On Leadership

During the Peninsular Campaign Wellington heard a rumor that some officers had turned several wounded enlisted men out of a shelter and taken it themselves. One night he rode thirty miles to check.  Finding that the tale was true, he ejected the officers with a stiff reprimand, restored the wounded men to their shelter, rode back to his headquarters, and went to bed. The sequel is pure Wellington.  The following night he again rode over, and again found that the officers had pushed out the wounded enlisted men.  This time, having returned the wounded men to their shelter, he arrested the officers, fired them out of the Army – meaning that they forfeited the money they had paid for their commissions – and packed them home to England in disgrace.  This episode, harsh in one way but kind in another, went around the Army in no time, and sank in. Wellington was all business, the perfect professional, and always a winner.  Everybody wanted to serve under him.  (Xenophon describes an extremely similar episode in the Anabasis.)

Machiavelli says the ruler should be feared and loved.  Wellington leaned more to the former, but the good Japanese company boss – the oyabun – goes the other way. Japanese leadership involves much late-night drinking with subordinates, and constantly-shown consideration and concern.  The oyabun gets the organization on his side, so that dissenters are isolated.  One of the best observations on this whole subject was said by a great Italian city-state ruler.  What is the essence, he was asked, of being a good ruler?  “Essere umano,” he replied.  Be human.”

There is a wonderful Chinese tale of a General Wu, who was a soldier’s soldier, a Bradley, one might say.  He usually walked, rather than riding.  Marching one day on foot alongside the column, he saw a man limping.  “Fall out, that man!” he called.  The soldier had a cyst on his leg.  The general pierced it with his knife, sucked out the contents-with a grimace, spat, and said, “Here, bind that up and let’s see how it goes.” Eventually this story found its way back home to the soldier’s village.  The neighbors came by to congratulate his mother on this singular attention from the great man.  The woman wailed and retreated into her hut.  “My husband served under this same Lord Wu, who did a similar thing for him,” she sobbed.  After that my husband would never leave him, and was killed beside him during a siege.  I will never see my son again.”

Those, then, are two famous qualities of the leader, being feared∗ and loved.

A third that in many, many lectures in the Army I didn’t hear emphasized but do find central is lightheartedness.  Away with worrywarts!  Sink the sourpuss!  The great French Marshal Lyotey claimed that a cardinal quality of a commander should be inner gaiety, “gaieté de coeur.”  Montecucoli said that a good officer presents himself as merry and full of hope, so that the soldiers take courage.  It’s called hilaritas in the monastic life, indispensable when a population is jammed together for years on end.  (On the other hand, when issuing instructions, particularly unpleasant ones, both the military and the civilian leader must look serious.  Patton used to say that he’d demote an officer who smiled while giving orders.)  De Gaulle had a rather extreme principle that he called hauteur – extreme aloofness – the opposite of the intimate approach of the Japanese oyabun.  Although a chief of state is unlike anybody else, his hauteur may have cost him as much as he gained.  These days we go too far in the other direction.  Our leaders are “Jimmy,” grin constantly and want to be loved; instead, they aren’t respected, let alone feared.

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How do you prepare for leadership?  The key attribute of the leader is of course professional competence.  You must master your craft better than the men you’re leading.  In the business world, as in the army, it’s better to have been through every grade and to know how everything is done before you start directing others.

Then, the leader’s mystique is enhanced by a broad cultural background.  Consider Alexander the Great:  in his youth his father, Philip II of Macedon, provided no ordinary tutor, but Aristotle, the great philosopher of the age, who prepared a special edition of Homer, who invented embryology, who wrote texts – still read today – on politics, poetics, geometry, and philosophy.  Thanks to that foundation, Alexander brought to any discussion a high degree of informational authority.

I favor history and the classics as an excellent background for most large matters, certainly in both business and politico-military strategy.  For wonderful insights into how the world works, read Thucidides.  I see an excellent historical analogy from history to the breakup of the Russian empire.  As Marx said, the pole star of Russian foreign policy is foreign aggression.  A large, poor country, whose expansionist mania led it into an arms spending race with a coalition of the world’s richest countries.  Result:  catastrophe.  But similarly, rich, expansionist Athens was finally ruined by its disastrous overly ambitious expedition against Sicily. Alexander the Great pushed out his empire much too far and lost control.  As another example, after Louis XIII consolidated France and expanded it to its natural borders, his successor, Louis XIV built Versailles and thought he was godlike.  He developed France’s first uniformed army and with it saw fit to get embroiled in campaigns all over Europe.  By the end, France was economically prostrate.  A traveller to Lyons saw 30 corpses lying along the road.  That prepared the ground for the French Revolution, and the extinction of the Bourbon dynasty.

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The decision-making process of a leader is a fascinating subject.  When I got out of college I had no idea what I wanted to do next.  I decided to visit retired General Russell Maxwell, a family mentor.  He was at that time the number three man in AMF, the old American Machine & Foundry Corporation, whose head office was on Madison Avenue.  One day I walked around for a visit.  His secretary was doubtful.  “He’s  terribly busy.  He’s just back from a month’s trip to the Far East.”  Still, she went inside to ask.  After a while she emerged, obviously surprised, saying that the general would see me.

I, of course, thought that after weeks away his office would be like mine after a few days’ absence – piles of papers and pink telephone message slips.  Not at all!  Maxie was sitting in a chair in the middle of his office, staring at a huge map of the world on one wall.  His desk was almost bare.  He was just sitting there, contemplating that map!  Having mastered and then delegated the details, he could concentrate on the great issues.  That seems to me to be the essence of top-level decision-making:  focus on the decisive matters that only you can handle, and delegate the small ones, except for exemplary points to deliver a message.  Descartes called this process of coming to a general conclusion after you’ve mastered the details “synoptic insight.”  To explain that, William James gives the example of walking over a mountain in a fog – you notice the rocks and crevices, but not the totality.  The next day, from a nearby hill, looking back, the fog having lifted, you grasp the whole picture. Then you can make the big decision.

Like many other people, I find that answers often come to me overnight.  If something’s going on, I may wake up an hour early.  The mind begins ticking over gently.  It’s a good time to think, since one is not distracted.  (My wife says she can easily hear me thinking in bed).  After a while answers begin appearing.  “La nuit porte conseil,” the French say, “Sleep brings good advice.” (And of course in great human issues, intuition rather than reason informs the process.)  Also, I find that walking helps.  I have half-mile problems, two-mile problems, five-mile problems.

Socrates said that posing the right questions is central to right answers, and thus to leadership.  A good leader shouldn’t hesitate to ask apparently stupid ones.  Once at a gathering held by Citibank for customers they produced a sage called Professor Friedman (not the great Milton Friedman, another Professor Friedman).  He was talking about the petrodollar recycling problem – money coming in from the sheiks, and being lent on to the Latinos.  I asked a dumb question:  “Are they going to pay the money back?”  The Professor was indignant:  “That’s a silly question – of course they’ll pay it back!  Next question.”  Well, it was the right question. Theycouldn’t, which brought some of our great banks to their knees that particular time, as distinct from their similar experiences at other times.

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As to the character of a leader, he is likely, deep down, to be an original.  He may pose as a normal person, but the reality is usually otherwise.  To be sure, great responsibility may bring out unsuspected capacities.  William James distinguishes between the once-born person and the twice-born. The once-born person grows up, he has friends, he interacts in the community, he’s comfortable, and he’s happy, people like him, he gets ahead. But the twice-born person, the Xenophon, the Frederick the Great, the de Gaulle or the Churchill, has a burr under the saddle.  He may get on with others or he may not.  He will only discover his true potential in a great crisis.  Then, he’s comfortable making vast, harsh decisions.  Shakespeare speaks of “smooth-headed men, who sleep at night,” compared to the lean and hungry look of Cassius.  Here arises a central leadership development problem:  How do you nurture these men through the first twenty years of their careers until they’re ready to make the huge, difficult decisions?  I don’t know the answer.  The leader must grow in the system and be loyal to it, but when his turn comes, he has to challenge the system, and indeed perhaps fracture and reconstruct the system.  Very difficult indeed, and something the military does badly. I have always been pained by our brusque removal of my friend General Shinseki, whose crime was being right about the manpower needs of occupying Iraq.

C. Northcote Parkinson, the great Professor Parkinson, offers three tests if you interview a leader.  I find them excellent.  First, you ask, “When are you sick?”  He’ll reply, “I don’t know.”  You press him, asking, “When were you sick the last time?”  According to Parkinson, the answer is that he’s sick on weekends.  He comes home on Friday, feeling awful.  He goes to bed with an ice pack.  Saturday, he thinks death is imminent.  Sunday morning he remembers that he’s got a golf date with his biggest customer, so he heaves out of bed, saying, “I don’t know how to reach him, so I’ll meet him at the clubhouse and tell him I can’t play.”  He reaches the clubhouse.  There he feels ever so slightly better, and says, “Well, I’ll put on my spikes and walk out with him to the first tee.”  Having progressed that far, he hits a screaming drive off the tee and goes all the way around with Mr. Big.  He loses by one stroke, and is at his desk on Monday.

The second test is, “Will you do anything?”  I observe in my office that there are people who will straighten a rug and set pictures aright, and there are others who won’t.  The latter are uninteresting fusspots.  The former think like partners, and go far.

The third test is one where I fall down personally.  It goes, “Could you fire dear old Mr. Dinwitty?”  Mr. Dinwitty has been with the firm since it was founded, and is the only support of his widowed mother, invalid wife and several children.  But he’s become a bottleneck in the office and has to go.  The good executive (not me) calls him in and says, “Dinwitty, your position has been abolished, as of tomorrow.  We hope to find you a suitable post elsewhere.  Outplacement is waiting to see you now.  Thank you for your years of service. Goodbye, Dinwitty.”  Bang.  That’s it.  To use Mrs. Thatcher’s terminology, the first duty of a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher. (David Ogilvy says that you should always ask a person you have to fire for lunch the next day:  excellent advice!)

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How does a leader go wrong, like Alexander or Louis XIV or Napoleon or Kaiser Wilhelm II?  I’ve noticed four ways.  The first, hubris and nemesis, is when you come to think you’re above it all.  The Romans said, Quem vult perdere deus prius dementat, usually rendered as “Whom the gods(s) would destroy, they first drive mad (with power).”  My theology is wobbly, but I seem to observe that God hears vainglorious utterances and says, “He thinks that, does he?  He says that, does he?  Bang!”  One remembers Jack Kennedy’s proclamation in his inaugural that we would go to any lengths and make any sacrifice to defend freedom anywhere in the world.  A big order!  Next came the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.  If you are surrounded by people who are too clever by half and without enough experience, it will happen to you.  One antidote is the broad philosophical background I’ve spoken of.  Another is to permit gadflies.  In the old days a king, and a Roman general in a Triumph, used to have his jester, who was exempt from protocol.  He’d mock pretension and ask cruel questions.  (Louis B. Mayer is said once to have told a script doctor, “I want your honest opinion, even it if costs you your job!”)  The autocrat needs such a gadfly, however irritating.

Beware groupthink.  It can be disastrous if nobody dares to challenge the boss.  It’s commonly said that not one officer in Admiral Kimmel’s entourage on the eve of Pearl Harbor contested his opinion that the Japanese would never strike Pearl.  Nobody there or in Washington asked the question:  “Where is it dawn in the Pacific when it’s noon in Washington?”  Since the Japanese were known to be preparing to go to war, since they launched surprise attacks at dawn, and since they had demanded a meeting with our Secretary of State back in Washington at precisely noon…

As Clausewitz said, the career soldier resists novel thought.  “Nothing is more dangerous in great matters than decision by acclamation because you’ll get yesterday’s answer.  The enemy, though, is always planning to outfox you in a dramatic way you’ve overlooked.  One solution to that paradox appeared in the Cuban missile crisis.  The White House realized that it had only two weeks to make a decision, since after that the Russians would have installed the missiles.  That was time enough, though, because once formulated, the policy could be executed in 48 hours.  So they created a completely unstructured group, the Excom, as it was called, with no leader.  The logical one would have been Secretary of State Rusk, who had a nervous breakdown and didn’t reappear after the first meeting, or perhaps General Maxwell Taylor, who was always in favor of bombing the hell out of the bastards, or Mac Bundy, who revised his position periodically.  But in the event there was no leader, by design.  Anyway, the Excom churned around and eventually came up with the correct solution, to quarantine the island, so that the shiploads of Soviet missiles couldn’t be landed.  Excom worked because it was an unstructured environment, resistant to groupthink -a flat structure, as we say today. (In reverse, a pernicious form of groupthink is non-decision by committee.  Today’s variation is endless study groups.)

Leaders go wrong when they let things get too complicated.  One says in business, and I’m sure elsewhere, “KISS:  Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  I like Tolstoy’s analysis of Napoleon’s orders at the Battle of Borodino:  so intricate they simply couldn’t be carried out.  Peter Drucker, our best business writer, describes a boss he had, Freeburg.  One day Drucker offered a plan:  They would acquire a sick company nearby and reconstruct it.  “Interesting, interesting!” said Freeburg.  “Call in Lewis.” Drucker was aghast.  “You mean Lewis, the moronic accountant?”  He was known to be the dumbest man in the company.  “Yes,” said Freeburg.  Drucker said, “but you say yourself he’s a nitwit.”  “Exactly,” said Freeburg.  “If Lewis understands your proposal, we’ll do it.  If he doesn’t, it’s too complicated to work. Work is always in the end done by morons like Lewis.”  ‘What a curious approach!  Anyway the point is that a good plan has to be understandable.

Having decided, the leader must persuade, get others to accept his vision, particularly in industry and politics.  You can give orders, but if they’re not believed in, they won’t work.  One solution is to wait for the right decision to emerge.  I sometimes get involved in pro bono undertakings, and observe that you can achieve much if you don’t ask for credit.  One of our greatest persuaders in our history was Benjamin Franklin, whose methods emerge in his autobiography.  Where did the Philadelphia Fire Department come from?  He would assemble some influential friends and ask “Do we not have too many fires in Philadelphia?”

“Yes, we seem to have many fires.”

“Should something be done?”

“Doubtless something should be done.”

He would let the idea ferment in little groups that he assembled, called juntos.  The group would work out a plan for a fire department, and Franklin would say, “Good!  I’ll go along with that idea.”  He often had the idea first but didn’t seek the glory.  As General Creighton Abrams said, “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you give enough credit to other people.”

A prime component in the formation of a leader is the lessons of defeat.  Tom Watson, Sr. once had an employee who lost many millions of dollars on an unsuccessful project when IBM was a lot smaller and that was real money.  One of the directors asked Watson if he was going to fire him.  “Absolutely not,” Watson answered.  “We have millions invested in him now.”  (To be sure, Wellington, never lost a battle, but he was a unique genius.)

Unfortunately, bitter experience is how you learn.  Pathe mathos, say the Greeks – “learn through suffering.”  To put it differently, good judgment is formed through horrible experiences, and the horrible experiences flow from bad judgment.  It’s part of the process. Another solution, of course, is to absorb the horrible experiences indirectly, by learning about them.  Frederick The Great wrote, “History is the school of princes.  It is their duty to learn from the errors of centuries past, in order to avoid future pitfalls.”  And Clausewitz said, “Even fools learn from their mistakes.”  So, let us rather through study profit indirectly from the mistakes of others.

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As we part, let me offer the wonderful words of Pericles, in his eulogy of the fallen at Thermopylae:  “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is a brave heart…”  True then, true for our Founding Fathers, and true for us today. ■

From an address at the Army War College
Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania