Thoughts on Leadership and Command, From Two Writers and a General

In my review of The Caine Mutiny, I mentioned that the happy-go-lucky protagonist, Willie, eventually becomes a captain, and apparently a good one, too:

Even at anchor, on an idle, forgotten old ship, Willie experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship.  He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened in on his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before.  He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined.

Achieving this sort of “feel” for an organization is of course far simpler when the organization consists of a fairly small number of people, like the crew of a destroyer-minesweeper or a very-early-stage startup.  But it is challenging even in these circumstances, and many leaders of modest-sized organizations never really accomplish “a stretching out of their nerve ends” to all aspects of the organization.  When the organization is very large and complex–too many people to ever meet personally, many geographical locations, a range of activities beyond the detailed comprehension of any one human mind–achieving a true sense of what is going on is much harder–it is to a substantial extent a matter of creating effective organization structures, choosing the right subordinate leaders, and establishing measurement and incentive systems which tend toward encouraging useful behavior rather than useless or damaging behavior…in addition to personal attributes such as curiosity, realistic sense of life, and ability to learn and to listen.

Whether the organization be large or small, the leader is far more likely to achieve the kind of depth understanding that Wouk describes if he has a strong sense of personal responsibility and interest in the organization, its people, and its mission.  I’m reminded of some thoughts expressed by General William Slim, who commanded British and allied forces in Burma during WWII, following his defeat by the Japanese:

The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted…Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. ‘Here,’ he will think, ‘I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.’ He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. ‘I have failed them,’ he will say to himself, ‘and failed my country!’ He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood. 

And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.

The first paragraph of the above expresses the reaction of the true leader to his organization’s failure.  As Antoine de St-Exupery wrote:  “A chief is a man who takes responsibility.  He does not say, ‘my men were defeated,’ he says, ‘I was defeated.'”
Can anyone imagine that Barack Obama, confronted with any the failures that have occurred on his watch–Benghazi, the Obamacare roll-out, take your pick–has engaged in the kind of soul-searching that General Slim described?

Indeed, can anyone imagine that Obama has ever seriously felt the burden of his immense responsibility?  In The Caine Mutiny, even the snarky and weasley intellectual Tom Keefer feels something of this when he becomes the ship’s captain.  As he later explains to Willie:

“I want to tell you something, Willie.  I feel more sympathy for Queeg than you ever will, unless you get a command.  You can’t understand command till you’ve had it.  It’s the loneliest, most oppressive job in the whole world. It’s a nightmare, unless you’re an ox.  You’re forever teetering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes.  At any moment you can commit a hundred manslaughters.”

Mistakes by an American President can of course result in far worse things than a hundred manslaughters, yet I doubt that Obama has ever risen even to the Keefer level in comprehending the seriousness of his actions.

The problem is not just Obama, although he provides a particularly egregious example of it.  I think we are plagued in America today–especially in government, journalism, and the “nonprofit” world, but also to a certain nontrivial degree in business–with people who obtain great power or at least great influence but who utterly lack a concomitant sense of responsibility.  And the reason for this, I believe, is very largely the growth of credentialism and its associated sense of entitlement.

When a leader has too much of a sense of entitlement and too little of a sense of responsibility, it is unlikely that he will do the hard, difficult work involved in establishing the “stretching out of nerve ends” required to really understand the organization that he is supposed to be running.  Also, the same education that gave him his sense of entitlement also likely gave him a toolkit of abstractions that allow him to think he understands his organization, its environment,  and its challenges far better than he actually does.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Leadership and Command, From Two Writers and a General”

  1. “to a certain nontrivial degree in business”: when I was young my father (who ran his own business) once explained to me, with illustrations from his experience, that people managing big firms were largely poor businessmen, and particularly poor managers of people. On the whole I’d say that my observations back that up.

  2. Dearieme,

    That’s because running an organization is hard, and few there are that can really do it well. The rest of us just muddle on…

  3. Keefer’s explanation of command to Willie is a good one.

    The responsibility of command in combat is the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. The first letters of condolences to families brings one up short. You trained for war. You knew there were casualties of war. But when the casualties are your men, it is a slap in the face from reality that you weren’t ever prepared for. There is no time to grieve, no time to process the losses. Everyday you approve the flight schedule, knowing that someone on it may not come back. You don’t want that job and yet it’s what you trained for. It’s the direction you were pointed from the day you took the oath. So, you put on your game face. You keep going.

    When you are catapulted off the bow, there is a gremlin of fear riding on your shoulder. But after the flight is joined up and you are headed north the Gremlin disappears. There is no where on Earth you would rather be. When on target the tension rises and time seems to slow down. You are too busy to be afraid. Then suddenly it’s over and you race to go feet wet where you’re finally free of the triple A. When you feel the jerk of the arresting cable welcoming you back aboard the ship, your system is flooded with endorphins. It’s good to be alive for another day.

    A thorough debrief, lots of fluids, and then there’s the paperwork and decisions to be made. What aircraft need maintenance, how many will we have for tomorrow, who’s on the flight schedule, where are those spare parts we brought aboard, when does the CAG want to see me, what can we do to get our aircraft positioned for maintenance, why hasn’t our mail caught up with us yet, what to do about a plane captain put on report by ship’s company, and on it goes? To me, it felt like I was aboard an out of control locomotive that was headed to perdition. I tried to guide it where I could, but mostly I held on tight, relied on my training and the efforts of all my men. When my tour was finished, it was both the happiest and saddest day of my life.

    I am still in contact with most of the men who were in my squadron. We shared something that united us for life.

    I also held a command later in a transport squadron. There was a lot less pressure, but I was still responsible for everything that happened. My previous experience helped, but I still had to make myriads of decisions and hope they all were the right ones. Having good officers and Chief Petty Officers was a great help. Keeping the lines of communication open was also a big positive. My officers or Chiefs were not afraid to approach me with their ideas an/or concerns. Command is a lonely place, but you are still a part of a team. You can’t do it alone.

  4. In the aftermath of Day One at Bloody Shiloh –

    SHERMAN: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”

    GRANT: “Yep. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

  5. David Foster: “The vast improvements in telecommunications since Colonel du Picq’s era vastly increase the scope for this kind of micromanagement.”

    The air war in North Vietnam was directed from the White House. Target selection time of attack, direction of attack, required damage levels, etc., etc. were all promulgated by LBJ until he was succeeded by Nixon. The operations were often listened to back in Washington. The Destroyer picket ships in the Gulf of Tonkin could patch the tactical frequencies back to Washington.

    I served in theatre during the first months of the war – 3/65 – 10/65. At first we were making inroads by dropping bridges, destroying power plants, destroying POL storage facilities, and interdicting convoys headed for South Vietnam. Then came the first of several bombing pauses. The NVNs used the time to rearm and rebuild. We could see the NVNs building SAM sites, but were not allowed to attack. That would result in the war becoming much more dangerous and difficult for our side. It did not improve morale. LBJ would not allow blockading or mining Haiphong harbor – one of the primary ways they were resupplied. Many of us began to doubt LBJ’s intent and morale suffered.

    Another example. During the Quemoy and Matsu crisis in 1958, the communications between DOD and the Seventh Fleet was continuous and detailed. On the other hand, the British Fleet in the area received only one message from Headquarters, “Protect the Queen’s interests.” Quite a contrast.

  6. I just finished Steve Pressfield’s book, The Lion’s Gate and it is terrific. One anecdote seems appropriate here. Ariel Sharon, called “Arik” by his men, was the commander in the Sinai. The entire book is made up of reminiscences by the soldiers who were there. One describes Sharon’s style of leadership. He kept all the details of the plan in his head and did not burden his subordinates with the details. He told them what they had to do. The entire plan was in his head but they did not know more than they needed to know. They had complete confidence that it would work, and furthermore they knew there was no alternative. They had to win. “ En brera” No alternative.

    Their plan is “Blitzkrieg.” Half way through the Sinai campaign, they run off their maps. They have gone farther than anyone planned. The paratroopers never thought they would take the old city of Jerusalem. They had no maps. Amazing story. The officers were mostly 20 to 23 years old. The pilots who destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground were 19. One of them wanted to shoot down two MiGs so he told his wingmen they had gone west when they went east. He went east and shot both of them down.

    Sharon was one of the great generals of history. So was Sherman. I think he was the greatest American general. His troops loved him and called him “Uncle Billy.” He fought a maneuver war and had light casualties. Grant fought a frontal war like World War I and his casualties were horrendous. Maybe both were needed. Grant was certainly the stoic. Sherman was mercurial. So was Patton.

  7. As an armor and cavalry officer during my career, I really identify with Jimmy J.’s comments.

    Those extensions of your nerve endings need to tuned to information, not control. After leading a 20-man, five tank platoon as a novice, learning through a five inch fire hose from my combat veteran platoon sergeant, I soon realized that a even a platoon, much less a tank company of 86 men and 17 tanks plus another nine support vehicles, wasn’t a one man show. The art of it is having a highly refined BS detector and learning to trust those leaders and men below you to do the hard and right things when you aren’t there standing over them. Then be there looking to see and reinforce the positive, actions, attempts and results. This type of team work is earned, not positional. Understand how it all works, just don’t try to control it all. You also soon must learn what are correctable honest mistakes and which are practically uncorrectable because they are the result of character or personal traits. Getting the right people in as many key positions as possible has to be a highest priority. You can’t be shy to act. The higher you go, the more you find this to be true.

    As was stated, you never really sleep well. Yep, happiest and saddest day when you leave part of your soul behind with the certain knowledge that anything you did right may and probably will not be apparent six months after you leave. In a military organization where personnel turn over is generally 12-18 months, it can be less. The only thing you can be sure of is that you are permanently changed, hopefully positively on balance. I did not serve in combat, but I’m convinced that environment greatly enhances all of these effects as well as the temptation to micro-manage and consolidate decision making at higher levels.

    The extensive information/communications systems we now have were sold (at great cost, on the basis of coordination, situational awareness, information flow and greater individual initiative. I knew it was just another helicopter circling overhead telling the tank commander how to fight his tank, a la Viet Nam.


  8. “Dereliction Of Duty covers the story in strong narrative fashion, focusing on a fascinating cast of characters: President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, McGeorge Bundy and other top aides who deliberately deceived the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Congress and the American public.” I dare say, but shouldn’t it start with Kennedy?

  9. Good article on the VA debacle by Peggy Noonan in Today’s WSJ:

    “Mr. Obama has never seemed that interested in the management of government. It is completely believable that he read about the VA scandal in the newspapers, where he has learned of other administration scandals. It is believable he had no idea what was going on in a major, problem-plagued agency.

    Making sure that things work doesn’t seem to be his conception of his job. Words are his job. He argues for a bill, the bill becomes a program, and someone else will make it work. He talks about health care for three years, it debuts with a terrible crash, and he’s shocked. Why didn’t it work? He told it to! His background was one of some privation, but as an executive he acts like a man who grew up with 10 maids. Let them do it, I’m too busy thinking.”

    “And the word is everything. The act, the deed, the follow-through, the making it happen doesn’t seem to loom large on his agenda of concerns. Which makes this progressive era different from those of FDR and LBJ, who appropriately feared scandal and mess and kept a sharp eye on what was happening.”

  10. There are a few things about Vietnam that I believe are true and most people don’t. So excuse me while I unload a bit on the issue.
    First, Communism was trying to expand wherever it could through “People’s Wars of Liberation.” The policy of the United States since the days of Truman had been to oppose that expansion by helping those countries that were under attack. Greece, South Korea, Berlin, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Cuba were all places where we got involved in one way or another. The main idea was to contain Communism insofar as possible.
    The idea in Vietnam was to partition it into a Communist north and a free south as had been successfully done in Korea. The initial operations were to help with armament and training. When that wasn’t enough, the involvement increased. However, the explanations for doing so were often faked because, even then, people in government were worried about politics and “World Opinion.”

    When LBJ decided to step up the war effort, he asked the Joint Chiefs for recommendations. They recommended: Mining and blockading Hai Phong harbor, an all-out bombing campaign to cut the rail ties to China, and an all-out bombing assault on major targets (one of the most important, the Red River dam, which was never hit) in the north. They wanted to isolate them and starve them out. I believe, had LBJ followed their recommendations, the war would have lasted about six months. I also believe we would have a similar situation today as in Korea – a starving north and a prosperous south.

    The problem was that gradually increasing the ante had been a major success in the Cuban missile crisis. That became the go to strategy for dealing with Vietnam. The difference was that the North Vietnamese had no nuclear weapons and they were willing to gamble that we wouldn’t use ours on them ala Korea. The second misjudgment was that bombing power plants, POL supplies, and roads would put a lot of pressure on them. The truth is they were not really as dependent on electricity as a modern country. Their POL supplies were constricted but never to the extent, until very late in the war (Linebacker I and II), that they weren’t able to move things around the way they needed to. The roads were cratered repeatedly, but they would bring in large crews of men to make them passable very quickly. Then there were the bombing pauses. They then had plenty of time to resupply through Hai Phong and the Chinese rail lines. They suffered, but never enough to get them to consider surrender. All this led to a protracted war in which the Communists (Yes, most of the student groups were fomented by true Commies!) inside the U.S. were able to gin up huge anti-war feelings in the population. Then there was “uncle” Walter Cronkite (a leftist, politically) who became the face of establishment opposition to the war.

    The truth of the matter was that the war was won through the Vietnamization program carried out by General Creighton Abrams. South Vietnam was relatively secure by 1972 and American forces were down from 549,000 to 49,000. The NVN had taken advantage of a four year (1968-1972) bombing pause to rearm and prepare to invade the South. Which they did in March of 1972. Nixon wanted to respond to that by ordering heavy bombing of heretofore off-limits targets in the north. Kissinger dissuaded him of this idea because of arms reduction negotiations in progress with the USSR. (Heavy bombing of the Vietnamese would threaten those talks.) They opted for tactical air strikes from the Navy and Air Force beginning in April of 1972. Nixon decided to mine the coast of Vietnam, blockading Haiphong harbor. They also attacked the rail lines into China and hit targets in and around Hanoi for the first time. These attacks were dubbed operation Linebacker I. With imports into North Vietnam down 35-50% and with NVN invading forces stalled, Hanoi became willing to resume talks and make concessions. As a result, Nixon ordered bombing above the 20th Parallel to cease on October 23, effectively ending Operation Linebacker I

    From wiki :
    “On 8 October 1972, U.S. National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho met in Paris. They were there to discuss new proposals by both nations, hoping to reach mutually agreeable terms for a peace settlement for the decade-old Vietnam war. Tho presented a new North Vietnamese plan which included proposals for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of American forces, and an exchange of prisoners of war. All three Vietnamese combatant governments: North Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG) would remain intact, as would their separate armies. Hanoi no longer demanded that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu be removed from office, the U.S. did not have to cease its aid to the southern government and both Washington and Hanoi could continue to resupply their allies or forces on a parity basis. No new North Vietnamese forces were to be infiltrated from the north and the U.S. agreed to extend post-war reconstruction assistance to North Vietnam.”

    It all looked pretty good. But General Van Thieu, the South Vietnamese president, was suspicious of the terms and asked for more assurances. The North Vietnamese then stalled because they knew Nixon (now battling the Watergate scandal and a new Congress eager to cut off war funding) needed to do a deal quickly. Nixon responded to their stalling with Operation Linebacker II from December 18th to 29th, 1972.
    Also from wiki:
    “During operation Linebacker II a total of 741 B-52 sorties had been dispatched to bomb North Vietnam and 729 had actually completed their missions.[84] 15,237 tons of ordnance were dropped on 18 industrial and 14 military targets (including eight SAM sites) while fighter-bombers added another 5,000 tons of bombs to the tally.[84] 212 additional B-52 missions were flown within South Vietnam in support of ground operations during the same time period.[85] Ten B-52s had been shot down over the North and five others had been damaged and crashed in Laos or Thailand. 33 B-52 crew members were killed or missing in action, another 33 became prisoners of war, and 26 more were rescued.
    769 additional sorties were flown by the Air Force and 505 by the Navy and Marine Corps in support of the bombers.[84] 12 of these aircraft were lost on the missions (two F-111s, three F-4s, two A-7s, two A-6s, an EB-66, an HH-53 rescue helicopter, and an RA-5C reconnaissance aircraft).[54] During these operations, ten American aviators were killed, eight captured, and 11 rescued.[87] Overall US Air Force losses included fifteen B-52s, two F-4s, two F-111s, one EB-66 and one HH-53 search and rescue helicopter. Navy losses included two A-7s, two A-6s, one RA-5, and one F-4. Seventeen of these losses were attributed to SA-2 missiles, three to daytime MiG attacks, three to antiaircraft artillery, and four to unknown causes. A total of eight MiGs were shot down during the operation, including two by B-52 tail gunners.[88][89] Conversely, a B-52 was claimed by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 fighter pilot in the evening of December 27, 1972.[90]
    Damage to North Vietnam’s infrastructure was severe. The Air Force estimated 500 rail interdictions had taken place, 372 pieces of rolling stock and three million gallons of petroleum products were destroyed, and 80 percent of North Vietnam’s electrical power production capability had been eliminated. Logistical inputs into North Vietnam were assessed by U.S. intelligence at 160,000 tons per month when the operation began. By January 1973, those imports had dropped to 30,000 tons per month.[91] The North Vietnamese government criticized the operation stating that the U.S. had “carpet-bombed hospitals, schools, and residential areas.”

    North Vietnam, was on the ropes. Had Nixon not been pressed by outside events, he could have continued to deprive the North of supplies until they surrendered unconditionally. That was not to be. The talks resumed on January 15th and the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27th, 1973.

    By late 1973, the North Vietnamese Army had re-grouped, re-organized, and prepared to do it again. This time there would be no B-52’s to stop them; the US had completely re-deployed back to the US. The North Vietnamese Army made a final conventional invasion of WW2 proportions in May of 1975. South Vietnamese units, deprived of funding and resupply by the U.S. Congress, were unable to stop them. The war ended on April 30th, 1975 when the North captured Saigon.

    It was a war that could have and should have been won. The loss was due to a strategy of gradualism, and too much concern for “world opinion” coupled with the fifth column of anti-war Communist agitators inside the U.S.

    My main conclusions are that you must explain very carefully why you are going to war. That message was badly muddled and contorted by the Communist propagandists, muddled thinking by War Correspondents, and ineptness on the part of our politicians. Many people still don’t understand the strategy of containment of Communism that was in force all during the Cold War, which eventually won the Cold War in 1989. Secondly, if you decide to fight, you must fight to win in the shortest possible time. There is no kind way to wage war. People die and property is destroyed whether you do it gradually or quickly. War is too important to do it halfway.

  11. I think he was the greatest American general. His troops loved him and called him “Uncle Billy.” He fought a maneuver war and had light casualties. Grant fought a frontal war like World War I and his casualties were horrendous. Maybe both were needed. Grant was certainly the stoic. Sherman was mercurial. So was Patton.

    Please allow me to make a few remarks in defense of General Grant.

    He conducted a war of maneuver where his command made that possible. That is, in the West, where he gained success and fame. He forced the surrender of two Confederate armies, via maneuver, at Fort Donelson, and later at Vicksburg. Then, via maneuver, he relieved the Union army besieged in Chattanooga.

    That success led to his appointment to command all Union armies, leading to his presence on the Eastern front, with a much more restricted geography.

    Hence, the bloodbaths such as at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. If Grant fought a war like that of World War I it was because he had to, due to the restricted theater of operations, not his choosing.

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