Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review: Command Culture

I'm just finished reading Command Culture by Jörg Muth. To give it it's full title - Command Culture, Officer Education in the U.S and German Armed Forces, 1901-1940 and the Consequences for World War II. The book charts a period of history which is all too often wrapped up in the mystique which surrounds any victorious army. The assumption of too much history is that the US armed forces were better led than the Germans, backed up by overlarge characters, like Patton, or Eisenhower.

The reality presented by this book is rather more complex and nuanced, sparing little praise for the US military, which was at the time mired in a culture of hazing, rigid schooling and restrictive doctrine. By contrast the German military is presented as a flexible and adaptive institution, able to react to circumstance and innovate internally.

The key theme is one of leadership, and the exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of each institution has a great deal of value for anyone looking at how institutions function best. The key weakness of the American military it seems was the inability of senior officers to challenge and change the institution they had grown up in, with a steady ossification occuring over time. Few individuals were keen to give new entrants an "easy ride" compared to the misery they had endured to get through to high rank.

By contrast the German schools were far more open, allowing for an integrated education, including civilian schooling. They were also far more focussed on merit based promotional systems, which ensured that truly capable candidates rose swiftly, protecting against hazing of the American type, since today's junior could be tomorrow's boss.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking at how management itself works, since there are a great many lessons to be had here. The "no right answer" doctrine (using that word in it's loosest possible sense) is rare even in the civilian world, and written orders of extreme detail are equally common. The German schools seem to have had a great deal of success in ensuring that officers (managers) were able to take their appropriate level of responsibility, avoiding the tendancy to micromanage, since it was never taught in the first place.

The author describes the difference between American orders, which would be extremely detailed and explain the path by which the senior expected his juniors to achieve an objective, vs the German style, which would simple state the goal, leaving the path to victory to be determined by officers on the ground. This is something which all too often business training and education utterly fails to impart to rising managers. The need to relinquish control on the assumption that juniors can be trusted should be part of standard business practice, however all too often managers feel they cannot do this until trust has been earned, and then ensure the circumstances never arise to earn that trust due to micromanagement.

A tightly written and elegant book, Command Culture is a delight to read and an enjoyable exploration of a key part of history. It is enhanced by it's brevity, and each point is clearly and consisely made, with little spare prose to weaken the text.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in the concept and execution of leadership.

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