A strategic leadership theory of military effectiveness: General Matthew Ridgway and the revival of the US Eighth Army in the Korean War
Published online: 3 December 2020
The article has been peer reviewed.
Strategic leadership is widely understood to be something militaries need to have, but it is not often well defined. For some, strategic leadership emerges spontaneously along with the promotion to a certain rank (e.g. colonel), with the assumption that rank itself brings a strategic perspective. For others, strategic leadership is a lifelong pursuit that suggests a long list of ethical, emotional, physical, intellectual and social competencies. 1 While the second approach is more compelling, comprehending such an amorphous and multifaceted concept is difficult; actually determining the real-world impact of strategic leadership is even more complex. In an effort to bring increased clarity to the concept of strategic leadership and better understand its practical importance, this essay develops a strategic leadership theory of military effectiveness.
All the core building blocks of this theory - strategy, leadership and military effectiveness - have been thoroughly studied in various academic and professional literatures. Despite the attention paid to these concepts, and the apparent relevance they have to one another, there is relatively little contemporary scholarship on the interaction between strategy, leadership and military effectiveness. 2 In bringing these concepts together this essay makes four contributions. First, by suggesting an analytically useful definition of strategic leadership, this essay suggests a way of clearly articulating and testing the importance of strategic leadership in war. Not only will this approach enhance the power of our strategic analysis, it could also help improve the professional military education (PME) approach to developing strategic leaders by clarifying the concept and linking a specific approach to leadership and strategy with military performance. Second, engaging with both the study of strategy and the study of leadership provides a means for exploring the crucial human element in the creation and implementation of strategy. Strategy is made and implemented by leaders; it is not self-executing. Third, combining the study of leadership, strategy and military performance highlights the need for battlefield commanders to be good strategists, which is sometimes lost when scholarship and doctrine focuses too much on factors like the character and charisma of leaders. Fourth, studies of military effectiveness have not done enough to evaluate strategy or leadership as causal variables and studies by historians and practitioners have not operationalised leadership in a way that can be generalised.
The remainder of this essay is organised into four parts. The first section briefly surveys the current trends in the study of military effectiveness to suggest that leadership and strategy have not gotten the attention they deserve as plausible independent variables. The second section develops a strategic leadership theory of military effectiveness. The third section presents an exploratory case study analysis of the United Nations Command’s (UNC) military effectiveness after General Matthew B. Ridgway took over as combatant commander in December 1950. This is an initial test of the plausibility of the hypothesis that strategic leadership affects military effectiveness. Finally, the conclusion sums up the findings of this essay and suggests implications for future research.
Theories of military effectiveness
Military effectiveness is a way to measure the battlefield performance of a given military force. Millett, Murray and Watman offer a useful definition of military effectiveness and related terms:
Military effectiveness is the process by which armed forces convert resources into fighting power. A fully effective military is one that derives maximum combat power from the resources physically and politically available. Effectiveness thus incorporates some notion of efficiency. Combat power is the ability to inflict damage upon the enemy while limiting the damage that he can inflict in return. 3This description suggests military effectiveness measures the performance of a military organisation in terms of its ability to damage its opponent while limited its own damage. Military effectiveness has emerged as one of the most vibrant areas of research in security studies.
Since the publication of Stephen Biddle’s Military Power, the scholarship on military effectiveness has turned decisively towards the non-material attributes of armies. Tactical and operational efficiency, labelled as the ‘modern system’ by Biddle, has become the most popular explanation for military and combat effectiveness. The main trend in military effectiveness scholarship is expanding on and refining Biddle’s argument that military forces well-trained in the modern system of military tactics and operations are likely to be highly effective fighting forces. 4 The emergent more expansive approach is that there are certain best ‘military organisational practices’ that, when implemented fully and correctly, produce maximally effective fighting forces. 5 Some countries lack the resources or motivation to implement these best practices and therefore field less effective militaries, regardless of how many troops, tanks and planes they have. 6 This set of factors can be labelled as the ‘skill’ determinates of combat effectiveness. 7
Military practices are certainly crucial to combat effectiveness, but they do not seem to tell us much about combat motivation, or what Carl von Clausewitz called ‘moral strength’ and ‘moral factors.’ 8 Even if a force is highly capable of employing basic tactics and carrying out complex operations, will they do so with consistent motivation across armies and nations and circumstances? Can a force that is tactically mediocre but highly motivated defeat a force that is well-trained but has low motivation? These questions require shifting attention to the ‘will’ determinates of combat effectiveness. Will, or motivation to fight, is often viewed through the lens of morale and unit cohesion. 9
Strategy and leadership do not play a major part in recent scholarship on military effectiveness. To a certain degree, these factors fall in between the existing categories and might be assumed to be important but have not been studied with the depth and rigour of other factors. The remainder of this essay seeks to demonstrate the value of including strategic leadership in the study of military effectiveness alongside other theories of military effectiveness.
To cite this article:
Documentary-note: Jeffrey W Meiser, ‘A strategic leadership theory of military effectiveness: General Matthew Ridgway and the revival of the US Eighth Army in the Korean War’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2020, 2(2):215-236 https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/strategic-leadership-theory-military-effectiveness.asp
Author-Date (Harvard): Meiser, J.W., 2020. ‘A strategic leadership theory of military effectiveness: General Matthew Ridgway and the revival of the US Eighth Army in the Korean War’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2(2), 215-236. Available at: <https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/strategic-leadership-theory-military-effectiveness.asp>
1 Daniel H McCauley ‘Rediscovering the Art of Strategic Thinking: Developing 21st-Century Strategic Leaders,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, 2016, 81(2nd Quarter). https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-81/jfq-81_26-33_McCauley.pdf
2 One recent review of military effectiveness lists six plausible causes of military effectiveness and neither leadership nor strategy is not included, Risa A Brooks, ‘Introduction: The Impact of Culture, Society, Institutions, and International Forces on Military Effectiveness’, in Risa A Brooks and Elizabeth A Stanley (eds), Creating Military Power: The Sources of Military Effectiveness,Stanford University Press, Palo Alto CA, 2007, pp 1-26. Two recent books on counterinsurgency are the best examples of attempts to evaluate these connections, but focus primarily on leadership and effective implementation of counterinsurgency and do not develop general theories of leadership, see Mark Moyar, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq, Yale University Press, 2009; Victoria Nolan, Military Leadership and Counterinsurgency: The British Army and SmallWar Strategy Since World War II, I.B. Tauris, London, 2011. A recent article finds a correlation between general officer removal and increased effectiveness in the American and German armies in the Second World War, but does not test for causation in specific cases and does not develop a full theory of strategic leadership, see Dan Reiter and William A Wagstaff, ‘Leadership and Military Effectiveness’ Foreign Policy Analysis, 2018(14):490-511. https://doi.org/10.1093/fpa/orx003
3 Allan R Millett, Williamson Murray and Kenneth H Watman, ‘The Effectiveness of Military Organizations,’ International Security, Summer, 1986, 11(1):37-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2538875 This definition is echoed in Brooks, ‘Introduction,’ 9; Caitlin Talmadge, ‘The Puzzle of Personalist Performance: Iraqi Battlefield Effectiveness in the Iran-Iraq War,’ Security Studies, 2013, 22(2):185 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2013.786911 and Kirstin J. H. Brathwaite, ‘Effective in Battle: Conceptualizing Soldiers’ Combat Effectiveness,’ Defense Studies, 2018, 18(1):1-3. https://doi.org/10.1080/14702436.2018.1425090
4 See Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator's Army Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 2015; and Ryan Grauer, Commanding Military Power: Organizing for Victory and Defeat on the Battlefield, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
5 Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army, p 1.
6 Stephen Biddle, Military Power Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006; Talmadge, Dictator’s Army. See also Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
7 For the distinction between ‘skill and will’ see Brathwaite, ‘Effective in Battle,’ p1.
8 Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, (Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans), Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1984, p 111, p 127, p 184.
9 On morale see Jonathan Fennell, Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein, Cambridge University Press, 2011. On cohesion, see Robert J MacCoun, Elizabeth Kier, and Aaron Belkin, ‘Does Social Cohesion Determine Motivation in Combat? An Old Question with an Old Answer,’ Armed Forces & Society, July 2006, 32(4): 646-654; Leonard Wong, ‘Combat Motivation in Today’s Soldiers,’ Armed Forces & Society, July 2006, 32(4):659-663; Jasen J. Castillo Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 2014; Anthony King, ‘On Combat Effectiveness in the Infantry Platoon: Beyond the Primary Group Thesis,’ Security Studies, 2016, 25(4):699-728.