Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

28 Mar 2009, 14:33 p.m.

A Book Review About Leadership

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I mostly wrote this book review in the fall of 2008.

On the Psychology of Military Incompetence

by Norman Dixon


On The Psychology of Military Incompetence is 400 pages long, and worth savoring. Its fundamental question: Given that information is the reduction of uncertainty, how do leaders of different temperaments react to information? The author limits himself to cases of British incompetence in battle, but of course you can extrapolate from that.

Dixon clearly but steadily builds his case against the prewar British military. The one-line summary is: culture stagnates into convention, which drives out the unconventionality you need to succeed. More nuances ahead.

From Skeleton to Prison Cell

Dixon shows that to advance in the British armed forces, in peacetime, demanded rule-following and an authoritarian mindset. But the mission of a military is to win wars, and that requires fluidity and a willingness to take risks -- and offend superiors.

So, what happened when peacetime promotions hit a war zone? Disaster -- in the Crimea, in southern Africa, all over Europe in the First World War, over and over again. Soldiers' courage and tenacity get their generals out of the holes they dig.

In general, institutions get the leaders who fit into those institutions and succeed at the unstated goals (for example, avoid retreats at all cost, impress politicians, keep civilians uninformed and complacent). If the unstated goals don't line up with the institution's stated goals, then leaders will tend to do the things they've been rewarded for in the past, especially in moments of high stress and low certainty. Therefore, in battle, bad commanders freeze up, wait for orders, ignore new information to appear "decisive," give panicked and contradictory orders, lie to maintain their personal reputations, and so on. And disaster happens, over and over again.

In Dixon's view, the British military suffered from groupthink and valued particular upper-class traits over merit. It's astonishing that military personnel would need to be told that the map is not the territory, the signifier not the signified, but indeed they cared more about the signs and forms of morale and professionalism (such as clean clothes and polished brass) than about warm clothes, edible food, and working equipment.

Narcotic Assumptions, Lenses & Blinders

I'm in India as I write this and dealing with my own need for shiny appearances. I often forget, once I return to the States, that I find -- for example -- hermetically sealed bathrooms reassuring. My parents live in a home where the plumbing and electrical work aren't consistently hidden beneath stucco and sideboards, and it surprises me how much that bothers me. I haven't seen any marked crosswalks in their city, either; we watch for a lull in the bicycles, mopeds, and rickshaws, then rush over the dusty, rocky street. No accidents yet.

I consciously desire function over form, but that only works if I can convince myself to rely on an ugly-looking system to work.

I calm myself with a fallacious appeal to statistics: if something's wrong, it would have broken already. If other people depend on similarly rickety-looking setups, then they must be dependable. Or I just go straight to infantilism and believe my parents wouldn't put me in danger.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the "edifice complex". He reminded us that, in times of uncertainty and stretched budgets, when we can least afford the "organized waste" of facades, we find them most reassuring.

In good times, insecurities and rationalizations like mine are a luxury. In battle and competition, they're delectable poison.

British commanders, similarly, clung to the false clarity of their chain of command, "masculinity," pride, and privileges when they faced the mess of battle. They feared shame more than they minded losing men, and they scorned the "motherly" chores (or retreats) that would ensure troop survival and readiness.

Valiant forays are masculine, but feints and retreating are girly? Again, ideology got in the way of success, as when insecure commanders pooh-poohed nonwhite adversaries, self-improvement, and new technology.

The lesson: Real self-confidence doesn't need ideology as a crutch. The flipside: if you see someone leaning on received assumptions, and repeating them rather loudly, it's because without them he wouldn't know who he was.


The argument above takes up most of the book. In an aside, Dixon suggests that "senior commanders have often to fill a number of incompatible roles": heroic leader, military manager, and technocrat, plus politician, PR man, father figure, and therapist. This is of special interest to me.

I've learned models describing styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic, and whatnot. These days I'm more interested in the balance among managing up, down, and sideways. Reading these books and thinking aloud about them helps me get perspective. What leg of that tripod have I been shorting?

Works thematically related to On the Psychology of Military Incompetence: Dilbert, the Harvard/NASA case study on the Columbia shuttle disaster, and John Le Carre's The Tailor of Panama.