Leadership (1950)

Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Chief of the Imperial General Staff
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 4 No. 2, May 1950

This address was delivered by Field Marshal Slim to officers at Fort Knox, U.S.A.—Editor

You, as officers, you will put the honour of your country and of your unit first; you will put the well-being, the comfort and safety of your men second, and you will put your own comfort, your own well-being, last, and last all of the time.

I have chosen to speak to you on leadership but I am a little diffident for two reasons. The first is, that if anybody who has had any command talks about leadership, he is awfully inclined to talk about himself and that gets horribly boring. I shall try not to, but I probably shall.

The second thing is that I have very often sat where you are now sitting, and to get up at this time in the morning to come and listen to a foreign general talking about something that a lot of people have talked to me about already is not really my idea of a happy morning. Now you are all officers, and the be-all and end-all of an officer is to be a leader.

You are also—most of you—officers of the Armoured Forces, and in the Armoured Forces, leadership is required to an extent very much greater than many other arms of the service for the very simple reason that you work in small parties, crews of vehicles, and your leadership is really the raw material of leadership. You have your men in your own hands, under your own eyes, and that is the basis of leadership—your handling of men.

I have been very lucky in my service. In getting on for forty years of service, I have commanded everything from a section of six men to an army group of a million and a quarter, and, believe me, while it gets sometimes more difficult and sometimes easier, the bigger your command, the essentials of command and leadership are always the same. It doesn't matter whether you command ten men or ten million men. If you are going to be a leader you have got to have certain things. Leadership is a mixture of example, persuasion, and compulsion. If you ask me to define what leadership is, I should say it is the projection of your own personality so that you get men to do what you want them to do even if they aren't very keen on doing it themselves. Leadership is the most intensely personal thing there is in the world, because leadership is just plain you. I have told you that leadership is the projection of your personality, so it is not much good starting off to be a leader unless you have got personality, and you have got to have a certain kind of personality. In that personality you must have certain qualities. The first of these is courage, the next is willpower, the third is initiative and the fourth is knowledge,—courage, willpower, initiative and knowledge. If you haven't got those, you won't make a leader, and I would like, if you will allow me, to talk for a moment or two about those qualities. First of all, courage. We all, thank God, you and I, come of races which have not failed for want of courage. We can look back on our history and we needn't fear for the courage of our race, or our races, but an officer requires something more than mere physical courage. He must have that. You must take the lead when it is most dangerous. The officer must accept the greatest hazards, but, in addition to the ordinary physical courage, an officer is required to have a courage of two kinds, much more than the men he leads. Now the first thing that an officer must have is the courage that goes on. Now a British soldier is no braver than a German, or an Italian, or an Arab, or a Persian, or anybody else, but he is, thank God, brave for a little bit longer, and that is the kind of bravery that the officer has to have. You have to go on being brave. Anybody can be brave for five minutes, but it takes something to go on being brave for five weeks. That is what the officer has to do, that is what his men look for—that when things are bad, they look to the officer.

We can all get along all right when we are winning. I'm a hell of a general when I'm winning, but I haven't always been winning. If you have been a British General at the beginning of a war, you will know what I mean. There always comes a time when the things go wrong—when your airplanes are shot out of the sky; when your guns run out of ammunition; when it is cold and it's wet and your men are hungry, and when a chap's heart sinks down into his empty belly. When that happens, it doesn't matter whether you are the general an army or the officer commanding a platoon or section, you will find—a lot of you have found it you will find there comes a pause and your men just look at you. They want to know what to do, and they look to you to tell them, to lead them. That is the test of an officer—the test of leadership, and you won't pass that test unless you have thought of it and practised it. Sometimes it is very difficult. It has happened to me—men have looked at me to see what I was going to say and I haven't known what the hell to say. I stepped out of a tank once which was the only means of communication I had, and standing outside that tank there were three of my subordinate commanders, a couple of staff officers, and one or two other chaps. The situation was bad. We had got a division cut off and nothing to get it out with. It didn't look as if we should last very long, and as I stepped out, I saw those fellows waiting. They didn't do anything—they just looked at me. I didn't know what the hell to say, but I had to say something to cheer them up, so I said, "Well, Gentlemen, it might be worse", and one of those fellows said, "How?" The only thing I could think of answering was "Well, it might be raining", and by golly in an hour it was.

Well, I don't hold that up to you as an example of leadership, but it is the sort of thing that does occur, the sort of thing you have to steel yourself against—that moment when the courage and morale of the men you lead falters, and you, the officer, it doesn't matter whether you have one bar on your shoulder or a couple of eagles—you are the man who has got to put that courage and that morale back into them. For that you need a long-term courage. The other kind of courage that you have got to show as an officer is moral courage. Moral courage, believe me, is a much rarer thing than physical courage, much rarer. All men I have known who have had moral courage have had physical courage as well. I can give you a very small example of moral courage in your everyday life. A junior officer passes an enlisted man who doesn't salute him. The officer has seen it; he knows the man ought to have saluted him, but he doesn't say anything. He doesn't say anything because, first of all, perhaps he is a bit shy and he doesn't say anything because he is afraid that if he stops this big husky doughboy, he may get a bit of lip from him, and then there is trouble. The real reason why he doesn't do what he knows he ought to do, is because he is frightened, because he hasn't got the moral courage to do it. You want to start young and practise it, because unless you have got moral courage, you won't be much good as an officer. The second quality I talked about was willpower. Your job as an officer is to make decisions, to tell people what to do. Well, it is not very difficult sometimes to know what you want to do; the difficulty is to get it done. It is not good enough to give an order, you have to see that it is carried out. When you give an order or make plans that you want carried through, you will find there are an awful lot of things that will turn up to oppose it. First of all, there is the enemy. Well, that is all right; you expect them to be like that. I remember a long time ago in the first World War, in 1915, when they kept on asking us for reports. We were up in a front line trench and they sent us up a big form to fill in. One of the questions was "What is the attitude of the enemy?" One of the young officers in my regiment filled that in as "hostile". The form was sent back to him with a reprimand, and he was told to fill it in again. He sent it back altered to "still hostile". You expect opposition from the enemy, but you will get it from all sorts of other places as well. You will get opposition from your own side; you will get opposition from people who want to do it in another way; you will get opposition from your own staff, especially your administrative or logistical staff, who, in my experience, jolly good chaps as they are, always tell you that anything you want to do is quite impossible. Of course, too, you will get opposition from your allies. When you fight in the next war, you will probably fight with allies, and some of them will be worse than the British. Allies are frightful people. They are narrow-minded. They can't see the big picture. They have extraordinary ways of doing things, and, really they don't appreciate how broad-minded, how sound, and how big-hearted you are. When you begin to feel like that—and you will—I used to sometimes when I was discussing things with Joe Stilwell—when you feel like that just remind yourself that you are an ally too. All you have got to do is to walk around and sit on the other side of the table and you will look just like that to the fellow sitting opposite you. When you have realized that, start again, and you will get on all right. As a commander, you will have all this Opposition, opposition of every kind, and you have to have the strength and will to break it down and force your plan through. Without strength of will, a commander is no use at all. But there is a trap in it. I have seen some very good fellows fall down on it. You have got to distinguish between that is just plumb obstinacy and strength of will. You must keep a flexibility of mind so that you can change your mind when is necessary. That is one of the trickiest things to do, and when you solve the problem of keeping a balance between strength of will and Determination and flexibility of mind, you are well on the way to being quite a big chap. But willpower is an essential of any commander.

If you ask me to define what leadership is, I should say it is the projection of your own personality so that you get men to do what you want them to do even if they aren't very keen on doing it themselves.

The next thing I said you need is initiative. Now initiative is very simple. It simply means that you don't sit down and do nothing and wait for something to happen, because, if you do that in war, it will happen all right, and it will be most mighty unpleasant. The way an officer shows initiative really depends on how much he thinks ahead. Your job is to be several jumps ahead of your men. If you are a platoon or section commander, you probably think only a half hour ahead. If you are a company commander, it may be a matter of hours; a battalion commander, perhaps a day, and if you are an army commander, you are probably thinking three months ahead. The higher you go, the farther ahead you must think, but whatever you are, whatever your rank, you have got to think ahead of your men. That is the only way you will get initiative; that is the only way you will make things happen instead of just have them happen to you. So think ahead, and keep the initiative. The fourth quality is knowledge. Now you and I set ourselves up to be officers. You have got bars and leaves and stars on your shoulders, and I have a thing on mine you have never seen before, but it all means that we are officers. We have no business to set ourselves up as officers at all unless we know more about the job than the men we are leading. If you are a junior officer commanding a small sub-unit, you ought to be able to do everything that you ask any man to do better than he can do it himself. If you can't, just go out behind the hut and practise until you can... You will see here in this school of yours all sorts of things which will make you more efficient killers and more efficient soldiers, but the whole lot isn't worth two-pence if the men who handle it aren't right and if the men who handle it are not properly led. The first bit of knowledge you have got to get if you set yourself up as a leader is how to deal with men. Get to know your men, learn which man is the sort of fellow that needs a little encouraging; which responds when you go around your posts at night, and put your hand on his shoulder and talk to him about his home town; which man wants barking at, and which is occasionally the sort of fellow who wants a good kick up behind. Know your men! The basis of all leadership is knowledge of men. If you have those qualities that I have given you—those qualities of courage, willpower, initiative, and knowledge—you will be a leader. People will follow you, but there is something else that you have got to have—something that will make men follow you when things go wrong. If you have those four qualities you will be a leader, but you won't be a good leader and you won't be a leader for good or for long. You have got to have one more quality, and that is self-sacrifice. If you have the quality of self-sacrifice, your men will follow you not only in good times, that is easy, but in bad times. I remember after a bit of a battle—one of the many battles I lost—I was told that a particular battalion had not done well, and so I went along to see why. I found this battalion just behind the battle line, where they had been brought out. The men were sitting about, they were very, very tired, very dirty, a lot of them were wounded. They were hungry and miserable. I looked around, walking—amongst those men, and I could not see an officer anywhere, and I thought, as sometimes happened, all the officers had been killed. I went around a corner and I found a little bunch of officers. They were sitting there having a meal, and they were having a meal before their men had fed. Then I knew why that was a bad battalion. You, as officers, you will put the honour of your country and of your unit first; you will put the well-being, the comfort and safety of your men second, and you will put your own comfort, your own well-being, last, and last all of the time. If ever you have that kind of leadership with that ingredient of self-sacrifice in it, then your men will follow you anywhere. The sort of men you lead are worth that. Now I have talked long enough. I will end up by saying one thing, as a rather old officer to a lot of younger officers, and that is this. In the Army of the United States, there are no good regiments and there are no bad regiments, there are only good and bad officers. See to it that you are good officers.