Leadership in the Armed Forces is not an end in itself, only the means to the end. The end is for the commander to shape his organization into a tool of the highest quality.
Editor’s Note: This article, first carried in the Spring 1965 Command, is adopted from material requested of General Harrison by a Department of Army committee studying the doctrine of military command. General Harrison served as president of Officers’ Christian Fellowship from 1954-1972 and as president emeritus from 1972 until his death in 1987.
It will be organized, armed, equipped, supplied, physically competent, skillful in the use of arms and equipment and in combat skills, knit together in a team determined to carry out the will of the commander regardless of circumstances.
The basis of successful leadership: confidence and loyalty.
Within the limits of the material means given him, the effectiveness of a unit depends to maximum degree on the leadership ability and practice of the commander.
The military system of discipline is an essential foundation, but the extent to which it succeeds in obtaining the best results depends on the commander’s own personality.
Therefore, the commander’s first problem is to win and maintain the maximum confidence of his subordinates so that they not only accept as necessary the troubles resulting from his orders, but also have a positive faith in his superior competence.
Every great commander has won the confidence of his subordinates, a confidence that survived even his grave military defeats.
The greatest determination to carry out the will of the commander requires that, beyond confidence, there be a personal loyalty to the commander. When this loyalty exists there is an inspiration that achieves great results.
The commander must win confidence and loyalty by his own acts. No one can do this for him; he is on his own right from the start.
While he does certain things with the deliberate intent of gaining maximum control over his unit, and the maximum effort from it, his acts must nevertheless not be a mere front.
They must represent the real person under the rank insignia.
We can fool our superiors from time to time, our colleagues rarely, but our subordinates never.
If one would be a successful commander, he should have strength of character and the urge and intelligence to perfect himself in the knowledge of the military art.
Confidence in Oneself
To inspire confidence the commander must be confident; that is, he must tackle his job with a sure hand.
He must firmly believe that he can handle the job, seeing obstacles as challenges rather than cause for apprehension. He must know that he can understand and analyze his problems, making firm decisions, giving clear orders and then forcefully carrying out his will despite difficulties.
Initial impressions of confidence do not endure unless subsequent events justify that confidence.
Nothing succeeds like success.
Self-confidence may or may not be justified. Only that confidence which results from real achievement is of value. Sometimes fools in their ignorance rush in where angels fear to tread.
Only failure can eventuate when there is no real basis for self-confidence.
On the other hand, one who lacks confidence, even though he is well instructed, is doomed to failure. He mistrusts his ability to meet the situation. He doubts his own conclusions.
He takes counsel of his fears. Every obstacle becomes a dangerous risk. He tends to retreat at the first sign of real danger. Such an attitude is infectious, and soon his entire unit will be like him.
It is clear that the commander should have that character which is willing to accept responsibility, to reason out his problems, make decisions and then push them through to success.
Possessing this basic trait of character, he must then prepare himself intellectually to face the tasks that confront the commander.
Even the best equipped man, as far as his basic character is concerned, cannot succeed unless he knows his profession. He must possess the intelligence to learn, and he must spend time in study of his profession.
Therefore, if one would be a successful commander, he should have strength of character and the urge and intelligence to perfect himself in the knowledge of the military art.
Loyalty starts at the top, not at the bottom. If he desires the loyalty of his subordinates, he must be loyal to them first.
Loyalty Starts at the Top
To achieve the best results from his soldiers, the commander must have, besides their confidence in him, their personal loyalty to him.
One thing must be remembered by every commander: loyalty starts at the top, not at the bottom. If he desires the loyalty of his subordinates, he must be loyal to them first.
Commanders must never forget that even the newest recruit is a person entitled to self-respect and ordinary human courtesy.
This does not mean he is to be pampered. His training should be arduous: The commander should demand high standards in everything. Punish deliberate disobedience or neglect. Recognize publicly whatever may be praised, although praise should not be exaggerated. Encourage progress.
The commander should seek to combine in himself the functions of coach and quarterback in order to perfect his team.
Try to make subordinates successful in their jobs, and then give them credit for it.
If they do well, the commander also does well, and gets credit. Why not spread it around to those who did so much of the work?
The Christian officer should strive to be the very best professional officer possible within his abilities, and he or she should do this in accord with Christian faith and conduct.
Implications for the Christian
Such things as loyalty, diligence, self-preparation, integrity and dependability are all necessary to Christian conduct. Firmness and insistence on high standards are both essential to the best achievements and fully Christian; our faith is not something for weaklings.
The Golden Rule is as important and applicable to the work of the Christian military leader as it is to other careers.
Within the limits of his God-given endowments, the Christian officer has every advantage in achieving the best results: provided he applies biblical principles to his own life.
He should know that God has a specific purpose and plan for his life (Ephesians 2:10) and that promotions come from God, regardless of any human action connected therewith (Psalm 75:6, 7).
He should rest assured that God oversees his life and career (Matthew 10:28-31; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Therefore, it is a sin to strive in one’s own strength for particular assignments or promotions, or to fret or worry.
A fretful Christian manifests either a lack of faith in God, or an unwillingness to submit to the will of God as He works out His purpose.
The Christian should not forget that he is the bondslave of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1), Who bought him with His own blood on the cross. Our highest motive should be to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20; 10:31).
If we do this we will be single-minded and able to concentrate on the work to be done without being pushed and pulled by worry, fear, envy and other concerns that prevent the full use of our abilities.
God puts us where He wants us to serve Him. He will provide the talent to do whatever task He gives us. He will keep in perfect peace of mind one who fully trusts Him, regardless of circumstances (Isaiah 26:3; John 14:27; Philippians 4:4-8).
Finally, in this life the Christian is a witness to the world that Christ saves one from sin and transforms his life.
Men will scorn our Christian testimony unless our lives exhibit true Christian character.
Therefore, the Christian officer should strive to be the very best professional officer possible within his abilities, and he or she should do this in accord with Christian faith and conduct.
9 Practical Methods for Maintaining Professional Excellence
1. Assume the Best
It is good to assume that people are trying to do their best, or that they think they are. Of course this is not always true, but it has the advantage of keeping the commander from being unduly suspicious and critical before there is something to be critical about.
In this way people soon learn that the leader is there to help, not to find fault.
2. Insist on Obedience
Insist on full obedience. Never overlook what appears to be a deliberate disobedience or neglect of duty. Of course, the penalty has to be appropriate to the offense.
One must be sure that the apparent disobedience is not the result of ignorance, inexperience or misunderstanding. Try to get to the true facts before taking action. Then the culprit knows he is getting his just desserts.
He will not like it, but there is no sense of resentment because of injustice. Try never to speak harshly or critically to an individual in the presence of others. Some need a good bawling out: but privately.
Avoid public humiliation of an individual unless that is the only thing that will influence him.
3. Admit Your Mistakes
Sometimes one’s own orders are faulty. Then the only fair thing to do is to accept the responsibility. To admit a mistake will not lower one’s authority or influence; rather the reverse is true.
4. Promote and Assist
After the commander wins his subordinates’ confidence and support, these must be preserved. One of the best ways to lose them is to hold on to a subordinate who can improve his assignment and get a promotion by leaving the organization.
The best policy is to assist to a better assignment and promote anyone who deserves it. One’s people should feel that a job well done for the present commander will be rewarded by a push up the ladder.
Of course, there may be a brief need to retain an officer, but he should not be held longer than the situation really requires. No one is indispensable, and replacements can almost always pick up quickly where their predecessors left off.
5. Handling Disobedience vs. Poor Judgment
It is essential to make a clear distinction between matters of rule and those of judgment. Infractions of rules must be dealt with firmly and quickly. Errors in judgment need correctional instruction.
When I arrived at an activity, usually unexpected, I first looked for something I could recognize as worthy of favorable notice, even if it was only for effort. This done, we were on ground of mutual confidence.
Then I looked for the mistakes or weaknesses. Usually there were a number of these.
After I knew in my mind what the trouble was and how to correct it, I would ask the responsible person simple questions about the matter.
These questions were so framed that he himself soon discovered the error and applied corrective action. In this way I did not wound his ego by telling him he was wrong. By his own thinking he saw a better way to do the thing.
He was learning by himself and not just because I told him the error and its correction. He had achieved something even though he knew I had helped.
Thus was developed initiative, ability to act without feeling dependent on someone else, and the feeling of belonging on the team with me.
This system worked with all ranks.
6. Spend Time With Lowest Ranks
The leader should spend as much time with the lowest ranks as he can. That is where most of the work and the fighting are done.
If the people at these levels are doing what he wants, then there is no great need to worry about intermediate levels.
If the lowest are doing wrong, then by tracing back up the chain of command it is easy to see where the problem originates. Of course, everybody knows this, but too often we neglect to do it.
Further, the higher the command the more difficult it is to do this necessary supervision. That means the commander must make a special effort to get around.
I have found it very easy to discover reasons why one should not leave his command post, but, on analysis, the reasons usually do not hold up.
7. Personally Supervise Training and Combat
Every activity of a unit is important and must be done properly. Some things can be quickly learned and follow definite patterns. Others, like training in purely military subjects and combat techniques, require constant supervision.
Therefore, as a commander, I spent most of my time giving personal supervision to training and combat activities.
In maneuvers and in combat, I took occasion to stress the reasons for success or failure, emphasizing the application of basic tactical principles, and devising methods to meet particular situations.
These instructions were given to regimental and battalion commanders, and there was free discussion. Combat principles are applied so as to fit the existing situations. Too often a particular action, suitable under certain conditions, would be used in a situation sufficiently different to require different methods.
Officers must be trained to analyze situations and utilize the best methods. This instruction paid off in victories and in conservation of lives.
Our soldiers learned they were not just being thrown into battle, but were employed in ways to win quickly and with relatively light losses.
8. Handling Incompetence
An incompetent officer should be eliminated. There is too much at stake to retain such a one. However, I fear that too often officers, particularly commanders, are removed simply because they do not achieve some prescribed result.
Some in higher levels appear to have forgotten that the enemy insists on fighting!
The only legitimate reasons for getting rid of an officer are weaknesses in his basic character or competence.
These include habitually poor judgment, lack of military sense or knowledge, physical failure, worrying or lack of stability under pressure, lack of intelligence, lack of physical or moral courage, failure to maintain discipline, unreliability, etc.
9. Always Think Ahead
The commander should stay ahead of his subordinates. He should be constantly thinking ahead to his objective, whether in training or combat.
He seeks ideas, using his imagination. He sets the pace for his staff, not sitting back waiting for some staff officer to generate ideas he has to accept for want of anything better.
The commander should be the spark that keeps the engine functioning.
About LTG Harrison
Lieutenant General William K. Harrison, Jr., served in the U.S. Army from 1913 to 1956. He was assistant division commander of the 30th Infantry Division, rated by General S.L.A. Marshall as the best division in the European Theater during World War II. He was chief U.N. negotiator at Panmunjom, Korea, and subsequently served as commander in chief of the Caribbean Command.