As a military historian, sometimes it has fallen upon me to comment as intelligently as I can on debates as to who is the greatest general . I am, overall, someone who has a hard time ranking people in an easy list (at least at this stage of my life—it was easier for me to do when I was younger, I suppose). Rather, I tend to think of people in tiers or categories with some level of flexibility overall. At any rate, what I would like to discuss today are the ways in which I view military greatness and its implications for greatness in any human endeavor, for my view of greatness is the same whether one is great in war or in any other field.
Let us first note, before we get carried away into other discussions, that greatness here refers to excellence in skill. There are many times when greatness in skill leads to a morally horrendous result. It is therefore necessary to distinguish ahead of time between that which shows skill in warfare and that which shows exemplary moral conduct. There are many leaders, in military life as well as many other fields, whose excellence is worthy of emulation even if their morals are dubious. In such cases it is necessary to seek the sources of their skill without falling into their moral errors, for if we do we will suffer the same judgment as they. Nevertheless, it is also true that even those who are immoral may be examples in some small area of technical competence, and therefore a knowledge of their life and behavior (even if it is highly blameworthy) is of some benefit, so long as there are enough warning messages attached to the lesson of their lives.
That said, there are many ways that a military leader can be great. Most people focus on tactics and so leaders like Alexander “The Great” and Robert E. Lee and Hannibal are often given very high scores by many fans of military leaders. And tactics are perhaps the easiest aspect of warfare to study (all you need is a fondness for battle maps, and most of us who are interested in military history gain this fondness as children; I know I did at least), so it is no surprise that it should acquire so many fans. And tactics is probably the easiest of the aspects of war to judge. You look at battles and count how many wins, draws, and losses someone has. The more wins, the better of a tactical general they are. If they have a few losses, you then start to make excuses about being overwhelmingly outnumbered, and try to excuse away the losses to preserve a strong record of tactical brilliance.
And that is not to denigrate tactical brilliance. After all, winning battles is worthwhile and notable, and it is one of the ways that one achieves military greatness. Traditionally, the great tactical leaders have been SP personalities, those whose thought process was short term and focused on excellence in visible and easily recognized fields. The tactician of the business world is the salesman, focused on doing what is necessary (tactically) to ensure that he meets his quota. Such a person is not concerned with long term strategic goals, but rather winning battle after battle. And there is a place for that—though it is not in overall command of a war effort (or a business effort).
Even though I am not personally a skilled person at logistics, one of my favorite areas to study as a military historian is logistical warfare. Some great generals, like Nathanael Greene and George Washington, as well as Fabius during the Second Punic War, made their great contributions to military history simply by not losing their army. A logistical general, even a surpassingly great one, may not be great at tactics (Nathanael Greene never won a single battle as a tactician, and George Washington was only indifferent as a tactical general), but where they win is in preserving their army to fight another day. A logistical general is particularly useful when one is fighting at a disadvantage tactically (i.e. you are fighting a better trained army) but have a strong amount of political will, with the knowledge that the survival of your army means the survival of your cause, but the destruction of your army would mean the loss of your cause. Because of the vital importance of survival to ultimate victory, I give very high marks to leaders who were able to preserve their army in difficult circumstances (see Zachary Taylor) and I dock points on those generals whose failures as logistical leaders led to the defeat of their military efforts (see Robert E. Lee).
In today’s business world, it is the bean-counters (accountants and the like) who are the great logistical people. Logistics-minded people are “guardians,” and they tend to be in middle management as well as many of the ranks of professionals who are more interested in a steady and reliable paycheck than in greatness. Logistical generals are best suited not for command, but for being the chief of staff, or being the secretary of defense, able to preserve the supply resources of an army without being tested in their areas of weakness. In less well-developed armies, though, a logistical general (as long as he has enough help or at least passable abilities in strategy and tactics) can make an effective leader of a main army. After all, logistics is not sexy, but someone has to do it for one’s efforts to be successful in the long run. And logistics is all about the long run.
Another rather under-appreciated skill in military leadership is that of diplomacy. After all, many wars are not about one nation fighting against another but about stopping someone with a coalition. And to successfully win as a coalition, one requires strong diplomatic generals who are able to work with people from other nations, with different political systemd and different leadership cultures. To pull of the task of leading a successful coalition against a foe, a la Eisenhower or Marlborough or Wellington, is a highly important skill, and those leaders who can do it well are worthy of being enshrined as great. It is my experience that such leaders are somewhat rarer than tactical leaders, but some leaders are both sound on tactics and diplomacy (see Wellington and Marlborough). Other leaders are good political leaders of some tactical brilliance (like Robert E. Lee). In this case, sometimes political and diplomatic skill is combined with other abilities.
In the business world, most diplomatic leaders (if they are not working in diplomacy) tend to be in more counselor or caretaker sort of positions (like teaching) where their enthusiastic cheering of others can help encourage and inspire others to succeed. Again, such people (unless they have other abilities) might not be best for overall command, but they do very well in frontline leadership roles where interpersonal contact is vitally important. It is my experience that such types of people are often very treasured but are too rare to serve where they are needed, and often not pushy or ambitious enough to get themselves in the places where they can do the most good, and where power hungry guardians or artisans end up without having talent to effectively work with different people.
Finally, let us discuss my own (personal) favorite types of leaders. These are the strategic geniuses. They are similar to the tacticians in that they tend to see everything as a map. But unlike the short-sighted tactician, a strategist sees a cosmic scope and looks toward the long-term. They are not fighting to win the battle, but rather determining if the war is worth fighting at all. They are marshalling the armies and plotting several steps ahead of the tactician. Great strategi leaders tend to have a vision that inspires loyal and talented subordinates, a vision that can be extremely successful. Winfield Scott, for example, was an etremely talented strategic general with a strong diplomatic second suit (though he was a little weaker when it came to domestic politics) while also being a relatively sound tactician. Sherman and Thomas were both sound strategic generals, Thomas being the better tactician of the two, and Sherman with the better political relationship with his superior, Grant. And in the end the three of them (along with others) made a very successful military team.
In the business world, the strategic people are best suited to think tanks, to determining vision and long term mission plans. Such tasks are often very high level, and strategic intelligence is especially necessary in a world where massive mistakes can cost others for decades. Unfortunately, strategic intelligence is something that is often unappreciated (and may even be considered threatening) by the insecure who dislike the strategists coolness and distance from the mundane, and for their disdain from traditional approaches and concern for what works. But a sufficiently moral strategist ought to find plenty of support from those who appreciate his talent while able to present a friendlier face to others, or work out the short term tactics that follow from the long-term strategies. A strategist was born to command, but few opportunities are easily available for such people.
The larger point is that the road to greatness first lies in knowing one’s self, one’s strengths and weaknesses, and finding people to work with who are willing and able to collaborate who are strong where one is weak and vice versa, so that the whole burden does not lie on any one person alone. Then one goes about finding or creating the opportunity to succeed, cultivating relationships and building networks, so that when the need arises one is able to take immediate advantage of the situation. Again, there needs to be a team approach that is focused not on creating clones, but rather on creating a well-balanced team that is strong in all areas, even though its members have their own different strengths and weaknesses. When such a body of people is joined togther in a common effort and led by those who are genuinely interested in the well being of all, such a group is unstoppable under heaven. What is striking is how unusual it is for people to be able to recognize the same will and the same mission in the many related endeavors where greatness can be found.