“Battle Leadership” by Adolf von Schell

Pulled a few lessons from “Battle Leadership” by Adolf von Schell. Interesting perspective considering von Schell was an active German Army Infantry officer. This book is a collection of lectures given by von Schell to the U.S. Army Infantry School during the interim time period between World War I and World War II.

  • The psychology of the soldier is always important. No commander lacking in this inner knowledge of his men can accomplish great things.

Knowing the people in your organization is critical to nearly all leader’s success. The motivations that drive individuals can be as unique as the people they reside within. Having, at the very least, a cursory knowledge of those motivations will allow the adept leader to shift and adapt their leadership approaches toward the individual. This is particularly challenging when the number of people being led increases above ten.

  • Dangers that are thus foreseen are already half overcome.

Most of us fear the unknown. When those unknowns are encountered, either by design or not, they become less threatening. By removing the fear of the unknown, the legitimate fear of that danger can actually be addressed. Additionally, planning and realistic training can help people cope with their fears when they encounter them in the “real” world.

  • It is comparatively easy to make a correct estimate if one knows the man concerned; but even then it is often difficult, because the man doesn’t always remain the same. He is no machine; he may react one way today, another way tomorrow.

Under stress and extreme situations, even the most level man can behave unpredictably. Regardless of the training situations that the individual may have encountered, a leader cannot fully expect for the individuals response to be the same in the “real” world. Quality, realistic training can help remove some of this uncertainty, but not entirely. Also, people are crazy and we are not robots. Our moods, desires, and motivations can shift daily if not even quicker, making our reaction to the same situation variable.

  • This desire to act is, in my opinion, the reason why soldiers go so willingly on patrol. I repeat that it is extremely difficult to lie in hostile fire and wait, because one feels exposed to blind chance. On a patrol it is different. The soldier feels that his destiny rests in his own hands.

Defense is more difficult than offense. In the defensive situation, the individual ultimately must wait for the enemy to attack. However, on offense, the attacker has the initiative. The offense is by design one step ahead of the defense. Well trained and thoughtful defense can counter the best offense but it is still reacting to the moves of the offender. The default aggressive mindset comes to mind because even if playing defense, those players must be proactive, attacking their own weaknesses before their opponents can.

  • It is certainly evident from training in peace that the more freedom allowed a subordinate leader in his training, the better the result will be. Why? Because he is made responsible for results and allowed to achieve them in his own way.

No one likes to be micro managed. As he discusses later, plans must be simple and the commander’s intent must be clear. If given the guidance, resources, and training necessary to achieve the commander’s intent, then subordinates must be allowed to accomplish objectives in the manner they see fit. That freedom to maneuver must be earned and trust must first be established between the senior and the subordinate.

  • War is governed by the uncertain and the unknown and the least known factor of all is the human element.

As we said earlier, people are crazy. With that craziness, they are inherently unpredictable. Most of us, even in daily life, do not make logical decisions. Right or wrong, there are internal motivators, both conscious and unconscious that drive our minds to make decisions. Snap decisions especially, as noted in “Thinking Fast and Slow” are made so quickly that our conscious brain sometimes does not even have time to process everything we think we see. See also “Blink.”

  • Our mission and our will are often the only things untouched by obscurity. These will frequently form our only basis for an order. If a leader awaits complete information before issuing an order, he will never issue one.

Many times the 90% solution is good enough. It’s not perfect but it will get you close. Do not be trapped by analysis paralysis. You may be wrong. That final 10% of information could be critical, but you don’t know that, and you never will until you act. Additionally, in most situations, we are not going to know when we have 100% of the information.

  • Difficult situations can be solved only by simple decisions and simple orders.

We must remind ourselves that decisions and orders must be simple. Simple does not mean easy. Clausewitz write extensively about the frictions in war and that everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.

  • One of the most difficult things we have to do in war is to recognize the moment for making a decision.
  • It is usually more difficult to determine the moment for making a decision than it is to formulate the decision itself.

The decision to act is often the most difficult decision to make. Sometimes the most successful leader is the one who is able to act without knowing the entire situation.


  • There is tragedy in the fact that the soldier must learn from examples of the past and only rarely from the present.

Some call this “corporate knowledge,” others may call it “lessons learned.” Sadly, those lessons are easily lost if not reiterated and discussed. The past is our greatest teacher, but it should not be our only teacher. The present moment has her own lessons and one must not be looking so far to the past at the expense of the present.

  • When all is said and done, it is the infantryman who makes the attack and in whose hands rests the decision of victory or defeat. It is his back which sustains the heaviest burden; his body which suffers the greatest hardship, and his life which is suspended by the most tenuous thread. Therefore, it is he who is most vitally concerned with the enemy, with the hostile position, with the terrain over which he must operate, with the artificial obstacles which he will have to overcome, and with a thousand and one schemes for the conduct of the attack.

When making decisions, the leader must not forget the cost and toll that their decisions will have. In this case, von Schell reminds us that the infantryman will bear the burden of his leadership’s decisions. Hence, the infantryman must have a vote. Additionally, the infantryman is the expert; his life depends on it. As a leader, remind yourself of the implications of your decisions and take into consideration the opinions and expertise of the front line troops. Those troopers will be the ones executing your orders.

  • At the very beginning of the war, all armies learned that far more time is required to prepare an attack than had been thought. They also learned that once battle is joined the opportunity to issue detailed orders is gone. For this reason, orders should cover everything that can be foreseen.

There are countless quotes about the usefulness of planning. Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but plans are indispensable.” Others have said “failure to plan is planning to fail.” Whatever quote of your choosing, understand that at the time of action, the planning phase is complete and the execution phase has begun. During the planning process, attempt to identify and mitigate all of the contingencies that you can imagine. Be detailed, be specific, but understand that as soon as you shift to execution, you will realize that you overlooked something. React to those issues but keep your reaction simple.

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