Humble Leaders are the #FutureOfWar


This post is provided by Ray Kimball, an Army strategist and member of The Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


The recent Future of War conference hosted by the New America foundation highlighted the anticipated complexities of future warfare, everything from autonomous platforms to biotechnology. In fact, the sheer volume of predictions was overwhelming, lending new truth to Sir Michael Howard’s old observation that the task of military science is “to prevent the doctrines from being too badly wrong.”

Complexity in warfare is not a new characteristic, but the expansion of warfare into new realms suggests an ever-growing list of challenges for military leaders. The growing spectrum of needed competencies exceeds the grasp of even the most talented leaders in our ranks. A new way is needed.

The Future of War is profoundly uncertain; therefore, adding humility to our conception of successful leaders is essential.

A recent Catalyst study suggests one option, which they label inclusive leadership. While this may feel like yet another round of buzzword bingo, a closer look at the components of inclusive leadership reveals characteristics that should be familiar to good leaders in the ranks. Specifically, inclusive leadership calls for leaders to use the skills of their peers and subordinates to bring the maximum amount of talent to bear on the problem. Three of the four characteristics of inclusive leadership have direct analogues in existing military leadership practice: empowerment, courage, and accountability.

But the fourth, humility, seems to fall outside of our accepted leader characteristics. In fact, the word itself has no mention in Army, Air Force, or Marine leader doctrines, and is only cited in passing in the Navy Leader Development Strategy. And while it may be that this is yet another example of Americans not following their own doctrine, many leaders would be hard pressed to remember the last time they heard of humility being celebrated as a military virtue. But humility is an essential response to uncertainty, because it allows leaders to remain open to new ideas and innovative approaches.

Critics of this idea might say that this is old wine in new bottles, as all of the service leader doctrines already contain some variation on the idea of selfless service. But selfless service and humility, although both essential, are profoundly different characteristics and actions. In fact, selfless service can work against an acceptance of uncertainty by encouraging leaders to put trust in ideas that they don’t understand and may even have deep reservations about. Humility, on the other hand, accepts that there may be concepts outside the leader’s grasp while still pushing to find someone who does understand those ideas.

The strongest argument against humility as an essential part of military leader practice is its equation to weakness. But just as all virtues become vices when taken to extremes, so can humility be moderated in a way that makes it effective. For proof of this, we can look to a historical vignette.

At 0400 on June 5th, 1944, GEN Eisenhower gathered his OVERLORD commanders for a decision on whether to launch the Normandy invasion on June 6th. After hearing a possibility of a break in the terrible weather that had postponed the attack by 24 hours, Eisenhower polled his commanders for their views. Finally, as Carlo D’Este describes in Eisenhower in Peace and War:

After everyone had spoken, Eisenhower sat quietly. [Chief of Staff Walter Bedell] Smith remembered the silence lasted for five full minutes…When Ike looked up, he was somber but not troubled. “OK, we’ll go.” With those words, Eisenhower launched the D-Day invasion of Europe, an enterprise without precedent in the history of warfare.

Note what was missing in the vignette above: no bombastic speeches, no cross-examinations, no demands for guarantees. In accepting that he had the best information he was going to have and moving forward on that basis, Eisenhower epitomized the humble leader and gave us a model of how humility can be incorporated with our other martial values to deal with the profound uncertainty of the future.


The author would like to thank the members of the Military Writers Guild for their insights on service leadership doctrine. Any errors remain those of the author alone.


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