Some Thoughts on Leadership Literature

Leadership has been the subject of an extraordinary amount of dogmatically stated nonsense

Chester Barnard, ‘The Nature of Leadership’[1]


Expressed in its simplest terms, a leader is one who can get people to follow him. Such a person can, of course, be good or bad.

Field Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, The Path to Leadership[2]

Leadership remains one of the most written about but least understand phenomenon in military history. This problem is consistent with much of the wider leadership literature, for example, as Barnard laments, much has been written about the phenomenon with few adequately defining, or analysing, it. The subject of leadership, and its associated elements of command and management, has vexed many writers. Keith Grint, in his work The Arts of Leadership, notes that when he began writing on the subject in 1986 he felt he knew all that there was on the issue, based on his career in the trade unions, and that since that point his understanding has decreased with increased knowledge; the idea of the Socratic problem.[3] This is because much of the literature on leadership is either contradictory or ill conceived and is the victim of much dogmatic nonsense such as the idea of ‘Great Captains of History’ or ‘military genius’.

Carl Von Clausewitz has written on ‘military genius’ that it is a ‘complex activity…[that]…calls for appropriate gifts of intellect and temperament.’[4] Clausewitz argued that military genii called for intellect, temperament, determination, courage and strength of character.[5] He is certainly right that leadership is a complex activity, however, he concentrates his discussion on those leaders in the strategic realm of leadership such as Charles XII of Sweden and Napoleon I and leaves little discussion as to how these concepts relates effectively to leadership at the other levels of war. Despite this, his basic traits do have applicability to leadership but as with many works he fails to note the context and variability of contingency that has become prevalent in the developing literature. In modern warfare are there other traits that have an impact on effective leadership, for example, Clausewitz does not consider possible traits such as honesty, vision, competency and inspiration. Indeed, while he discusses courage he does not link this concept to vision, and the ability of a leader to examine developments effectively is an important aspect of effective leadership. Similarly, Clausewitz does not, or cannot given his historical context, predict the changing character of warfare and drew many of his examples from the wars in which he either had experience or had studied. Indeed as Strachan has noted he debated the origins of modern war for the basis of his critic of war.[6] Therefore, when discussing intellect it related more to the deployment of troops on the battlefield and not the technical and conceptual knowledge that would be required by air power leaders in the twentieth century. However, while these traits are useful endogenous markers for an effective leader they do not account for exogenous elements that impact upon the nature of combat such as the friction and fog of war, personalities, technological change, organisational culture, morale, and of course the enemy’s activity. It should be noted that Clausewitz’s view on leadership, like his wider view of war, was based on his reading of eighteenth century philosophy, and military thought dating back to Machiavelli’s The Prince, thus, like contemporary leadership theory, it built upon previous foundation and in many respect it represents a debate between Kantian and Hegelian philosophical views.[7]  A useful example of an antecedent of Clausewitz is Maurice de Saxe’s view that the art of war was divisible into two elements; the soldier’s trade and generalship, with the latter requiring genius that could not be taught to everyone, which fits with the enlightened model of the eighteenth century.[8]

However, despite this criticism, leaders, and leadership, as noted, remain a popular subject for historians and popular writers alike with biographies remaining an ever present subject on bookshelves. Its importance has recently been recognised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is funding a joint program at the Universities of Nottingham and Southampton into the future of biography.[9] Indeed, for military historians it is one of the most effective methods of making operational military history commercially popular.[10] However, as discussed in the introduction, this form of writing remains focussed on ‘Great Men’ and places them centre stage and ignores the context of the period from which they emanate. This issue of de-contextualisation and the over-reliance on personal papers brings this form of study into question and can produces works of hagiographical and narrative based accounts that do not consider issues of effectiveness or context.

The literature on leadership can be divided into two broad churches of study; the social scientists and historians. While there has been some cross-pollination of ideas, mostly from the social scientists using historical case studies as their examples, the literature suffers from problems that need to be addressed when considering leadership effectiveness. The social science school can be split into three distinct schools; the pure social scientist, the psychologist, and the business school. For the purpose of this thesis, the latter can be placed to one side and is best represented by titles such as Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers, which have added little to our understanding of leadership and seek to pull lessons from successful leaders, both from the business and military worlds, while not analysing why they are effective.[11] The development of the social science school of analysis can be broken down into the following approaches; trait, situational, contingency, and most recently the constitutive approach.[12] Each of these approaches have fed into the development of the next and produced a broader and richer understanding of the leadership phenomenon. They represent the historical development of the intellectual basis of the field which has developed over the twentieth century. Indeed as already noted literature on trait theory was prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and would have formed the basis of Leigh-Mallory’s contemporary understanding of the subject and cannot be ignored.[13] However, the work of the social scientists have brought much to the question of leadership and is perhaps best represented by James Macgregor Burns’ seminal work Leadership, which introduced the concept of transformational literature to the field.[14] This has become the seminal concept that has framed debate on the nature of leadership for the past thirty years. For Burns, there is a reciprocal relationship between the leader and follower with links to morale and motivation; an important consideration for military leadership. It is his contention that transformational leaders produce better followers and lead to a more effective working environment. Indeed works by prominent experts such as Keith Grint and Bernard Bass owe much Burns’ writings.[15] Grint’s own work, grounded in the ideas of transformational and transactional leadership, on the Normandy Campaign is based on his use of the concept of tame and wicked problems in the decision making process and based on the work of Horst Rittel and Max Webber.[16] While these works offer a useful theoretical construct of analysis they suffer from being routed in the specific example that they are applied to; for Burns it was political leadership and most recently, and interestingly for this thesis, for Grint it is leadership in the Normandy.  However, in many cases these works ignore the context in which the leaders worked and the organisation from which they emanated. Indeed, we can return to the work of R M Stodgill in the 1940s who stressed the importance of the organisational culture in which a leader worked as an example of the importance of context.[17] However, this situational view has been criticised for not taking into account issues such as followership and self-awareness. The concept of followership takes the transformational relationship one step further and is also linked to what Barbara Kellerman refers to as ‘bad leadership’.[18] The question of bad leadership has raised the question of toxicity in organisations and what effect an individual can have on that organisations performance.[19] Indeed in a recent volume on air force leadership Leigh-Mallory was used by Sebastian Cox as an example of bad leadership in order to understand some of the problems of leadership, though this thesis intends question the accuracy of that assumption.[20]

While the social science school has illustrated some useful constructs through which leadership can be analysed the historical literature has had a mixed impact on our understanding of the phenomenon. Perhaps the most notable work remains Martin Van Creveld’s Command in War, which suffers, from the point of view of this thesis, of concentrating on the development of Command and Control (C2) as a system rather than the role and impact of leaders in war, which he dismisses as being a ‘function that has to exercised, more or less continuously.’[21] John Keegan’s The Mask of Command also suffers from being overly descriptive and adding little to our overall knowledge of the challenges of leadership in modern war.[22] However, while it may appear that historical works suffer from similar conceptual problems as social science works we can look to the example of First World War historiography that has illustrated some interesting avenues that can be further explored. Perhaps the most important work remains Gary Sheffield’s Leadership in the Trenches, which explores the relationship between leadership, morale and discipline and gives us a richer picture of the interrelationship of these concepts, which surrounds the issue of followership, and its impact on the conduct of war.[23] This theme has recently been picked up by scholars of the Second World War such as David French, John Buckley and Jonathan Fennell but has yet to find its way in the historiography of air power studies.[24] These works provide a useful example of how the complex issue of leadership, and its related themes, impacts upon the issue of combat power, which will be discussed below. With regards to biographies, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson’s biography of General Henry Rawlinson, 1st Baron Rawlisnon, Gary Sheffield’s recent study of Field Marshal The Earl Haig, and with regards to the Second World War, Adrian Smith’s work on Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, illustrate what is possible when issues of context and organisational culture are taken into account in examining leadership.[25] These works illustrate where the historical study of leaders should be going in conjunction with a rigorous understanding of the culture, both military and social, that these men emanated from, and from an underpinning of deep archival research. This thesis seeks to replicate this in combination with a rigorous understanding of theory, which will push the study of leaders in order to adequately answer the question of effectiveness.

However, it is worth briefly returning to the psychological school of leadership. Many of these works, such as Robert Pois and Philip Langer’s work Command Failure in War, which can be best described as pseudo-psychoanalytical history. For example, in detailing the perceived failures of the First World War and the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany they start with an assumption that they seek to prove; that assumption is that they were both failures, something that is common in the leadership literature.[26] In addition they concentrate on leaders rather than leadership. However, the most influential example of this school remains Norman Dixons’ On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, which has had an impact out of proportion of its historical rigour and reinforces the issues with social science based accounts of military leadership.[27] It is clouded by a poor choice of historical case studies and the perennial issue of decontextualisation. It also stresses the role of the individual as the point at which incompetence originates. It ignores the process of group think that is particularly noticeable at the senior level and the management of war. However, for this thesis it generates the question that ‘if’ Leigh-Mallory ‘was’ incompetent why was this and was he a product of the culture through which he emerged.

The literature of air power history offers a few useful works that illustrate some advantages of using an interdisciplinary methodology. However, it is interesting to note the different views the two pre-eminent air forces take on the subject. Recent articles in the USAF flagship journal, Air and Space Power Journal, illustrate this with their attempts to learn immutable lessons from the business and management strand of the literature, thus, not taking into account the historical and situational aspect of their service, which limits some aspects of their work.[28] In contrast the RAF has sought to merge social science and historical themes. This is notable in the publications that have emerged from the Defence Academy and the RAF’s own Leadership Centre.[29] An examination of Peter Gray and Sebastian Cox’s edited work Air Power Leadership highlights the attempt to examine theory alongside context and situation. For example, Brian Howieson and Howard Kahn provide a dialectical analysis of what they term the ‘Officers’ Trinity’ of Leadership, Command and Management.[30] This is then contrasted with Peter Gray’s analysis of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding as Leader, Commander and Management, thus, using a situational and contingent analysis of his conduct in these spheres.[31]

The wider literature on air power leaders remains fixated on either senior airmen or ‘aces’ of renown.[32] Much of this fixation revolves around the publication of biographies of ‘great men.’ For example, as noted in the introduction, Vincent Orange remains an example of this school with his biographies of senior RAF leaders such as Air Chief Marshal Baron Dowding and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder.[33] While his biography Tedder is a well-researched and balanced work on this senior airmen his other works remain biased and predicated on a view seen through the prism of his earlier work on Park, thus, remaining hagiographic in his analysis.

In contrast two important works are John Andreas Olsen’s work on Colonel John Warden III and Peter Gray’s recent PhD thesis on Strategic Leadership in Bomber Command during the Second World War.[34] Olsen’s work provides balanced account of Warden’s influence as a leader in the USAF utilising a variety of sources. Though not explicitly using leadership theory Olsen struggles from similar problems as this thesis; a lack of useful sources. This is primarily based on the contemporary nature of his subject; therefore, Olsen makes effective use of a variety of sources from published articles by Warden to interviews with key personal. In effect Olsen using a 360-degree appraisal methodology though not explicitly acknowledging the fact. It avoids the issue of hagiography by highlight the pitfalls of Warden’s personality that led to negative aspects of leadership such as his command of the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg AFB in 1986-1987 where his over analysis of problems and inflexibility brought the anger of his commander at USAFE, General William Kirk and ultimately led to him being viewed as a tainted operational commander; which in an air force dominated by the ‘Fighter Mafia’ who were unwilling to except a  more defined role for the service that Warden was advocating effectively curtailed his rise to high command.[35] While operationally Warden may have been seen to have failed it was as a thinker and theorist that he can be have said to have succeeded with his views elucidated in The Air Campaign, which illustrates his abilities and strategic vision; a vision that, as Olsen clearly illustrates, was not shared by everyone in USAF.[36]

Gray’s PhD thesis provides an excellent example of what can be achieved in trying to bridge the gap between social science and historical works on leadership.[37] While not dealing with a specific individual, Gray’s thesis deals with the leadership, and relationship, between the Air Officers’ Commander in Chiefs of Bomber Command and the Air Ministry and their political oversight. In exploring these organisations and how they reacted and dealt with the changing landscape of the grand strategy of the Second World War Gray has used contemporary leadership theory to analyse their views of the war. For example, with reference to the performance of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal Gray notes that Portal was able to look outside of his silo, or professional experience, and view the wider context of the war as Chief of the Air Staff.[38] However, Harris was not able to look past the requirements of Bomber Command and his belief that the war could be won by the bomber.[39] Gray’s analysis of Portal and his ability to look past his silo raises important questions for this thesis that will be dealt with in regards to Leigh-Mallory. It should be noted that this was the ability that Olsen argues Warden had but was ignored by the USAF hierarchy. Both of these work, in addition to the works noted earlier, illustrate what can be done through a rigorous understanding of sources, culture, and context.

[1] Chester Barnard, ‘The Nature of Leadership’ in Keith Grint (Ed.) Leadership: Classical, Contemporary, and Critical Approaches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 89. Also found in Chester Barnard, Organization and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948)

[2] Montgomery…

[3] Keith Grint, The Arts of Leadership (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 1

[4] Clausewitz, On War, p. 100. On the wider issues of Clausewitz’s view of leadership see; Ulrike Kleemeier, ‘Moral Forces in War’ in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rother (Eds.) Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 107-121

[5] Clausewitz, On War, pp. 100-112

[6] Hew Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (London: Atlantic Books, 2008) pp. 98-102

[7] Hew Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (London: Atlantic Books, 2008) pp. 88-98

[8] Maurice de Saxe, ‘Reveries on the Art of War’ in T R Phillips (Ed.) Roots of Strategy (London: Lane, 1943) pp. 95-162; Claus Telp, The Evolution of Operational Art, 1740-1813: From Frederick the Great to Napoleon (Abingdon: Frank Cass, 2005) p. 5

[9] Challenges to Biography: AHRC Research Newtwork –

[10] Black, Rethinking Military History

[11] See, Gerald Michaelson, Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers – 50 Strategic Rules, New Edition (Adams Media Corporation, 2000). This school is perhaps not helped by retired military officers offering their ‘expertise’ in the field. A notable example is Colonel (ret’d) John Warden III who set up Venturist Incorporated upon retirement with the purpose of using his experience to provide consultation to companies using what he called the Prometheus Process, which is described as ‘an eloquent, comprehensive approach to strategy creation and execution that provides leaders and managers with a powerful new tool to prevail in the toughest competitive environments.’

[12] Grint, Arts of Leadership, pp. 1-31

[13] The most commonly cited work of this field remains, Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic History (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1841)

[14] Burns, Leadership…

[15] Keith Grint, Leadership, Management and Command: Rethinking D-Day (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008); Bernard Bass, Leadership and Performance: Beyond Expectations (New York: Free Press, 1985)

[16] Grint, Rethinking D-Day, passim; Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, ‘Dilemmas in the General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June 1973) pp. 155-169; Keith Grint, ‘Problems, Problems, Problems: The Social Construction of ‘Leadership’’, Human Relations, Vol. 58, No. 11 (2005) pp. 1467-1494

[17] R M Stogdill, ‘Leadership, Membership, Organization’ in Keith Grint (Ed.) Leadership: Classical, Contemporary, and Critical Approaches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 113. This piece first appeared in Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 47 (1950) pp. 1-14

[18] Barbara Kellerman, ‘Bad Leadership – The Role of Followership’ in John Jupp (Ed.) Air Force Leadership: Changing Culture (Sleaford, Royal Air Force Leadership Centre, 2007) pp. 34-41

[19] This became a prominent issue in the US Army and was the subject of a research project at the Army War College and a subsequent report to the Secretary of the Army in 2003. Craig Bullis and George Reed, ‘Assessing Leaders to Establish and Maintain Positive Command Climate’, A Report to the Secretary of the Army, February 2003; Denise Williams, ‘Toxic Leadership in the US Army’, US Army War College Strategy Research Project (US Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 2005)

[20] Sebastian Cox, ‘Douglas and Leigh-Mallory’ in Jupp (Ed.) Changing Culture, pp. 42-52

[21] Creveld, Command, p. 5

[22] John Keegan, The Mask of Command: A Study of Generalship, 2nd Pimilico Edition (London: Pimlico, 2004)

[23] Gary Sheffield, Leadership in the Trenches: Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in the Era of the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000). This book is based upon Sheffield’s PhD thesis; Gary Sheffield, ‘Officer-Man Relations, Morale and Discipline in the British Army, 1902-22’, PhD Thesis (King’s College London, 1994)

[24] David French, Raising Churchill’s Army: The British Army and the War against Germany, 1919-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) pp. 122-155; John Buckley, British Armour in the Normandy Campaign, 1944 (London: Frank Cass, 2004) pp. 178-208; Jonathan Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) passim

[25] Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior, Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2004 [1992]); Gary Sheffield, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (London: Aurum Books, 2011); Adrian Smith, Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord, 1900-1943 (London: I B Tauris, 2010)

[26] Pois and Langer, Command Failure, pp. 122-172. On some of the issues of psychoanalysis and history see; Sian Nicholas, ‘History and Psychoanalysis’ in Peter Lambert and Phillip Schofield (Eds.) Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005) pp. 121-137

[27] Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (London: Pimlico, 1994 [1976])

[28] Recent examples are Raymond Shulstad and Richard Mael, ‘Leading and Managing through Influence: Challenges and Responses’, Air and Space Power Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer 2010) pp. 6-17 and Stephen Lorenz, ‘Lorenz on Leadership part 3’, Air and Space Power Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Fall 2010)  pp. 5-12. General Lorenz is commander of the USAF’s Air Education and Training Command.

[29] See, Peter Gray and Sebastian Cox (Eds.) Air Power Leadership: Theory and Practise (London: The Stationary Office, 2002); John Jupp and Keith Grint (Eds.) Air Force Leadership: Beyond Command? (Sleaford: Royal Air Force Leadership Centre, 2005) and John Jupp (Ed.) Air Force Leadership: Changing Culture (Sleaford, Royal Air Force Leadership Centre, 2007)

[30] Brian Howieson and Howard Kahn, ‘Leadership, Management and Command: The Officers’ Trinity’ in Gray and Cox, Air Power Leadership, pp. 15-40

[31] Peter Gray, ‘Dowding as Commander, Leader and Manager’ in Gray and Cox, Air Power Leadership, pp. 199-209

[32] Walter Boyne, Aces in Command: Fighter Pilots as Combat Leaders (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 2001)

[33] Vincent Orange, Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain (London: Grub Street, 2008); Tedder: Quietly in Command (Abingdon: Frank Cass, 2006)

[34] John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007) and Peter Gray, ‘The Strategic Leadership and Direction of the Royal Air Force Strategic Air Offensive against Germany from its Inception to 1945’, PhD Thesis (University of Birmingham, 2010). Gray’s thesis is due to be published as The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012)

[35] Olsen, John Warden, pp. 83-100. On the impact and rise of the ‘fighter mafia’ in the USAF see; Mike Worden, Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945-1982 (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1998)

[36] Olsen, John Warden, passim; Warden, Air Campaign, passim

[37] Air Commodore (ret’d) Dr. Peter Gray, currently the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies at the University of Birmingham, was, prior to his retirement, the Director of the MoD’s Defence Leadership and Management Centre at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

[38] Gray, ‘Strategic Leadership’, p. 305

[39] Gray, ‘Strategic Leadership’, pp. 231-243, 284-287

3 responses to “Some Thoughts on Leadership Literature

  1. Hi Ross,
    Nice essay, and Grint’s book sounds very interesting. Is this from the introduction? The section on Orange (around Note [3]) refers to an earlier discussion of Orange that doesn’t exist in this piece.

    I’m guessing you’re looking for some feedback … I can’t offer much except to note a couple of typos:
    * just before Note [35] ‘except’ should be ‘accept’?
    * last sentence: “Both of these work” should be “Both of these works”


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