The Art of Command

by Alfred Kotz

7 August 2004

[from SS Leadership Guide]

Correctly commanding is difficult. New parents already learn this. But if it's already difficult in family life, which is filled with love, care, hope, and joy, so much more difficult is command when ignorance or even stupidity and ill-intent confront us!

As everywhere where people are supposed to learn something, we find masters and pupils. Among people who must command there are those who are as certain as sleepwalkers with command and those who smash to pieces everything around them. We find the masters, the average, and the below average of commanders. Correct command is an art, which actually means nothing else than correctly leading people and treating them justly. The most inner, difficult demand of an order returns to whoever gives the order. We cannot expect complete obedience if the spiritual strength that forms the order is insufficient. If we are lazy, we cannot order others to be industrious. Setting an example is part of a command. We have a feeling of joy when we are joyfully obeyed. We must not, however, be afraid to make ourselves unpopular, even if we also demand obedience from those who think it's not necessary, because they're "good friends." We must not become side-tracked, even if others only obey with clenched teeth.

Initially, it's always about obedience. Whatever is required for instruction and education comes second. Obedience is just as indivisible from command as is responsibility.

The command must be specific and understandable. It is given when it must be given, not sooner and not later. It must never be the result of a mood. The result would be that obedience would also depend on mood. We wish our orders to be received by subordinates who obey with insight and joy. That they are so depends on us. For this reason, each command should avoid any unnecessary burden. We guard against any demeaning favoritism. We don't like it ourselves, either.

From the way a command is given an attentive observer can draw important conclusions. The attentive observer is always the person who must obey. Your character, your knowledge, and your will are judged by the observation that your order is so precise that it cannot be twisted, that it avoids nobody and nothing and does not waiver. One recognizes the degree of your wisdom if your order correctly reveals advanced planning. One will not overlook the deviousness if everything possible is carefully ordered so that no matter what happens, the blame can be placed on others.

Therefore, always give an order only at the right time and when it is necessary!

Always bear the responsibility for your order!

Supervise the execution of your orders!

Avoid "orders" full of "ifs and buts" that help you avoid the reef and shift the blame to others.

Report short and simply!

Do not order what cannot be executed!

Do not forbid what will be done anyway!

Never demand the impossible!

Don't play the tough guy!

We all know regrettable examples when somebody whose own negligence and personal neglect undermined his leadership and who then suddenly pounded his chest and sharply demanded a new, stricter discipline: "From now on, by all means punctuality!", one hears him roar. Some people know this game. They smile to themselves and remain completely passive. They know that within three days everything will revert to the old way, because his will collapses. It's most difficult for the lazy fellow to get up early.

The leader should be his subordinates' best comrade. But you must also remain their superior. That's why command is a difficult art. The command encompasses two things: your authority and the discipline of the comrades under you. The power of command is the most difficult part of your leadership. It depends on whether you have an enthusiastic following or whether you breed outrage. You have the duty to heed the limits of your ability. All too easily can you sin against the precious value entrusted to you. What you damage here is very hard to make good again. Whoever must command, should practice to command, so that obedience can be joyful.

Disobedience requiring punishment is often not so much the fault of the man who does not obey or who obeys poorly as it is of the man who commands poorly. It is often just a small step from the justifiable dissatisfaction caused by the inability or thoughtlessness of a superior to disobedience.

Disobedience is hence not merely the obedience of the subordinate, rather also the authority of the superior. Authority is not just the certainty that the order will be executed, rather beyond that justified trust. That must be earned and proven.

Command and obedience rest on one purpose. The commander must know this purpose, otherwise he doesn't command but only blabs. This purpose must also be made clear to the subordinate -- that's the task of the commander -- otherwise effect and subordination seems senseless to him. That kind of obedience becomes blind obedience, whereas it is absolutely essential for a living connection to be established between the man who commands and the manwho obeys, and thne between them and the goal that they must want to achieve.

The infantryman who goes into battle must be informed of the connection between the things that affect him; otherwise he becomes a machine. He forgets he's an important part of a whole. He loses the possibility to act accordingly for the goal. A knowledgeable commander presents the current situation as often and as well as he can. This produces a good connection between the leader and the men he leads. They feel again and again that they are led. This produces trust in the leadership, even if the contact is broken and the man is on his own. Despite his dangerous situation and loneliness, he knows that the higher ups are doing the right thing. He knows through his nurtured trust that all threads lead to a strong hand somewhere. thus emerges, grows and endures the trust in the highest leadership, because the immediate leaader explains the purpose of orders and creates trust in himself.

It's not just that way in military life. In political life as well the bond between the higher and lower is always trust. It must remain even when it's not possible to explain, when the enemy is listening, when everybody cannot know everything.

The machine-gunner behind the loophole only sees the field along his line of fire. The squad leader's view is not so limited. The machine-gunner and the squad leader must, however, know the range of fire of the company and their contact with their neighbors. The concept of "company" is usually sufficient for the enlisted man. The center of all things -- order, danger, purpose and trust for the hundred men of a company -- is the company commander. Anything beyond that is outside his range of vision.

What must fill and be preserved in great armies must already be present and stamped on the small company.

It is of far-reaching importance to allow sufficient room for the ability of others. If one tries to encompass and direct everything possible with orders, one causes others to simply restrict themselves to the execution of whatever is ordered, whereas even the smartest man can sometimes forget something or be prevented from giving orders as usual.

That is another reason for the sad fact that many things that should have been done were not done. Nobody sees it, nobody complains, but the loss is still there, even if nobody realizes it right away and nobody can measure it exactly. Those who command should think about that. They should not be scared off because the freedom of action given others might lead to mistakes. Instruction and an encouraging word accomplish more than a long face, scolding or senseless punishment. The subordinate officer's success due to his own decisions should never be met with his superior's envy, rather with shared joy and recognition.

It's impossible to issue orders for every detail from the distance. Their solution is tied to the overall direction the order has for the whole. Within the parameters, give your non-commissioned officers and enlisted men free reign! This eliminates two sources of mistakes: first, even the best leadership can overlook something, and second, your orders might not reach the others.

One must view an independent action as the proper execution of an order that in all probability would have been given for the overall operation. That still does not help the man who stands there alone with nobody to tell him what to do. He still does not know whether what he does will later prove itself correct. Here it simply comes down to whether or not we're dealing with a man with strong character. The man with courage to act without hesitation according to his best knowledge and conscience will accept the order whose purpose he fulfills, even if he does not receive that order.

After all, it is less bad for his action to later turn out to be wrong than if he had folded his hands in his lap and done nothing. If the action was wrong, that still does not mean the right thing cannot be done in a similar situation in the future. The courage to act must not be undermined. Despite possible mistakes responsible action is almost always the prerequisite for surprising successes. Unwise and incorrect critique does not increase the action-readiness of the subordinates. Instead, it causes valuable forces to be crippled or held back in the future.

If the feeling of security in independent action is not strengthened, then the seeds of fear are planted, not fear of the unknown enemy in front of us, rather of the superior, the friend behind us. A superior cannot always be friendly, but in his command and in his criticism of our action he should not cease to be our friend, so that our reliability thanks him and so that our whole heart belongs to the common work.


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