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Special Forces Commander Bram Connolly: “Fatherhood Is The Ultimate Leadership Test”

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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“I found commanding high-performing soldiers, Special Forces operators in Afghanistan, a lot easier than raising a three and five-year old,” admits Bram Connolly with a smile. Luckily, he’s not the sort of man to duck a challenge.

Bram spent 15 years in the Australian Special Forces, climbing the ranks to the role of Major and winning the Distinguished Service Medal for leadership in combat along the way. Here, Bram shares his insights into fatherhood, resilience and why navigating the COVID pandemic might present you with a rare opportunity.

When I was asked to write an autobiography, I honestly didn’t feel like I’d done anything special to merit it. But at the same time, I had this burning desire to pass on information to my two young boys who are now eight and 10. I wanted to make an archive of those big life lessons that I’d had so that my sons might be able to draw some inspiration and teaching points from them. Because I probably missed a lot of that from my own father.

I’m nearly 50 now, so my dad grew up in a period where his dad was around during the Second World War and his dad’s dad went through the depression and his dad’s dad was an early settler in Australia. These men were void of emotion. They knew hard work. They didn’t trivialize things with their kids much. And I just think my dad was a product of all of those years. My relationship with my dad was complex for lots of reasons, but it also didn’t have a lot of overt love and affection. That probably strengthened me in a lot of ways when I joined the army and went through my journey with the Special Forces. I was a lot tougher because of that. But I’m also a lot more caring now towards my own children.

Fatherhood is the ultimate leadership test. I found commanding high-performing soldiers, special forces operators in Afghanistan, a lot easier than raising a three and five-year old. I found raising those kids harder, because there’s a lot more emotional control that’s required when someone doesn’t understand why you’re asking him to do something. Parenting requires a lot of emotional regulation. I think a lot of us struggle with that.

But emotional regulation is required when you’ve got kids. This whole COVID pandemic, for example, is a great opportunity for me to show my kids how to work through adversity. Because if they see me yelling at the TV or if they see me being scared they will emulate my reaction to this stimulus for the rest of their lives. So I need to be very mindful of the emotions that I display, because all that is going to be a learned behaviour for those boys.

Sometimes life truly sucks. It is punctuated by grief, sorrow and loss, and you just have to endure it. But we should also remember that our grandparents went through four years of World War and huge recessions. We forget that there have been pandemics before. With COVID, I think that everyone has a really short-term focus on when they can travel again or next go out to a nightclub. We’ve lost our ability as a nation to pitch in and get the hard work done with a long-term view of recovery.

In the book I write about “embracing the suck” and accepting hard times with a positive mindset. During the pandemic we have to do this at an individual level. Yes, this situation is crap, but what can you do to make the most of it while you’re locked at home? If anyone tells me that they haven’t bettered themselves after being at home for three months. If they haven’t read all the best books, if they haven’t done 100 burpees a day, if they haven’t constructed some way to become a better version of themselves. If they haven’t done something like that then they’re missing an opportunity. Because I think that you should always be looking for self-mastery in these sort of periods. If lack of time was your excuse before, you probably don’t have that excuse now. Start reading those books or, writing that novel. Do what you always said you didn’t have the time for.

Resetting your frame of reference helps you to persevere through adversity. You need to remember those times when you’ve done it tougher and come through. That’s why we have a selection course for the Special Forces that should be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. So when you are then enduring something brutal and hard in a warzone, you’ve actually got a frame of reference for where you’ve faced something tougher and prevailed. That’s why if there’s a thunderstorm, I’ll take my kids out for a bike ride. That gives them a new frame of reference that maybe some of their friends don’t have.

Buy Bram Connolly’s book The Commando Way here