Just one final stronghold stands in the way of Roman victory and the promise of peace throughout the empire.

These words appear on-screen in the opening scene of the movie Gladiator. Soldiers are lining up for battle against the barbarian tribes in Germania. Russell Crowe’s character, Roman Gen. Maximus Decimus Meridius, walks along the ranks of the army. The soldiers rise as he approaches, looking at him with respect and admiration. Maximus seems calm and determined as he commands, “At my signal, unleash hell.”

At this critical moment, in this pivotal battle, Maximus moves on to lead the dangerous and decisive part of the tactical maneuver behind enemy lines. In the forest where the cavalry await him, he inspires courage in his men by validating the enduring legacy of their actions that day, linking past, present, and future. “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

The military leader, the commander, is a central figure in our common narratives about war. Gladiator is just one of a large number of popular movies and books that center on great military leaders. But there is a surprising dearth of contemporary academic emphasis on military leadership theory. Recently, I looked through the abstracts of articles published over the last five years in three international scientific journals on military studies (two of which were ranked in the top twenty military studies publications on Google Scholar). Interestingly, I found very few articles related to theorizing on military leadership—i.e., articles that deal with how to understand, conceptualize, or develop military leadership from a theoretical perspective. While a multiplicity of scientific books and articles are concerned with general leadership and management, it seems from this selection of articles that academic attention towards military leadership is rather more scarce. In this selection of articles, military leadership was most often embedded in other central themes such as combat motivation, military operations, unit cohesion, or soldier values and identities. Apparently, literature on military leadership most often takes the form of personal accounts by military officers, for instance, or historical monographs about great military leaders, battles, and wartime strategies.

We might wonder why this is the case. Why are military studies, as a scholarly discipline, not more concerned with theorizing on military leadership? In part this is because in the past, books and theories on leadership simply were books on military leadership. There was no need to stress the military part; this went without saying. But in the last century, with industrial society in the ascent, the expansion of the public sector, and the upsurge in large, multinational private companies, theories on leadership developed to look far beyond the battlefield.

It is characteristic of military leadership and civic leadership alike that their primary aim is not knowledge development in itself but rather the use of knowledge. Theories on military leadership are mainly interesting for the military profession insofar as they are able to contribute, for instance, to analysis, decision-making processes, command practice, recruitment, or training. Other professional fields, such as police work or nursing, are also characterized by this intertwinement of theory and practice. Nonetheless, the development of knowledge is essential to the practice of military leadership, not least because the faces of war, conflict, stabilization, and peace are continuously changing.

I recently re-read the book Managing by Canadian professor of management studies Henry Mintzberg. In it, Mintzberg further develops thoughts from a previous book, Managers Not MBAs. He suggests that the practice and styles of management can be visualized as a triangle whose three corners represent management as an art, as a craft, and as informed by science.

Credit: Henry Mintzberg, Managing

Management as an art is related to the need for managers to be visionary and creative. They need to have ideas and be able to synthesize and integrate diverse interests and viewpoints. Management as a craft is related to the practical acquisition and use of knowledge in its relevant context. The scientific contribution to management practices is the provision of order and meaning through systematic analysis of practice, experience, and assumed knowledge. The point of the triangle representation is to put various conceptions into perspective so that we can more easily see what each of them accentuates and what they push into the background.

While reading the book, Mintzberg’s three management categories seemed somehow familiar to me. I recognized their relevance from discussions that I had had with colleagues in the Danish military. I realized that sometimes when ideas, expectations, or suggestions collide, it is simply because we think differently about military leadership; because our conceptual images of what military leadership is differ. The point is that how we perceive military leadership—as an art, craft, or science—frames our perceptions of how leaders should lead in practice. It influences our judgments and priorities. The perception of military leadership as an art might lead us to emphasize the grooming of talented individuals and make us encourage the establishment of educational and organizational structures that center on individual career development. This perception of military leadership is popular in everyday narratives and pictures—movies, books, and the like. In these narratives the military leader is a key determinant of success or failure in a given military campaign. While this perspective might contribute to more creativity, sensitivity, intuition, and out-of-the-box thinking in military organizations, it may also favor individualism and glorification of individuals at the expense of acknowledging the importance of collective efforts.

The view of military leadership as a craft relies first and foremost on practical experience. This perspective might favor the design of military education and organizational structures that support professional development through tangible experience and experience-sharing. The view of military leadership as a craft might also make us more prone to emphasize the development of operational tools such as military doctrines and standard operating procedures. In its archetype, the idea of military leadership as a craft might emphasize leaders’ own (limited) experience to the exclusion of ideas and theories that come from outside of the military profession. This has been called the “Not Invented Here” effect.

From the science-centric perspective, the idea of observation of and reflection on individual and organizational practice is pivotal to the quality and development of military leadership. The scientific perspective might to a greater degree encourage the invitation of other disciplines—sociology, cultural studies, general leadership theory, etc.—to inform and develop the practice of military leadership. On the downside of the scientific perspective, we might point to the mushrooming of management technologies such as Key Performance Indicators, Balanced Scorecard, risk management systems, performance reviews, time-tracking templates, and assessment systems that permeate many organizations today. While each of these technologies might be helpful in their specific purpose, it seems in their totality that instead of helping leaders to manage, they are often managing the leaders.

Mintzberg’s message is not that the three categories are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, he argues that useful managing or leadership should combine all three without any one of them being completely dominant. Each category accentuates some aspects of the phenomenon of leadership while pushing other aspects into the background. In view of this reflection on Mintzberg’s categories, the following two suggestions might be offered:

1. Encourage a plurality of perspectives on military leadership.

The use of Mintzberg’s three leadership categories illustrates how an awareness of different perspectives will enrich our understanding of military leadership. The field of military studies should invite everybody interested to participate in a continuous and open-minded dialogue with the aim of exploring existing and new perspectives that may further enhance military leadership development. This dialogue implies abandoning categories of “right” and “wrong.” This approach may be particularly opposed in military organizations, which are highly hierarchical and which often teach their members to strive for precision and certainty and inherently prioritize the ability to answer questions over asking them. A concerted effort should be made, however, to overcome this opposition and enrich the military’s own theoretical approach to leadership.

2. Encourage military leaders to reflect on what categories and perspectives they apply in their own leadership approaches.

Our views often remain unquestioned until confronted with different ones. Being aware of our own ingrained perspectives on leadership and being attentive to those of others will make framing and making decisions clearer, and will enhance mutual understanding and cooperation. Furthermore, this degree of self-awareness makes it easier to realize when an issue of discussion may be related to deeply rooted perspectives and their concomitant expectations and values.

The military profession and military scholars should engage in a new, explorative dialogue. Instead of discussing normative, instrumental definitions of “good military leadership,” we should start to think in terms of those performative background perspectives that in reality shape our own definitions of military leadership. In 1986, Gareth Morgan wrote his best-selling book Images of Organization. In it, Morgan unveils the concept of organization through the use of eight metaphors (organizations as machines, as organisms, as political systems, etc.). He demonstrates how each of these eight images of organization leads us to understand and administer organizations in a specific, pre-framed way. If our thinking about organizations is based only in one metaphor, we cannot understand reasoning and discourse based within others. The same might be said about leadership perspectives. In order to identify and refine military leadership best practices, we need to unfold a plurality of images. If we stick to the heroic ideals of Gladiator and the art perspective, in which leadership competencies are seen as innate, we fail to appreciate two core elements of leadership: that leading is relational—it happens between people—and that leading is shaped by the context in which it happens. New challenges military leaders will confront will require appropriate leadership techniques. Only when we engage openly on the multiple perspectives that inform military leadership theory will those techniques emerge in practice.


Therese Heltberg is a social scientist with the Royal Danish Defence College’s Institute for Leadership and Organisation. She holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Copenhagen. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any  agency of the US government.


Image credit: Sgt. April Campbell, US Army