Final Thoughts on Evaluating Military Leadership at the Operational Level
In recent weeks I have been providing my readers a modest tutorial on the operational art, with an eye toward determining what makes an effective operational level military leader. Let's finish with a final look at those factors that go into determining what makes a particular commander a good one. My hope is that this discussion will further enable the casual military history enthusiast to feel more confident in evaluating for themselves which of their favorite commanders really stack up against the competition.
Though there are many great qualities that are essential in terms of being a good overall military leader (including when fighting on the defensive for instance) we are going to leave that conversation for another day. Our focus here is on the operational level leadership of a fighting force enjoying the initiative and carrying the battle to the enemy. First off, it's important to understand that the biggest initial problem confronting an officer attempting to exercise command at the operational level versus the tactical level is the scope of responsibilities. At the tactical level the commander's focus is on the enemy immediately before him with an eye on the hours or days that follow contact - all with an expectation of further guidance to come from above in regards to what happens beyond this brief period. In contrast, the operational level commander must consider a wide range of potential outcomes from a multitude of battles engaged in across a larger battlefield - in effect anticipating moves dozens of miles and several days if not weeks into the future. In addition, that same commander still has to coordinate the effort to destroy or drive back the enemy armies before him across land, air, and (at times) sea. What's more, a mistake at the tactical level is rarely fatal to a nation's war aims. However, a mistake at the operational level can be catastrophic.
Plodding, workmanlike characteristics and dogged determination along with a fairly close adherence to established doctrine can oftentimes carry the day as a tactical leader. Nevertheless, at the operational level a commander must be visionary, creative, and supremely confident in his abilities as a risk taker to walk that fine line between victory and defeat. A good operational level commander is one who consistently gets inside his opponents decision-loop ,and regardless of what his opponent does invariably forces him into disadvantageous situations. Some have argued this is an outcome of inherent talent. More often than not however, that talent flows from the commander's training, education, and experience (in the field and staff positions). One must not mistakenly assume that it's simply possible to promote veteran officers and expect them to succeed at the operational level. There is no formula in determining whom will become an effective operational level leader versus those that will not. Some commanders seem to be born leaders - able to inspire their men, whip even mediocre fighting forces into shape, and whose men will follow them anywhere. Others struggle no matter how much support they have received. For that matter, a great operational level leader does not fight alone.
Great leaders are typically supported by great staffs. They have also been either fortunate or foresighted enough to appoint sound officers in subordinate leadership roles up and down the ranks of the units under their command. Effective operational level leaders are delegators who learn to lean on and trust their supporting staffs and field commanders. This assumes the trust has been both earned and the supporting officers suitably inspired. Good operational level commanders are effective at reading their staff and determining which officers can be trusted to act on their own and which need guidance that at times can involve the operational level commander stepping in to right a tactical situation that may be spiralling out of control. That said, though it is important for commanders to visit the front even during the Second World War a commander who spent too much time at the front could undermine his larger aims. In particular, by constantly looking over his subordinates shoulder such commanders can all too easily stiffle initiative and creativity at the tactical level. This happens to the detriment of armies that in particular are on the attack and whose own commanders need to be able to act freely to exploit potential breakthroughs, breakouts, pursuit, and exploitation operations. Of course, everything being discussed so far can be condensed down into a single phrase: the exercise of good judgment.
Just as it is insane to think warfare is subject to a set of rules capable of always producing a given result it is equally unreasonable to think that each and every aspect of leadership can be quantified. We all know people who exercise sound judgement and those that don't. We also know that certain elements can influence where one falls on that spectrum. Nevertheless, one might think that within a military culture most leaders that advance up the ranks have proven capable of enough sound judgement to be entrusted with greater responsibilities. That is simply not true. For all the schooling and practice senior officers get by the time they take over an army or army group things like common sense, clear thinking, professionalism, the ability to read and inspire subordinates to produce their best, moral courage, and other such characteristics combined in one person are as rare as they are in any other large organization. For instance, though there are not countless ranks of officers capable of drawing up a good operational level plan of attack there are enough such men that to say one way of identifying a good operational level leader is to see if they are a good planner is more than a bit misleading. That's because it takes judgment and determination to not only create a plan, but execute it, modify it as need be following contact with the enemy, and see it through. A good operational level commander doesn't just sit back and let his plans unfold, but treats them as guidelines followed by living, breathing, tactical level officers who oftentimes must be reminded of what is expected of them and coaxed, encouraged, or pushed into doing their all to ensure the larger campaign's success. Considering the egos an operational level commander is expected to manage this takes not only determination but confidence and drive.
If all of the above sounds exhausting that's because it is - as mentally taxing as combat is physically. Moreover, as a campaign unfolds, sleep diminshes, responsbilities and problems pile up, unforseen situations arise, an enemy proves more resilient than expected, and the myriad other issues a commander must deal with do in fact crop up the effective operational level commander still must maintain the energy to act decisively when need be and in a timely manner. And timeliness is in many ways one of the most important keys to success.
When one speaks of maintaining a high operational tempo what is often forgotten is that having a fully motorized army is great, but greater yet is having a decisive commander in charge. Superior numbers and weapons are wonderful advantages but if you can be beaten to the punch then nine times out of ten you'll be defeated. One of the best ways to maintain a high operational tempo and flexibility is via reacting to circumstances in an expedient manner and relying on trusted subordinates to make decisions without having to refer every issue up the chain of command. The Germans excelled at this, and because their tactical and operational level headquarters teams responded quickly to battlefield changes they often 'ran circles' around their opponents - even though in many cases those same rivals had far greater technical 'mobility' in the sense of tracked and wheeled transport. All of this also brings us back to the discussion of doctrine as a base for moving forward in terms of training, equipping, and organizing an army.
German officers traditionally learned how to think and respond to ever-changing battlefield circumstances at a time when many of their rivals taught their officers what to think. This prepared the German officer corps (and NCO's) to think and act independently and even exercise local control over formations far larger than what their rank in theory allowed them to direct. This was part of a larger conceptual framework of command known auftragstaktik - whereby higher level commanders drafted a simple set of commands and it was up to the lower ranking officers as to not only how to carry them out but adapt to events developing on the ground in such a manner that the larger operational aims were met in a timely and effective manner. This fed into the German system of decentralized command, and the ability of higher ranking officers to trust in subordinate commanders. All of which represented perhaps the key element (along with the widespread use of advanced communications equipment) that allowed a largely horse and foot marching German army to achieve a tempo of operations during the early years of World War II that it's foes often couldn't come to matching.
However, none of that means good commanders can make rash decisions and expect to get away with it or completely ignore what their subordinates are doing. Rather, superior commanders take calculated risks informed by a strong appreciation of the capabilities and means at hand as well as the backing (logistical, air, or otherwise) that enable an army to take a chance and effectively exploit any opportunities that arise. This requires having in place a leader who is realistic, clear thinking, innovative, and resolute. All of which is doubly important when an operational level commander is expected to manage fast moving large units and envision where those component formations will be in the near future. In addition, they must prepare for that future by providing those same units the resources to engineer circumstances as advantageous during the pursuit or exploitation phase of a campaign as those previously created on the first day break-in, break-through, and break-out battles. Needless to say, none of what we have discussed is easy. That's why men who more often than not found Second World War operational success (like Manstein, Patton, Rokossovsky, and select others) attract so much of our attention today.