Leadership in the military

Published on August 6, 2004

By Seikholen Thomsong


Military Leadership is a much talked about subject. Endless studies and discussions have been carried out to find as to what makes a man a hero, a leader of men. What exactly gives a man the courage to lead men into battle? What makes him give up his life for the men he leads against an enemy? The character of such men has astounded historians right from the time of Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon and other great Captains of War.


Lord Moran defined leadership as, “The capacity to frame plans that will succeed and the faculty to persuade others to carry them out in the face of all difficulties – even death.” Harry G Summers Jr adds that it is, “The true determinant of military leadership on the battlefield”. A simplistic definition may be, “The ability to motivate men enough to fight for a cause, lead them into battle courageously, against all odds, with or without resources, annihilate the enemy and attain victory”.

Purpose of Military Leadership

Col Danbridge M Malone in his book ‘Small Unit Leadership’ brings out vividly the purpose of military leadership.  He states that the main purpose is to accomplish a given task or objective, which in a battle is victory.

Historical Context     

Talking about ancient history and its military leaders, Alexander the Great’s style of military leadership comes to the fore. Men such as Alexander initially garnered his tribesmen and set out to conquer the neighbouring tribesmen, force them into alliances and raise huge fighting forces. Leadership in such an atmosphere and era was somewhat different than it may be in the present context. Alexander followed seven distinctive styles of leadership. In the book ‘Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy’, the author Partha Bose mentioned these seven styles as: – Trusting, Inspirational, Connective, Aggressive, Humanistic, Commanding and Marauding styles of combat leadership.

By Trusting style, Bose meant that Alexander as a leader placed his unshakeable faith in his men. He also inspired his men by reminding them about past victories and glories and raised their pride as fighting men. He constantly reminded them of their higher purpose and told them stories of valour from the Greek mythologies. These motivated the men under his command. Alexander also had that ability to connect with all his men.           Before every battle he would address his men by name and recall how valiantly he or his forbears fought for him or his father King Philip. He was humanistic to the vanquished though he was ruthless in battle and thus won many admirers. He had a commanding style of leadership too and he never let people step out of line. However, he killed thousands of innocent civilians in Tyre, Multan etc and thus some historians have come to regard him as just a marauder – someone akin to Chenghiz Khan whose main aim was to plunder and loot. However it would be unfair to consider Alexander as just one marauder as we have seen his contributions to civilisation.

Nation States developed and armies became more organized and better trained in warfare. Yet the basic principles of leadership have not undergone much change. It remains the ability to motivate people to fight for a cause, to endure hardship, to march on against all odds of nature and men and instill in them the will to overcome it all leading finally to a resounding victory against an enemy.

Basic Principles of Military Leadership

WJ Wood in his book “Leaders and Battles” explains the art of military leadership and says it is an art embodied in the man and is based on certain attributes, which are found in leaders who have proved themselves in battle. He delineated the various traits of a combat leader as courage, will, intellect, presence and energy. Let us discuss them.


Clausewitz wrote, “War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first great quality of a warrior”. Courage could be of two types. First is of Physical and the second is Moral courage. Man may be fearless yet he may not possess moral courage. The fearlessness delineates his physical raw courage in action.  Moral courage is something different. Field Marshal Montgomery in his ‘History of Warfare’ said moral courage is the courage to act on a decision and is that resolution and determination that will enable him to stand firm when the issues hang in a balance. Field Marshall Archibald Wavell is another military thinker who has stressed the importance of moral strength and character in combat leaders for the same reasons as suggested by Gen Monty.

Many tales abound of raw physical courage but not many examples of moral courage. In the many great battles of history, a general who showed moral courage was Marshall Davout in the Battle of Auerstadt in 1806, when he with his III Corps stood up to the brunt of the Austrian attack. The neighbouring I Corp had marched away from action leaving him without assistance and not much reserve.  And his Emperor, Napoleon had miscalculated, expected the main attack to be from elsewhere and retained his bulk of army (96000 men) with himself. Another tale of moral courage is that of Gen Guderian of the German Army, who in one of the operations of 1941 took ‘a timely step back instead of pandering to the illusions of his Fuhrer Hitler’, in the words of Sir Liddel Hart. He paid with his dismissal from the Army. He was however recalled later in 1943.

Will Power

The importance of Will to a military leader is best summed up by SLA Marshall when he was quoted as saying, “Why is the will of the military commander deemed more decisive of success than the will of leadership in any other calling? Clearly it is because the inertia, frictions, and confusions of the forces of the battlefield make all positive action more difficult.”  This aspect is important for the fact that at times, even greatest of minds is seized by indecision. Thus the will moves a leader forward even if he knows the odds stacked against him is great.


Field Marshall Archibald Wavell laid great stress in intellect or imagination as a necessary ingredient of a military leader. Intellect may at times be taken to mean judgment and flexibility of the mind too. A combat leader, to him, should have the ingenuity to turn the tide in his favour, as it is not always that military leaders are faced with situations that are to their favour. History is replete with military leaders using ingenuity to turn hopeless situations around to their advantage and win battles. Brig Charles Orde Wingate was one combat leader who relied much on ingenuity. His exploits against the Italians and his expeditions in the Sudan and Burma have become folklore after WWII. A general of WWII who stood out for his intellect was Gen Guderian. Capt Liddel Hart spoke of him as, “A blend of acute observation with swift sure intuition; the speed of thought and action that throws the opponent off balance and allows him no chance of recovery; the combination of strategic and tactical sense; the power to win the devotion of his troops and get the utmost out of them. Guderian had the knack of making the impossible possible”. “Big words from an admirer”, you might say but most of the remarks made above have been justified.


The Military Leaders’ presence is very much required to ensure that his orders are carried out in an effective and timely manner. WJ Wood describes how the leaders’ presence can be used to rally and to inspire. To rally meant in his words ‘To use personal example and force of character to bring order out of potential chaos during a critical during a critical turn of events.’ An example is of Capt Marcellin de Marbot, the young staff officer of Marshall Jean Lannes of the French Army, at the battle of Ratisbon. Marshall Lannes led by example how to go and scale the walls of an enemy fortress in a siege at Ratisbon. Thus when Marbot scaled the walls of the fortress and stood for a few good seconds in front of the whole French army and his emperor, he inspired the men to continue the fight when they had almost given up.


All the attributes hitherto explained have to be supported by a physique, which would take enormous amount of stress and strain to sustain the body for a forceful action. General Grant was quoted as saying that through out the American Civil War it was his health an energy that gave him the power to endure anything. Energy alone is not desirable it has to be coupled with some other trait. WJ Wood describes the advice purportedly given to the German General Staff to guide them in selection of army officers for certain jobs. It was mentioned clearly that the brilliant and the energetic makes for excellent Chief of the operations, Chief of Staff and the intelligence section. Stupidity combined with energy is not desirable at all as it would be hazardous.

Techniques of Efficient Military Leadership

Military leaders across the globe have their own methods of command and control, and of leading men. Seeing their example we can arrive at some common traits that they exhibit as combat leaders. Some of their methods and traits are discussed as under.

Leading by example

This aspect is best brought out by Maj Gen Aubrey Newman in his book “Follow Me” when he said a combat leader should be ready to do himself what he ask others to do. It is this kind of leadership that compels men to go and fight when they are even cowed down by fear and immobility. Let us recall the battle of Ratisbon where Marshall Jean Lannes himself had to pick up a ladder and move to scale an enemy fortress as the first two batches he sent had been mowed down by enemy fire and people were no longer willing to volunteer. Another example is of Gen Newman himself standing up in the face of fire and leading the charge against the Japanese in a battle in Hawaii. In fact all military leaders who have made their marks swear by this – Leading from the Front.

Confidence in Self, Men and Equipments/Weapons

According to Col Danbridge M Malone, author of Small Unit Leadership, some important leadership parameters are confidence in self, in men of the unit i.e. under one’s command, in weapons and equipments. This according to him can be achieved when the men in the unit are so very well trained for combat. He also stated the importance for a leader to instill confidence of his men in his leadership, without which men would be hesitant to follow him.

Self discipline

A person no less than Brig Charles Orde Wingate, suggested this aspect of military leadership. He said that a leader should abstain from brutality and cruelty. He should keep his body and equipment in good condition. He should endure thirst and hardship without complaints and show restraint in fulfillment of his own needs. He should also increase his technical abilities. These are some points excerpted from the Ten Commandments he had laid down for a soldier. The world has been witness to his self-discipline and self-sacrifice when he along with his Chindits raided the supply lines and harassed the invading Japanese Army in Burma.


Sir Archibald Wavell defined this word as, “The ability to accept responsibility and absorb shocks”. This covers both mental and physical robustness. Mental robustness would ensure clarity of thought and decision. This is important because war or conflict throws up situations that may never be encountered in normal peace and thus the human mentality will have to undergo more shock during war. The mental aptitude should be such that no amount of shock could immobilise the combat leader otherwise he would not be able to carry out his task and achieve his aim in battle.


This particular trait has been stressed by all military greats starting from Napoleon to present-day Military heroes that we have. Wavell called this ‘‘a genuine interest in human beings’’ however it would be taken to mean much more. Strength of character distinguishes a true leader from a pretender. And it is during conflicts or under duress of battles that character flaws in humans come to the fore more. Thus a man cannot be a true combat leader without this trait. Character ensures wholesomeness of true leadership by complimenting on the other aspects of leadership qualities such as physical or moral courage etc.


From various battles that we have studied, one thing comes to notice that without camaraderie a leader cannot expect men to fight for him. Tales of valour show how men and their leaders fight side by side, for each other, together against a common enemy. Field Marshals Sir Wavell and Erwin Rommel both knew the importance of this aspect and exploited it to good use. If we read some of the campaigns undertaken by both, we find that they had such good camaraderie with their men under their command. Rommel especially, knew almost all his men under his direct command by name and would share their innermost problems and at times share their jokes too. However both men differ in their definition of the word. Rommel said officers should cultivate camaraderie with their men but by giving not an inch of their authority away. Where as Sir Wavell stood for camaraderie based on mutual trust.


Sir Wavell said a military leader should have the ability to organise his logistics. Napoleon, in fact, was the first great general who suggested that an army need logistics to fight its wars. He is remembered to have said, “An army marches on its stomach”. Not to be taken literally but it showed how important logistics is to ensure that an army retains its will to fight. Simply put a soldier’s morale depends on the food he eats and the ordinance supply he gets enables him to fight his enemy.

Meet Leadership Challenges in the Future

The First World War saw the introduction of tanks and in WWII they were employed in large scales. Similarly, the future battlefields will be totally different from what we had seen in the past. The advance made in terms of science and technology has changed the manner wars and battles are fought even today. The future combat leader has to be more technically efficient with an array of scientific gadgets, which he would be compelled to use for achieving his aims. Basic traits of leadership skills would not change however a combat leader would have to rely more on machines and equipments like never before. And so he needs to increase his technical, technological and scientific knowledge.


Thus we have discussed in a nutshell what desirable traits should a military leader have to ensure that he lead his men the right way and achieve his aim in battle. This essay is not exhaustive in its attempt to discuss the topic of military leadership. However most of the important points have been addressed. Future military leaders armed with better technical proficiency coupled with the traits mentioned in the above paragraphs would ensure that he continues to be an effective military leader or rise to be one great captain of war.    

Sources of info:

1. Leaders and Battles by WJ Wood.
2. Follow Me by Maj Gen Aubrey Newman.
3. Panzer Leader by Guderian.
4. Excerpts from writings of Wingate and Sir Wavell.
5. Wingate Raiders.
6. Alexander The Great’s Art of Strategy by Partha Bose.
7. The Rommel Papers