Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Evolution of Leadership

In The Masks of Command, John Keegan looks at the evolution of leadership. He chooses four men to illustrate his thesis on how leadership has changed due to weapons and communications technology. Warfare has to some extent gone from a very heroic, closeup, and personal experience of fellow human beings killing one another to an impersonal, long distance, pushing of buttons resulting in the annihilation of cities full of people. We've progressed from generals dueling one another with swords or spears to determine a battle, to large groups of men killing one another until one side won, to the group which can kill the greater number of the other group's population without suffering similar losses through the use of conventional and nuclear weapons.

Keegan looks at Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. Each illustrated the four types of leader:
1. the heroic - Alexander the Great who led his troops from the front always.
2. the antiheroic - the Duke of Wellington who led his troops from the front often.
3. the unheroic - Ulysses S. Grant who led his troops from the front a small percentage of the time, and
4. the false-heroic - Adolf Hitler who never led his troops from the front and who never cared about them.

To be fair to Hitler, he was a Head of State at the time, and Heads of State seldom visit the front lines, although Lincoln did during the Civil War. Hitler was also a WWI veteran and one of very few enlisted men to win the Iron Cross, First Class. Keegan uses Hitler to make a point though, that leaders evoke the heroic ideals of our cultures and traditions to motivate people to do their bidding.

Keegan believes that command leadership depends upon five imperatives:
1. the kinship imperative - persuading the troops that he or she is one of them.
2. the prescription imperative - giving clear and precise orders.
3. the sanction imperative - giving the troops rewards for approved behavior and punishments for unapproved behavior.
4. the action imperative - attacking or retreating at the proper times as the tactical or strategic situations warrant it.
5. the example imperative - sharing the same dangers that your troops do.

These qualities exemplify our best tactical commanders throughout time even up to today.

Keegan's point is that as the lethality of battle increased in range and effectiveness through better technology, the necessity of better long distance communications and observations arose to allow leaders to stay out of harm's way while directing their armies. Consequently, leaders have become more like administrators of huge organizations and increasingly detached from the common soldiers and people they lead as well as the dangers that the troops faced. The technology of war has outpaced our ethos of war such that there are no front lines any more with nuclear weapons. There are really no armies either since everyone is a target on the business end of a nuclear or thermonuclear weapon. Once you become a nuclear power, your leaders have to become detached and moderated in their responses because there is too much to lose at the push of a button. Diplomacy becomes a major player in negotiations between nuclear powers. Therefore, what Keegan is trying to say is that the idea of leaders being heroes at the level of Heads of State is obsolete. The only false-heroic leader he used, Hitler, is the only loser among his examples. Dwight Eisenhower would be a modern example of the Duke of Wellington. Kennedy and his handling of the Cuban Missile crisis exemplifies how leaders of Russia, China, and the United States must act in times of crisis using moderation, deliberation, consensus, and understanding of the other adversary (empathy with the other leader's situation).

I believe that George W. Bush is a false-heroic leader. Unlike Hitler, he cares about the people he leads, but he seems to have little understanding of or empathy with other political leaders. He is not moderate in his actions, nor deliberative. Indeed, his "heroic" actions tend to verge on recklessness which is the flip side of heroism as David Gergen has pointed out. His foreign and domestic policy solutions are causing more problems than they are solving. I don't know what the answers are, but I can only hope that we as a people are wise enough to choose the most capable leaders and not be swayed by emotional appeals to our heroic ideals in matters where the heroic is obsolete and leads us down dangerous and uncertain paths to our destruction as a society.

1. Time, Otto Friedrich, "Heroism's End? The Masks of Command", November 9,1987.


An interesting exercise John.

Though Hitler may well have loved the German people when his invasions were successful he did indeed consider them unworthy (of him) towards the end when Germany had too many enemies chewing it up.

For a successful German I think Keegan could have put in Bismarck whose three major invasions (including Austria and France) rapidly increased the power of Prussia and unified Germany.

Bush on the other hand appears to have been a puppet of his elderly "generals" Rumsfeld and Cheney - and the US and allies have suffered accordingly.

Thinking Bush cares about the people he leads, that is like thinking politicians are necessarily good and upstanding characters, or that police persons are necessarily honest and uncorruptable on the whole, these are misconceptions caused by spun illusions from old.
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