1998 by William A. Cohen
rights reserved, but may be quoted or reproduced with attribution.
Management thinker Peter
Drucker wrote that Xenophon authored the first systematic book on leadership,
two thousand years ago, and it was still the best. Xenophon was a general, and
his book was on battle leadership.
That battle leadership is impressive should be no surprise. The
environment is unbelievably severe with significant hazards and poor “working
conditions.” It may be the only activity where both followers and leaders would
rather be somewhere else. As Drucker noted, “In no other type of leadership must
the leader make decisions based on less, or less reliable,
battle represents a “worst case” condition where traditional motivators such as
high pay, good benefits, and job security aren't much good and there
is no “business as usual.”
I started by surveying more than 200 former combat leaders from all four military services that had become successful after leaving the armed forces. Among the responses I received, 62 were from generals and admirals. I asked these extraordinary leaders what they had learned from leadership in battle.
Napoleon had 115 principles on the conduct of war. Surprisingly, ninety-five percent of the responses from all these outstanding leaders boiled down to only eight principles on the conduct of leadership.
Afterwards, I interviewed other successful senior business leaders and reviewed dozens of corporate situations and the actions taken by these corporations’ senior leaders.[ii] I also looked at 7000 years of recorded history to confirm these concepts. There was an abundance of evidence to support the eight universal “laws” I had uncovered.
1. Maintain Absolute Integrity
Major General John Grinalds, a Marine Corps combat leader who is now
President of the Citadel, told me: “The most important action a leader must take
to be successful in or out of combat is to keep his integrity. The leader must
always maintain integrity first, no matter what.” Most combat leaders expressed
this sentiment. They told me it was the root law.
Know Your Stuff
subordinates don't care how good you are at office politics or managing your
career. They want to know whether or not you know and do your stuff. As retired
Air Force Colonel John Haas commented, “If you can’t find the target and deliver
the ordnance accurately, you shouldn’t be leading.”
Declare Your Expectations
You can get "there" until you know where "there" is. Once you establish
your expectations: goals, objectives and vision, then you must declare them at
every opportunity. From the deck of the severely battle-damaged Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones
responded to the demand for his surrender with, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
This wasn’t only a response. It was a declaration of expectations to his crew.
These were fulfilled when they sunk his adversary, the HMS Separis.
Show Uncommon Commitment
won’t follow you if they think that your commitment is temporary, or that you
may quit the goal short of attainment. If you want them to be committed, you
must show uncommon commitment.
Joshua Chamberlain was ordered to hold Little Round Top on the second day of the
Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. After repulsing repeated attacks by
superior numbers, his troops were out of ammunition. His officers advised a
withdrawal. Instead, he ordered “fix bayonets” and then a charge. Some
historians today say his uncommon commitment on this occasion saved the battle
and saved the Union.
Expect Positive Results
Xenophon was completely surrounded a thousand miles from help. He told his officers: “All of these soldiers have their eyes on you, and if they see that you are downhearted they will become cowards, while if you are yourselves clearly prepared to meet the enemy and if you call on the rest to do their part, you can be sure that they will follow you and try to be like you.”[iii]
Take Care of Your People
As a Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam, Marshall Carter,
personally went under fire to retrieve one of his wounded. He says, “A leader
must always take personal responsibility for the welfare of those he is
Duty has two main components, the mission, and your people. Sometimes, the mission comes first, and sometimes your people. However, if you are a real leader, one thing never comes first, and that is your personal interests and well being.
Commander Howard Gilmore was skipper of the submarine, USS Growler, during World War II. Under fire from a Japanese gunboat, Gilmore ordered all to clear the deck. Before he could get below himself, he was wounded by enemy fire and could not get to the hatch to enter the submarine. For his men to return to drag him inside could result in a fatal delay. So, Commander Gilmore gave his final order even though he knew it meant his own death: “Take her down.”
Fortunately, non-combat situations don't require this kind of sacrifice.
But Gilmore gives us something to think about in any leader environment.
Out in Front
John Keegan, the military historian wrote a classic treatise on the
essence of military leadership in The
Mask of Command. He concluded, “The first and greatest imperative of command
is to be present in person.”[iv] That
means getting out and seeing and being seen. Only in this way can you set the
I call the eight universal laws, "The Stuff of Heroes." If you apply
them, they'll work for you today as they worked for Xenophon . . . in battle or
Peter F., meeting with the author, November 7, 1997.
[ii] See Cohen,
William A. The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight
Universal Laws of Leadership (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1998) pp. 263-266
for a complete list of interviews and contributors.
The Persian Expedition, translated by Rex
Warner,(Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949) p. 104
John, The Mask of Command, (New York:
Penguin Books, 1988), p.329.