Author: Pohland, Paul A
Date published: April 1, 2011
The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell edited by Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews. University of Kentucky Press (http:// www.kentuckypress.com), 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008, 2008, 304 pages, $32.50 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-8131-2513-8.
The Art of Command is a collection of nine essays, each written by a different author on various facets of military leadership. The presentation of the essays preserves the sweep of American military history from the outset of the Revolutionary War in 1775 through the Gulf Wars of the 1990s to the retirement of Gen Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from active duty on 30 September 1993.
The editors identify nine leadership "themes" and nine military officers who exemplify those themes, stating explicitly at the outset that "each leader personified many, if not all nine, of our key themes" (p. 3). We add that the essayists identify many more than nine.
It is not difficult to recommend The Art of Command to a broad spectrum of readers. For those who have neither the time nor the inclination to read book-length biographies, this collection provides brief accounts (20-30 pages) of the lives and contributions of the selected American military men. More importantly, "Integrity and Leadership," the opening essay on General Washington, elaborates one of the prominent themes in current research on leadership: namely, the influence of the leader's character upon the success of any enterprise. Caroline Cox brilliantly clarifies the relationship of character to actions in the life of Washington.
We have other reasons for recommending the book. First, the essays' order of presentation from Washington to Powell offers a useful overview of US military history. Second, veterans may find an opportunity to relive a portion of their own history. Third, some readers may become acquainted for the first time with some lesser-known figures. Fourth, students of leadership may rediscover the power of transactional and transformative leadership in military guise. The text provides insights into the enormous contributions made by nine genuine American heroes.
Despite the generally positive tenor of this review thus far, we find The Art of Command flawed in several respects. First, separately and collectively, the essays contribute little new to our knowledge of leadership, in either its theoretical or applied sense. For example, to point out repeatedly that leading from the front, showing determination and flexibility, and having consideration for subordinates seems hardly original. Second, with the exception of H. R. McMaster, who draws upon the classic work of Carl von Clausewitz, the essayists appear to systematically ignore the extant literature on military leadership, as well as the larger body of leadership research in business and management.
Imprecision in language also flaws the text. For example, the contributors use terms like styles, traits, themes, and qualities interchangeably and, in our view, inappropriately. This pattern carries over to essay titles that make no differentiation between characteristics of leadership (integrity, determination, vision, and adaptiveness) and the context of leadership (institutional, cross-cultural [more precisely, coalitional], and technological). All were simply "themes."
We must also point out biases in the text. For example, of the nine individuals profiled, seven- including Henry H. "Hap" Arnold- were career Army officers. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller served in the Marine Corps, and Hyman G. Rickover was a Navy admiral. All nine were flag officers, and all but one (Powell) were white males. The hidden messages are clear, if unintended, despite the fact that the nine selected undeniably deserve respect and honor. Finally, we note that the editors only minimally achieve their purpose, as articulated in the "Introduction," of "providing] . . . a historically grounded exploration of leadership development " (emphasis added, p. 2). Although all the essayists refer to their subject's efforts regarding professional development, they clearly consider that topic of only minor importance.
Despite its shortcomings, we recommend The Art of Command to the military and general readership. We do so in large part because in our current age of historical revisionism and political correctness, it is refreshing to find a book that unabashedly profiles and celebrates genuine American military heroes.
Dr. Paul A. Pohland
West Paducah, Kentucky
Col Eric A. "Ric" Pohland, USAF, Retired