Book: Supreme Command

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By Kevin Black

I’m finishing up Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesman, and Leadership in Wartime.  The author is Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Paul H. Nitze of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins Univ., and who has also taught US Naval War College in addition to Harvard University.

From my research, the book is considered a must-read for senior leaders looking to better themselve in balancing strategic leadership with strategic management.   It is about civil-military balance in wartime.   Should politicians (the leaders responsible for victory) stay out of the military strategy process, leaving it to their military experts? or should they interfere by probing, questioning, and possibly ignoring expert advice?   Cohen examines four world politicians who found the right balance:  Lincoln during the Civil War, Clemenceau during WWI, Churchill during WW2, and Ben-Gurion during the Israeli struggle throughout the 1940s.   Each leader is different by culture, knowledge, and experience; yet, each share remarkable similarities.  Some are:

1.) A strong capability understand to details, even to a minute level, and yet not lose sight of the overall big picture

2.) A fascination and appetite to learn technology, esp. the willingness to take risks with new capabilities

3.) A ruthlessness in ensuring processes, orders or directives are adhered to; subordinates would be granted authority and leeway, and they were expected to perform.  Failure to act resulted in quick dismissal.

4.) Objectivity: many leaders learn to process data/information as it comes in, without bias or undue influence from preconceived notions

Overall the book is fascinating. If you can ignore the military particulars, the lessons for balancing leadership with management should be applicable to any senior executive.

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