Montgomery and Patton WWII

Coalition Commanders in Contemporary Operations – A Behavioural Perspective



 15 Sep 2003



The strategic view of Peace Support Operations (PSO) has two perspectives in line with the definitions already provided. At the level of National Strategy, Governments attempt to determine what is in the national interest. This is followed by the development of Military Strategy. In the former case, national interest is a vague notion at best. It is frequently based more on the ideology of the Government of the day than any pragmatic analysis of economic or security needs. Examples of this are common for instance our need to be involved in sufficient numbers of operations to claim an offset against our no nuke policy. Pragmatic national strategies are those that reflect a real underlying need such as assisting with regional stability to ensure our neighbourhood doesn’t become a haven for undesirables or helping to calm a nation that is a major trading partner.

The ideological approach causes many problems for military strategists who may find themselves unable to do the job of deciding where, when and under what terms they will enter the operation. This difficulty may be because the members of the armed forces fundamentally disagree with the ideology (but of course are constrained from speaking out or acting by the protocol of the Profession of Arms). It may also be because, in an MMP environment a minority Government might be pursuing an ideology that is not supported by the bulk of the population. The consequence of this is that the members of the Armed Forces do not enjoy widespread community support for their action, leading to a lowering of morale and a subsequent drop in combat power. Potentially an ideologically driven national strategy could require the Armed Forces into a PSO that is tactically untenable.

Operational Level

The operational level of PSO is about interpreting strategy for the tactical commanders to act on. It is the level where major resources are held. It is also an area of significant challenge given the inevitability of operating within a “Coalition of the Willing”. I have personally served in two operational coalitions, the most recent in East Timor. They are inherently problematic, regardless of the strategic and tactical situation. Without a functional HQ at the operational level of war, success is unlikely. Therefore, in analyzing conflicts, an examination of the individual and cultural differences in a coalition HQ reveals much, but is an area where little research is done.

All countries work at the acquisition of interoperable C3I systems and most agree on the combined doctrine to be utilised in a given situation. All the commanders and staff have attended their relevant command and staff college and are fully cognisant with the theatre level of warfare, its principles and planning processes. Diplomats smooth the rough edges of national sensibilities and strategy is hammered out at the highest level. Why then do so many after action accounts of coalition campaigns make comment on the strife and turmoil within the headquarters and the near (or actual) failures that accompanied it.

The fact is that the process of putting together an effective military team is a three legged stool that combines technology, doctrine and people. While considerable effort is put into the identification, standardisation and alignment of command and control systems, operational planning processes, logistics and force composition, relatively little effort is applied to the most vital and fallible human leg of the stool. It is true that considerable time is spent on training commanders and staff officers and, depending on the country from which they come, a certain amount on education and professional development. However, little or no effort is put into developing an understanding of the individual and cultural differences that underpin decision making and other behaviour in the military team. The effect of this is seen most clearly at the coalition HQ level where a large number of individually accomplished, confident senior officers come together.

There are two major theoretical bases from which this subject draws. I’ll briefly introduce these, highlighting the concepts with historical military examples and suggesting a way forward for NZ and its allies.

To understand why a coalition HQ is always at risk of being dysfunctional one must take an eclectic approach to the study of individual and group behaviour. While the relatively young science of psychology can offer some insights into the individual differences between commanders and staff, we must look to anthropology to understand the cultural dimension of a coalition.

Let’s begin with a psychological view. Whether the setting is a civilian social event or the officers mess, most of us have experienced the phenomenon whereby, after being introduced to a stranger and chatting for a few minutes, we feel like we are old friends. Conversely, no matter how hard we try, there are some people that we feel we just can’t get through to. Obviously these people are hearing impaired (most non-English speakers for instance are!) and so we attempt to solve this by speaking more loudly! There must have been many hard of hearing officers in Gen Schwarzkopf’s HQ in the first Gulf War for instance. It just doesn’t get a result! What has most likely occurred is simply a mismatch of personality types. There are many theorists working in the field of personality type. At the root of much of this we find the work of Carl Jung early this century. Some in the NZ Defence Force will have been introduced to the concept via the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which identifies personal preferences within 4 bi-polar dimensions thus giving 16 possible descriptive categories for the way an individual prefers to organise and interact with their world. While not predictive of behaviour, it is a useful tool for understanding that which is unique about us. This realisation is one of the key tenets to effective military team building:


As Hogan and Champagne (1980) note, personality ‘shape’ is as common and enduring as differences in people’s feet and toes. No one foot is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and neither is their personality. However, forming a well rounded team that is aware of the essential strengths and weaknesses of peers, superiors and subordinates is an essential but often disregarded aspect of forming a coalition HQ. On the contrary, the tendency has been to send the ‘best’ officers (i.e. in military terms) so as to ensure that the nation is represented well and that political interests are suitably protected.

But what criteria will deliver best? Traditionally this has involved the subjective mishmash of staff college results, alleged performance in previous jobs and the opinions of more senior officers. These processes are however overlaid on the Officer Selection Board, a selection centre for identifying potential junior tactical leaders. The concept of being self-aware is at least as old as Sun tzu’s statement that

‘one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements’

Yet despite trotting these quotes out in presentations, little is done to provide the serviceperson with tools to ‘know themselves’ and objective measures of personality are not normally criteria for forming a HQ team. Just prior to D Day 1944, General Eisenhower identified the difficulty of putting together many similar people when he said,

‘I am tired of dealing with a lot of prima donnas. By God, you tell that bunch that if they can’t get together and stop quarrelling like children, I will tell the prime Minister to get someone else to run this damn war.’

 In the senior commanders of the Allied coalition of WWII, the extreme similarity or polarity of personality made the team a potentially disastrous combination. Most would agree that Eisenhower’s perspective was not an ideal way to view one’s coalition command team. Is it possible that the lack of synergy created by these dysfunctional teams unnecessarily extended WWII? David Irving (1981) highlighted the differences between two of the leaders of that group in his book ‘The War between the Generals’.

‘Patton seemed to regard Montgomery as his real opponent and not the Nazi  commander in Sicily, Hans Hube…to the Americans, Montgomery was pernickety, methodical and deadly slow. It did not help that Patton went around the wrong side of the island and got into Messina before the British.’

There are two separate forces at play here. One is the application of the theories of Kets de Vries & Miller (1987) that the organisational culture of any group will take on the traits of the leader. Thus a paranoic or neurotic commander will produce that type of behaviour in their HQ. Take for example the behaviour of Gen Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War. Renowned for flying off the handle unpredictably when things didn’t go his way, the HQ staff and field commanders adapted by either ignoring him (time will fix all) or becoming risk averse and narrowing the scope of their examination until it was within a safe, albeit small fence. Effective leadership comes from trust and that is generated from a basis of predictability.

Second, an effective HQ team is one that is balanced in terms of personality, style and preference. Montgomery profiles as a strong thinker who, in the extreme can be seen as unaware of other’s feelings, uninterested in conciliation or persuading others and not given to showing or acknowledging feelings. This is the very antithesis of Patton’s strong intuitor profile which could be described as inattentive to detail, absolutely sure of the correctness of his own solution and impatient with the tedious. Montgomery did have the bonus of de Guingand whose broad appeal and thinker/feeler profile enabled the commander’s weakness to be offset within that force. Omar Bradley wrote in his autobiography;

‘Monty’s failure in Goodwood had infuriated both British and American         airmen… Ike and Monty maintained a barely civil relationship. Monty knew that Ike was running him down at every opportunity and would relieve him if he had the authority. At the same time, Alan Brooke was unstintingly defending Monty. For the moment, coalition warfare seemed not to be working; everybody was at each other’s throat’.

While a loose coalition might be able to function when winning, under pressure the cracks show. Commanders generally replace staff officers who they don’t ‘click’ with, having little regard for the effect on performance in their HQ. A weakly bonded or imbalanced HQ becomes a vulnerable centre of gravity and may be targeted just as the Iraqi leadership was during the Persian Gulf War. Had the Iraqi’s known of the difficulties in the allied coalition they might have sought to make more of it. Even within the same nation, there was a coalition of sorts brought about by the four service tribes coming together to fight a war. Gordon and Trainor (1995) in their book ‘The Generals’ War’ note that,

‘The American military fell short of its goals. The campaign was ‘joint’ more in name than in fact. Each service fought its own war, concentrating on its own piece of the conflict with a single-minded intensity.’

Their book is liberally sprinkled with accounts of personality clashes overriding sound decision making. The case starts to build, in my view, for a second tier selection board that profiles and assesses commanders being considered for senior posts. This profile enables matching of personality type for combinations of principal staff officers in the HQ.

Why a formal second tier selection? The current officer selection board (OSB) is effective at identifying potential for junior tactical leadership. Although there are many formal categories of assessment, my belief based on attendance as an observer and Military Testing Officer on these boards is that they really consider very few criteria. My summarised criteria are acceptability within the group (tested for all soldiers formally or informally anyway as those who don’t fit leave the service), dominant presence and logical problem solving under time pressure. This system works well if it were only used to identify junior regimental officers. However, it does not address the competencies of an officer in a higher level appointment and there are too few officers within the NZDF with operational level experience on which to base any subjective assessment.

What competencies are required of the officer destined to work in a coalition HQ, or for that matter at any formation level staff and above? A Senior Officer Selection Board (SOSB) would first re-assess the officer’s personality style and preferences which for most was last done formally at around 19 years of age. This would help in the posting cycle not in terms of prescription to job but in terms of team design. Second, the candidate should be able to problem solve in an unstructured or ambiguous environment. Third, their interpersonal skills should be assessed and finally, their knowledge of the wider issues of warfare such as economics, geography and politics. Many of these criteria can be used simply to design a personal development plan but I feel confident that given this extra evaluation and its effect, many officers would:

  1. elect not to attend the SOSB (self selection)
  2. would not pass in the key criteria of interpersonal skills and ability to deal with ambiguity
  3. decide that a comfortable peacetime career would be unnecessarily disrupted by commencing a customised personal development programme at the rank of Major or Lieutenant Colonel (equivalent).

The literature on military leadership contains recurring analyses of situations and leader personality. However, these are almost always based on historical accounts and it is all but impossible to define the leader/follower interaction from an historical account. This type of study needs to be done in the here and now and is to be the focus of further research at the Military Studies Institute. To understand just one small component of the situation concept that would apply in a coalition HQ is a huge undertaking. As Tuchman (cited in DeLuca 1983) observed:

‘The human being – you, I, or Napoleon – is unreliable as a scientific factor. In combination of personality, circumstance, and historical moment, each man is a package of variables impossible to duplicate. His birth, parents, siblings, food, home, school, economic and social status, first job and the variables inherent in all these, make up that mystery compendium, personality – which combines with another set of variables: country, climate, time and historical circumstance.’

Part of the answer was sought in a study of military leaders conducted by Rejai and Phillips (1996). They analysed the socio-demographic profiles of 45 famous military leaders from 13 countries over the last 4 centuries. They concluded that:

  1. not all situations give rise to military leaders, and
  2. not all persons with the appropriate social-psychological traits emerge as military elites.

Is there a warning for us here in persisting with the current style of selection and advancement systems? I believe that there is.

This leads us to consider the other half of this topic…cultural difference. In NZ’s many past wars we have usually been employed alongside the forces of other countries. Regardless of whether this has been a tactical relationship or as members of an operational HQ, the situation has traditionally brought its own specific opportunities and challenges. For instance, little is actually known about the cross-cultural validity of leadership theories, which mostly arise from United States research. The potential challenges for NZ officers employed in a coalition go far beyond cross cultural issues and it is worth briefly highlighting some of them here. First, we are a nation that is weak on language skills, assuming instead that other forces will speak English or that interpreters will be provided. While orders can be simply translated, the nuance of the operational art or interpersonal issues is not so easily picked up from a superficial interpretation of words. Our geographical studies are extremely limited, as is our examination of world politics and economics. For these reasons, as well as our size and the stovepipe structure of the three services, the NZDF is largely a cadre of single service tactical thinkers who, in the main, in my opinion, would struggle to transition effectively into an operational level HQ.

Putting the NZ scene aside for a moment, the science of anthropology can provide some insights into national culture. It is generally accepted that a unique combination of nature and nurture creates our human make-up. However, there are aspects within this science that can assist us by specifically examining the manner in which culture determines personality. Sackman (1991) describes this approach as psychological anthropology and groups it with several other related theories under the heading of cultural idealism. What does it suggest? Benedict (1934;1942), Mead (1939), Kroeber (1917) and Sapir (1917) are the main representatives of these studies, which are based on the assumptions that:

  1. culture is a consistent pattern of thought and action,
  2. culture is the personality of its members and determines the personality of its members
  3. the language a person internalises affects the way he or she perceives the world.

It seems likely then that any underpinning force i.e. a nurture force, which can shape thought, action, personality and perception will have a significant effect on the construction of a military team. The higher the team is placed in the military structure the greater the effect will be. Keesing (1984) summarised this effect as follows:

‘It is as though we – or the people of any other society – grow up perceiving the world through glasses with distorting lenses. The things, events and relationships we assume to be ‘out there’ are in fact filtered through this perceptual screen. The first reaction, inevitably, on encountering people who wear a different kind of glasses is to dismiss their behaviour as strange or wrong. To view other peoples’ ways of life in terms of our own cultural glasses is called ethnocentrism. Becoming conscious of, and analytic about, our own cultural glasses is a painful business. We do best by learning about other people’s glasses. Although we can never take our glasses off to find out what the world is ‘really like’ or try looking through anyone else’s without ours on as well, we can at least learn a good deal about our own prescription.’

Think for a moment about the effect of the dominant white anglo saxon protestant (WASP) ethic that formed the basis of national (and therefore military) cultures over much of the western world. The WASP ethic dictated behaviour and values for many years and other cultural groups were judged by it. Therefore if one didn’t work hard, one was lazy and not contributing. If a race didn’t pursue formal education or dress in the designated fashion they were deemed inferior or rebellious. Putting aside bias errors for the moment, the consequences for military leadership failure in a coalition are enormous. There are many cross-cultural differences in what a leader should do to be effective. In western forces, for instance, it is acceptable and even encouraged to admit when one has made a mistake. However, in many other cultures such an admission would be taken as a sign of weakness and if severe enough, could totally undermine a leader’s power. Examples of this include French President de Gaulle’s statement in the 1960s that he had ‘heard Algeria’s cries and understood them’ being taken by many in France to be an unforgivable admission of mistakes (cited in Nahavandi, 1997). Why was it necessary for Prince Khalid, commander of the Arab members of the coalition in the Persian Gulf war to write “The Gulf War: Setting the Record Straight.” Even at the tactical level, our involvement in coalitions is chequered. Try to find many NZ officers who have served on a UN observation post or checkpoint with a ‘non-traditional ally’ who will commend their military capabilities. Cooking, humour and a variety of other skills, yes.

Thankfully, there are models for studying national culture but unfortunately, most military commanders never learn about them. The most widely used model is that of Hofstede (1980) who proposes four basic dimensions:

  1. Power Distance The extent to which unequal distribution of power is accepted. In higher power distance cultures, there is a wider gap between the powerful and the powerless.
  2. Uncertainty Avoidance The extent to which ambiguity and uncertainty are tolerated. High uncertainty avoidance would lead to low tolerance for uncertainty and search for absolute truths.
  3. Individualism The extent to which the culture is based on individuals as opposed to closely knit structures such as the extended family (collectivism). Individualism would lead to reliance on self and autonomy.
  4. Masculinity The extent to which value is placed on assertiveness and independence from others. High masculinity would lead to high sex-role differentiation, focus on independence, ambition and material goods.

In considering this subject over a period of time, I have come to the realisation that the very weaknesses that are so apparent in the establishment of a headquarters cast a light on the path to a possible theory of military leadership that has previously avoided all efforts to define it. Over the last hundred years or so, a vast amount has been written on military leadership. While interesting and, in some cases helpful, these theories relating to traits, behaviours, situations, styles, acts and contingency approaches have never been able to really define what it is that makes the process of leadership work. We do now know that there is no one prescriptive theory of leadership. We also know that leadership is a process involving the leader and the follower joining around a shared purpose. In this regard the leadership relationship is transient… just pips that pass in the night. Only in recent times have we been able to understand the effect that individual personality combinations have on the likelihood of success. Certainly, military history books are full of examples where, not only coalitions, but also single nation forces had personality-based difficulties. I believe it is now time to work on a solution for this enduring problem.

For New Zealand, there are many opportunities. However, we will need to ‘lose sight of the shore’ in order to rediscover an officer corps that can function outside the small group, single service mentality (be it warfighting or operations other than war). Many steps are already taking shape. Professional education has been identified as a necessary sibling to military training and though the pain will be felt keenly for ten years or so by the generation caught in the transition, NZDF will be stronger for it. The SOSB, if implemented is simply a filter that is primarily to ensure that those heading for higher command and staff positions have the pre-disposition to succeed and are given the personal development to assist them on their path. At the present time, many of the professional development opportunities are being invested in the regimental officer and are oriented toward university type courses. Universities have some but nowhere near all of what the officer corps needs in the future and as each officer represents a huge investment, the SOSB concept is probably a better basis for investment than the intuition of the next person in the command chain.

More problematic is how one seeks to undo the limitations of our schooling system. Language skills, world knowledge and political awareness take time to develop and the only approach NZDF can take in the short term is to start to sprinkle these subjects throughout an officer’s career from the day they join. Defence finds time for annual drug talks, EEO seminars and OSH workshops so finding a bit of time for its prime function surely shouldn’t be too big an ask?

The experience gained from working with a multitude of foreign partners is invaluable and the idea of a thin black and white line spread around the world is a good one. However, those going need to go aware of the cultural glasses that they wear. Getting a fright in a foreign land might do much for an officer’s anxiety threshold but they can still return as brash young kiwi turks without a framework to observe themselves and their interactions with others through. We must expand the number of opportunities available for officers to observe or participate in operational level planning and HQ activity. Without this awareness and capability our role in any coalition will slowly recede to that of minor tactical players.

Finally, there are the research opportunities. We can do much to keep up with coalition warfare simply by investing in the research of the subject at both an academic and military level. How can we involve the multitude of highly talented, experienced reserve and territorial officers in this programme? I have alluded to the new ground of leadership research based on the transient interpersonal dynamic. Clearly, there is much work yet to be done.

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