Insights from ‘The Commanders’

I have just finished reading ‘The Commanders’ by Lloyd Clark, a comparison of the leadership journeys of George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and Irwin Rommel.  It was a fascinating book, which I enjoyed on the balcony and beach in Spain this summer.

Clark adeptly recounted their early lives and military careers, discussing the highs and lows while addressing the characters’ similarities and differences.  I was most struck at how similar these three highly influential men were, despite their diverse backgrounds.

Aspects that I knew to a certain extent, and was less surprised about, are that they were all: highly ambitious; driven to succeed from an early age; benefited from the patronisation of senior officials; self-confident to the point of arrogance; self-promoting with an eye for the limelight; and junior officers for a long time reaching higher ranks relatively late in their careers.

It did surprise me that their substantial character flaws were so well recognised by those who were in positions to affect the three officers’ careers.  Yet they achieved significant advancement, even if they had to be pulled up a number of times by their superiors.  I suppose they were considered to be people of their time and adjudged to be needed in the particular circumstances of the Second World War, despite these traits.

Nevertheless, I drew three points from Clark’s work that I think are particularly relevant in the contemporary world:

  • First, the power of networking.  Pattern, Montgomery and Rommel all put effort into making and nurturing connections from which they benefitted throughout their careers.
  • Second, loyalty to the senior leadership team.  They were utterly loyal to those who worked for them, who had gained their trust and who had proven their ability.
  • Third – and most admirable for me – focus on junior staff members.  They all understood the need to do their best for those under their command who worked at the coal face: the soldiers on the ground. All three generals, at times, led in a way reminiscent of the ‘heroic leadership’ of the pre-industrial age, exposing themselves to the dangers of the front line.  They knew it was important to visit, and be seen by, their junior staff members in the places where they worked.  They cared about their soldiers, communicated directly to them and knew that they had to win their soldiers’ trust if their leadership was to be successful.

Clark sums up this point superbly – highlighting its enduring relevance – by quoting Montgomery, when he said:“It is essential to understand human nature…If the approach to the human factor is cold and impersonal, then you can achieve nothing.  But if you gain the confidence and trust of your [people] and they feel their best interests are safe in your hands, then you have in your possession a priceless asset and the greatest achievements become possible.” 

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