An Analysis of the Sub-Unit Commander (1949)

By Capt. P.A. Mayer - (Until recently with the Historical Section, Army Headquarters, Ottawa, the author is now [1949] attending the Canadian Army Staff College, Fort Frontenac, Kingston. - Editor)
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1949

"Finally, knowing the vanity of man's effort and the confusion of his purpose, let us pray that God will accept our services and direct our endeavours so that when we have done all we shall see the fruits of our labours and be satisfied." - The closing words of Brigadier O.C. Wingate's Order of the Day, 17 February 1943.


In order to set out the qualities for any particular professional task, it is always best to define the task, for from it one can appreciate the standard which the applicant must reach in order to fill the post. The task of the infantry company commander and the platoon commander is to lead a group of men in a coordinated effort to close with the enemy and destroy him. From this task, then, it is clearly seen that whosoever leads must have qualities that will inspire those under him to the highest performance of duty under all the varying conditions of battle. The leader must be resourceful, mentally alert; he must learn quickly, be able to judge and appreciate the problem soundly, think it over clearly, and with logic. It would be well now to examine the various qualities which give the good commander his power of leadership. These qualities are really basic factors which help the leader in the successful management of his men and of himself and, as such are pre-essentials to good leadership.

Professional Knowledge

The good sub-unit commander knows his own command down to the smallest detail; he will also know everything about his own battalion, from the operational and administrative viewpoint, and the framework (up to divisional level) into which it fits. He will thoroughly understand the workings and capabilities of the other arms which will support him in battle, especially applying his thoughts to the organization and use of armour and artillery. The characteristics of each arm from which he may expect support will be firmly lodged in his mind. To this knowledge, which will have been acquired by constant and enthusiastic study long before he actually commands men, the good commander will credit his battle experience.

Human Understanding

This is the real key to man-management, yet in itself it calls for certain qualities which, if the commander does not possess, he must acquire. It implies the need to understand and respect the soldier as an individual, but this can only be done by patient and tolerant study of the individual. The good officer seizes every chance to learn as much about each man under him as he possibly can. The main aids to human understanding are patience, cheerful tolerance, enthusiastic interest, a dignified adaptability (the commander never forgets that he holds the King's Commission) and forcefulness without any trace whatsoever of domination.

Common Sense

This is the individual's normal power of understanding and reasoning which he uses to grasp and discern the matters of everyday life. The ordinary applications of this quality, coupled with the professional knowledge which the average officer possesses, is generally enough to draw out the conclusions and bring about sound decisions.

Sincere Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm "on the job" is absolutely essential. There can be no play acting when an officer is under the curious eyes of men who can tell easily whether their leader's enthusiasm is just being "put on" or whether it is the real thing, derived from real interest in the value of the job to be done. The good leader's enthusiasm, if it is sincere and tempered with determination, is contagious and as such becomes a quality beyond price towards building up morale within the sub-unit.


This quality implies an unswerving devotion to the work at hand no matter how disagreeable it may be, and to the welfare of his men for whom he must be willing to give, if necessary, all his spare time. The unselfish officer will take the utmost trouble to put right every minor detail which affects the welfare of his troops.

Sense of Responsibility

Every man is born with some sense of responsibility. Some will accept it and develop it, others will shirk it. Only those in the first category can be leaders. This quality calls for one hundred per cent willingness to meet the obligations which rank and position demand and the trustworthiness to carry them out to the best of one's ability in the way prescribed by higher authority.

Determination and Drive

Sense of responsibility is invariably accompanied by determination and drive. This means adopting an energetic and aggressive attitude towards the allotted task and persisting in seeing a job through to successful completion. Determination without the drive to maintain momentum in any given venture is quite useless.

Personal Courage

This quality derives its importance from the fact that it is the courageous example that inspires. Men will follow a leader who accepts personal risk in the line of his duty, and the example set by his actions under fire is not only a winning factor in battle but very often offsets and may excuse the absence of some of the less important qualities of the leader.

Self-Management and Consistency

These must be dealt with together, for without the first the second cannot exist. Self-management implies a full control by the commander of his personal feelings or emotional a disciplined disposition and a power of calm concentration on the work before him. Once master of himself, a man becomes consistent; steadiness will prevail under the most trying conditions and the leader will find his thoughts and actions automatically canalized to the confident management of the situation facing him. Moreover, his personal fears will be successfully concealed.


The ability to make a "snap" decision and take action promptly sometimes may mean the difference between heavy and light casualties, success or failure. The good leader must not hesitate in sizing up the situation, and having done so he must make use of all his professional skill to provide a firm plan for his men to follow. Once the plan has been made, the good leader sticks to it, never losing sight of his ultimate aim.

Firmness, Justice and Fair Play

These are difficult things to define. Insofar as they apply to the average officer, they mean the same thing. The best way to make absolutely sure that these are observed is to acquaint the men you command with those facts of MML and KR (Can) which are applicable. As the soldier must know to what extent he is liable according to existing regulations, so the good commander must be one hundred per cent. sure of his knowledge of military laws and punishments. However, it is advisable for him to spend a little time in recapitulation before dispensing justice. The offender must know he is being tried and punished by "the book". Personal feelings must never interfere with the case in the slightest degree. An important factor which governs the amount of punishment is the man's record prior to the offence. The soldier will look for firm justice and fair treatment in regard to duties. By taking a close interest in his command, the commander can make certain that the soldier gets both.

Physical Fitness

This is most essential to the leader in training and fighting. He must be able to endure the rigours and hardships of the field in training and under fire. The good commander has ambition to excel physically, to do things as well or better than the men under him.

Sense of Humour, Cheerfulness

Finally, the good commander has a sense of humour. He is able to see the lighter side of situations and maintain his cheerfulness despite fatigue, which is undoubtedly the greatest demoralizing factor with which the fighting man has to contend. The man who hears a cheery word of encouragement from his commander in battle, especially when the "going" is rough, is quick to pass that cheer on. Cheerfulness is contagious. The good leader dispels gloom, exploits cheer.


If the leader can acquire these qualities to a fair degree, then he will be able to muster sufficient mental power to sort out his problems. No matter whether his problem is administrative or operational, he will be able to weigh it and regard it in its proper light with imagination and with reason.

(Author's Note: Having completed these notes, I feel that I must Prepare myself for considerable criticism. Therefore, it is just as well that I admit here and now that criticism is just the thing that I want. I firmly believe that we are able to learn more about a subject only by the severest expression of thought and opinion. In order to get at the real truth, we must analyze, discuss and criticize freely. It is hoped that these notes will provide the reader with food for thought).