12 Principles of modern military leadership: Part 1
By Capt. Ron Roberts
Civil Affairs, Asymmetric Warfare Group
May 25, 2018
Download the PDF
"A leader is a dealer in hope."
Leadership is paramount to the success of any army. Leaders not only make life and death decisions but directly control the climate and quality of life of their subordinates.
But what is the real definition of leadership? Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development, defines leadership as "the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization."1
In three articles, we will discuss twelve fundamental leadership principles, as well as several educational and inspirational historical examples. Experienced leaders should already practice these principles; however, I have learned through personal experience never to assume anything. Therefore, we will start the series by examining the first four leadership principles — lead from the front, self-confidence vs. egotism, moral courage, and physical courage.
Lead from the Front
Taught to lead by example, leaders inspire their Soldiers to perform deeds of heroism and sacrifice, which often requires suppression of natural feelings such as fear. Leaders do not encourage their Soldiers by saying, "onward," but rather, "follow me," the very apropos motto of the U.S. Army Infantry School.
To inspire troops, leaders must instill a pervasive attitude to motivate their troops to advance under withering fire or hold a seemingly untenable position. To accomplish this, leaders must be present at the forward edge of the battle area so their Soldiers will follow their example and respect their judgment, leadership ability, and tactical knowledge.
Have Self-Confidence, Not Egotism
"As I gain in experience, I do not think more of myself but less of others."
—Gen. George S. Patton Jr.
While a platoon of Soldiers is wary of going into action with an inexperienced leader, a smart platoon leader can mitigate this problem by seeking instruction and mentorship from the platoon sergeant, a role that noncommissioned officers have embraced since the rise of professional armies.
Any leader worth his stuff has confidence, but excessive egotism is usually indicative of a lack of assurance. A show of bravado in advance of a mission or in the face of the enemy is acceptable; however, an abundance of cockiness is liable to portend a horrible day for all concerned. Below are examples of egotism that not only affected the leaders but their troops as well.
Gen. George S. Patton
Gen. George S. Patton knew a thing or two about projecting confidence. He could change at will and put on his "war face," followed by a speech, filled with "blood and guts," to motivate his men.
Patton believed he was the most distinguished Soldier who ever lived. He convinced himself that he would never falter through doubt. This faith in himself encouraged his men of the Second American Corps in Africa, and the Third Army in France, to believe they could achieve ultimate victory under his leadership.2
"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare."
Doing the right thing, regardless of the consequences, is moral courage. An outstanding example is Gen. George Washington, whose legacy as the commander of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States remains among the greatest in American history.
Washington was one of the most experienced military leaders in the Thirteen Colonies, having served with the English during the French and Indian War in 1755.3
Selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, he was selected as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775. Although Washington lost most of the battles during the Revolutionary War,4 he kept the army together and built a strong coalition with the French when they intervened in the war.
According to historian Gordon Wood, Washington's most significant act was his resignation as commander of the armies — an act that stunned aristocratic Europe.5 Many believed Washington could have been a dictator if he had chosen so.
"There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid."
—President Theodore Roosevelt
Because the life of a Soldier is fraught with danger, courage is a requirement for every military leader. Soldiers, who do their duty regardless of fear and risk to life or limb, perform bravely on the battlefield. As a result, there are numerous examples of the American Soldiers' courage.
For instance, during World War II, 2nd Lt. Audie L. Murphy became (at the time) the most decorated Soldier in American history. Ironically, he had been turned down for enlistment by the Marines, Navy, and Army paratroopers because of his physique.
On January 26, 1945, at Holtzwihr, Germany, Murphy ordered his men to withdraw from an attack of enemy tanks and infantry. During the withdrawal, he mounted a burning tank destroyer and fired its .50 caliber machine gun for more than an hour, killing 50 Germans, stalling the attack, and forcing the enemy to withdraw. Although wounded, he led his men in a counterattack and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
As role models, leaders must lead from the front and display courage to motivate their Soldiers. However, it is important to maintain an acceptable level of confidence without it turning into excessive egotism. There is no "I" in team and success comes as a result of Soldiers' trust in their leader and their ability to work together, which we will focus on in part two.
Next Article: 12 Principles of Modern Military Leadership: Part 2
- U.S. Army, Leader Development, FM 6-22 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 30, 2015), chap.1, pp.3, http://www.milsci.ucsb.edu/sites/secure.lsit.ucsb.edu.mili.d7/files/sitefiles/fm6_22.pdf.
- Virgil Pinkley, "Gen. George Patton Believed Himself Greatest Soldier; Entire Army Felt Same Way," reprinted in Nevada State Journal (December 23, 1945): 15.
- "French & Indian War," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association website, accessed 25 January 2018, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/french-indian-war/.
- "The Revolutionary War," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association website, accessed 25 January 2018, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/.
- Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: A.A. Knopf. 1992), 105-6.