Winner, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Leadership discussions in the Marine Corps generally focus on the 14 traits listed in the Guidebook for Marines, most of which have received exhaustive treatment. These discussion are useful, but they seldom acknowledge a critical dimension of military leadership: humility.
Politicians sometimes find expressions of humility expedient. President Ronald Reagan used self-deprecating humor to deflect questions about his age; other politicians have found that a well-timed mea culpa can defuse a potentially embarrassing situation. Of course, military and political leaders face different constituencies. In military circles, humility is considered a sign of weakness; few acknowledge its worth, except perhaps in abstract terms. Most military leaders would prefer that humility discussions be left with the chaplain. Lumped with tentativeness, meekness, and timidity, humility is considered a handicap, not a virtue.
Yet a cultivated sense of humility should be a prized trait in U.S. military leaders. Humility and self-confidence are not mutually exclusive character traits. Problems arise only when the balance between them is lost, and one virtue displaces the other. Aristotle addressed this need for moderation 23 centuries ago when he argued, “The nature of moral qualities is such that they are destroyed by defect and excess.”1
Aristotle’s insight is illustrated easily; Excess courage leads to recklessness; a deficiency results in cowardice. Excess frugality leads to miserly behavior; a deficiency results in extravagance. This approach applies to humility, as well. A lack of humility often leads to arrogance, and arrogance breeds disaster. On the other hand, an excess of humility can cause a commander to lose the trust of his subordinates.
There are numerous examples, in both peace and war, of a commander’s arrogance adversely affecting unit performance. Commanders who seek to stay awake for protracted periods during exercises betray an arrogance that usually is counterproductive. Exhaustion seldom leads to sound military judgment or decisions. Field-Marshal Viscount Slim, one of Britain’s greatest World War II generals, placed special emphasis on this point:
Generals who are terribly busy all day and half the night, who fuss round, posting platoons and writing march tables, wear out not only their subordinates but themselves. Nor have they when the real emergency comes, the reserve of vigor that will then enable them, for days if necessary, to do with little rest or sleep.2
Arrogance may be overlooked—even condoned—temporarily if the commander achieves larger successes, as Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur demonstrated during World War II. But arrogance seldom ensures sustained success. During the Korean War, MacArthur's hubris blinded him to intelligence reports concerning the likelihood of massive Chinese intervention Patton's arrogance led to the infamous slapping incident during Operation Husky, for which he nearly was relieved.
A lack of humility promotes an inflated sense of importance. The high quality of today's officer corps should not mislead us into thinking that any one officer is indispensable to the Navy- Marine Corps team. Problems arise the minute an officer begins to think otherwise. A belief in one’s indispensability provides no incentive to groom subordinates, and the acid test of leadership remains how well subordinates perform in the commander’s absence.
Carl von Clausewitz discussed character issues germane to humility in his seminal work. On War.
Obstinacy is not an intellectual defect; it comes from reluctance to admit that one is wrong. To impute this to the mind would be illogical, for the mind is the seat of judgment. Obstinacy is a fault of temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow.3
Obstinacy is tied closely to arrogance. Indeed, the former often is symptomatic of the latter.
Clausewitz’s concepts of fog and friction provide additional support for humility as a virtue in the military commander. Arrogant commanders often underestimate the power of fog and friction, believing their willpower sufficient to overcome all such obstacles. In contrast, more humble leaders understand which forces lie within their control and which do not. Such commanders know that warfare, by its very nature, involves uncertainty and ambiguity.4
U.S. military history reveals how humility can contribute to a commander’s genius for warfare. In word, deed, and appearance, General Ulysses S. Grant projected an aura of modesty during the Civil War. As historian John Keegan observes, “He had no taste at all for the conventional glories of war, for its parades and triumphs, for its honors and rewards. He shrank from crowds, hid from tuft- hunters, muttered inaudible replies to the thanks of Congress.”5 A reporter from the Vicksburg army noted, "He confines himself to saying and doing as little as Possible before his men. No Napoleonic displays, no ostentation, no speech, no superfluous flummery.”6 Uncomfortable in the spotlight. Grant seldom wasted words. “On arriving in Washington in 1864 to be nominated general-in-chief, the longest speech he managed was, ‘Gentleman, in response, it will be impossible to do more than thank you.’”' His wartime dispatches remain a model of clarity and concision, flowing from the hand of a general who knew exactly what he wanted to communicate. Grant’s economy of speech and modesty of character contrasted with far less successful Union generals, including George McClellan.
From a broad perspective, U.S. military leaders may be less susceptible to arrogance than their European counterparts. In developing its military traditions, the United States left behind many Old World class distinctions that permeated the European officer corps. Unfortunately, other cultural forces work in the opposite direction. The American ethos is defined, at least in part, by a can-do attitude, which can promote excessive optimism. Such optimism, in turn, can breed arrogance, as happened during the Vietnam War, when senior U.S. policymakers and military strategists were blinded by their belief that a small agricultural state could not possibly defeat the world’s strongest economic power.
The British have never suffered from an excess of humility, which is not surprising given their colonial history. Some of their more successful military commanders, however, including General Viscount Slim, succeeded because their self-confidence was tempered by humility. In his World War II memoirs. Slim recounts: “I suppose dozens of operation orders have gone out in my name, but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself. I always had someone who could do that better than I could.”7 How many of today’s senior leaders could admit their own limitations so freely? With command-and-control technologies that allow commanders to micromanage units down to the lowest level, this question will become more acute in the future.8 The controversy over the Marine expeditionary unit commander’s forward position during the rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady provides a foretaste of such debates.
The rapid pace of technological innovation also makes humility an important virtue. Today’s sophisticated weaponry makes it increasingly difficult for officers to have detailed knowledge of all technical systems and subsystems under their command. As a result, increased specialization will require increased delegation. The commander who trusts the abilities of his subordinates will meet this challenge far better than the commander who micromanages.
Cultivating humility also will help foster jointness and intraservice cooperation, both of which presuppose an appreciation for things that others are capable of achieving. The Marine Corps’ combined-arms approach to warfare is particularly instructive. The Air-Ground-Logistics team works best to the extent combat and noncombat components know, understand, and appreciate one another’s roles. This explains why formal military schooling is so crucial: education breaks down stovepipe perspectives by forcing students to view their profession from a larger perspective. Intellectual humility also promotes a thirst for knowledge, which should inspire officers to continue intellectual pursuits after they leave the schoolhouse.
A well-tempered sense of humility helps combat the pernicious zero-defect mentality, as well. The failure to risk mistakes breeds hesitation and timidity. Effective leadership requires the ability to learn from one’s mistakes and a willingness to solicit constructive criticism. To remain dynamic learning centers, institutions also should seek feedback periodically from independent reviewers and pursue opportunities for improvement.
For forward-based U.S. forces, humility takes on added importance. By fostering an abiding respect for other cultures, a sense of humility should reduce errant behavior that feeds the Ugly American stereotype and fuels the resentment of host-nation populations. A more thorough understanding of foreign cultures is no trivial matter. Superficial understandings of foreign politics and cultures contributed to failures in such diverse places as Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia.
Properly understood, humility is a source of strength. Commanders who know and acknowledge their own limitations succeed more often than those who do not. Pride in one’s accomplishments should be tempered by the knowledge that improvement always remains possible and desirable.
Humility is just one of several leadership virtues, but it often will complement and reinforce other leadership traits and principles. The humble leader is most likely to develop judgment, exercise tact, and trust subordinates—critical factors in military leadership.
1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostward (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Education Publishing, 1962), p. 35.
2 Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 213.
3 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 108.
4 The assumption that the fog of war can be eliminated underlies the Army’s attempt to digitize the modem battlefield.
5 John Keegan, Mask of Command (NY: Viking Press, 1987), p. 207.
6 Keegan, p. 208.
7 Keegan, p. 206.
8 Slim, p. 210. Elsewhere in his World War II memoirs, Slim emphasizes the importance of the commander writing his own intent statement.
9 Eliot A. Cohen. “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” Foreign Affairs 73 (January/February 1994): 115.
Captain Anderson is assistant professor of international relations at Command and Staff College. Marine Corps University at Quantico.