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Posted on Jun 7, 2004 in Armchair Reading

Command & Leadership

By Steven McWilliams

Leadership? Command? What’s the Difference?




"The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle. . . . The nature of the bond is more complex. . . [and] . . . its importance must never be underestimated."
    John Keegan, "The Face of Battle" (1976)

Leadership is not given, but rather grown, nurtured, developed.  Never will you see a "change-of-leadership" ceremony.  Leadership cannot be transferred.  One might invoke the timeworn idiom, "you’ve either got it, or you don’t", and to a degree this is true.  A person lacking the drive, the character, the integrity, and the fortitude, even if educated in the particulars of leadership and its application will likely perform poorly. 


Such are the many and varied demands of leadership that less than a full effort will tell, especially in moments of crisis.  It is rather like a game of Jenga? – a weak link at the base will inevitably give way, leading to total collapse.  One might visualize a military unit as an inverted pyramid, with the commanding officer at the apex, in this case the bottom.  Pull a block from the middle, or near the top, and the structure may wobble and shift, but it will stand.  Another block, perhaps even five or six, and it is still likely that the pyramid will stand.  However, pull that bottom block, the foundation, and the entire structure crashes down in a heap – a catastrophic failure. 

Apply this to any military unit, and the consequence is quite severe.  Imagine the consequence of this occurring in a combat unit engaged with the enemy – total failure at the moment of truth, the unit will break and run, or stand in place and be destroyed.  Outside the armed forces, and probably the upper levels of a corporation, the true incarnation of leadership is little known or understood.  Even the youngest soldier is aware of the concept of leadership and, to some degree, the consequence of poor leadership.  Look at the non-commissioned officers (NCOs or "sergeants") of a military unit of any size.  Look then at the junior enlisted of that same unit.  One who sees sloppy, lazy, indolent troops may expect the NCOs of that unit to be very much the same as these young men.  A sloppy NCO will accept sloppy subordinates – a professional, dedicated and honorable NCO will not tolerate them.


The Need for Leadership

"Waste no time arguing what a good man should be. Be one." – Marcus Aurelius

Lead: to show the way or direct the course of, by going before or along with, to mark the way for. Leadership: the position or guidance of a leader, the ability to lead.

Why do we need leadership?  What is the value of a person who can inspire, motivate, nurture our own nascent concept of leadership?  Consider this: whom would inspire you or motivate you more, an officer who calls you into his HQ 10 miles behind the lines, points at locations on a map and directs you to "take them by sundown", or an officer who comes to the front lines, explains in detail the objectives, how and why they will be achieved, and then, in the best traditions of leadership, stands up and proclaims "follow me"?

A unit’s effectiveness and cohesiveness are largely dependent on morale and espirit d’corps, concepts that cannot be fostered by an autocratic, detached or indifferent leader.  A leader who is distant and inaccessible to his men will see a poor return on his "leadership" – after all, who will follow a leader who seems to have no regard for their safety, well-being or morale?  The military leader who, time and again, tells his troops, "do this because I say so", puts his unit’s effectiveness at risk.  At best, this leader’s subordinates may view him as pompous & uncaring.  Even worse, they may feel that he treats them like children. 

Such eventualities are the death knell of morale and cohesiveness.  Few will fight for someone they believe to be indifferent to them.  It is entirely likely that his indifference towards his fellow soldiers will be repaid by indifferent performance on the battlefield.  This does not, of course, mean that a private will stop his company commander in the midst of a firefight and announce, "excuse me sir, but can you explain again why this objective is essential to our mission?  I don’t think it’s worth the risk."  Rather, he will have had the opportunity to make such inquiries during the operational briefing.  Having done so, he will be much more at ease about any questions, concerns or doubts that he had prior to the briefing.  We follow a good and effective leader because he inspires in us a belief that what we are doing is right, worthwhile, and honorable.

"He that would govern others, first should be the master of himself’"
   Philip Massinger, "The Bondman" (c.1624)

"Learn to obey before you command"
   Solon (7th-6th C. BC) quoted in Diogenes Laertius’ "Lives and opinions of    Eminent Philosophers" (3d C. AD)

"He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good leader"
   Aristotle, Politics (4th C. BC)

"To know a man, observe how he wins his object, rather than how he loses it; for when we fall, our pride supports us, when we succeed it betrays us."
   Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon (1825)

In order to convince men to face death or severe injury (especially on a daily basis), they must believe that their mission and its objectives are important, attainable, and worth the risk of death.  They must also believe that their leaders care about them and will expose them to no more risk than is absolutely necessary.  A soldier who harbors doubts of any of the above will likely run or cower at the first sign of danger, and may wonder, "why should I risk my life for officers who place no value on my life, to pursue unattainable objectives that are also of no strategic importance and bring me no closer to getting out this wretched combat?"

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