Gap between perception and reality in higher leadership
Columnist A H AMIN analyses the effect on military history, politics and business.
If there were no gap between "Theory" and "Practice" or between "Perception" and reality life would have been a bed of roses! Soldiers would not have read Clausewitz, Economists would not have read Keynes, Revolutionaries would not have read Marx Plekhanov or Mao! There would have been no great men since no one would have required any direction! Organisations would have been run on one-man one vote since no one would have been required to make decisions or assessments!
Alas this was not so! This is what made a great philosopher say, "All thinking is indeed Art. Where the logician draws, where the premises stop which are the result of cognition —where judgement begins, there Art begins"! Politics and warfare are two spheres where intangibles override the tangible! In short Politics and Warfare require superior intellects in order to operate successfully since both cannot be mastered by mathematical formulae or theorems!
Decision making in war, politics or business is no mean task as it is mistakenly assumed to be. Clausewitz was not wrong when he said "Bonaparte was right when he said that many of the questions which come before a General for a decision would make problems for a mathematical calculation not unworthy of the powers of Newton or Euler.
In this brief article we will discuss the "Perception and Reality Gap" and those who bridged it! As a matter of fact the real test of greatness of a man lies in bridging the perception and reality gap! Every individual does so in life, however the great men who have made history bridge larger gaps while the vast multitude live their life by bridging relative much smaller gaps!
"Some Examples of "Misperception" and of "How perceptions changed"
It is hard to believe that of all people a man called Gandhi urged resident Indians to "think imperially and was instrumental in organizing a field ambulance training corps in London"!1 It is another thing that Gandhi soon had second thoughts and resigned from the ambulance training corps.
Von Bernhardi a great German thinker, at least so it was thought before the First World War as early as 1911 wrote "Germany and the Pan Islamists and the revolutionaries of Bengal would shake the entire British position"!2 The Pan Islamists and the Bengalis gave the British a lot of problem in WW One but the British position was saved by a feigned composure of nonchalance and by divide and rule despite the fact that one point in time there were only 15,000 British troops in India!
Mr Jinnah dismissed the "Pakistan Scheme" as a mad student's scheme but later he fought for the Pakistan idea and became the first Governor General of Pakistan. In 1937 Mr Jinnah stated that the Punjab was a hopeless place and that he would never visit it again!3 Mr Jinnah visited Punjab many times after this statement and the famous Pakistan Resolution was moved in Punjab in 1940.
A general dismissed the draft plan of another officer stating "The originator belonged to an insane asylum"!4 The originator in this case was one who was later known as one of the greatest military commanders of history i.e. Napoleon Bonaparte!
Guderian in 1940 initially described the Manstein Plan of taking the main German Panzer Thrust through the Ardennes as a crime against his tanks! Later Guderian changed his views. However, this incident has not been mentioned in Guderian's autobiography "Panzer Leader"!5
British naval warlords in WW One thought that their ships could destroy fixed coastal guns with dimensions of few feet whereas these ships were designed to fight enemy naval ships at sea whose average width was about 500 feet long! These gunnery misperceptions cost the British very dearly at Dardanelles!6 The reason for this imperial blunder was not difficult to be located! The British Navy was under a man "whose military experience extended to the responsibilities of a lieutenant in 4th Hussars" i.e. Winston Churchill!7
A general sitting in the Rawalpindi in the second half of sixties orders an engineer battalion to be sent to Khunjerab Pass via China by air and assumes that this battalion would make a road southwards from Khunjerab while the other people were making a road northwards in Gilgit-Chilas area. The assumption being that if there are birds in Khunjerab an engineer battalion can survive there too. The layman reader may note that the altitude of Khunjerab Top is 15,000 feet and snowfalls in June-July are not uncommon. The whole project failed with fatal casualties, some of the graves of those indomitable men can be seen near the Khunjerab Top even today. The unit marched back under the indomitable Colonel Qidwai to Passu where they made a makeshift airstrip and were later airlifted by a C-130 and evacuated!
Gul Hassan Khan advances a line of thinking that armour was mishandled in 1965 war because non-armour officers were placed in higher armour command. This line does not explain why Lee Meade and Macarthur who were from Engineers commanded infantry very well. Similarly one of the finest German tank commanders Rommel was from infantry.
A military Commander orders that all units must dig four feet wide and four feet deep "Anti-Wild Boar Trenches" around each troop shelter without realising that the wild boar can easily jump across even five feet wide trenches. The result being some injured men because they fell at night in their own anti-wild boar trenches. Incidentally no one was attacked by any wild boar in the sister brigade of the formation who did not dig any wild boar trenches but were located in an area which had a far large number of wild boars than the formation which had dug anti-wild boar trenches!
A German army chief in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century insisted that young commandeered lieutenants participating in the annual General Staff Exercise known as "Kriegesspiele". This action aroused "intense dissatisfaction of many high dignitaries"! Count Von Schlieffen dismissed this criticism by stating "As long as they are lieutenants certainly ...fortunately, however, they have the ambition later on to command an army, or if the aims are more moderate, at least an army corps, or to assist a corps commander as his chief of staff". Thus Schlieffen insisted on "the necessity of acquainting the future leaders as early as possible with the future problems of war.8 Schlieffen's wisdom was realized much later when many of these lieutenants led the German Army in WW Two.
A concept is advanced after the 1971 War which states that tanks can charge through minefields without much problem simply because one brigadier who Quixotically thought so was related to a four star general!
Till today there is debate in the Pakistan Army why many officers who won MC in WW Two failed later as senior staff officers or as corps commanders. Clausewitz asked this question before 1832 when he said "Almost all the generals who are represented in history as merely having to attained in mediocrity, and as wanting in decision when in supreme command, are men celebrated in their antecedent career for their boldness and decision"9* or "There are Field Marshals who would not have shone at the head of a cavalry regiment and vice versa".10
Reasons for the "Perception and Reality Gap"
Why this gap? It is so because war and politics are exercises in the field of unknown made further complicated by presence of a large number of other factors. The number of participants in both activities is very large! Thus the difficulty in bridging the gap! Thus the resultant difficulty in forming correct assessments, arriving at correct assessments etc! Some of the reasons which Clausewitz gave may be summarized as following:-
a. There is no theory which can guide the decision maker
War, politics or business in its higher levels is not regulated by any fixed theory unlike tactics or lower level business management! Thus Clausewitz's saying "The conduct of war has no definite limits in any direction".11*
b. Distance between point of action and the participant
A participant at a junior level whether a common soldier, subaltern or company commander is close to the point of action. The time frame in which he has to take action is limited. Thus it is easier to win an MC or be dismissed for cowardice than to win a war or to be exposed as an incompetent C in C!
c. Speed of development of situation
In strategy things move at a far more slower pace than tactics. The decision maker whether he is an army C in C or a corps commander does not have to perform a mechanical reaction like firing or advancing or withdrawing or offering a sale package. He has to plan days months and sometimes years in advance. Thus the profound truth in Clausewitz's saying "Much more strength of will is required to make an important decision in strategy than in tactics. In the latter we are hurried on with the moment; a commander feels himself borne along in a strong current against which he does not contend without the most destructive consequences, he suppresses the rising fears and boldly ventures farther. In Strategy where all goes on at a slower rate, there is more room allowed for our own apprehensions and those of others, for objections and remonstrances, consequently also for unseasonable regrets; and as we do not see things in strategy as we do at least half of them in tactics, with the living eye, but everything must be conjectured and assumed, the convictions thus produced are less powerful. The consequence is that most generals when they should act, remain stuck fast in bewildering doubts".
d. Degree of stress involved
The degree of stress involved in war business and politics is much higher with war being at the top and business being the second.
e. The intangible concept of "Friction"
The discovery as well as coining of the term "Friction" was one of the greatest contributions of Clausewitz to military and political thought. "Friction" as per Clausewitz was an invisible but ever present factor that reduces speed of activity in war. Friction being the sum of confusion, fear, indecision, incompetence faulty execution or misunderstanding of orders, bad weather, loss of commanders in fighting etc. Friction thus makes even simple movements like walking, walking in water. This "friction" leads to events "which it was impossible to calculate".
f. Imperfection of Human Perception
Human perception is not perfect. A decision maker has to make assessments without seeing things. A decision maker is neither a magician nor a prophet. Thus perceptions can be wrong.
g. Moral Qualities cannot be measured
Moral qualities cannot be measured. No military commander can predict whether the enemy in front will resist or bolt away, Bravery, Boldness, Cowardice, Presence of Mind, etc can neither be measured nor forecasted. The army has some systems but these are crude. All who pass out of the military academy successfully box well, pass the physical tests and written examinations. The ISSB assesses a candidate in three or five days while an instructor of cadets assesses cadets in two years. Even then the human character is so complicated that many who reach higher positions do it by dodging the system while in reality they never deserved what they got. Hence the Mc Clellans, Hookers, Naseers and Niazis.
h. Presence of Intelligent Forces which oppose the decision maker
The opposing forces are equally or unevenly intelligent. There are Fords opposed by GM and other tycoons. There is the Security Agency "Alpha" opposed by Security Agency "Bravo". A Napoleon opposed by a Blucher. A Jinnah opposed by a Mountbatten or Nehru!
i.. Incompetence of own decision makers at various levels of command
Faulty execution at lower levels of command in all three spheres i.e. war, politics and business can lead to failure or faulty assessments.
j. Want of Resolution
An important factor whose absence or presence can lead to failure or success. What would have happened if the Pakistani 1 Corps was led by a man of Eftikhar's calibre or if the 23 Division in Chamb was led by a man like General Irshad or the Eastern Command by someone other than A.A.K Niazi. In Battle of Gazala in 1942 at one point General Westphal writes in his book "The German Army in the West" all of Rommel's major staff officers and subsidiary commanders thought of surrender. This was the "Cauldron Battle". Westphal writes that Rommel dismissed all these suggestions with scorn. In the end Gazala was a German victory! Replace Rommel by individual "X" and Gazala rather than Alalamein may have been the most decisive battle of the North African War in WW Two.
How to bridge the "Perception and Reality Gap"
What is the solution to the dilemma! The following may to some extent compensate:-
The Relative Importance of Theory vis-a-vis Individual talent of a commander
a. Theory to a relative factor has a limited value. Theory must educate the leader but it must not provide cut and dried solutions. We can conveniently fall back to Clausewitz who gave an answer "given the nature of the subject, we must remind ourselves that it is simply not possible to construct a model for the art of war that can serve as a scaffolding on which the commander can rely for support at any time. Wherever he has to fall back on his innate talent, he will find himself outside the model and in conflict with it; no matter how versatile the code, the situation will always lead to the consequences we have already alluded to: talent and genius operate outside the rules, and theory conflicts with practice".12 Thus Clausewitz recognises theorie's importance but tells us that in the final outcome the real decision requires talent and theory in itself affords no answer. The best solution is to "identify talent" and to groom it. Clausewitz thus stated "to indicate the point at which all lines converge, but never to construct an algebraic formula for use on the battlefield". Clausewitz gave us a precise solution to this highly complex problem when he said "Even these principles and rules are intended to provide a thinking man with a frame of reference for the movements he has been trained to carry out" and not "to serve as a guide which at the moment of action lays down precisely the path he must take".13 The greatness of the German General Staff as I wrote in an article in 1994 was not that it produced a Manstein but that it discovered a Manstein and groomed him. In the final analysis organizations have to surrender to the judgement of one man. This can lead to both success or failure. The risk has to be taken.
b. The German General Halder well summed it up when he said "War is full of imponderables and surprises. Only a commander who can depend on his own ingenuity and that of his men will be able to make the improvisations dictated by the moment and master situations not described in the manuals". Halder went further adding "True, in order to do this, he will have to know exactly what it is he wants to do....". Thus Halder concluded "The attempt to find a recipe for every single situation with which the lower echelons may be confronted, occasionally results in a cut-and-dried recipee" far more detailed than is needed".14 As a matter of fact this is the difference between the British Way of Warfare which both Indian, Pakistani and to a great extent the Bangladesh Army inherited and the German way of warfare. Thus the military failures in 1965, 1971 and later!
c. Creation of systems which assess the decision making capabilities of individuals at higher levels. In third World Countries this is severely limited by powerful interest groups, parochialism and nepotism. Then there is a kinship of higher ranks and they feel that anybody who has reached a particular rank does not require any further testing! In my thirteen years service I highlighted this anomaly in many articles published in the Citadel and Pakistan Army Journal. I don't think that anyone in the army use to read both of these publications!
Its best to quote Clausewitz once again:-
"Searching rather than inventive minds, comprehensive rather than such as have a special bent, cool rather than fiery heads are those to which in time of War we should prefer to trust the welfare of our women and children, the honour and safety of our fatherland".15 "Men who are difficult to move but on that account susceptible of very deep feeling". Men the effect of whose feelings is "like the movement of a great body, slower but more irresistible".16
- 1Pages 127 & 128 -India and the World War One- Edited by S.D Pradhan -Article titled Congress Leadership in Transition by Stanley Wolpert -Columbia University-1978.
- 2Page-266- Fidelity and Honour-Lieut Gen S.L Menezes-Viking -New Delhi-1991. Taken from Bernhardi's book Germany and the next War.
- 3Page-311 -Mian Fazal I Hussain-A Political Biography- Azim Hussain-London 1966.
- 4Quoted by Great Captains-Napoleon- Theodore Ayrault Dodge-In Four Volumes-Printed by Mifflin Company-1904-7. The remark was made by General Kellerman.
- 6Page-150-The Great War at Sea-1914-1918-Richard Hough-Oxford University Press-1986.
- 8Page-271 & 272-The German Army- Herbert Rosinki- (edited with an introduction by Gordon (Craig)- Pall Mall Press-London-1966.
- 9Page-260-On War-Carl Von Clausewitz-Edited By Anatol Rapoport. Pelican Books 1976. Reprinted by National Book Foundation on orders of Mr Bhutto and distributed in the army in 1976.
- 10 Page-198-Ibid.
- 12Page-140-On War-Carl Von Clausewitz-Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret-Princeton University Press-Princeton-New Jersey-1976. Reprinted by NBF under express instructions of Mr Bhutto in 1976 and distributed in the Armed Forces.
- 14Pages 8 & 9-Military Effectiveness-Volume Three-Allen and Unwin-USA-1988.
- 15Page-158 -On War edited by Rapoport.