Leadership Forum: War, Peace, and Leadership

By Lieutenant James Stavridis, U. S. Navy

Understanding and preparing for actual combat is the sine qua non of leadership for anyone in a military organization, and the task becomes more difficult as the organization moves further away from the combat experience. As Vietnam veteran Marine officer Captain W. C. Ager, U. S. Marine Corps (Retired), wistfully commented (Proceedings, January 1983, p. 12), "The Vietnam experience is more vivid to me now than ever. If only we could find a way to transfer our experiences to present and future leaders."

Most junior officers and enlisted men in the armed forces today have no combat experience. Except for former enlisted or those with experience from isolated instances (e.g., the officers and men involved in the Mayaguez assault, the Iranian hostage rescue attempt, the Gulf of Sidra incident), the junior officers who will be called upon to lead men into harm's way have never been there themselves. Those with combat experience gained in Vietnam are quickly passing through the middle-officer ranks and are headed for senior staffs and post-command billets in all branches of the service. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, is gaining combat experience for cadres of Its junior army and air force officers in Afghanistan, while Cuban and East German Army officers and noncommissioned officers are in combat in Africa. Yet U. S. armed forces continue training and preparing for war while combat recedes in the corporate memory. Do not misunderstand me. The absence of armed conflict is an absolute good for the United States, indicating fulfillment of U. S. national interests, astute statesmanship, effective diplomacy, and a host of other positive attributes. But as states interact and develop policy, war is always a possible outcome. For the professional soldier or sailor, war is always "just a shot away." All peacetime leadership must prepare for combat.

It is often difficult to determine whether we are indeed at peace or in a lull between storms. If there is any lesson to be learned from the turbulent history of the 20th century, it would seem that peace is but an interlude before we will have to lead men again into war. Armed conflict seems the constant, and leadership must respond. The Navy's mission as defined in Naval Warfare Publication I is illustrative: "To be prepared to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea in support of national interests." The operative question for the leader becomes: "How can I use my leadership skills in order to prepare my unit for combat operations?" The leader must operate and train in one environment (peacetime) while preparing to perform his mission in an entirely different one (wartime). This goes far beyond what is broadly termed management science. Administrative techniques, charismatic style, management skills, and so on are the oft-debated methodology of leadership. All are useful for some leaders in certain situations. Yet all questions of technique and style shrink in comparison to the ultimate goal of combat effectiveness—the substance of leadership. The most important areas of concern in preparing a unit for combat include training, a sense of mission, morale and discipline, initiative, and personal example. I will elaborate on each.

Training: At the heart of the leader's role in preparing his unit for combat is training. To prepare a unit for combat, training must be realistic—an oft-repeated (and oft-ignored) aphorism. After watching the parade ground-trained Light Brigade ride to glory and destruction on the plains of Balaclava, one observer murmured, "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre—It is magnificent, but it isn't war." Lord Nelson is supposed to have said, "the drill ground should be the battleground." Training in peacetime must come as close as possible to duplicating the confusion of smoke, fire, noise, and pain that hangs over the battlefield. While wartime has no monopoly on danger or confusion, as anyone who has participated in everyday shipboard emergencies can attest, such confusion and danger as exists in peace are magnified and are almost constantly present in combat. The enemy's malicious intent contributes further to the fear, uncertainty, and anger. The peacetime leader must find ways to duplicate the aura of combat as much as possible in training exercises—a responsibility that runs from the most junior officer conducting damage control drills for his repair locker to the most senior officers involved in scheduling major fleet exercises and operations.

Leadership in training requires imagination and perseverance. In the Navy, refresher training teams conduct drills in a fairly realistic fashion, although their time with each ship and unit is limited. The combat-conscious leader will continue with daily training where the refresher team leaves off, often conducting drills with specific circuits "jammed" or key personnel "killed." The most realism that can be injected into a scenario without unduly risking men and material must be the norm, not the exception. Emergencies at sea-fire, flooding, engineering casualties—are often a part of a ship's experiences, even in peacetime. When such emergencies occur, the good leader will train his personnel to respond in a manner identical to combat response. Too often, the daily in-port emergency drill is conducted by rote at the behest of an obviously bored command duty officer. The men must be made aware of the combat rationale behind such routine training, through the leaders' enthusiasm and involvement, as well as by discussion and critique with the trainees.

Another resource available to the imaginative leader is the experience of combat veterans assigned to the command. Combat experience, while passing upward through the ranks, is still available at relatively low levels in many military units. The experience and suggestions of such individuals should be incorporated into training exercises and instruction, both in drills and by informal discussion and comment. As Carl von Clausewitz said in On War: "Peacetime maneuvers are a feeble substitute for the real thing; but even they can give an army an advantage over others whose training is confined to routine, mechanical drill." One means of creating realism is through the active, vocal critique of men who "have been there."

Confusion and the unexpected are present in combat. Effective leadership includes training designed to ensure that the soldiers and sailors entering combat do not encounter something totally unfamiliar. Obviously, this is impossible to achieve totally, but the combat-conscious leader must seek to expose his men to the fear, the confusion, the noise, and the tumult as much as possible in their training. The good leader recognizes the limitations of peacetime training, but seeks to add the sensations and requirements of war to peacetime training.

Mission: Peacetime diminishes a military unit's sense of mission. It is easier to engender a sense of mission in men when they can clearly see that a war is to achieve national objectives. Even in such controversial conflicts as the War of 1812 or Vietnam, most soldiers and sailors entered battle with some sense of mission. The leader's peacetime role is to ensure that his men have a sense of purpose; this can be instilled in several ways. First, use communications and information. The men must be informed, in some rudimentary way, of the "big picture." This does not imply bombastic statements reminiscent of the Kaiser's message to his troops departing for Peking to "behave like Huns;" nor does it require full-blown politico-military briefings for a division of junior boiler technicians. Rather, it implies discussion, conversation, and intelligent commentary from informed leaders within the organization. It might mean circulating or posting articles from newspapers or magazines that discuss major issues in a simple, clear fashion. The plan of the day would be useful—keeping the troops informed on the large tactical situation through announcements, bulletins, and the like. Too often the officers are excited and stimulated by a fast-moving exercise while the troops sit hour after hour in stuffy repair lockers without the vaguest idea of why the commanding officer set general quarters. The burst of electricity that runs through a command when an actual antisubmarine warfare alert condition is called or when a true emergency breaks out can be mirrored, at least to some degree, by keeping the men informed.

Second, use alternate missions. To date, these have included antidrug operations in the Caribbean, and rescue and humanitarian tasking. Such efforts do not detract from combat readiness. Rather, they raise morale among the participating units by instilling a sense of mission and accomplishment. The military is an expensive instrument of policy, and its usefulness can be increased by participating in a wide variety of tasks, including some nontraditional roles. If a sense of mission is instilled in the units in peacetime, it will naturally carryover and magnify during war.

Morale and Discipline: Much of the classic debate on the role of morale anddiscipline in leadership is reminiscent of the "chicken and the egg"—which came first? Does ironclad discipline create high morale? Or does discipline flow from the high morale of a unit that has been engendered in other ways? This is difficult to settle.

Combat effectiveness hinges ultimately on leadership. Good leadership will result in good discipline; discipline is a result of good leadership but is never a substitute for leadership. A good leader's unit will have high morale and good discipline; a poor leader will probably have neither, and certainly not both. The key, therefore, is to focus on effective leadership, through realistic training, a sense of mission, and good communications. Logically, in peacetime, greater emphasis will be placed on the externalities of discipline—haircuts, uniforms, shaves, close order drill, etc.—to emphasize the military organization's role and function. This is natural and positive, unless it is carried to a degree such that the externalities of discipline are emphasized at the expense of solid leadership, realistic training, and mission. In wartime, the externalities remain important, although in a diminished capacity, particularly in the combat zone. The internalities of the leadership challenge (training, mission, communication) become even more essential in combat, when men are asked to risk their lives. The men should know what is expected of them in combat.

Initiative: One of the earliest causalities of peacetime can be initiative in command. "Routine" becomes paramount quickly, paperwork demands accumulate, and artificial missions are substituted for realistic combat goals. In war, the ability to think and react flexibly to the changing tide of conflict is essential to achieve victory. There is, of course, a fine line between initiative and disobedience. Yet a commander, at whatever level, must be willing to let his subordinates learn to make decisions. If all decisions are made by an all-powerful senior or by routine, the leader in combat becomes incapable or unwilling to take the risks necessary to ensure victory. It is often said that one advantage the United States holds over the Soviet Union lies in the overly cautious, unimaginative command structure of the Soviet forces. Conversely, it is said that the United States has traditionally bred officers with initiative and daring, capable and willing to take chances. In peacetime, the combat-conscious leader must work at encouraging initiative from his subordinates. This flows naturally from confidence in his men, mutual trust, and a willingness to listen to and implement others' suggestions, balanced, of course, by an insistence on compliance with orders. Initiative is the essence of confidence.

Physical Fitness: Although physical fitness is only part of the training process, it is important enough in the combat environment to be singled out for consideration as a key goal of the combat-conscious leader. The need for fitness is critical in war, no less for the shipboard watch-stander than for the infantry soldier. All branches of the military must be able to function effectively on little or no sleep. In combat, the first asset to be spent is the physical endurance of the men. They are fearful, eat poorly, and are subjected to additional watch-standing requirements for added vigilance. Stamina is necessary for alert reaction in the combat environment. Peacetime preparation must contribute to wartime physical readiness. Good leaders focus on the physical condition of their men, enforce weight control, allot time for physical training, and provide facilities and instruction in fitness. Exercises must be structured to demand the most from the men physically. Just as no coach would train a marathon runner by having him run a mile a day, no effective leader will train his men for combat by ensuring they always get eight to ten hours of sleep and are never subjected to high stress.

Personal Example: One of the standard tenets of leadership is that of providing a strong personal example. In peacetime, this includes personal appearance, integrity, morality, and the other attributes of an outstanding officer. Yet in preparing for combat leadership, there is another dimension to personal example that is seldom tested in peacetime. As Stephen Roskill points out in The Art of Leadership (London: Collins, 1964, p. 152): "When things are bad…there will come a sudden pause when your men stop and look at you. No one will speak; they will just look at you and ask for leadership. Their courage is ebbing; you must make it flow back, and it is not easy. You will never be more alone in your life." (Emphasis added.) This sense of isolation in combat is difficult to duplicate or to prepare for, but it is at the very center of the leader's role in war. The leader's role must be to prepare himself for that moment of isolation. Such preparation includes experience from previous combat action and noncombat emergencies; study and reading; discussion with those who have stood at such a moment; physical fitness; and much reflection.

In the final analysis, the leader's role in both peacetime and wartime is to make men larger than themselves, to give them the ability to transcend themselves, to do more and sacrifice more than they would ever believe they are capable of. The distinction for the leader between peacetime and wartime is one of degree. In war, men are called upon to make greater sacrifices, to achieve more, and perhaps to die. They are called upon to become very large indeed. The effective combat-conscious leader must be aware that he must prepare in peacetime to fulfill the unit's goals in wartime. He must concentrate on training, mission, morale and discipline, initiative, and physical fitness for his men. Finally, the leader must prepare himself to go beyond his own limitations, to be able to provide will and power to his men when the chaos of combat descends and only his energy and strength can carry the unit further. That is a moment that rarely, if ever, comes in peacetime. It is a moment of isolation and danger. It is the ultimate challenge of leadership.


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