Small Wars Journal

Leadership in Irregular Warfare

Tue, 02/07/2023 - 5:05pm

Leadership in Irregular Warfare

By Daniel Bergman

Warfare is not only traditional or irregular but a deadly mix between the two; leaders must master both aspects of warfare to defeat the enemy and protect friendly forces (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020). To master irregular warfare, a leader must first know and understand what it is; irregular warfare is the ability to influence the population with the intent to deplete power (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020). The purpose of this paper is to analyze and understand the leaders’ vital role in irregular warfare holistically. An in-depth analysis of the performance triad’s positive and integral role in irregular warfare, how competent leaders utilize mission command to their advantage, and how a leader's intellect is one of their greatest weapons in irregular warfare. With the uncertainty induced by irregular warfare, there is one consistent aspect: the need for competent leaders to prepare their Soldiers for the unknown.

The Performance Triad

            According to the Department of the Army (2016), the performance triad combines sleep, activity, and nutrition to reduce a Soldier’s stress. Knowledge in the performance triad will give leaders the tools to identify, manage and ultimately prevent the impact of operational stress induced on Soldiers. Leaders’ ability to minimize Soldiers’ stress through the performance triad will directly impact their ability to face the unknown challenges of irregular warfare. By reducing distress and exposing Soldiers to eustress through shared hardships, leaders will effectively prepare their Soldiers for the unknown stressors of irregular warfare. Soldiers will be able to process the stress induced by irregular warfare more efficiently, better preparing them to be mentally agile (Department of the Army, 2016). Leaders have the ability to apply eustress in a controlled environment in anticipation of the unknown, as seen in the days leading up to the war in Afghanistan.

According to Blaber (2008) Pete Blaber understood the stressors that would pertain to his team, specifically environmental ones. To reduce the stress as much as he could, Blaber trained his team in the mountains of Montana, replicating the austere environment of potential upcoming locations in which his team would have to fight irregular warfare. This preparation and the introduction of eustress in a controlled environment was vital to his team's success in infiltrating enemy territory and supporting Operation Anaconda. As a Sergeant Major, it is critical to be present to help reduce distress and increase eustress through shared hardship, along with understanding the impact of the performance triad on your Soldier’s ability to reduce stress (Department of the Army, 2016). Reducing stress is not enough to prepare for irregular war, leaders must empower subordinate leaders through trust and competence.

Mission Command in Irregular Warfare

            According to the Department of the Army (2019b), mission command empowers subordinates in their ability to make decisions and execute disciplined initiative. Mission command is the capability of Commanders to issue intent and not orders and to move the decision-making ability down to where the consequences of those decisions are at the subordinate level. The movement of the decision-making authority is shifted through trust. The more mutual trust that is developed through time and consistency, the more commanders empower their subordinates to execute decentralized decisions (Department of the Army, 2019b). Conventional warfare relies on a command structure with authority and approvals, which slows the reaction time of the forces. In irregular warfare, the reaction to the unknown is reduced because of the empowerment of the subordinates to make the appropriate decision for the ever-changing environment of irregular warfare (Department of the Army, 2019b). An example of the application of mission command in irregular warfare can be discovered in special operations and their need to exercise discipline initiative to accomplish the mission.

According to Blaber (2008), his team's mission was to capture a person suspected of war crimes. Exercising disciplined initiative, Blaber made the decision and planned irregular warfare tactics of employing a gorilla suit as a part of their deception tactic to capture the person of interest. Pete Blaber understood the essence of mission command in an irregular warfare environment; a decision must be made from the information from people nearest to the problem, which in this example was highly effective. He felt empowered to make a decision that was suitable to the situation, all this was enabled by his leader’s competence in his actions and the mutual trust that was developed over time (Blaber, 2008). As a leader in the modern military, it is vital to exercise disciplined initiative; with irregular warfare, leaders will not be there when Soldiers are required to make critical decisions (Department of the Army, 2019b). Mission command is a valuable tool for a leader in irregular warfare, arguably one of the most useful weapons is the leader’s own intellect.

Leadership Intellect in Irregular Warfare

            According to the Department of the Army (2019a), intellect is understood by the cognitive abilities of a leader, specifically the social and mental abilities one applies while leading. The core attribute of intellect is applicable in irregular warfare, especially when making decisions using mental agility, innovation, and critical thinking. Irregular warfare requires leaders to solve problems they have never encountered before, which is why intellect and the ability to think critically through a decision are invaluable in the irregular warfare fight (Department of the Army, 2019a). Irregular warfare rarely presents itself in an easily understood situation; therefore, critical thinking and the ability to think outside the box is a must when fighting in or against irregular warfare (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020). The cognitive abilities of the leader were on full display in the first days of the Afghanistan War.  

According to Stanton (2009), Soldiers in the beginning days of the Afghanistan War used intellect to problem solve quickly to dominate the irregular warfare battlefield. The Soldiers were limited in resources, time, and were operating in a small group in challenging terrain. All of these aspects required the Soldiers to use intellect and innovation be ensure success in their mission. The Soldiers thought critically outside of traditional warfare, ultimately riding horseback through the mountains of northern Afghanistan to call in airstrikes, defeating the enemy. The actions of these Solders had never been seen before, but the innovation and intellect allowed the Soldiers to carry out a successful irregular warfare attack on an enemy with superior numbers applying traditional warfare tactics (Stanton, 2009). The attribute of intellect as a leader is a vital tool in the fight against irregular warfare. It allows leaders to make sound judgments and use their expertise to prepare for possible irregular warfare attacks (Department of the Army 2019a). Applying intellect, mission command, and the performance triad will create a lethal leader in the irregular warfare fight.


            With the uncertainty induced by irregular warfare, there is one consistent aspect: the need for competent leaders to prepare their Soldiers for the unknown. Senior Leaders must synthesize their understanding of the aspects of the performance triad to prepare their Soldiers, empower their subordinates through mission command enabled through competence, and apply the attribute of intellect to fight and dominate in the irregular warfare environment. Understanding irregular warfare and the leaders’ role within irregular warfare is critical in winning future conflicts where both traditional and irregular warfare will be ever present on and off the battlefield. 


Blaber, P. (2008). The mission, the men, and me: Lessons from a former delta force commander. Berkley Caliber.

Department of the Army. (2016). Force health protection (ATP 4-02.8).

Department of the Army. (2019a). Army leadership and the profession (ADP 6-22). 

Department of the Army. (2019b). Mission command: Command and control of Army forces. (ADP 6-0).

Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2020). Joint Warfighting (JP-1).

Stanton, D. (2009). Horse Soldiers: The extraordinary story of a band of U.S. Soldiers who rode to victory in Afghanistan. Scribner.

About the Author(s)

Master Sergeant Daniel Bergman is a Field Artillery Senior Sergeant who has deployed numerous times in support of Operational Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Freedom Sentel and has held positions at the tactical and operational level. He is currently attending the Sergeants Major Course at the U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence at Fort Bliss, TX.