Thoughts on Professionalism (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 3)

By Brigadier-General Christopher Coates, OMM, MSM, CD

Reprint from The Canadian Air Force Journal Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 2010

In the fall of 2009, the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre commissioned a Leadership Lessons Learned project to interview Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing commanders and record their observations on concepts and practices of leadership as they relate to running an air wing in combat. As the researcher/interviewer for the first of these interviews I developed a set of questions based on recent air force leadership writings and conducted two interviews with then Colonel Christopher Coates. In the process of these interviews two things became apparent to me: that his views needed, most certainly, to be shared with a wider audience, and that he would make the perfect guest speaker to talk to my fourth year ethics and professionalism class at Royal Military College (RMC). The following paragraphs are based on his remarks to the class, and they capture the essence of his more detailed interview comments.

- Dr. Randall WakelamHistory Department, RMC

I was recently asked to speak to a small group of students taking a course in Ethics at the Royal Military College. I had been asked to lead off the session with my views on what it means to be a military professional. I found the response to the question not quite what I expected it to be.

I have a wide range of experiences, from training and exercises to operations domestic and deployed; from subunit to unit to headquarters at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. I have worked with various Air Force communities and operated extensively alongside our Army and to some degree with our special operations forces. My experience with our Navy is limited, but perhaps those with connections to that element will discover that my remarks apply nonetheless.

With that particular breadth of experience, what stands out for me is that our military is very much composed of a variety of people, with a variety of personality traits and a variety of characters. Off the top, I would find it hard to find a single, all-encompassing definition of what it means to be a Canadian military professional. Certainly, everyone seems to have a notion of the qualities of a military professional. One might think those qualities to consist of the following:

Bravery. In a military at war it seems that bravery would be essential to face threats and dangers, and to maintain the confidence of other members of the group.

Intelligence. To participate in the complex, modern operational environment would require a relatively intelligent person.

Discipline. The controlled application of military force is fundamentally dependent upon well disciplined military units. It follows then that the members of the military should be highly disciplined in their approach.

Dedication. The demands of military life are stressful at all levels and a member needs dedication to keep going when the going gets tough.

Strength. Given that many military tasks are physically demanding, soldiers, sailors, airmen or airwomen would be effective only if they have sufficient physical strength.

Good communications. In a dynamic, stressful operational environment, often acting with a high degree of independence, military professionals have to be able to listen carefully to instructions and feedback, and to monitor their situation, passing on information in a timely and effective manner.

Hardworking. Hardworking professionals seem more likely to inspire their colleagues to achieve challenging objectives, and function effectively in that environment of independence, mentioned above.

Team player. To promote the morale of their group, military professionals need to contribute to their unit’s welfare and accomplishments.

Common values (or at least the values of the nation). As the military acts on behalf of the nation, members of the Forces need to ensure that their actions are consistent with the desires of the nation. Common values will facilitate this sometimes difficult requirement.

Trustworthy. Soldiers, sailors, airmen or airwomen need to be able to enjoy the trust of their team, especially in challenging circumstances where lives are on the line, such as in combat.

Respectful. A professional who shows respect for the other members of the unit is more likely to receive their support, especially in difficult times.

And in the current day and time, perhaps one might also consider:

Caring. A professional with an element of compassion may be more successful in military operations that are focussed on assisting populations in trouble, such as those that are victims of natural disaster or those caught in the midst of a conflict.

Sense of humour. A good sense of humour might assist the military professional to deal with certain stressful situations, and contribute effectively to unit well-being.

Service before self. The members of Generation Y (approximately, those born in the era 1975–1985) typically place value on peer acceptance, and as such the exigencies of military service might be somewhat in conflict with their normal beliefs. In their circumstances, the need to value service to country before self may merit special consideration.

Violent (dare I say). The recent involvement of the Canadian Forces in combat operations against a ruthless enemy might lead some to believe that our military members need to be sufficiently comfortable in violent situations in order to deal with difficult combat conditions.

Surely you have your own thoughts about these and other characteristics of Canadian military professionals that might make this list.

Well, in my experience, I think I could identify more than a few very successful Canadian military professionals who are not strong in some of those qualities mentioned above. A great number have some of the qualities, with the rare individual having many of those listed. But then there are others who might be more successful as military professionals even though they have fewer of the qualities mentioned. In fact, I would propose that most are missing a few or several of these qualities or elements of character. So what is it that makes a military professional in the Canadian context?

No one in our Canadian Forces (CF) works or acts as an individual. Whatever we do we do in a group or groups. In the group, the strengths of one compensate for the weaknesses of the others. Perhaps it is this balancing of strengths and weaknesses in the group that makes the collective largely successful. In the CF some groups are actually selected to offset the strengths and weaknesses of its members, while in other groups in our Forces the balancing seems to be a more natural, subtle process that simply evolves over time. In my view, then, what it means to be a military professional is someone who works well in a group. I would go so far as to say it is someone who works very well in a group.

So if being someone who works well in a group is a primary attribute of being a military professional in the Canadian context, are there any commonalities or truisms associated with that? In my experience, someone who works well in a group, and is therefore a successful military professional, has two fundamental character traits: honesty, and, putting the interests of the group before their own interests.

Honesty is essential to the ability of members of the CF to be valuable contributors to a group, and in that sense a military professional. First and foremost it means honesty to themselves. It might not mean the sort of honesty that is honest to a fault, but it certainly means being honest when it matters. (And yes, this has the potential to be the subject of another lengthy debate, especially when addressing an ethics class.) The necessary honesty is perhaps well illustrated by the kind of honesty displayed by the character Maria in the movie The Sound of Music. Military professionals must always be absolutely honest with themselves, and with their superior. And military professionals are absolutely not people who resort to deceit as a way of accomplishing objectives within the group.

The other quality essential to working well within a group, and thus being a true military professional, is that of putting the interests of the group before one’s own interests. This is something that the military professional always does. Most certainly this applies to putting the interests of the immediate group first, although the interests of the larger group may not always be respected in the same way. Again, I am relating to common traits that I have seen among Canadian military professionals, rather than trying to argue for what should or should not be. In that context, the military professional might not put the interests of the CF or the national interest before their own, but certainly that individual always puts the interests of the immediate group first and foremost. In my experience, a prime example of this might be with the Reserves, where the individual may have decided for personal reasons to pursue a different life path and not necessarily put the interests of the CF before their own, but once involved in a task, mission, or operation that same individual unquestionably, and indistinguishably, places the interests of their immediate group before their own interests. Within that context, the Reservist is no different from a member of the Regular Force and is every bit as much a military professional.

In addition, I have seen cases where individuals are no longer able to put the interests of the group before their own, and this causes a conflict within them that was only resolved by leaving the Regular Force. Some made a successful transition to the Reserve Force (where it is possible to continue to serve, but with an ability to take on other pursuits as well), while others sought other avenues. The true military professionals recognized the requirement to put the interests of the group before their own, or felt compelled to leave.

So, while I have identified one characteristic and two traits that are common to Canadian military professionals, I should add that this fits the widest spectrum of our Forces. That is, the widest spectrum in terms of ranks and classifications. If one narrows the group, I find that so too can one narrow the definition of the characteristics of military professionals within that group. In my view, as rank and responsibility increase, then certain characteristics become more common. This is the case for both officers and the senior non-commissioned members. But at all ranks, and in all classifications, and from the very beginning, my experience is that honesty and putting the interests of the group before one’s own interests are an absolute necessity. In fact, I believe it would be possible to argue that our recruit and basic schools teach, train, and select for the ability to work in a group. And to some degree, if candidates are able to work well in a group, regardless of what other limitations exist, they may have the potential to become military professionals.[1] The other skills, the skills that constitute the member’s chosen military occupation, are taught later, not at recruit or basic schools.

In reflecting on my conclusion that a Canadian military professional could really be distilled to a concept as simple as someone who works well in a group, I have wondered if the same could be said for other militaries. I thought of my experiences with our various allies, while training, in schools and in the field, and operating, from Germany to Bosnia, from NORAD to Afghanistan. I thought of their militaries, some larger, some smaller. And in many cases, I believe it was possible to identify what appeared to be defining characteristics for them other than simply the ability to work in a group. As such, I found myself satisfied that my thoughts were well justified in the Canadian context, since I imagine that if there was some defining Canadian characteristic I would have found it, like I did for the others.

So, although it may not bear the romantic hallmarks associated with such traits as bravery or endurance, strength, or discipline, in my experience, the ability to work well in a group, even very well in a group, is a legitimate response to the question: “What does it mean to be a Canadian military professional?” The traits of honesty and putting the interests of one’s immediate group before one’s own interests are the two fundamental characteristics that are necessary in this regard. After working alongside Canadian military professionals in a great variety of situations it is perhaps less than a surprise that such a straightforward notion could be at the base of our marvellous success.

Brigadier-General Christopher Coates has flown helicopters in the scout role, and utility helicopters in both tactical and special operations. Having commanded at squadron and wing and served on operations staffs at all levels, Brigadier-General Coates has deployed on operations as a Forward Air Controller, an aviation unit commander, and was recently the first commander of the JTF-Afghanistan Air Wing. Brigadier-General Coates is appointed the Deputy Commander Continental NORAD Region at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.

Randall Wakelam flew helicopters for the army, commanding 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron from 1991 until 1993. Subsequently, as a military educator he served at the Canadian Forces College. In 2009, he joined the History faculty of RMC as a civilian. He holds a PhD from Wilfrid Laurier. He has written extensively on military command and decision making as well as military education, with a particular focus on the Air Force. His first book, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF [Royal Air Force] Bomber Command, was published by University of Toronto Press in 2009.

List of Abbreviations

CF―Canadian Forces
JTF―Joint Task Force
RAF―Royal Air Force
RMC―Royal Military College


[1]. The author fully appreciates that our recruit schools exercise pass/fail judgment on candidates for a variety of skills; however, I believe it is safe to say that the ability to work effectively in a group is a uniquely critical skill selected for at our basic schools. Without this skill, without honesty and the ability to put the interests of the group first the candidate would not be permitted to complete the course. (return)

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