Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History by Andrew Roberts
Reviewed by Neil McLennan
Andrew Roberts’ Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History (Allen Lane, 2019) offers readers a range of lessons drawn from nine case studies. Two case studies are from the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon and Nelson); six from the Second World War (Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Marshall, De Gaulle and Eisenhower); and one from the more recent Falklands War (Thatcher). The publication offers an opportunity to consider the two main types of leadership text: inspired/ing narrative biographies/autobiographies and leadership research informed works. Roberts covers both genres but, in doing so, veers more to journalistic autobiographical narrative than pure history or evidence-based leadership writing and analysis.
Self-help books for leaders have been published by the thousands for those trying to emulate and learn from past leaders. Roberts’ writing style, which is easy to follow, sometimes does not go as far in analysis as one might wish. His chapter on his beloved Napoleon takes readers through a short biography before offering 23 lessons on leadership in a single paragraph at the end of the chapter. Nelson’s chapter offers ten lessons right at the end of his short biography. His chapters on leaders tell the story of their lives and draw out some key events whilst either scattering leadership lessons throughout the chapter (e.g., Marshall and De Gaulle chapters); or he gives a rapid-fire list of lessons at the chapter’s close (e.g., Napoleon and Nelson chapters).
Perhaps the most striking examples of ‘narrative rich/analysis shallow’ are found in the chapters on Second World War leaders Hitler and Churchill. Roberts has written on both before (in Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership). In Leadership in War, leadership is starkly presented as either a scapegoat or savour. Hitler is clearly presented as a scapegoat with much to be blamed for and as an example of when leadership goes wrong. So much could be investigated in this chapter, not least the root causes of Hitler’s leadership, his actual leadership development, and forensic analysis of his leadership approach. One might even wish to investigate the impact of toxic leadership within the Third Reich’s command structure.
Hitler and Churchill
Roberts calls Hitler “a hopeless has-been” and concludes he was “a banal, soulless little weirdo.” The chapter on Hitler unduly focusses on Hitler’s character rather than dissecting reasons for Hitler’s failures, and indeed successes, as a leader. One might ask, ‘If Hitler was such a poor leader how did he achieve what he did?’ Robert’s constant returning to ‘luck’ in some other chapters only goes so far as an explanation for a leader’s success. If we look at one of Hitler’s most recent biographers, Professor Thomas Weber, we may find some more compelling and useful evidence giving deeper leadership insights. Weber notes “if you want to understand how Hitler worked as a political leader whilst he is coming to power, think more ‘House of Cards’ rather than the kind of vengeful, shouting figure that you all know from Hitler documentaries.” More research into Hitler’s leadership, his rise to power and approaches to leadership could give helpful leadership lessons, not least as we seek to avoid war in future.
By contrast to Hitler’s rather shallow presentation and lack of actual leadership rise, Roberts notes Churchill’s formal leadership training. Sandhurst is cited but little more detail given on his leadership learning at this formative stage. Roberts noted Churchill’s troubled childhood and strained parental relations. However, he fails to make the link between the early-life challenges both Hitler and Churchill faced and still persevered. This is ripe for comparison, analysis, and critique, which Roberts leaves other works to carry out.
One case study is Roberts’ hero, the other the anti-Christ. Tellingly Roberts noted Churchill’s ‘Fortune.’ Indeed he even capitalised this word, which is insightful. Other words used by Roberts to describe Churchill, and also unnecessarily capitalised, are “Destiny”, “Luck”, “Chance”, “Fate” and “Providence.” The reader looking for tips of leadership lessons will be short-changed by this list. Roberts does, however, reflect that Churchill’s self-evaluative qualities and learning from mistakes.
Content or Clarity
Roberts ends his work by offering at least one leadership lesson per page in his twenty-two-page conclusion. This plentiful postulation perhaps creates penumbra. Long lists of advice create content but not necessarily clarity.
The key for any leadership reader is clarity, conciseness, and change. Churchill sent memos on the first two. The short, clear lesson leadership readers want to learn is how to turn rhetoric and vision into reality. How can they change things based upon their reading and learning? Roberts’ notes on many occasions that the great leaders have been readers and that they are highly literate. This is helpful advice.
Being told that ‘luck’ is important in leadership does not help anyone who wanted to develop and implement lessons learned. Leadership learners will need to use this book alongside many others if it is to have impact to their practice.
If you would like to read more leadership advice from the Second World War’s greatest leaders, read the story of WO1 (RSM) JC Lord or Dwyn Bramall’s lessons from a career in the military that began with him leading his platoon on the beaches of Normandy.