The Case for Hierarchy at the Australian Defence Force Academy

J.A Ryan
5 min readSep 3, 2022


The pros and cons of cadet hierarchies have been debated at length. The Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) removed cadet hierarchies in the 1990’s following reviews into unacceptable behaviour and bullying. However, there are also positives that come from having a cadet leadership structure. Has the time has come to reconsider the benefits a formal hierarchy can provide to our future leaders?

The 1998 Grey review formally abolished the cadet hierarchy; however, in its wake, a hierarchy of sorts continued to exist, primarily based around age and year group, but it did so without legitimacy. Gradually, leadership positions arose, however they remained largely unofficial, backed by no formal ‘rank’ or level of authority. Lacking such a formal hierarchy, cadets were placed in the curious situation of having joined to command but having no immediate ability to do so.

In arguing for the hierarchies return, it is important to address the subtle, but critical distinction between command and leadership. Leadership is a desirable trait of all ADF members. It is the ability to influence and regardless of rank, it empowers individuals towards better performance. Command, however, denotes a level of authority that is formally recognised, in the case of ADFA trainees this is only realised on graduation.

Some may discard the concept of legally recognised command authority, which is a unique aspect of militaries worldwide, as something cadets will simply understand and adapt to on graduation. In its current structure, ADFA cadets are relying solely on social standing to achieve influence, which while beneficial, forgoes critical learning opportunities.

To take discipline as an example, there is currently no formalised way for senior cadets to enforce positive culture, much less rectify the unacceptable behaviour that led to the hierarchies disbanding in the first place. A cadet can only attempt to influence that behaviour or notify staff to correct it where that influence fails.

A burden of command is having to make decisions which may be unpopular, such as disciplining one of your peers of subordinates in the pursuit of organisational goals. This responsibility takes time and practice to master, yet cadets at ADFA have little option but to defer the task to staff, removing a valuable training opportunity and sometimes instigating an attitude of ‘not my problem’ over a three-year period.

While there is benefit to less official forms of leadership, such as mentoring or coaching, it belies the reality which will face all ADFA trainees– they will have legitimate command authority over others when they graduate. The three years spent at ADFA provide an ideal learning environment to gradually develop the command skills of its trainees before the stakes dramatically increase.

Beyond improving command and leadership, the return of a hierarchy would also help to reinforce the importance of excellence in character among trainees. Having invested three years of time and resources into ADFA trainees, the expectation of the services, and of the public, would be a graduate of high character. An internal hierarchy is well placed to observe cadets outside of normal staff hours and to assist with this character development.

The reality that character is difficult to assess, much less teach, means that practical experience in a safe training environment would be the best way to drive improvement.

The current reliance on a cadets’ self-drive to improve character is not a robust model in such formative years of a young officer’s development. A rank structure can assist by being a simplistic method of rewarding those who perform and motivating those who do not. Highly competent individuals want to earn respect. Allowing cadets of high character and performance to rise to the tops of a hierarchy motivates the individual and sees them act as role models for others to aspire towards.

Additionally, a hierarchy empowers those performers to actively seek and mentor those who may be struggling — backed by a level of authority and confidence that a hierarchy provides. Where it is currently possible to ‘go grey’ and avoid having to grapple with leadership or character development, a hierarchy would be another layer to help trainees.

Practically, the implementation of a hierarchy at ADFA is highly charged, evoking parts of the history of unacceptable behaviour and bullying .

Typically, the arguments against a hierarchy fall into two categories.

Foremost is the argument that those at ADFA are too immature and inexperienced to wield authority and that the temptation of abusing that authority would be too much. However, other comparable military academies operate a hierarchy that empowers cadets. Lessons from academies such as Texas A&M, with whom ADFA has reciprocal cadet exchanges, highlight that the key to success rests in appropriate oversight from staff.

A key finding in the Grey Review was the minimal level of staff presence within the trainee accommodation and a lack of oversight for those in positions of power. In such an environment there was little ability for staff to check when things went wrong and what resulted was a culture that rapidly degenerated.

Since then, the level of staffing and oversight has drastically increased as has the awareness of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. The combination of staff who would be able to provide oversight to a hierarchy, and cadets who are far more aware than their 1998 counterparts regarding what is behaviourally expected, provides an ideal starting place to rebuild a hierarchy that learns from its previous shortfalls.

The second line of argument is that you can’t give trainees the same authority as a graduated officer, so why bother at all. Notwithstanding the fact that military academies around the world disagree, this argument is somewhat simplistic. Obviously, a cadet cannot, and should not, be able to charge their Divisional Sergeant or sign off on leave.

However, ADFA is readily capable of instituting localised and individual processes. Allowing ranking members to implement a standardised set of disciplining actions (whether it be remedial drill, check parades or leave restrictions), that are subsequently reviewed by a staff member, would be an effective way for cadets to exert influence and practice command while maintaining a check and balance.

Similarly, allowing cadets to oversee regular activities and meetings, that are pre-approved by staff, encourages a sense of cultural ownership and encourages excellence.

There is much to learn from ADFA’s history and its past mistakes; however, in the pursuit of cultivating world class leaders, ADFA should reconsider instituting a cadet hierarchy.

*This article was originally published on Grounded Curiosity on 08 June 2021*



J.A Ryan

Australian 🦘 I like to write politics, society, philosophy, security & The Quarter Life Crisis