#88 It Seems So Simple

Yesterday on Facebook I came across a link to a video presentation by COL (Ret) Jim Helis of the U.S. Army War College given on September 8, 2010, entitled "An Introduction to Clausewitz". I decided to watch it to see what is being taught at the Army's premier senior leader development school.  If you are interested you can find the link to the video here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AA8PUzLcacs

(If for some reason, the link doesn't work, you can go to You Tube and type US Army War College into the search bar.  The video will be towards the top of the page.)

Toward the end of Dr. Helis' presentation there are a series of slides that seek to clarify Clausewitz's theories in bullet form.  With regard to the role of theory, Clausewitz said:

"Theory is used to clarify concepts and ideas that, as it were, have become confused and entangled."

"Theory is used to educate the mind of the commander."

"Theory is used to illuminate all phases of warfare in a thorough critical inquiry."

The next slide outlined Clausewitz's thoughts on all previous military theory...

"Previous attempts at theory are absolutely useless."
"They aim at fixed values, but in war everything is uncertain."

"Dominance of psychological forces and effects."

"War is a continuous interaction of opposites."
In the final slide that caught my eye, Dr. Helis outlined some key ideas of Clausewitian theory.

"War is an instrument of policy."
"Battle is the decisive means in war which is "An act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."
"Friction and fog are inevitable, which together can bring chance and uncertainty into play."

A final bullet that caught my attention was the idea that in war there exists a "Play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam"

What struck me about these quotations is how simple they are.  "War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will" Well, duh!  What else would it be?  "Friction and fog are inevitable, which together bring chance and uncertainty into play." Welcome to my everyday life!  These quotes seemed almost self-evident to me and seemed to beg the question why is Clausewitz considered one of the greatest military theorists of all time?  This stuff is pretty obvious.  And then it struck me.  Like any other scientific theory, the beauty of Clausewitz may lie precisely in it's simplicity and universal appeal. He is speaking much more to the art of observation, consideration and thought and much less to the science of maneuver, mass and structure.

So then I started to turn the idea of simplicity towards leadership.  Could it be that leadership
is not really all that hard after all?  Maybe all we need to look for are the basic principles of leadership and accept that the manner and method is really just technique.   Has the Army confused leadership with management and tried to replace the dynamic environment of human interaction with the structural environment of institutional management?  Maybe, like Clausewitz stated we could use theory "to clarify concepts that have become confused and entangled." Consider these ideas....

1.  You lead people.  You manage structures. (Seems pretty obvious)

2.  In leading people, there must be an understanding that due to individual free will, there will always be friction, uncertainty, psychological interaction and chance. (This is an intuitive understanding that people do not really think about.)

Pretty simple ideas actually, but they are both layered with complexities that deserve a lot more consideration.  For example, the recognition that leadership happens on human terrain, while management happens on structural terrain.  If you take that idea and look at the Army or any other large entity, one thing you will find is an effort to impose the structure and it's ethics and norms, on the human terrain.  We call it order and discipline.  It is, at it's core, a restriction of individual free will by the structure in order to increase efficiency.  Willful or not, the structure works against free will.  The quest for an orderly structure - the perfect system - works against the the development of individual people.  Almost our entire military education system is built upon learning how to manage the structure, not lead the people.

Take the second thought, that in order to lead people there must be an awareness and understanding that they retain some level of individual free will and because of that there will always be confrontations of interaction, uncertainty of understanding and the ability to take advantage of chance and circumstance.  This is leadership completely independent of the organizational structure.

I think these ideas are pretty important.  As I have mentioned in the last couple of posts, some very senior Army leaders are starting to look at how we lead.  The idea that, as Gen Dempsey stated, "There are weak signals out there." Maybe some of our ideas on leadership have become overly confused and entangled but there is beginning to be an awareness that our concentration on structure and roles has had a significant impact on the people.
If you look at the Army leader development schools, at least the ones I have attended, they paid scant attention to the difference between leading people and managing structures.  What the institution called 'leading' a squad, platoon, company etc was actually a series of classes on how to efficiently manage it.  How to use this or that tool, program, or process, to increase it's efficiency and effectiveness.  The study of the people was not part of the curriculum.  More importantly, neither was the study of ourselves.  There was an assumption that each of us was fully formed in our understanding of the human being that we are and the human beings that we led.  There was no real recognition that all human beings retain some degree of free will that will effect their interaction with the structure and can lead to friction and confusion. The behavioral problems we are struggling with now may be a result of not providing titular leaders with the ability to recognize and deal with this friction.

To bring this idea forward, go back and look at a lot of the people issues I have been mentioning lately such as suicide, domestic violence, the allure of combat, drug and alcohol abuse etc.  It seems to me that there is a possibility that we may be struggling with these human issues because almost all of our study and consideration has been on the structure of the institution and not the basic principle that we lead human beings who posses free will and individual orientations towards their world.  Maybe if we spent more time looking at the basic premise that leadership is vastly different than management we could begin to effect some necessary changes that the institution is struggling with.  Maybe these are Gen Dempsey's 'weak signals' and LTG Caslen's recognition of the need for candor.

Watch what happens when you replace some words in Clausewitz's theories:
Leadership is the continuous interaction of opposites.

In leadership everything is uncertain.

The very first sentence of FM 1, "The Army" is, "First and foremost the Army is Soldiers." That is a very profound sentence because it recognizes the primacy of the human being and recognizes that without the people, there is no institution.  We have a tendency to overlook that when we make statements such as "the Army is bigger than the individual."  When we do that we are replacing the primacy of the person with the primacy of the institution and thereby rendering the opening line of FM 1 untrue. This has also led directly to the concentration in our leader development programs on the institution and not the people.

Free flowing thought:  The Army is people...People possess free will and independent thought...Human interaction leads to the friction and fog of differing orientation's...Leadership may be the continuous interaction of those differing orientations...There must be a primacy of psychological understanding...The outcome of leadership at the human being level is uncertain...The structure imposes it's own force on the individual in the form of management.

If you accept the thoughts above, then the recognition that we need to change our 'leader' development strategies to do three things become clear.  First, we need to separate leading and managing.  Second, we need to accept that a significant portion of leadership is the recognition of the psychological forces that work upon the individual.  Finally, there is need to study the area where human being leadership and institutional management intersect.  The solution to most of our current struggles with behavioral issues is most likely hovering around this intersection.

As Clausewitz recognized, a theory is used to clarify concepts and ideas that have become confused.  While my thoughts above are not complete (and have likely added confusion, not clarifying it), they do meet certain criteria for a theory of leadership.  They are universal and they are simple.  What seems obvious on the surface however, is actually very nuanced and complex.  By looking at the institution and its' effect on the people and then looking at the people themselves, and most critically by advancing our self-study and orientation, we can likely gain a wider understanding of leadership and it's applications in a dynamic world.

As always, your thought and comments are welcome.


  1. Jeff, keep the thoughts coming.

    Here's my immediate response to your latest. The problems that you cited (suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse) were there prior to our latest "long war" and will be there even if this one diminishes into some sort of peace. You are correct that the Army doesn't spend much time talking about human dynamics in the classroom. Most of that occurs during informal interaction with our leaders outside of the classroom. I wonder how many new platoon leaders are surprised to discover that there is a segment of their soldiers that are not only going to disagree with their orders but will also willfully disobey them? It is a wonderful thing to have a seasoned platoon sergeant teamed with a new platoon leader to help identify those who are likely to disobey. Even this designed partnership assumes that each of the two human beings fulfilling their roles are imbued with the Army values. Unfortunately, many Americans are discovering that not everyone is a hero. Some people do bad things and sometimes without any reason other than to please themselves.

    On the other hand, I am not arguing for leadership oriented toward the lowest common denominator. A philosophy of that sort is just as dysfunctional as the opposite philosophy of "everybody's a hero".

  2. Great blog....leadership at its most basic level is a human to human contact....sounds simple but is quite complex...because humans are complex...

    plus, before leading others, we must be able to lead ourselves; which requires self-awareness and self-regulation....

    these 2 constructs are DISCUSSED a lot in leadership - in terms of WHAT they are.....but we don't TEACH them.....I am working on how to TEACH them....

    finally, to be most successful at human to human interaction - one must learn EMPATHY....lots written about that topic....check out Harry Garner's article in Military Review (Nov/Dec 2009)....

    and empathy has NOTHING to do with being weak or soft.....it means understanding something from someone else's perspective