In war, an army is only as good as its leader, a strong commander can use a sub-par militia to its fullest and break even the most professional armies in his path, and the uttermost excellent hosts of war can be, in the same manner, brought to its knees by a much weaker foe if it's poorly led.

A particular country finds itself in troubling position, it's located on a strategically important region of a continent stricken by constant warfare, because of that, it has become highly militaristic, and its soldiers are tremendously masterful in the art of war, far better than any of their contemporaries, and the nation can also invest a large budget on its forces due to its wealth (they're filthy rich).

The problem however, is that the country has a very small population, and sometimes its skillful army can't compensate for its vast numerical disadvantage, a victory too costly can prove Pyrrhic, and a defeat too decisive can prove ruinous. Its manpower shortage can also bring tremendous effects to the country's economy and future if portions of it are lost in a single engagement, an entire generation can vanish in a single day.

As you can imagine then, one inadequate commander leading the main army once can usher shattering effects. In the light of that, I ask what would be the best way to prevent bad leaders from ruining armies, or better yet, avoid having bad leaders become part of the army high command.

I thought first of heavily investing in meritocracy, then of building dozens of military schools across the country, and separating the army from the nation's politics as much as possible (I can't have incompetent sons of nobles becoming generals for political influence), then, I added a larger and more independent chain of command, so even the lower rank and file officers can act decisively and prudently, but I'm afraid that won't be enough.

"No amount of excellent soldiery can compensate for sh*tty leaders"

  • Some guy I saw on a Battle of Carrhae Youtube video

closed as primarily opinion-based by Renan, John, sphennings, StephenG, L.Dutch Mar 22 '18 at 5:38

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '18 at 3:50

Much of the problem is actually motivational. Takeda Shingen was perhaps one of the finest strategists in Japan near the end of the Age of War. He was able to defend his territory from the other main contenders for the Shogunate, but realized that while he had the power to defend, he did not have sufficient resources to win the Shogunate for himself, and should he join one of the rival factions, the combined power would crush the others, but then leave him vulnerable.

Takeda Shingen died successfully defending his territory, but his son, Takeda Katsuyoui, was ambitious and likely wished to outshine his famous father. Disregarding the advice of the "24 Generals" (highly ranked retainers and commanders in their own right), he embarked on the Battle of Nagashino and led the clan into destruction at the hands of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

So here we have a situation where all the cards are potentially high cards. Takeda Katsuyori inherited a strongly defended kingdom, could play off his enemies against each other, was advised by the finest and most experienced military advisors and commanding a top notch army, but was led into disaster by his pride.

So somehow your military academy is going to have to moderate the personalities and "soft skills" of the graduating officers and NCO's to prevent personal emotions and ambitions get the better of them. Unfortunately, you may end up with a rather plain vanilla leadership cadre, who don't have the "spark" to examine and implement unconventional strategies and tactics, or adapt to changing conditions. The Union leadership in the American Civil War had outstanding organizers in the beginning ("Little Mac" and "Fighting Joe" Hooker, for all their faults ad field leaders, were efficient organizers. The proper place for them was in the staff, not in command), but not commanders. Lincoln finally began getting his winning hand with George Gordon Mead, and then the Generals from the Western theatre, Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and others turned the tide.

A cursory glance at history suggests that truly successful military commanders have a wealth of experience to draw upon. Alexander III was tutored by Aristotle (in addition to the practical leadership by example from his father, Phillip II). General Sir Arthur Currie was an Insurance agent and real estate speculator before WWI (among other things).

So there is a great deal more to successful command than technical skills. Military leadership, like virtually every other example of leadership, is still more of an art than a science, and it is difficult to believe there is some sort of algorithm that you can teach cadets to make them exceptional leaders.


The only way to minimize the damage of bad leadership is to choose to take on tasks that don't need good leadership. War is frustrating in this sense, for if you are in a situation bad enough for war, by necessity you are in a situation where you must have good leadership. War is what happens when the situation is so bad that we are willing to put our faith in leaders, and our guns behind that faith.

The first solution would be to promote from within. You claim your soldiers are excellent at the art of war. Well, the art of war includes leading, so they should be excellent at that too. What I guess you really meant, however, is that your soldiers are good at the art of killing the other guy. This isn't the art of war. Being good at the art of killing the other guy is like a child playing a game of war. You don't actually have the art unless you lead.

So you have a nation of children playing the game of war, and want to win at it without losing life. If you find a way, let me know. I bet you can make a tidy sum teaching this trick to millitaries around the world.

So I ask you, who is making these decisions about how to manage the nation's army? Someone who can make up a clever system is clearly skilled in the art of war and could lead your armies. With one skilled person at the top, it would be best to create a highly disjoint army. Organize into groups (perhaps groups of 15 lead by a seargent) who are very skilled at the art of killing the other guy. These groups have one job: kill the other guy. At the top, you have the one person who is smart enough at war and peace to figure out that they should do something. In between, you set up layers of beuocracy -- people whose sole job is to be force multipliers for the one guy in charge. They're not supposed to be good leaders, they're supposed to be good communicators. The guy on the top says what to do, and the guys in the middle relay it to the murder squads at the bottom.

Then, the smart guy at the top basically does what Sun Tzu's art of war says to do. He keeps his eyes open, and only picks battles that can be won. He picks fights which can be won by a bunch of angry death dealers.

No one smart guy who can do this? Well now you have a fun problem, because nobody is smart enough to come up with your brilliant military structure in the first place. In this case, I recommend peace. Become a bunch of business men. You've got a lot of wealth. Leverage it! Remember the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

  • Rule 34 - War is good for business.
  • Rule 35 - Peace is good for business.

The Ferengi were some smart cookies.


Look at the Spartans, they enslaved a much larger demographic for 100's of years. At their high point they would have perhaps 10,000 Spartan warriors controlling many times that number.

They avoided fighting outsiders because each soldier lost was a blow, but they trained all males to fight and preparing for war was their full time occupation.

They had good and bad leaders but since the leaders were held responsible for their actions, bad ones very quickly got weeded out.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, that sounds great, but this nation can't really afford to weed out the bad leaders in actual combat, if they prove ineffective in the battlefield, it's already too late to replace them. $\endgroup$ – Jedboo Mar 23 '18 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ Spartans had set battle strategies, once the battle commenced the leaders were not usually the deciding factor. The men were already trained and subleaders already knew what to do, everyone had a lifetime of military training, it was their ONLY occupation. The bad leadership decisions were before or after combat, not during. And during can happen to anyone, Napoleon made more than one mistake yet was a brilliant leader. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Mar 23 '18 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ Ah yes, that was indeed brilliant for their time, but let's not forget that the Spartans also lived a life of leisure, they could afford to focus their entire lives in military training, while the Helot slaves did all the work back home, the soldiers in this nation are highly professional for sure, but they in no way dedicate the entirety of their lives to warfare, they can't be trusted to handle a battlefield on their own, especially against able commanders, who could make short work of them if they were poorly or not lead at all. $\endgroup$ – Jedboo Mar 25 '18 at 0:16

You were on the right path when you mentioned "dividing military command from politics", but that is only part of the first step in a long journey. Follow the example of the American Founding Fathers, by establishing checks and balances within the command structure, such that no single individual has the power to make decisions which might cost lives. Odd numbers of equally empowered leaders, with opposing goals and philosophies will by majority rule, make superior decisions more consistently than individual leaders with absolute power.

Secondly, since good decisions can only be made when detailed and accurate information is available in a timely manner, locate your military leadership teams at the front, within the combat zones. Every leader should be a fully trained warrior, equipped no better than the solders being led. The leaders should know each warrior that they command and should share in any danger which their decisions produce. And in the case of a leader's death in combat, another warrior of the same philosophical leaning should be field promoted to keep the leadership team balanced. Attrition cannot be allowed to convert the oligarchic rule into despotism.

Finally, there should be consequences for bad military decisions. Every leader who looses more than half of those whom they command, should be publicly shamed, demoted and assigned the most dangerous combat tasks until chance grants them the honorable death they no longer deserve. And if that leader is unlucky enough to survive through to the end of the current conflict without achieving that fatal honor, they should be publicly hanged for their failure to safe guard their soldiers effectively.

Forget meritocracy! The carrot has always been an inferior motivator to the stick.

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    $\begingroup$ "No single individual has the power to make decisions which might cost lives": that called disunity of command, and it's the shortest path to defeat. If you have one commander, he may be good or he may be bad. If you have a commanding committee, that's always bad. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 22 '18 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, I can't argue that commanding by committee is slower than individual rule (and that decisiveness is a treasure on the battlefield), but I think that the inclusion of sever consequences for failure would greatly reduce the speed of decision making, allowing for a best of both worlds scenario. The decisiveness of singular leadership with the enhanced perception and cognition of multiple minds. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 22 '18 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - worse than that, "no single individual having the power to make decisions that may cost lives" means no individual having the power to make any decisions, at all. Any decision, even going to a store might cost lives (like a car crash, even if licensed drivers are careful, choosing who to license is a decision where mistakes cost lives). Your leaders, committees, teachers share risks, but choosing them is also a risk. The idea of checks and balances, holding individuals accountable, is great but as written this seems to be too busy limiting to be effective protecting their own. $\endgroup$ – Megha Mar 25 '18 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Megha, thanks for the feedback. That makes two strong votes against the idea as I have laid it out. Any suggestions on how a checks and balances system could be applied to military leadership without multiple people at the helm? I think all of the answers to this question are circling around a valuable conclusion, but none of us are close enough to see the prize yet. Any assistance would be appreciated. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Mar 25 '18 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor - Your idea of checks and balances is a very good one, as I mentioned. The problem is just your system goes too far - it's not a -1 from me, just not a +1 either. In my eyes it would be enough to say you will have people making life-and-death decisions, and you will have those not successful who may not be at fault, and you need leeway to make them accountable without being counterproductive. Your individuals and committees need to check-and-balance each other, not just enshrine committees. Just a bit more wiggle room for human messiness and failure needed, I think. $\endgroup$ – Megha Mar 25 '18 at 23:22

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