Tactical Operations Center
Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way: A Framework for Examining Leadership


Table of Contents

Evaluative criteria

Case Studies

Custer at the Little Bighorn

Eisenhower and the Broad Front-Narrow Thrust Decision

Personal Leadership


Evaluative Criteria

What challenges did the leader face when challenged to make a decision? A commander’s ultimate goal has more nuances than simply accomplishing his primary mission. Any military commander is ultimately fighting his opponent’s will and intentions, not just enemy forces. A successful commander is able to gather information, allocate resources, plan his operations and execute them.

Planning does two things for a commander: First, the end result is a formal document that is disseminated to his subordinates which provides specific guidance, coordinating instructions and sub-unit missions. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that it is a process by which the commander can approach his mission intellectually and war-game different Courses of Action before deciding on one. Further, it gives him the opportunity to think about ‘branches and sequels.’ This method of thinking permits him to war-game alternative operations based on his own losses and enemy operations.

We understand then that the execution of our own plans is subject and thus variable to the enemy’s operations. As one military thinker puts it, “Moltke’s dictum (is) that plans should only go as far as the first clash with the enemy” (Van Creveld, 1985, 203).

This means that while planning is important, so is innovation and responding to the environment. In addition to being transformational, successful combat leaders are situational leaders. They can improvise, adapt and overcome. “He who relies on the situation uses his men in fighting as one rolls logs or stones” (Tzu, 1968, 95). The commander understands how best to use the resources available to him within the environment he operates in against the enemy opposing him.

What were the leader’s objectives?

S.L.A. Marshall, the noted military theoretician and historian asserts in his critically acclaimed work, “Men Against Fire” that “when the chips are down, the main question is not how you go about your mission but whether it succeeds.” In addition, he notes that the “criterion of command is the ability to think clearly and work hard rather than to strike attitudes or accept disproportionate risk” (Marshall, 1978, 186). Martin Van Creveld echoes this sentiment, stating that any operations must be based on: “A clear definition of the objectives to be attained; thorough planning; and a proper order of priorities” (Van Creveld, 1987, 195).

What could be gained and what could be lost?

Drew (2001) presents three fundamental challenges that any leader must resolve in order to be successful: Understanding the capabilities and limitations of existing resources; the second is access to timely and accurate intelligence; the third is the force of character or will to accomplish the mission. Martin van Creveld asserts: “war consists of two independent wills confronting each other” (Van Creveld, 1985, 266).

Drew emphasizes the importance of understanding your own organization’s “disabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities” (Drew, 2001, 26). Most of the time, business managers are more concerned with what their competitors are capable of doing. Military commanders and business leaders understand that candid, internal assessments can help focus an organization’s vision and resources towards the stated objectives.

What were the leader’s different courses of action?

A critical aspect of combat leadership is action; doing the right things at the right times. Put another way, it is knowing what decisions to make, when and then implementing them. However, the decisions that need to be made become more complicated as the level of command and the span of control increases.

A commander must not only react to an opponent’s operations and decisions (at least as far as he can discern them), he must attempt to overcome the limitations of friction. This is the commander’s force of will. S.L.A. Marshall comments that “true strength of will in the commander develops from his study of human nature; for it is in the measure of that he acquires knowledge of how other men think that he perfects himself in the control of their thoughts and acts” (Marshall, 1978, 177).

Such decision making is more art than science, more qualitative than quantitative. The German military has a term for such decision making that has been adopted and is widely used in the US Army: Fingerspitzengefuhl, meaning, the feeling at the fingertips.

How much and what kind of information did he/she have available to them at the time the decision needed to be made?

A commander’s ability to leverage combat power against an opponent can only be accomplished provided that he has a reliable and redundant communications network through which he can issue orders, receive information, allocate and coordinate resources and request assistance from a higher echelon if needed.

Generally, a commander will only be assigned a complicated mission provided he has adequate combat power to accomplish it. His geographical position on the battlefield will also change depending on the size of the unit he commands and his span of control. S.L.A. Marshall succinctly sums up the importance of span of control when he says, “fire (combat power) and person-to-person communication are the twin essentials of successful minor tactics (generating) spontaneity of action (initiative) and reuniting of effort in the face of any battlefield emergency” (Marshall, 1978, 135). Van Creveld attributes the success of the Israeli Defense Force during the Arab-Israeli wars to “innovation during execution itself; discipline; and improvisation…” (Van Creveld, 1985, 185).

Did the leader have co-leaders available and use them as a resource to draw on for advice, constructive criticism, or to provide alternatives?

It is standard practice in the U.S. Army for during operational planning for each staff section to provide its assessment of the operation to the commander. In most combat units, the planning process includes attached combat support units such as military intelligence, air defense artillery, engineer and Air Force elements. Each is expected to assess their ability to support various Courses of Action; this process helps ensure that groupthink does not set in or that the commander’s decision is a predetermined one.

Did the leader operate in a vacuum or was the rest of the organization enlisted to assist in decision making and implementation?

A transformational leader must communicate his vision and his will (or colloquially, the commander’s intent) to his soldiers. Soldiers do not want to be kept in the dark about their operations; they do not want to blindly follow their commander. Such ignorance is not only dangerous; it can have a devastating effect on morale. Further, in the absence of information, soldiers are likely to make up information just for something to talk about. S.L.A. Marshall comments that “When all else was obscure, just a little knowledge in the ranks would have been priceless to the higher commands” (Marshall, 1978, 141).

Colonel David Perkins understood this; he had to motivate and inspire his soldiers prior to their attack on Baghdad . “It wasn’t enough to know their mission. They had to know their purpose” (Zucchino, 2004, 80). Clearly, his subordinate commanders not only shared his vision, they communicated it down to their soldiers. One of his company commanders, Captain David Wolford, during his pre-combat mission briefing “delivered a performance,…because a combat commander needs to perform for his men, to inspire them and persuade them that the mission at hand is the most important thing on earth at that moment” (Zucchino, 2004, 89).

Was the leader under time restrictions that may have inhibited the ability to gather information, weigh courses of action, develop alternatives or seek outside consultation?

The commander’s decision making cycle is always subject to time. Every phase of an operation runs on a time line. Planning for an operation can take days, weeks, or even years. The planning for the invasion of Haiti by the 82d Airborne Division in 1995 began in 1991 when the Division returned from Desert Storm.

The more time spent planning an operation can help a commander develop ‘branches and sequels;’ develop and wargame additional courses of action and obtain additional intelligence to help him understand the situation, the terrain and the enemy better. A certain amount of time is always required to move a unit from one point to another; or to establish a defensive position; or to simply rest and rearm. A commander who is able to get inside his opponent’s decision cycle is one who is able to take the initiative and set the conditions of battle, in both time and space. This commander is able to choose how, when and where to engage his opponent.

What type of psychological or environmental conditions existed when the decision had to be made?

Combat operations are physically and psychologically stressful environments. Combat leaders are often forced to make decisions under strict time constraints without adequate information about their opponents and sometimes their own resources. This fog (from Clausewitz) often forces leaders to make wrong decisions, even though they had the best of intentions.



Evaluative criteria

This project evaluates George Armstrong Custer and Dwight D. Eisenhower. For Custer, the focus is on his decision to attack the Indian encampment at the Little Bighorn in 1878. Custer appears to have been a dark side leader, as he was given to self-absorbed arrogance and an oversize ego that happened to complement his soldierly abilities. For Eisenhower, widely considered a positive leader, the focus is on his command of the Allied Powers and his decision to use the broad front strategy in the European Theater of Operations.

Frameworks for decision making:


What challenges did the leader face when challenged to make a decision? Custer was pursuing an elusive opponent who was difficult to pin down and engage in a hostile environment.

What were the leader’s objectives? To pin down and engage the Indians and force their return to the reservation.

What could be gained and what could be lost? Custer had much to gain and everything to lose. On a personal and professional level, he sought redemption from his courts martial and vindication of who he was. He may have also been considering a presidential nomination if he was successful on the battlefield. If Custer lost, his command could be destroyed and he had no reserve force immediately available to assist him.

What were the leader’s different courses of action? Custer essentially had two choices: First, engage the Indians wherever and whenever he found them. Second, once he found them, he could shadow them until additional US Cavalry units converged on the position as the overall plan called for.

How much and what kind of information did he/she have available to them at the time the decision needed to be made? Custer’s scouts were able to pinpoint the location of the Indian encampment, although they were unaware of how many warriors were in the camp on the Little Bighorn.

Did the leader have co-leaders available and use them as a resource to draw on for advice, constructive criticism, or to provide alternatives? Custer did have an inner circle on the march with him, including his brother Tom, a decorated Civil War veteran. However, Custer had the cult of personality that dictated that few alternatives to his preference would have been seriously considered.

Did the leader operate in a vacuum or was the rest of the organization enlisted to assist in decision making and implementation? Custer commanded the 7 th Cavalry with an iron fist and strict discipline. Major Reno and Captain Benteen, his nominal subordinates, detested Custer and were not part of his inner circle.

Was the leader under time restrictions that may have inhibited the ability to gather information, weigh courses of action, develop alternatives or seek outside consultation? Custer knew that if he was to obtain a major victory in the field in order to influence the national convention and garner the nomination for presidential candidate, he had to move quickly. If he waited for reinforcements, he would have to share the fruits of victory with others. Further, even though Custer only had preliminary information on where the Indian encampment was, he knew that the Indians, once aware of the presence of the 7 th Cavalry, would scatter quickly. Thus, Custer knew he only had a limited amount of time in which to mount an effective offensive maneuver against the Indians and pin them down.

What type of psychological or environmental conditions existed when the decision had to be made? Custer had been recently reinstated as the Commander of the 7 th Cavalry following a courts martial; he had much to prove and wanted desperately to regain his reputation. The physical environment was harsh and the size and intentions of his opponent was unknown.


What challenges did the leader face when challenged to make a decision? Eisenhower had to balance the objectives of invading Europe and defeating the Germans against the political challenges and competing egos of dealing with American, English, Canadian and French subordinates. Further, he was under tremendous political pressure as a result of Allied agreements with Josef Stalin to open a Second Front in order to take German pressure off the Eastern Front.

What were the leader’s objectives? Invade Europe and defeat the Axis armies as quickly as possible while minimizing Allied losses.

What could be gained and what could be lost? If the Allies were defeated and driven back to the sea, the war would be prolonged and needless casualties would result. If the Allies won, Europe could be liberated and the Nazis defeated.

What were the leader’s different courses of action? The broad front strategy was to establish an Allied front and push towards Berlin with a coordinated, synchronized assault. The other strategy, a spear like thrust, envisioned driving straight at Berlin and taking the German capital.

How much and what kind of information did he/she have available to them at the time the decision needed to be made? The Allied intelligence system was fairly good in 1944, one of the signal successes being the use of ULTRA to read German message traffic.

Did the leader have co-leaders available and use them as a resource to draw on for advice, constructive criticism, or to provide alternatives? Eisenhower had a large general staff and several capable commanders upon whom to ask for advice, including Montgomery and Bradley.

Did the leader operate in a vacuum or was the rest of the organization enlisted to assist in decision making and implementation? The general staff system ensured that Eisenhower had adequate methods to weigh different courses of action based on the enemy and available resources.

Was the leader under time restrictions that may have inhibited the ability to gather information, weigh courses of action, develop alternatives or seek outside consultation? Eisenhower was under pressure from both Churchill and Roosevelt to end the war quickly; Churchill was especially concerned about Stalin’s ambitions for post war Europe .

What type of psychological or environmental conditions existed when the decision had to be made? Eisenhower was actually junior in time and grade to many of his nominal subordinates and had never commanded soldiers in battle. Some, including Montgomery with his own ambitions in mind, did not feel Eisenhower was up to the task. Eisenhower was under extreme pressure to succeed, both militarily and politically.

Custer and Eisenhower: Leadership at odds.

Custer is often vilified for having led the 7 th Cavalry to disaster. What is often overlooked is that he was a product of his times and emblematic of the type of soldier leaders the U.S. Army produced in the late 19 th Century. Custer was a decorated Civil War brevet brigadier general (he was reduced to his regular rank of Lieutenant Colonel after the War); he was a resourceful, brave and tenacious cavalry commander. After the Civil War, he took over command of an admittedly troublesome frontier post and cavalry regiment. He re-established discipline and order, albeit with heavy handed measures. Despite his personal tendency towards narcissism, Custer was a successful leader. At the Little Bighorn, his tactics, had they been used against a smaller force of Indians, probably would have succeeded. Custer’s true error was his failure to adequately assess his opponent.

Eisenhower’s success as a commander probably stem from his professional background and training in the U.S. Army. He had been an aide and staff officer to Douglas MacArthur during the interwar years. He also had a staunch mentor in George C. Marshall. Eisenhower’s true strength seems to have been his ability to stay focused on the larger strategic issues rather than be drawn into the personality conflict inherent among the Allied generals, notably DeGaulle, Montgomery and Patton. Despite what appear to have personal shortcomings (his relationship with Kay Summersby for example); Eisenhower was the kind of quiet leader who could exert influence when and where it was needed to gently nudge his commanders down the path he set for them.

Clearly, both men had their inner demons: Custer sought personal fame and glory; it seems he always had something to prove. Eisenhower’s relationship with Kay Summersby was not a well concealed secret.

Yet both men can also be judged as successful leaders: Custer had the ability to inspire his men through personal courage and sacrifice; Eisenhower was a supportive mentor, willing to overlook the character flaws of such men as Patton, provided they helped him win the war.

Vision for effective leadership

As Sanders, Hopkins & Geroy (2003) suggest, the search and the journey of leadership is perhaps more of an internalized search for meaning in life. Such transcendental leadership is focused not so much in the here and now, on the problems and challenges of the present; rather it is a search for meaning in one’s life with the overall question being “What does it all mean?”

Learning is a journey, not a destination.

As Socrates once said, “The only truth is knowing what you do not know.” Many writers have suggested that if you are not learning, you are not growing. I think it is important to take advantage of every opportunity to learn, not just successes, but failures. You can learn from your mistakes if you take an open minded approach. I suggest that you can learn from other people, and that finding mentors as well as grooming protégés can be personally rewarding.

Continuous improvement

As learning is continuous, it can only be developed by staying current with theory and application. Determine the systemic problems in your organization and figure out how to solve them. Because of this, a leader must encourage solutions, not just the illumination of problems.


When you take ownership of a problem you solve it. In order to succeed, you must understand what you did well. Further, you must understand what you could have improved on. However, rather than be overly critical, it is important to stay focused on the positive aspects of the entire experience.

I suggest as well that it is a serious mistake to rest on your laurels. You must constantly be engaged with your organization, not only solving your day to day problems, but seeking methods by which to assist others. We are talking about relationship building. If you can prove yourself as a competent “Go to” person, you not only build trust, faith and confidence, you also set yourself up for the next promotional opportunity as the likely person who can fulfill the task at hand.

Past mistakes.

Without doubt, if you do not learn from them and take ownership of the problem, you are bound to repeat, to paraphrase George Santayana. In addition, you must understand what you did wrong and why you made the decisions you did. You must commit yourself to not repeating the mistake. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of learning from your mistakes is to not blame other people for your shortcomings.



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