Probably no one subject connected with the military art has received as much concentrated attention from writers in recent years as the subject of leadership. Practically every full-length work written with a training or doctrinal purpose for any branch of the profession has contained a treatise on what leadership amounts to and what the qualifications and characteristics are which make a man a great military leader. In general, there has been more or less unanimity on this subject, whatever diversions of opinion may exist in other directions among authors and specialists.
Examination of the leadership doctrine contained in some eight or ten standard works in general use by the Services turns up the following list of qualifications and characteristics. According to most modern doctrine, the possession of these will make a man if not a great, at least a good, military leader.
Now, this is undeniably an imposing list of generally desirable virtues, and one hesitates to cast doubt upon the efficacy of any one of them. But the military profession is both an art and a science, and art or science, like the law of contract, can have only a collateral relation with moral considerations. A close scrutiny of the above list forces one to conclude that practically all of the qualifications listed are, in fact, moral qualifications essential to the character of a gentleman.
The fact that an officer should be a gentleman is beyond dispute, but the suggestion that the characteristics which made him a gentleman will also make him a great military leader is open to serious question. It might be both interesting and enlightening to put the above list to an empirical test, by examining the known characteristics and qualifications of several great military leaders of modern history and noting how many of the listed characteristics and qualifications each of them possessed.
An earnest effort must be made to select subjects who are indisputably entitled to be called great. Many military leaders called great in their day have been weighed and found wanting by posterity. Almost every successful military man of the hour is referred to as “the greatest military leader America has produced” or “the greatest military leader of all time,” without too nice a regard for the extent of his genuine achievement.
Unquestionably a great military leader must have been successful against the enemy r but the extent of his greatness depends considerably upon the nature of the obstacles he was required to overcome in order to win success. For the purpose of this discussion, a great military leader is defined as one who carried on a successful campaign against heavy odds and a capable opposing commander, and who was also himself personally responsible for the direction of his forces in the campaign.
Three military leaders of the modern age, Frederick II of Prussia, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, and the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, may be said to meet this definition of greatness. Frederick displayed outstanding qualities of leadership against vastly superior forces under capable commanders during the campaign of 1757 in the Seven Years War. Napoleon rose to a pinnacle of military greatness near the end of his career, in the campaign of France of 1814. General Lee demonstrated military genius of the highest order in the Wilderness-Cold Harbor- Spotsylvania campaign of May and June, 1864. The achievements of each in the campaign mentioned may be briefly outlined as follows:
In 1757 the armies of France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony poured into Prussia from all sides. In a series of quick moves Frederick struck the Russians in East Prussia, the Swedes in Pomerania, the Austrians in West Saxony, and the French in Hanover, bringing each of the invading forces to a halt. He suffered a defeat at Kolin on June 18 but regrouped his forces as he fell back. With only 23,000 Prussians he attacked 64,000 Austrians and French under Hildburghausen. The allies were totally defeated and routed.
At Leuthen on December 5 Frederick with 35,000 men and 172 guns faced 65,000 men and 230 guns under the Austrian marshal Daun. The Austrians were drawn up in an excellent defensive position, with a small river on their front. At a council of war held the night before the battle, Frederick told his officers that the situation was serious, though not desperate, and declared his intention to attack in the morning. He gave orders that any cavalry regiment which wavered in the attack was to be dismounted and made a garrison regiment, and that any infantry regiment guilty of the same conduct was to be stripped of its colours and facings. He stated that if the battle were lost they would see him no more, and offered to permit any officer who desired to avoid the fight to leave the army at once.
The next morning he sent his Prussians in columns against the Austrian centre and right. Just before the heads of the columns reached the stream, he wheeled them off to his own right under a heavy fire, and brought them into line against the Austrian left flank. This flanking operation with an entire army was at that time an unheard- of maneuver, and despite Marshal Daun’s efforts to strengthen his left, the entire Austrian army was rolled up and shattered.
The army commanded by Napoleon in the campaign of France was an army of boys and conscripts; the bones of the grognards of the Grande Armée were scattered over the plains of Russia and the mountains of Spain. After Leipzig the French force under Napoleon never numbered more than 80,000 men. Against these Marshal Prince von Blücher brought 50,000 Prussians over the Rhine at Kaub, Prince von Schwarzenberg brought 200,000 Austrians and Russians over the Rhine at Basle, and ex- Marshal Bernadotte brought 120,000 Swedes and Netherlanders over the border at Laon. With 80,000 green conscripts Napoleon faced 320,000 veteran allies under experienced and capable commanders.
Despite this fact, Napoleon opened the campaign by striking a heavy blow against Blücher and Schwarzenberg at LaRothiere on February 2. A snowstorm was raging, and the battle was indecisive. Next in quick succession Napoleon attacked Sacken at Champaubert on February 10, Yorck at Montmirail on February 11, and Blücher at Vauchamp on February 14. The Prussians were driven into headlong flight. Napoleon detailed a force under Marmort and Mortier to follow them. With the remainder he attacked Schwarzenberg at Mornant on February 17, attacked him again at Montereau on February 18, and attacked him still again at Mery on February 21. The Austrians and Russians fell back in disorder.
Neither Marmot nor Mortier had his heart in the game, and their force was soon driven back by Blücher. Napoleon dashed to meet Blücher and hit him on the flank near Craonne. Blücher fell back to Craonne to join Bernadotte. Napoleon attacked their combined force there on March 7 and drove it back to Laon. Here, with only 30,000 men left, he again attacked a force of 100,000; but even the great Napoleon could not fight without men. The battle was indecisive, and the French army was now so small that Napoleon was forced to abandon the offensive. Starting with 80,000 men against 320,000, he had fought ten battles in six weeks, and won nine victories.
When General Grant’s veteran army of 130,000 men crossed the Rapidan on May 3 and 4, 1864, General Lee’s opposing army numbered only 60,000. Lee struck Grant’s flank in the Wilderness May 5-6-7 and brought the Union advance to a, standstill. Grant moved by the left in an attempt to get between Lee and Richmond, but found Lee waiting for him in a strong position at Spotsylvania. Repeated Union assaults were repulsed there on May 9, and Grant was forced to move again by his left. Arrived at the North Ana crossing on May 23, he again found Lee waiting for him, this time in a position which could not be attacked. He was forced to make another move by the left, so that by now his approach to Richmond was from the east rather than from the north. At Cold Harbor he again found Lee waiting. Seven thousand Union soldiers fell on June 3 in a fruitless assault on the Confederate works, and Grant was forced to settle down to a siege of Richmond. In a month of almost incessant fighting, the Federals advanced only 70 miles to the south, at a cost of 55,000 casualties, or nearly as many men as Lee had in his whole army at the beginning of the campaign.
The above very brief accounts will serve to establish the fact that Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and General Lee may without question be considered great military leaders. How many of the above-prescribed qualifications and characteristics did each of them possess?
The first qualification listed is adaptability, and there is no question about the fact that each of the three was able to adapt himself rapidly and effectively to changing circumstances. Adaptability, then, is admittedly a condition precedent to military greatness.
Calmness is a characteristic which was possessed in large measure by both Frederick and Lee, but Napoleon was highly excitable. He talked volubly and illustrated his remarks with quick, nervous gestures. During the last charge of the Old Guard at Waterloo he walked up and down rapidly, feverishly taking snuff. As the Guard passed he flung open his coat repeatedly to show his medals, calling out in a high, shrill voice, “A Bruxelles, mes enfants, a Bruxelles!” These are scarcely the actions of a man notable for his calmness. On many other occasions, especially during personal interviews, Napoleon flew off the handle much after the manner of the late Adolf Hitler.
With regard to cheerfulness, none of the three could possibly be called a cheerful man. Napoleon was morose, Frederick was stern, and the gravity of General Lee is proverbial.
The cleanliness referred to is doubtless both physical and moral; in other words, it includes both personal cleanliness and that cleanliness which is implied in the expression le chevalier sans peur et satis reproche. General Lee was scrupulously clean both in person and in habits. Frederick’s private life seems to have been reasonably astringent, but in person he was deplorably unkempt. His uniform was always dingy and faded, and its front was usually liberally decorated with droppings of snuff. Napoleon’s irregular amours are well-known to history, and his conversation often included typical peasant vulgarities and obscenities.
Considerateness was a notable characteristic of General Lee, but was conspicuously absent in both Frederick and Napoleon. General Rapp of the Emperor’s staff was wounded some 25 times in the Emperor’s service. On one of these occasions Napoleon’s attention was distracted from the matter in hand by the disturbance created by those who were carrying the wounded Rapp off the field. He looked around several times in an irritated manner, and finally ejaculated, “Rapp! Toufours Rapp!” in a tone of the highest vexation. The considerate Frederick habitually made his wife a target for every conceivable form of petty cruelty.
Courage is a qualification which was possessed by all three, and it goes without saying that physical courage is a sine qua non in any military leader.
General Lee possessed courtesy in large measure, but both Frederick and Napoleon were distinguished for the lack of it. One anecdote concerning Napoleon will suffice. The Empress Josephine’s failure to produce an heir was a source of great chagrin to the Emperor. The Empress, like some other people who are not noted for their love of mankind, was very fond of animals. One morning at Fontainebleau the weather was bad and the Emperor suffered from ennui. He suggested a hunting party to one of the marshals who was a guest at the time. The Empress reminded him that it was the season of the year when the animals on the preserve were all enceinte. The Emperor looked at her for a moment, then turned to the marshal with a harsh laugh and said, “That’s right, Marshal. I had forgotten. All the animals on the place are prolific except Madame.”
Frederick’s courtesy evidenced itself in the delight he took in making everyone in his circle the butt of a particularly cruel and malicious banter. He was not above exercising this at the expense of physical deformity or lack of personal attractions. It is on record too that His Majesty’s sallies were expected to be all one way. Anything in the nature of a retort could be dangerous.
General Lee was a man who could be depended upon, but in the matter of dependability the other two were men who had very little to do with that characteristic. They could be depended upon only to do that which would benefit themselves. Many thousand Poles served in the French armies because of Napoleon’s repeated promises of political autonomy for Poland. It is highly doubtful that he ever really intended to reinstate Poland in the family of nations. Frederick made many lavish promises to Voltaire to persuade him to come to the Prussian court. Voltaire’s account of the manner in which these were carried out is both amusing and instructive. His Majesty was extremely economical in his expenditures, both private and public.
If by earnestness is meant an inclination to devote full and serious attention to the matter in hand, then it may be said that all three of the men in question were earnest men. Frivolity has obviously had no place in the military profession since the days of the condottieri.
Enthusiasm is a characteristic which was possessed by Napoleon but not by either of the others. Frederick was cold and calculating, Lee was serene and aloof.
A sense of fair play may be presumed to have been an attribute of the character of General Lee, although no incident presents itself in which that attribute was brought into play. Napoleon’s treatment of the innocent and harmless Due d’Enghien and Frederick’s part in the partitions of Poland speak eloquently for the fact that considerations of fair play meant nothing to either of them.
Friendliness and geniality are rather closely akin to each other; a man is seldom friendly without being genial, and a genial man is likely to be friendly. Not one of the three men in question could by any stretch of the imagination be called either genial or friendly.
General Lee had a highly-developed sense of honor. But Napoleon himself has described in typical barrack-room language the lengths to which he would go to get anything he wanted out of a man. Frederick, of course, was the moving spirit in the partitioning of Poland; a proceeding so highly dishonorable that her part in it gave the virtuous Maria Theresa a bad conscience for the rest of her days.
General Lee was undoubtedly a just man, but justice certainly played no part in Napoleon’s treatment of the Due d’Enghien or in Frederick’s treatment of Poland.
Both Lee and Frederick were distinguished for self-control, but Napoleon’s propensity to fly off the handle has already been mentioned. His last interview with Talleyrand is reported to have been a perfect tantrum of frenzied vituperation.
It is presumed that the simplicity referred to means an absence of self-display. If that is true, both Lee and Frederick tended toward simplicity, although it appears that General Lee favoured a certain sumptuousness of uniform. Napoleon’s coronation costume has been immortalized in oils, and it is scarcely notable for its simplicity. His get- up on the occasion of the Champ de Mars, a military rally held in Paris after the return from Elba, was a conglomerate mixture of the barbaric finery of a Persian satrap with the gaudy trappings of a Spanish brigand.
Napoleon, of course, had small if any sympathy for other people, although the lingering echo of plaints from Saint Helena indicates that he possessed enough of that commodity as it applied to himself. The enforcement of Prussian discipline under Frederick, which was by means of absolutely hair-raising punishments for even minor offenses, implies that Frederick could scarcely be called a sympathetic soul.
Was General Lee noted for his sympathy? His most ardent admirer would be forced to say no. The General’s son mentions an occasion when his father rode up just as a couple of infantrymen emerged from a field carrying some purloined vegetables. “Shoot those men instantly!” cried the General, his face suffused with wrath. The son adds that it was necessary to conceal the men afterward, in order to sustain the General’s impression that his severe order had been carried out. General Lee’s motives were of the best; he was determined that no charge of looting should lie against his army. But the incident seems to indicate that the General could hardly be called a sympathetic individual.
General Lee’s correspondence with the somewhat unpredictable and temperamental Confederate President demonstrates his possession of a considerable amount of tactfulness, which is also demonstrated in his relations with his subordinate commanders. Frederick may have also been tactful when he could gain anything by it. But Napoleon was all his life the very epitome of tactlessness. On one occasion, without intending any offense, he remarked to one of the ladies of his court, “Mon Dieu, Madame! How red your elbows are!” On the morning of Waterloo he said to Marshal Soult, “Because you have been beaten by Wellington you think he is a great general.”
Unselfishness is the last characteristic listed. In view of the foregoing it is scarcely necessary to state that the only unselfish person of the three was General Lee.
It now appears that of all these qualifications and characteristics, purported to be the ones which make a man a great military leader, only three were common to three indisputably great military men. Shocking though it may seem, it must be concluded that the others, though desirable, cannot be really significant in this respect. Americans may rightly be proud that General Lee, the equal of the other two in military greatness, possessed so many of the desirable characteristics listed. But it must be regretfully concluded that it was not these which made him great in the military sense. Surely only those characteristics possessed by all three can be considered as controlling. The characteristics which made General Lee a much greater man than either Frederick or Napoleon are not the ones which made him a great military leader.
Adaptability, courage, and earnestness are characteristics common to all three, and are therefore significant. But it would be futile to imply that these three are in themselves sufficient. Consequently it must be inferred that there must be certain important qualifications and characteristics which are not listed, and which all three of these great military leaders possessed in common. What are these qualifications and characteristics?
First it appears that all three had one habit, let us say, in common—the habit of success. Persons who devote themselves to a somewhat overly-theoretical approach to the psychology of leadership are prone to overlook a very important fact. They are likely to forget that there are two things which a man on the battlefield wants more than he wants anything else in the world at that particular time. He wants to stay alive, and he wants his side to win. The commander he favours is the one who is the most likely to make both of these contingencies occur. That commander, all personal and even moral considerations aside, is the one who has the habit of success.
But the habit of success is not in itself a qualification or chacteristic; it develops as a consequence of the possession of certain qualifications and characteristics. Now, what are the qualifications and characteristics (other than adaptability, courage, and earnestness) that Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and General Lee possessed in common?
The first and most important is one which is frequently underemphasized lately, not only in its application to the military art, but also in its application to many of the other arts. Each one of these men possessed a tremendous amount of technical knowledge, skill, and ability in his profession. All three were professional soldiers who had served a life-long apprenticeship in the art of war. For them, as for Hannibal, Scipio, Caesar, Belisarius, Marlborough, Charles XII, Gustav Adolph, and a host of others, there was no “10 easy lessons” substitute for the painstaking acquisition of the technique necessary to the art of warfare, just as there is no similar substitute for the acquisition of the technique necessary as a fundamental to proficiency in any other art.
Next, each one of these men was a man who, besides his military education, had an extensive acquaintance with the liberal arts. Each was widely versed in history, philosophy, and literature. Napoleon’s grasp of these three subjects was phenomenal, though his taste in literature was questionable. Frederick could hold his own in discussion or dispute with the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the age. He was also a literary dilettante of no mean order, a musician of virtuoso calibre, a passable composer, and an avid student of history. General Lee, while perhaps not the equal of the other two in diversity of knowledge, demonstrates in his correspondence the possession of a broad cultural background.
It may be asked, how did an extensive acquaintance with history, philosophy, and literature contribute to the military greatness of Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and General Lee? These subjects are certainly a preoccupation with few officers today, and it would seem at first glance that they are irrelevant, practically speaking, to the successful pursuit of a military career.
This brings up the consideration of another characteristic possessed by all three of these great leaders: they were all shrewd and accurate judges of men. They knew their own commanders, and they knew their own men. They also knew the enemy commanders and the enemy’s men. And how is a knowledge of men better obtained than through the study of history? History is an account, says Gibbon, of the follies of mankind. Be that as it may, it is an account which shows that weapons may change but men remain about the same, and it is the man on the other side who is to be conquered. All three of the great leaders in question frequently demonstrated an extraordinary ability to predict what the enemy would do. This was based upon their knowledge of men’s character in general and of the enemy commander’s character in particular.
On the basis of this same knowledge of men, each of them was able to appeal most effectively to what might be called his men’s professional instincts. Before Leuthen, Frederick threatened the Prussian regiments, not with physical punishment, but with dishonor and disgrace. Napoleon during a review would ride along the ranks until he noted the spot where some old and tried grenadier was standing. He would stop there and dismount to distinguish this veteran by his personal attention. It was all an act, but an act based upon a sound insight into the character, not only of the veteran, but also of his recruit fellows standing nearby.
In a similar situation today an officer is advised to ask the man how his children are, or how he likes the service, or whether he’s satisfied with his food and his prospects of advancement. Napoleon would halt in front of the old grenadier, look him over with a stern expression, then ask abruptly, “How many years of service?”
“Sixteen, Sire.” (Or twelve, or twenty; but always a good many. The man would be singled out for that.)
“So? How many battles?”
“Ten, Sire.” (It is a common delusion today that men do not like to talk about their battles.)
“So? How many wounds?” (It is another common delusion today that men do not like to discuss their wounds, although it is recognized that everyone likes to talk about his operation.)
And so the questioning would continue, always in the professional vein. “Were you with me at Austerlitz? At Wagram? Ah, yes. Your regiment was in such-and-such a part of the line. I remember it well.” Finally the Emperor would stop and, supreme honor of all, make a fumble for the soldier’s ear. He would give it a playful pull, grunt out “Good! Good!” then mount his horse and ride away.
What was the result in leadership capital of this carefully-planned piece of vaudeville? The grenadier would be passionately devoted to the Emperor forever, and the young and ardent recruit became fervent in his realization that a man of many years’ service, many battles, and many wounds might some day be singled out for personal notice by the great Napoleon.
It is decidedly in conflict with much modern doctrine, and it might possibly be a consideration which has been outmoded by a change in the character of the rank and file since the days of the American Civil War, but it must be stated nevertheless that none of the three great military leaders mentioned had any very notable faith in the innate natural goodness of mankind. Frederick was once discussing this subject with the famous philosopher Sulzer, who was contending a la Rousseau for man’s native inborn goodness. After listening for some time, Frederick broke out with, “Ah, Sulzer, you just don’t know that damned race!”
Someone once remarked to Napoleon that he seemed but little affected by the tempestuous cheering of the populace on a certain occasion. “You think they are cheering now?” said the Emperor. “Wait until you hear how they will cheer when they learn that I am dead!” General Lee’s letters to President Davis concerning the state of discipline in the Confederate forces certainly seem to indicate that the General considered a large proportion of his rank and file little better than rascals.
It follows, for better or worse, that each of the three commanders cited was noted for being a severe disciplinarian. The enforcement of discipline, or rather the manner of enforcing the discipline which all concede to be indispensable in a military organization, is one of the most controversial subjects connected with modern leadership. There is much sound argument both for and against severity. The fact remains that severity in this respect was a characteristic of all three of these great military leaders.
What can the study of philosophy contribute to the cause of military leadership? The study of philosophy, more perhaps than any other phase of formal education, develops the ability to think straight, and each of the three men cited was a keen and clear thinker.
What conclusions may be drawn from the above pause for re-examination of generally accepted doctrine on leadership? It is conceded that all the listed virtues are highly desirable, and that any officer worthy of the name should possess most of them. But there is danger in concluding that the officer who contents himself with striving to acquire these virtues (and most of them can be acquired with relative ease) is justified in thinking that he has taken all the measures necessary to ensure himself a successful military career.
Unfortunately, the cold appraisal of reason reveals that, with the exception of adaptability, earnestness, and courage, none of these listed virtues is vital in the military sense. A man might possess every one of them and still be a lamentable failure in the military profession. Modern doctrine has confounded the characteristics and qualifications essential to an outstanding (or even to a reasonably good) military leader with those which make a man a gentleman or a nice fellow to know.
What are the essential characteristics which are being omitted or under-emphasized at the expense of these? First, technical skill and experience in the profession. Some authorities have gone the length of implying that these are unnecessary, that a knowledge of the theory of leadership is all that matters, Second in order, but probably the one most consistently omitted or under-emphasized, education. Education in the military science for technical skill and proficiency. Education in history for the ways and habits of men and nations. Education in philosophy for the art of clear thinking. Education in literature for the very essential art of expression. Education in general for the acquisition of that cultivated ton which commands respect even from unlettered men.
The ability to judge character is omitted or under-emphasized, as is the related ability to appeal to the men’s professional instincts. Severity of discipline is consistently discounted, but it is possible that a case may still be made for it, although that matter is open to question. Men with experience in the ranks have been heard to say that they were better satisfied with severity than they are with the effects of laxity. But this matter could well be made the subject of another and longer discourse than the present one. The fact remains that Frederick of Prussia, Napoleon, and General Lee were all severe disciplinarians. Any personal dislike which may have been aroused in their men by this fact (Frederick’s men heartily detested him) seems to have been offset by the feeling that under Frederick, Napoleon, or Lee a soldier had a better chance of staying alive on the battlefield and being on the winning side than he might have had under a different commander.
There is, of course, one characteristic not yet mentioned which is essential to a truly outstanding military leader like Frederick, Napoleon, or Lee. That characteristic is the baffling, indefinable something called “genius.” Carlyle said that genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains, but this would appear to be a typically Carlylean bit of verbal pyrotechnics. If genius were the infinite capacity for taking pains, the Chinese who spends a couple of years carving ten or twelve ivory spheres, each one fitting closely within the next, out of a single block of ivory would be a genius.
Genius might be better described as the possession of, or the ability to acquire, a tremendous and completely unaccountable capacity for achievement. But in any event it would be well for the military to become reconciled to the fact that genius can only be hoped for, not made. It would also be well to realize that genius in any direction, and especially genius in the military direction, has never been known to function in a vacuum. Its performance has always been based upon a vast amount of technical skill, education, and experience.
If this were better realized, there would be more appreciation of the fact that there is not an outstanding military leader growing on every bush. It might be as well to tighten up on some of the laxity exercised in the application of such terms as “outstanding military leader” or “great military leader” or “greatest military leader of the age” or “of all time” or “since Hannibal” or “since Caesar.” It is a long time since the days of Hannibal or Caesar. During that time there have been a large number of passable military leaders, quite a few good ones, not so many very good ones, and a very few who were genuinely “great” or “outstanding.”
If this fact were stressed more, there would be less of the complacency which develops from the notion that anyone can be an outstanding military leader in 10 easy lessons. There would then be among officers more striving toward the difficult emulation of the truly great, and more inclination toward the work and effort which, coupled with genius, make for outstanding success in the military field. There may not be any more “great” or “outstanding” military leaders than there have ever been, but there will be a good many more who are very good, many more still who are good, and large numbers indeed who are passable or average good.
The idea is, even an average good leader must work at it. A man cannot even be average good through the mere possession of the virtues listed at the beginning of this essay.