We have written before about what a singularly successful leader Field Marshal William Slim was. We discuss his leadership and some of his thoughts on commanders here and here. His Command Philosophy was simple. We think it also makes a hell of a lot of sense regardless of what sort of organization you might lead.
No Details, No paper and No regrets! Each of these self-admonishments serve to sharpen a leader’s exercise of that crucial skill – judgment.
No details! Don’t go about setting machine guns on different sides of bushes. That is done a damn sight better by a Platoon Leader.”
No Details! There is a very fine art to knowing the level of detail you should concern yourself with at any given level of responsibility. Pay too little attention and you are disengaged and ineffective; pay too much attention at too fine a level and you micromanage – doubling the work. Employ people you trust and trust them to do their jobs well. Don’t kill your subordinates’ confidence and productivity by getting involved where you have no business doing so. Be mindful of the appropriate level for your attention and strive to focus your efforts and attention there.
No Paper! Do not have people coming to you with huge files, telling you all about it. Make the man explain it; and if he cannot explain it, get somebody who can.”
No Paper! Leaders need to surround themselves with people who can communicate. No leader has time to read every report and digest every piece of information themselves. You must rely on others to distill information for you and communicate that which is pertinent to your decisions. This “No Paper” philosophy isn’t really about paper at all – it’s really about making sure your key subordinates can communicate. This precept is all the more relevant today and it could be restated in 2017 as “No PowerPoint.” SECDEF, Retired Marine General Jim Mattis famously claimed that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” and National Security Advisor Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster banned its use in his headquarters in Iraq for similar reasons. Of course, PowerPoint doesn’t actually “make you stupid.” But, it can allow your thinking to become muddled and your message unclear. Practice the arts of verbal and written communication. Decide what really matters, get your message across and give your people the space and support to make things happen. As the original “Mad Man” George Louis said, “Think long. Write Short.”
No Regrets! What is the next problem? Get on to that. Do not sit in the corner weeping about what might have been done.”
No Regrets! Use your talent and judgment to do the best that you can. Having done so, do not become paralyzed with over-analysis when things don’t go exactly as you had envisioned. This is not an excuse for failing to conduct proper “After Action Reviews” or failing to examine lessons learned – this is an admonishment against indulging in that incapacitating and selfish habit of regret. Do not allow regret to rob you of your momentum.
How does a leader bridge the gaps of religion, language and culture to build a cohesive and effective team with people from vastly different cultures?
Allies are really very extraordinary people. It is astonishing how obstinate they are, how parochially minded, how ridiculously sensitive to prestige and how wrapped up in obsolete political ideas. It is equally astonishing how they fail to see how broad-minded you are, how clear your picture is, how up-to-date you are and how cooperative and big-hearted you are. It is extraordinary! Let me tell you, when you feel like that about your allies, just remind yourself of two things: First, that you are an ally too, and that all allies look just the same. If you walk to the other side of the table, you will look just like that fellow sitting opposite. The next thing to remember is that there is only one thing worse than having allies – that is not having allies.”
– Field Marshall William Slim
We hear every day that our world is increasingly interconnected and that the teams we work with and lead are more diverse. What does this mean for organizational leaders? What unique leadership challenges do diverse organizations pose? Why is leadership in these settings so extremely demanding? How do we achieve that alignment of purpose without a common context?
Successful leadership of diverse teams requires creating a new group culture and shared purpose. Leading coalitions is a challenge as old as Western civilization itself. Our greatest cultural heroes from Achilles to the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc were part of warrior coalitions. Those great armies shared values and a culture that brought the Greeks and the Allied powers together against the common enemies of their times. While historical coalitions usually enjoyed the blessings of common languages, cultures, and values, today’s organizations are often far more diverse and have fewer shared values with much less in common culturally. Leading diverse organizations can be more challenging and often requires leaders to create a shared purpose and culture out of whole cloth where none exists. Often lacking true unity of command, coalition leaders must create unity of effort through commitment based influence founded on mutual trust and respect.
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and earned respect.”
Case Study Burma 1943 The Forgotten Army:
The 14th Army’s triumph in British India under the leadership of Field Marshall William Slim offers a study in effective leadership of an incredibly diverse organization under the most difficult conditions. Following many months of severe Allied losses and setbacks in the theatre, Slim took command of the newly created 14th Army in Burma in 1943. The 14th Army was composed of over one million men from all corners of the earth. They came from the armies of India, Nepal, Africa, China, the United Kingdom and its commonwealth nations, and the United States. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who spoke countless different languages found a home in its ranks. At best, this sounds like the set up for a bad joke about “walking into a bar…” at worst, it is certainly a recipe for rancor and discord. Imagine the difficulties in leading such an organization under the best of circumstances… Slim understood that all of these differences would make command of the army very challenging. However, he grasped the importance of personal influence and building a common purpose and possessed a style of leadership well suited to his new command. This made all the difference and allowed the 14th Army to accomplish the nearly impossible.
In a speech to officers at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College many years after the war, which Brady already mentioned in his post on Slim’s Qualities of a Commander, Slim defined Command as “…the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” You see, Slim understood that he could not rely on his position and rank to afford him sufficient influence. Success for the 14th Army required personal, commitment-based influence and a shared sense of purpose. Slim had to create that. As Army commander, he made an effort to visit each battalion in his million-man army to speak personally with his soldiers. He shared with them, in one on one conversations, often in their native tongue, his goals and vision and tried to learn from this diverse group what he could of their cultures, motivations and values. Slim made an express priority of conveying his vision and purpose directly to his soldiers despite the army’s incredibly vast dispersion and size. He did this because he believed the foundations of morale were “spiritual, intellectual, and material in that order.” He envisioned an army where each soldier believed his work was directly linked to the accomplishment of an attainable and noble goal in which leaders valued their men’s lives and placed an emphasis on providing as best they could for the soldier’s needs. This was truly revolutionary stuff for a British commander of his generation to think and say. “He believed that be they British, Indian, Gurkha or African, if they were told the reason for fighting, the justice of the cause and the importance of beating the enemy, and were kept in the picture … they would respond with enthusiasm.” He communicated his vision. Slim’s success shows the profound power of creating shared values, a shared organizational culture, and providing a shared purpose and vision. The most successful organizations today understand this as well.
Command is the projection of personality…that mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion by which you get men to do what you want them to do, even if they do not want to do it themselves.” – Slim
The primacy of personal influence is something most civilians miss when studying military leaders. Hollywood gives the idea that men march off to their deaths because another man with one or two more chevrons tells him to. This misses the mark badly. Men follow a leader out of something much closer to love and an earned respect. Greatness in the most demanding circumstances can only be accomplished through a leader with strong personal influence with his soldiers. This concept has been discussed at length in business and management circles for some time. Slim understood this better than most. He recognized that his positional power as a British Field Marshall and Army Commander would not be sufficient to lead his new army.
Slim’s interactions with the American Lt.Gen. Joseph Stilwell demonstrated the power of his personal influence. General Stilwell, the commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the region, had a reputation as a maverick, eccentric, and borderline insubordinate, if brilliant, commander. The man’s personality was such that his nickname was “Vinegar Joe.” Draw your own conclusions… If there were ever a commander who held positional power in contempt and disregard, it was Stilwell. He had previously refused to serve under any British commander, dangerously dividing the already fragile coalition. He also expressed a strong and general dislike of the British officer class and of the British goals in the region. However, upon taking command of the 14th Army, Slim was able to win Stilwell’s admiration and loyalty. With an impressive combat record of his own, Slim appealed to Stilwell’s warrior ethos and, as a man of very humble origins himself, Slim was able to sympathize with the American’s republican distaste for the aristocratic trappings of many other British commanders. Slim convinced Stilwell to follow his lead. In doing so, Slim saved the coalition and brought the American forces back into the fight as part of the 14th Army that ultimately defeated the Japanese in Burma in the spring of 1945.
Slim shows those qualities of leadership necessary to build a successful coalition from an incredibly diverse and dispirited force. His wisdom rings true through my and Brady’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combat leadership across a language and cultural barrier requires skillful perception and introspection. Influencing men who are not formally under your command – or even in your army – don’t speak your language, don’t share your culture or worship your God demands that you explain the justice of your common cause and the importance of beating the enemy and that you keep them always informed and treat them with respect. They must trust you and you must trust them.
What analogies can we make to the world of business? What is the most crucial ingredient to building a shared culture? How can we achieve alignment of effort across cultural and language barriers?
 Field Marshall Sir William Slim Defeat Into Victory.
 Defeat Into Victory.
 Sir Geoffrey Charles Evans, Slim as Military Commander (London: Batsford, 1969), 215.
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.