Slim’s Qualities of a Commander

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GENERAL SIR WILLIAM SLIM, LONDON, ENGLAND, UK, JUNE 1945                                             Photo from Imperial War Museums: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205126260

What would you give to hear the man many have called the greatest British general of all time give a talk on leadership? In 1952 Field Marshal Sir William Slim did so at Fort Leavenworth and it was reproduced through Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and then in the pages of Military Review (page 10). Dylan and I have been reviewing it ourselves and not only is there a ton to pull out but there’s a lot that links to many other fascinating leadership topics. Here I’m going to look at the Qualities of a Commander that Slim listed and see if we can make some comparisons.

Slim named five qualities that make a commander. They include Determination, Judgment, Flexibility of Mind, Knowledge and Integrity. If we look at his explanations, we can pull even more out of his reasoning and then specifically which facets of these qualities he seems to highlight the most. For me it’s most interesting to look at his background, approach and habits and wonder how his experiences in the First World War and in Asia in the Second led him to believe these things. I’ll use some comparisons with other sources to contrast as well.

The first, and most important quality Slim mentions is Determination – or what he calls willpower. It seems to fit perfectly with a military priority of mission accomplishment – but the interesting thing is that if you look at the US Army’s attributes of a leader, Army values, etc. you won’t find determination anywhere – much less in first place (actually in the US Army’s leadership manual, ADRP 6-22, you get the word 3 times: referring to judgment & ethics, under the 4th bullet “displays character” in the competency “Leads by Example”, and in a description of delegation). Slim’s explanation is that a commander’s going to find opposition everywhere – internally his staff and subordinate commanders will tell him that what he’s asking is impossible, or inadvisable, so he has to push through that.  Additionally allies, as he illustrates in his famous quote, present all kinds of roadblocks.  Finally, as American commanders today are so fond of saying, “the enemy has a vote” and of course is not just trying to resist you but trying to defeat you in other ways.  A commander needs strong sense of determination to get what he wants to accomplish through all of that. If a commander couldn’t overcome, remove or bypass obstacles to success, he wouldn’t accomplish much – and in Slim’s view, wouldn’t be a commander.

The part of Slim’s Determination focus that squares with current US Army teaching is his idea that determination is rooted in moral courage – which maps to integrity and personal courage in some ways.  If I understand where Slim’s headed with this, it’s that in order to have a strong sense of determination, the leader has to be himself convinced that what he’s doing is right, worth doing and honestly, worth risking his job. So many military leaders talk on and on about moral courage, but Slim lays it out best here:

“Moral courage simply means that you do what you think is right without bothering too much about the effect on yourself. That is the courage that you will have to have. You must be as big as your job and you must not be too afraid of losing it. It does not matter what your job is, whether supreme commander or lance corporal, you must not be too afraid of losing it – some people are. So the one quality no leader can do without is determination, based on moral courage.”

The second quality Slim lists is Judgment – he says that in many ways it could be as important as determination.  He explains that it’s a special kind of judgment that’s needed because it’s using imperfect and incomplete information (almost echoing Clausewitz).  Slim explains that a good sense of judgment of human beings is an important facet – a commander needs to know the best man for the task, based on his own qualities. This leads to the importance of delegation – a judgment sense of ‘what should I be making the calls on and what should my subordinates be making the calls on’.

Slim has a great explanation of his ideas on keeping his decision workload simple and focused on the future rather than the past – which Dylan will explain in another post. Where Slim really links his quality of judgment to so many others is his explanation of a “lucky commander” – what he explains isn’t really luck but a sixth sense for choosing the right way forward. Slim says it’s a combination of “training, knowledge, observation and character” that allows a commander to be right more often than wrong and explains it through the image of a painter mixing paints. His is another way of explaining the Fingerspitzengefühl concept or Clausewitz’s combination of coup d’oeil & conviction. In a final note he says a commander must be able to balance his determination and judgment – calling to mind the Kurt von Hammerstein-Eqúord 2×2 of initiative and intelligence.

Slim speaks little of the value of Flexibility of Mind but lists it nonetheless as a quality of a commander. He defines it as adapting to changes in war ranging from innovation to politics to the weather. The valuable part is that he sees conflict between flexibility of mind and determination and that a leader needs to seek a balance – “see that your strength of will does not become just obstinacy and that your flexibility of mind does not become mere vacillation”.

Slim notes knowledge as being another quality of a commander – and lists both knowledge of friendly forces (their capabilities and limitations and the capabilities and limitations of their equipment, as well as their context) and enemy forces and their character as being the core of this – and he explicitly mentions a knowledge of the enemy commander. What this points to is experience – it would take an obscene amount of study to equal the decades of experience a Field Marshal would have – there is likely no substitute for experience in this regard.

What’s really interesting about Slim’s description of a commander’s requisite knowledge is what he calls “the real test of a great commander in the field” and mentions an argument with Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. Slim says it’s a commander’s ability to “be a judge of administrative risk”. Now Brits use the term “administrative” or “admin” more than just a bit differently than us and from my own experience seem to use it interchangeably with “logistics”, “supply” and “task organization” depending on the context. I’m assuming he’s saying that judging administrative risk is, as he mentions before, the ability “to know…if he can do it with the resources he has” – and if that’s the case the “resources” include task organization. The ability to know accurately whether or not a unit could accomplish a military task given all the obstacles and adversarial forces would indeed be a good indicator of the skill of a commander and would require significant knowledge and great judgment.

Integrity is usually what most modern writers of leadership content list as the first and most important quality of a commander – and often saying that without it you can’t have the rest.  But this view contradicts what many observers of leaders have seen. Today the list is long and distinguished that names the great leaders we’ve had in the US that have rather publically shown a want for integrity. Personally I’ve known leaders – commanders – who’ve displayed good leadership traits in many ways but lacked integrity in others. So I’d say it’s not a requirement to be a leader – but maybe a requirement to be a good leader – the kind the led say they’d follow to hell and back – and more than that a leader they actually do follow to hell. Slim says integrity is required for a commander to lead in the bad times – when nothing is going right and the outlook for the future is dire as well. If I read him correctly and apply my own experience it’s that integrity allows the led to be convinced that what he’s doing is right, worth doing and undergoing great hardship for, and honestly, worth risking his life. Without it the led may believe that the goals set by his commander may not be the right ones – that the led may be risking his life for some selfish personal gain of the commander. In this way, integrity may be the way the commander lends his own strong sense of determination to each member of his command.

Maybe one of the larger things I found interesting about what Slim wrote is that command is earned through success – and not a thing given.  This seems different from the way we look at it today.  Slim is also known for having had great self-knowledge and humility and not only does it seem to shine through here, it makes for a pretty lucid and revelatory explanation of an often clouded topic.

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