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November 14, 2006

Military Leadership: Jeremy Black considers the different qualities required for tactical, operational, and strategic military leadership

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter, and the author of The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World - considers the different qualities that are required for tactical, operational and strategic military leadership.

Military leaders bestride the centuries capturing the attention of contemporaries and posterity. Names such as Caesar, Genghis Khan and Napoleon resound down the centuries. They indeed helped mould the contemporary world with their campaigns, but more than individual drive and ability were involved.

In addition, it is necessary to see how the campaigns of leaders interacted with the circumstances in which they operated. This is crucial because military success is a matter not of battle waged against an opaque background, but, instead, of the ability to fulfil objectives. In short, a task-based account of military achievement is necessary. This is key whether the leadership considered is at the tactical, operational or strategic levels.

These three levels are worthy of consideration because they indicate the variety of types of military leadership, and because to be a military leader at the highest level it was necessary to first succeed at the tactical level. There are exceptions, which we will come to, but let us fist consider the general case.

Military service is hierarchical and in most systems it is not possible to rise to senior command positions unless one has been an effective leader at the junior level. This entails command of a relatively small number of men and a comparatively limited amount of military resources. These are used in combat to achieve tactical objectives. Thus, for example, the clearing of insurgents from a street, or the capture in the field of a hill, crossing of a river, or securing of a flank, are classic tactical goals. To do so, commanders have to display leadership skills in terms of working out how best to achieve the goal, and then doing so. Key skills include the inspirational leadership often required to help troops cross the killing ground produced by enemy fire, and the ability to sustain morale and unit cohesion in the resulting combat. Personal example can be very important in this, and thus the commander needs to be able to display bravery, while remembering that his death will create serious problems.

Responding to circumstances in a dynamic yet effective fashion crucially depends on the ability to gauge and overcome enemy moves. There is a need thus to direct the flow of the combat and also to do so in a fashion that permits successful exploitation. This is the type of command and leadership that is most common in combat. It is the level that it is easiest to train for and also the level above which most leaders do not rise.

In terms of campaigns, it is the operational level that commands most public attention. This level used to be termed strategy, with grand strategy reserved as a phrase now applied to strategy. The operational level addresses issues like how best for Grant to outmanoeuvre Confederate forces near Richmond in 1864-5 or how best to exploit the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944. A lower level of operational command will relate to the movements of brigades, divisions and corps. Most of the skills required at the tactical level are necessary at the operational one, although physical bravery is not generally necessary, and concern for unit cohesion and morale are also less pronounced.

In contrast, at the operational level, there is a need for wide-ranging command and communication skills as the battlefield and zone of operations that are to be known are more far-flung than at the tactical level. Thus the commander has to receive, interpret and reconcile information from across a broad front, and also to try to anticipate and determine the enemy response. Operational commanders face the need to provide appropriate instructions for lower-level officers and to know how best to respond if they find it difficult to achieve their goals. These commanders are also supposed to implement instructions based on strategic conceptions that they may have played little or no role in formulating.

That indeed is a crucial interface in the politics of command and one that directs attention to the third level, that of strategic command. At this level, leadership is not necessarily the monopoly of the military. Thus, for example, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler were more properly the military leaders of their respective countries in World War than figures such as Alan Brooke, Marshall, and Halder. The same argument could be made about David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister in 1916-18 and even of Lincoln in the American Civil War. In many respects, this situation was inevitable for major states waging war across many fronts. This distanced leadership from campaigning.

Such a situation, however, was not unique to the twentieth century. Philip II of Spain might plan the Armada launched against England in 1588, but he was not going to command it. To have done so would have compromised the multiple other military and political activities of the Spanish Crown. However, although this was true of other leaders, this did not prevent them from campaigning in what they saw as the crucial zone of operations, the zone, indeed, that could become crucial as a consequence of their presence. If Suleiman the Magnificent chose to campaign in Hungary this helped make that more important than the Persian front.

The political importance of campaigning was even more the case because there was no necessary contrast between what would subsequently be seen as civilian and military leadership. The two were fused in monarchs, whether Roman Emperors, Mongol clan leaders, Turkish Sultans or European monarchs. Kings of England/Britain continued to lead their armies into battle until 1743 when George II commanded at Dettingen. His second son, William, Duke of Cumberland, was in command three years later at Culloden, the key battle in the defeat of the Jacobite claim on the British throne.

For most rulers, military success was a crucial source of prestige and this prestige helped ensure the respect and support of their subordinates and subjects. Victory thus was the lubricant of obedience, and this helped explain the great concern to ensure a favourable "spin" on campaigns. Proclaiming victory and associating it with the leader was a central feature of politics, whether that of Julius Caesar or of Napoleon.

At the strategic level, the key ability is that of defining realisable goals, ensuring the necessary domestic and international support, or at least acceptance, and distributing resources between different campaign fronts. These are complex and difficult tasks, and most commanders and politicians are not suited to them. Civilian politicians frequently do not understand the nature of risk that is inherent in military operations, and do not know how to manage it, while many military commanders are only suited to the operational level. They lack the skills of coalition maintenance required for alliance politics, including the "alliances" within their own forces that have become increasingly important as a result of joint operations.

Furthermore, the military mindset is frequently not suited to the ambiguities and difficulties bound up in the term realisable goals when realisable extends to domestic constituencies of support.

Once these points are appreciated, then it becomes difficult to decide how best to define the most impressive military leaders. Success would seem to be an obvious factor, but that would exclude such defeated figures as Napoleon and Lee. Napoleon indeed raises a number of key questions, as his campaign failures in 1812-15 were arguably operational consequences of his strategic overreach, and it is important to determine where the focus of attention should rest. To look at another dimension of strategic conception, did Julius Caesar conquer Gaul (France) and invade Britain (England) in part to win prestige in the competitive politics of the late Roman Republic, as well as to build up a loyal army for political ends? From this perspective is he to be seen as a success because he gained power or a failure because his reliance on force helped lead to the conspiracy that claimed his life?

Such points may seem a long way from the classic understanding of military leadership, but this political dimension, in fact, has always been central as it has been crucial in the framing of strategic goals, the maintenance of support, and the aftermath. Grant and Eisenhower emerge as more successful figures than Cromwell because they gained and exercised power peacefully; although Cromwell also faced very difficult domestic circumstances.

These points need to be borne in mind when looking at the question, but they have to be complemented by an understanding of the factors that made for success in the field including a ready ability to appreciate problems, to devise workable plans, to understand enemy objectives, to respond rapidly and effectively to events in order to gain the tempo that permits a management of these events, to prepare for successful exploitation, and to learn the lessons necessary to secure best practice and improved planning.

These criteria can be expanded, but they help explain why different readers and scholars can propose their own list. This indicates not only the complexity of the subject but also the extent to which war and military command reach out to interact with so many key issues that have moulded world history.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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