Military leadership, while necessarily incorporating many of the attributes associated with the role in general, is nonetheless a unique form of leadership. It is typically more emphatic because its demands are more urgent, and the consequences of it have impacts not generated by other types. Even a cursory examination of several United States leaders of the armed forces illustrates this distinction, and despite differences in agendas and eras. Individual force of personality is certainly one primary component, but there are others as well common to such leaders. Variations in approaches and traits aside, it may be asserted that U.S. army leaders invariably exhibit the qualities of absolute commitment, commanding presence, and a consistent regard for the welfare of their troops.
General Douglas MacArthur, widely accepted as the foremost military commander of World War II, reveals something of the quality of awareness of his troops’ needs within the ideology he espoused. MacArthur exists in the popular mind as a fiercely dictatorial army general, and one notorious for utterly dominating his subordinates and the military scenario. Behind this persona, however, was an awareness of the actual states of being of his soldiers, and of a kind noting their internal motivations and potentials. Having experienced World War I, MacArthur comprehended that the arena of war itself had changed in this later conflict; the rigorous discipline of training once considered essential was, to his mind, no longer valid. War had expanded in such a way as to combine culture and the military, and there was no longer any real benefit in forces trained to operate independently from their own conceptions of what the war meant. The soldiers, he believed, were integrated within the nation for which they were fighting and required little more than command directing them1. Here, then, is a distinct example of a great army leader understanding his men, existing in concert with MacArthur’s legendary and commanding presence.
Turning to the epoch of the Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee most certainly exemplifies the three traits noted as consistent within great U.S. army leaders. Lee has been documented as reflecting a Southern chivalry in his command, and one more concerned with the personal than with the institutional elements of the war. This translated to actual command, in that the essential relationship between Lee and his subordinates required that he judge their capabilities keenly. On more than one occasion, Lee would understate the gravity of the circumstances by asserting that it would be “unfortunate” if he could not rely upon those serving him2. This watchfulness, which took the form of a deeply intent interest in all the machinations and compositions of his men, also demonstrates the foundational motive fueling the general. For Lee, it was his obligation to do his utmost for the Confederate cause, no matter the outcome; his commitment to the cause was implacable, as he trusted in God to assist in the rightness of it3. Charismatic and forceful, Lee nonetheless consisted manifested the regard for his men common to great army leaders, as well as an unalterable dedication to the greater goal.
- Christopher D. Kolenda, Leadership: The Warrior’s Art (Carlisle: Army War College Foundation Press, 2001), 253-254. (N)
- Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 246. (N)
Lastly, few leaders of any era are as identified with powerful command than General George Patton. He exists as an icon of stern authority, just as his indefatigable commitment to winning is legendary. It is then not surprising to note that Patton, and particularly in his efforts with his Third Army, maintained a vigilant awareness of all the needs and activities of his men. This was not necessarily concern of a humanist nature, yet it nonetheless secured related and essential ambitions: the welfare of the men had to be ensured if the war effort was to be successful. To that end, he strictly monitored actual counts of fighting men, never permitting them to exceed numbers that would threaten vital mobility4. In this case, and as with other great army leaders, it may be argued that intelligence, rather than actual concern, motivated the attentions to troop welfare. This does not, however, diffuse the meaning or the impact of such attention; rather, it merely emphasizes that the highly intelligent commander comprehends the need to oversee the welfare of his men.
As noted, there are many facets to great leadership, just as the military variety reflects agendas of greater import, and consequently demands leadership of a “larger than life” kind. Exemplifying this are MacArthur, Lee, and Patton, but more pertinent is how three distinct qualities are shared by them, and have gone to their lasting fame as truly great leaders. As these legends amply demonstrate, U.S. army leaders of note uniformly exhibit qualities of absolute commitment, commanding presence, and a consistent regard for the welfare of their troops.
- Hubert Essame, Patton: As Military Commander (New York: De Capo Press, 1998), 120. (N)
Essame, Hubert. Patton: As Military Commander. New York: De Capo Press, 1998. (B)
Kolenda, Christopher D. Leadership: The Warrior’s Art. Carlisle: Army War College Foundation Press, 2001. (B)
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. (B)