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Leadership, Concepts of Military

Leadership, Concepts of Military. Within the U.S. military, leadership is generally considered something of a given. It is a fundamental ingredient of warfare, without which the outcome of a combat operation cannot be assured. The leader is the brain, the motive power of command, upon whom subordinates rely for guidance and wisdom, and depend upon for good judgment. The leader must be determined, unflappable and charismatic; confident in delegation of authority; able to combine the various strands of command into a common thread; seasoned, intelligent, and thoughtful.

When judging the qualities of leadership, there is a tendency to think of the gifted, or natural leader, involving some expectation that leadership is an inherent personality quality that some have, and others have not. Military history is full of “born leaders,” suggesting that “inspired leadership” is the only true measure of the trait. For a very long time the American people relied on the emergence of just such an individual when necessity demanded it, and fortunately the country has been well‐served in this respect. Much of this has been due to American military egalitarianism, which presumed that any individual, regardless of background, could lead a body of troops in combat as long as the leader had the requisite ability. An obvious case in point is the Civil War, which gave rise to a number of gifted commanders— Joshua Chamberlain, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Logan, and Nelson A. Miles, to name but a few—who yet had little, if any, military training. So great was the renown of such natural leaders that a veritable school of military command grew up around them, declaring that genius alone was the true sign of leadership, and that leaders were born, not made.

As the army matured and professionalized after the Civil War, these sorts of arguments met the resistance of educational reformers who argued that certain principles of leadership could be taught, given the proper lessons from military history. Beginning in the 1880s, the army and navy both sought to teach certain principles of leadership, although they were not so‐called at the time, through the Infantry and Cavalry School, the U.S. Army Staff College, and the Naval War College. Historical examples of military success and failure featured prominently in their curricula, on the assumption that trial‐and‐error under combat conditions was a poor method of inculcating leadership skills. Lessons learned in the classroom were then effected in map and field exercises. The expectation was, and still is, that non‐combat training would provide a fund of practical knowledge upon which a commander could use as a point of departure under battlefield conditions.

For the educational reformers, emulation was key, although they admitted that talent was also valuable. Raw talent, however, was no substitute for its disciplined application. Considering the growing complexity and lethality of war, education was regarded as the surest means of directing talent toward the desired end. Yet the question of native ability remained; could those without it become effective leaders? A problem reformers grappled with was the difference between leadership and command; they are not the same thing, for not all commanders are good leaders, and not all leaders are good commanders. During the Civil War, Gen. George McClellan, for example, was a truly inspirational leader who won the total devotion of his troops, yet consistently failed to achieve decisive victory in battle. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, was an excellent commander, to whom few would attribute any great affection by the soldiers of his command at the time. Gen. Robert E. Lee would seem to encompass the best qualities of both.

The essence of military leadership is not, of course, embodied in how much devotion a commander may inspire among the troops. While the ability to command is tied to a leader's general competence—the commander's ability to make correct decisions based on a given situation—the ability to lead remains more ethereal. Because of the intrinsic individuality of leadership, the military encourages the adoption of a particular “style” suited to the personality of the leader or to the situation at hand. One may be a director, a participant, or a delegator, but the centrality of the leader remains unquestioned. Whichever style is used, the expectation is that a positive result will emerge.

Because there seems to be no precise definition of what leadership is, the use of historical example (lessons learned, in current military jargon) has generally been the method through which qualities of leadership have been ascertained. Just as important are examples of bad leadership, which is apt to get troops killed. The balance between the two provides the would‐be leader with patterns to avoid and copy.

Definitions of military leadership generally describe what a good leader does, not necessarily what leadership is. According to current U.S. Army doctrine, “leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation.” Traditionally, applying those skills competently has been achieved through intensive theoretical and practical training.

The learning‐by‐example method might thus be described as a means of augmenting the capabilities of those who, for whatever reason, show promise of true leadership skill, while eliminating those who have no aptitude. Testing and promotion review replace the combat situation, while leadership itself becomes genuine military doctrine. The guiding assumption of leadership doctrine is that incapable practitioners will be winnowed out before their mediocrity costs lives in battle.

Battle represents the severest test of a commander's mastery of leadership doctrine, for the commander must stimulate subordinates to do things that would imperil their health, even cost them their lives. It is here that the leadership role diverges from the command role. Command merely vests the leader with authority to define and order the accomplishment of an objective. Achieving it requires the additional influence of leadership. Ideally, the leader sets the standard for command through personal example and shared sacrifice. He must, therefore, demonstrate confidence in the troops and in his own abilities, while acknowledging the risks his decisions may entail. If subordinates trust the leader's judgment and abilities, and believe that he would not unnecessarily expose them to danger, his authority and decisions will not be questioned. Under the stress of combat, however, a leader cannot assume instant obedience. Fear and the instinct for self‐preservation are powerful disincentives to any dangerous enterprise, and the commander cannot simply will them away. He must, therefore, anticipate their appearance while limiting their effect through assiduous training, preparation, and the promotion of team spirit and identification.

Military leadership is thus a continuous process that extends well beyond the battlefield. Its application and cultivation are as important in times of peace as in war. While the essence of leadership remains beyond easy or precise definition, its fruits are readily apparent. The concepts on which leadership is built—courage, intelligence, experience, discipline and decisiveness, among a score of other virtues—combine to produce an idea of what leadership is, and how it may be achieved.

T. R. Brereton

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