Monday, January 17, 2011

Decision-Making in the American Revolutionary War

Last time, I reviewed Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. One theme from the book deserves extra mention: the contrast of George Washington’s decision-making style versus that of the British military leaders.

The British leaders were traditional military commanders, elite and absolute in their leadership. At several junctures they failed because they ignored correct but contrary perspectives from lower-ranking officers. Equally bad, they put too much faith in immediate subordinates whose primary skill was to tell the leaders what they wanted to hear.

By contrast, Washington was “functioning more as a leader than a commander: always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing.” He acted this way partly by necessity. His forces were a potluck of regiments and militias donated by the various states. Many unit leaders had their own ideas and agendas, which over time Washington learned to solicit and guide rather than push against.

Although Washington was running an army, not a town-hall democracy, he realized the two were not mutually exclusive. He could encourage debate and still be in charge. He could boost morale by making it clear his men were heard. These techniques often inspired the Americans to fight smarter and harder than their adversaries.

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