Small Wars Journal

Why History Matters: Making Junior Leaders More Effective

Tue, 08/28/2018 - 12:37am

Why History Matters: Making Junior Leaders More Effective

Tyler Fox

With posters on Mission Command adorning virtually every classroom at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, and with its prominence as one of the pillars of the Army’s Operational Concept, the term Mission Command has become a buzzword.[i] One of the concept’s true benefits relies on quality personnel, and developing those leaders through the proper use of historical case studies can help to not only make military history engaging but also useful in everyday duties for even a young officer or a non-commissioned officer, and contribute to developing quality personnel.

As Mr. Donald Vandergriff, an eminent expert about Mission Command, has written in the past, Mission Command is a cultural philosophy which is all encompassing, and applicable at nearly every level.[ii] In essence, Mission Command provides the commander’s intent, but leaves the method of execution up to subordinates. Essentially, the intent provides the subordinate a rough framework, and what the vision of success looks like. With this and professional development in decision making beforehand, the subordinates can exercise initiative, particularly in case of a changing situation or absence of new orders. Because of its all-encompassing nature calling for empowerment, trust and high levels of professionalism at the lowest levels, there are a number of cultural conditions which must exist to spawn an environment where true Mission Command can be created, sustained and enabled.

One of the advantages of operating in a Mission Command environment is that it allows for a unit to outpace its adversary by reacting to changes on the battlefield rapidly, such as a rapid, on-the-spot decision by a junior leader which could be made to capitalize battlefield gains or effect a temporarily disorganized and confused enemy. It also allows a unit to act efficiently when access to his superior may not be available, such as an instance where radio communications break down.[iii] For a leader to have the confidence to empower his subordinate in such a manner, several things must be present. Among many things, Mission Command is a philosophy which requires a relationship, and one of the most important pillars on which this relationship rests is a pillar of trust. From the commander, there must exist confidence in the subordinate to make a wise decision. Therefore, with Mission Command, continual professional development in the arts of the profession is a must.

Professional development can come in many ways, shapes and forms, and can even come from disciplines outside the profession, making learning opportunities nearly limitless.[iv] One of the ways we can educate and develop young leaders for Mission Command from day one, such as a lieutenant, is through the use of history and looking at how it can be made more useful in his everyday life. The Army consistently encourages development in its soldiers through the use of history. Being an army, history is a touchstone, inculcated into everyday life. It touches every solider in a daily, mundane fashion: the names of streets, chapels and buildings being just one example. At different times throughout an assignment, a soldier might learn about his unit’s role in past wars, such as where it fought and what it accomplished, or he may participate in a leader’s professional development event which analyzes a military campaign or attend history lectures during a captain’s career course. These things are not unimportant. They build a sense of pride, espirt de corps, identity and belonging. And while these traits are great, and arguably necessary things to have, this approach to historical education does little for our junior leaders, such as our aforementioned lieutenant, to help them perform better in their roles and make better decisions within the context of Mission Command’s disciplined initiative.

Let us follow a young officer who served with one of the infantry regiments…

-- Adolf von Schell[v]

One way history can be made useful to this end is through the use of case studies. A lieutenant can look to the voluminous literature covering battles, or detailed unit histories, and pick a figure from the story, ideally a young lieutenant like himself, and put himself in that figure’s shoes within the battle. He can look at what decisions the figure from the story made, why he made them and what the outcome was. Whether there was a mistake made or a victory achieved, he can ask himself why and look at the effect that it had on the overall picture. He can also ‘game’ the character and think about what alternative decisions could have been made and think about what he would do were he to find himself in a similar situation.

For instance, a contemporary lieutenant could put himself in the shoes of Lieutenant John Lekson during the Battle of Altavilla, Italy in the fall of 1943. Lekson’s battalion was lost behind enemy lines in the middle of the night during an attack, and inadvertently split into two groups. Lekson found himself as the leader of one of those two groups, unable to contact the battalion commander or any other friendly forces. In this information vacuum, it was Lieutenant Lekson that would make a decision and take the initiative to keep the forces moving to the objective even though he had no idea of the disposition of the rest of his battalion, or of any other of the attacking forces, or the location of his commander. At this point, one could stop and ask himself, or a company commander could ask one of his platoon leaders, how he would handle the situation and ask what factors should be considered and why, before looking at the result of Lieutenant Lekson’s decision and discussing its effect. Thankfully, Lekson’s decision effected the outcome of battle in a positive way.[vi]

This type of learning is one of the things Adolf von Schell does in his masterful work Battle Leadership, which at certain times views fighting in World War I through the eyes of a young German officer and seeks to analyze what that young officer saw. Chapter V of von Schell’s work – “A Young Company Commander in a Rapidly Changing Situation” – serves as a perfect example of this type of historical exercise which produces another historical scenario – that already includes potential discussion questions in the text – that a contemporary could put forth to himself or his peers and subordinates.[vii]

Learning and developing leaders through such case studies not only makes history engaging, but also helps them understand and conceptualize better. As Boston University’s Center for Teaching and Learning writes, “Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique. Case studies have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations.”[viii]

For a lieutenant serving as a platoon leader, studying, analyzing and, most importantly, learning from the actions of forbearers in like roles in such a way can help develop those junior leaders to be able to think critically about situations and can help give them ideas to expand their creativity in solving battlefield problems. It can also contribute to what Aristotle referred to as practical wisdom, or the ability to perceive a situation, reason and decide upon a course of action, and then act upon it.[ix] In a sense, this operationalizes the study of history in a way that is directly relevant to making leaders perform better, not only in their job but also within a Mission Command culture where they might be relied upon to make decisions separate from their commander as the fog of battle thickens.

End Notes

[i] FM 3-0 (Operations).






[vii] Battle Leadership by Adolf von Schell can be downloaded in .PDF format for free from the website of the library at Fort Benning, GA by following this link:




About the Author(s)

Tyler Fox is a historian whose research primarily focuses on the combat and leadership lessons of the US Army’s 504th Parachute Infantry in World War II. He is the author of Our Salvation: The 504th Parachute Infantry’s Legendary Fight at Altavilla and a contributor to Mission Command II: Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology.