The Warrior’s Art
Edited by Christopher J. Kolenda
Stackpole Books, Guilford, Connecticut, 2021, 480 pages
Book Review published on: June 24, 2022
In Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, we get another bite at the apple, so to speak. This is a second edition, debuting two decades after the original, with several additions and updated sections. The roster of those offering recommendations of it is deep and well-respected with forwards offered by Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, along with glowing tributes from the likes of Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hal Moore who claimed it was the “absolute best book on military leadership in peace and war.”1 Other cheerleaders include former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus. With such notable endorsements, it’s no surprise Christopher Kolenda, the book’s editor (and coauthor), is very well-connected, having served as “a senior advisor to three four-star commanders and two Undersecretaries of Defense.”2 But all that aside, I found the book, consisting of twenty-two chapters, to be somewhat less than stellar; I awarded only thirteen chapters with a passing grade of “excellent” or “good,” while the rest were laborious grinds offering little in the way of insights. Overall, though some pruning is in order for any possible third edition, this book is still a useful addition to any collection of works on leadership.
Kolenda begins by citing Plato, who says education “is not the practice of putting sight into blind eyes; it is the art of turning the soul from the shadows of ignorance toward the light of truth.”3 And here, the editor’s mission is disclosed—to offer up a compendium of experiential “lessons learned” about the many facets of leadership from those who exercised it and achieved notable success.
Legendary diplomat and strategist Otto von Bismarck astutely observed that “any fool can profit from their own mistakes—the wise person profits from those of others.”4 With that in mind, one can profit mightily from many of the excerpts contained within this handy primer.
Leadership is an art, but also a science, of sorts. First and foremost, though, leadership is about trust. “Every solid bond between people has trust as its bedrock. Every failed relationship is ultimately an actual or perceived breach of that trust.”5 As such, how does one develop their leadership capabilities? Maintain the developed trust? And brutally exploit it, to succeed, when called upon to do so?
The future battlefield, replete with speed, enhanced lethality, and smaller, dispersed units will require more (and better) leadership, not less, demanding strong trust between leader and follower. To understand the foundations of that trust, and forge it, Kolenda believes it’s fruitful to start by reaching back to antiquity—specifically, ancient Greece—to exfoliate both the nature of leadership and human nature. From there, other authors propel the dialogue along, thrusting the reader into a far-ranging discussion of leadership, its qualities, and potential pitfalls.
Experience is valuable, but insufficient to the task of becoming a great leader. An uncultivated mind, lacking intellectual courage, can imprison one within their own experiential base, making them susceptible to internal biases. Education widens one’s aperture, exposing them to multiple perspectives and a multitude of informational sources.
A true leader persuades others to follow (versus compelling them). Pulling off such persuasion, though, is an art that leverages a host of talents. To get this point across more effectively, consider an example.
In The Republic, Plato employs the metaphor of a cave to convey human ignorance and human nature. He argues human beings have a tangled understanding of what is good because they do not see things as they are. In the allegory, people are bound with chains and facing a wall with a powerful light behind them. They’ve been there for a long time. As objects pass between the people and the light, the shackled people see shadows of the passing objects reflected on the wall. Not surprisingly, and given the passage of time, they believe these shadows to be reality. In effect, they believe the shadows—distortions of reality—are legitimate. Education/exposure can provide a solution. Of course, turning the soul toward the light can be painful and blinding at first. The ascent out of the cave is long, steep, and strenuous. But emerging from the cave, the previously imprisoned people can see what is rather than what seems to be (their former reality). The freed person can now comprehend the good.6 The leader, having taken one soul into the open, now has a responsibility to return to the cave and help others break the chains of ignorance and trek out of the cave.
Self-awareness is an inescapable part of becoming a successful leader. Carved into the rock along the stairway to visit the Oracle at Delphi were the words “know thyself.”7 Attaining that self-awareness can be a long, arduous journey, but is required to become the best version of oneself and lead with authenticity in alignment with human nature. Beyond self-awareness, character and competence are vital to earning trust. So, too, is self-discipline (moderation). Those lacking self-discipline become ensnared in some vice or other, making them not trustworthy. Only by being free from such “slavishness” can one effectively lead. Yet another necessary attribute of successful leaders is the respect they show for others. Said another way, they possess humility. Of course, hubris was the downfall of many an ancient leader, and continues today, too—one need only look at the latest Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force Times to see evidence of it.
Because history is filled with leaders who lacked many of the talents mentioned above, it’s necessary to qualify the writings of Greeks like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle (and other non-Greek intellectuals); they were speaking more in terms of how things ought to be rather than how things were. Today, a gap still exists for many between aspiration and reality, but thankfully, the contextual gap is far more manageable, making the task more achievable.
Possibly the most enjoyable chapter of the entire book was “Teaching Combat Leadership at West Point: Closing the Gap between Expectation and Experience.” This chapter was chock full of fascinating revelations. Basically, it looks at a course curriculum which aims to minimize the gap between expectations of what combat will be like and what it actually is like, as told by theorists, researchers, and combat veterans, both historical and contemporary. Leading in combat is complicated by the chaos and destruction of it all, leading to physiological and psychological reactions to fear and danger that can gut combat effectiveness, if not properly dealt with.
In chapter 10, “Culture of Confidence: The Tactical Excellence of the German Army of the Second World War,” Kevin Farrell delivers an excellent expose on why the German soldier was so dependably effective throughout the conflict despite significant material deficits as the war raged on. It also addresses the ethical lapses that took place and why. In chapter 11, “Leadership, Technology, and the Ethics of Total War: Curtis LeMay and the Fire Bombing of Japan,” we are given a glimpse inside the organizational scheme that allowed LeMay to exploit interservice rivalries to get the kind of war he wanted waged. The war against Japan, especially the strategic bombing campaign, remains a highly controversial subject today. Crane’s treatment of the subject here will do nothing to quell the controversy. However, it is an excellent read—sharp, crisp, blunt. In chapter 20, “Developing Operational Leaders … Who Happen to be Women,” the reader is offered a very tight argument that contends the institutionalized biases of the military have left women behind in terms of leadership development. I found the writing to be logical, on point, and fairly compelling. That said, it would have benefitted from not pushing a “progressive” agenda that too often came across as a bit whiny. There was also too much discussion about applying a “gendered lens”8 to operational hurdles. Sometimes, blame is misplaced. If there aren’t enough women in a given field, it is unreasonable—and cost inefficient—to tailor equipment for such a small pool. Yes, the alternative may not be great, but at least the women are in the fight.
Overall, this is a commendable effort. Unfortunately, roughly 40 percent of the chapters offered fairly boilerplate advice, detracting from the impact left by the more superlative chapters. Undoubtedly, in an edited work, dependent upon many senior ranking figures for contributions, the editing process can become dicey, even political. I don’t envy Kolenda’s task. But despite a thorny challenge, he’s done a very solid job here.
- Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, commentary on Christopher J. Kolenda, ed., Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, 2nd ed. (Guildford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2021).
- Maura Cahill, publisher’s advertisement for Kolenda, Leadership.
- Kolenda, Leadership, xxiii.
- Otto von Bismarck, as quoted in Kolenda, Leadership, xxiv.
- Kolenda, Leadership, xxv.
- Ibid., 9.
- Jeannette Gaudry Haynie and Kyleanne Hunter in Kolenda, Leadership, 320.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas