small-C Christian person I knew.

                   He never drove past someone broken down on the road, and he’d pick up rubbish, and if he’d found a wallet, he’d go to pains to return it with all its money. These kind of, what I guess is codified in any of the major religions, the ten commandments-type behaviour, but without the institution around it. That was certainly an influence.

                   But, yes, I do think in this current IS, ISIS type situation where you’re just seeing this awful, the most barbaric human manifestations of power. Just these awful acts being conducted in God’s name. I find that as a disturbing perversion of what are pretty noble institutions. So, for me, it makes sense to practise being a good human being outside of a religious construct.

AL               When are you most happy?

BP              Well, this is going to sound like a cliché, but my family is just this amazing achievement, and it took me a while… This is probably one thing I would tell my teenage self, that I think we get filled with this idea that relationships are a love at first sight across the crowded room and happily ever after.

                   It baffles me, still I can’t reconcile this, but we spend all this time and effort professionally developing ourselves and getting degrees and courses and blah, blah, blah. And yet we think our relationships, the most important part of things should just come by osmosis or naturally or something. So, this idea that the family side of things, my relationship with my wife, my kids, it’s this constant… It’s just messy. There’s things going everywhere and it’s not like it is in the romantic comedies and that sort of stuff.

But it’s just so wonderful. Just those little vignettes that you have. We’re walking down the beach yesterday. Just little snapshots like that that aren’t ends in themself but when you reflect, they’re the things that I think make you happy. A big part of this career change, for me, has been looking at, well, what is my definition of success or happiness, what do I want to be when I grow up?

I think I’d always just thought, well, it means that next rung on the ladder or a bigger pay cheque or the next rank and status and all the sort of stuff. I think probably happiness is closer to those little vignettes and if you can string as many of those together as you can, you’re probably doing all right.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to say mentally and physically healthy?

BP              Without a doubt, some level of physical activity. We just finished building a house and we built a little gym at the back of our garage. So, my wife and I will train in there in the morning. That is just a wonderful time that we spend together and it’s a great… Obviously, the physical side of things, I think that is crucial. Some level of physical exercise, I think it just enriches life in a whole bunch of different ways.

AL               Do you do weights or cardio?

BP              Mainly weights. I need to get back into cardio. In fact, I want to get back into running. You’re a distance runner?

AL               Yes, a marathon runner.

BP              Yes, so I’d done a number of marathons way back when and loved that, I think, the romance of it. Loneliness of a long-distance run. All that sort of stuff. And I’d love to get back into that and, I think, will at some point. But yes, for the time being, we do weights and CrossFit-y style stuff in the gym.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

BP              Yes, I do. I’ve got terrible taste in both music and movies. I mentioned rom-coms before. I’ve watched the occasional rom-com and don’t mind them.

                   In fact, I do remember… So, my playlist on my phone is embarrassing. I remember accidentally… We were on deployment up in Timmer [?] at one stage and we had this combined, bush gym. So, there were these enormous commandos in there and a bunch of guys from my troop. There was no music and so I plugged my iPod in, not thinking, and the first couple of songs were respectable gym workout songs.

                   Then, I can’t remember if it was Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. A real clanger came on and it just stopped the whole gym. Foolishly, I went over to rectify it but, of course, in the process, owned up to it being my playlist. I didn’t quite live that down. So, yes, I reckon pop music is probably pretty high on the list of guilty pleasures.

AL               Finally, Ben, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

BP              I think my father. I mentioned before… It was actually really surprising. He died of lung cancer last year and had smoked two packs a day for 50 years. So that’s going to catch up to you. He’d been diagnosed about a year prior but as it turned out the endgame came quite quickly.

                   So, all throughout that year, he had been amazingly philosophical and, in hindsight, had made his passing so much easier on us by choosing to reflect on… He’d say, you’re only ever promised three score and ten and I got an extra two years on that. He’d talk about how proud he was of us. So, he really filled that last year with very positive reflections.

The endgame, as I said, was very quick. I bolted over from Perth to Sunshine Coast where he was. Got in at midnight. The hospital called us at five in the morning and we bolted in, and he passed within about eight minutes of us arriving. So, it was this amazing sort of… I think he was hanging on. He wasn’t conscious.

Anyway, we then had the funeral very shortly after that and it was this amazingly cathartic and uplifting experience. People came from everywhere. And Dad, he had a very good military career, but he was never Chief of the Army or any of that sort of stuff. He’d always provided for us, but we were never rich. So those metrics, he hadn’t risen to the top of industry or made a million dollars.

                   But people that didn’t have to come to his funeral came and shared reflections on him as a good human being. It validated what my brother and I had always thought that he was one of the good guys.

                   And as I mentioned before, not traditionally religious or any of those sort of things. But that concept of goodness that I spoke about before, he was probably up there in terms of being an ethical individual. I definitely try and replicate those kind of characteristics.

AL               Well, Ben Pronk, solider, athlete, and leader. Thank you very much for taking your time to share your insights on The Good Life podcast today.

BP              My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes.

Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.