Value Systems : Leadership in War - paragraphs or bullet points

Wartime brings out the best and the worst in people, we are often told.  But you don’t have to take a particular side to observe the human spirit at work.

In everything a Leader does and says, he or she is measured by others.  In wartime, Leaders are measured by their troops.  They are measured by their enemies.  They are measured by the media. And they are measured by the citizens of the world. Yet as I survey the way military Leaders in the Iraq crisis are communicating, I am struck by two quite different approaches.  These seem to be “Leadership by paragraph”, and “Leadership by bullet point”.

We all listen for the stories being told, and we all want to understand the facts.  Yet the critical lens through which we look at Leaders is through their values, and how those values relate to our own.  And values are not easily communicated in “bits and bytes”. Paragraphs help a lot. This is probably even truer in wartime than in peacetime, when it is so easy to blur the issues.

There has been much media coverage about a speech given by Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish, just before going into battle in Iraq on March 19th. He spoke to the 800 men under his command.

Stuart Wavell of Britain’s Sunday Times said:

Tim_Collins“A British commander's impassioned battlefield speech brought tears to his men's eyes and rang round the world with an eloquence reminiscent of Shakespeare's Henry V”.

Ben Macintyre of the Times wrote:

“You will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright evocation of what modern war means”.

He went on to say:

“[Collins] has the air of a Rambo, but the literary touch of a Rimbaud”.

On the other hand, in some tabloids, a few of Collin’s words were taken out of context and with little examination – for example, the Sun led with the words “Show them no pity - they have stains on their souls”.  Whilst this was later withdrawn, tabloids are notorious for thinking in sensationalist bullet points.

In turn, this led the British Helsinki Human Rights Group to write “Whatever Lt. Colonel Collins’ intention, he must now face the risk of prosecution for inciting war crimes if any member of the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish should kill an Iraqi soldier trying to surrender or [is] incapable of resistance”. One wonders if they really read Collins paragraphs, or tried to understand his meaning.

Judge for yourself. He said:

"It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive but there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam. He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

We go to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people — and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose.

But if you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory. It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. They live with the mark of Cain upon them.

If someone surrenders to you, then remember they have that right in international law — and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

If you harm the regiment or its history by over enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest — for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform nor our nation”.

Collins went on to warn about Chemical Weapons:

“It is not a question of if, it's a question of when. We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders. And that means he has already taken the decision himself. If we survive the first strike, we will survive the attack.

Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood — and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see — and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality, even though they have nothing.

Don't treat them as refugees, for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor. In years to come, they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

If there are casualties of war, then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly — and mark their graves.

As for ourselves, let's bring everyone home —and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is north”.

Text at

Lieutenant Colonel Collins was brought up in Belfast, and was a history graduate.  He has had a distinguished 22 year army career, and his family has served the regiment since the 1857 Indian mutiny.  The 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish is the largest infantry regiment in the British Army.  It was founded in 1689, the year King William and Queen Mary ascended to the British throne.

Perhaps this sense of history helped Tim Collins to his words. And it was perhaps also this sense of history that led him to communicate in paragraphs of metaphor and allegory.

The totality of Collin’s speech strikes an almost classical balance between the need to motivate warriors and the need to respect civilian rights and needs. It was more than a speech - it was a collection of meanings.  What he said was accessible to a general audience, whilst at the same time being entirely appropriate and motivational to his troops.

His words leave no doubt what the orders are for his battle group. Collins makes clear strategic choices, and his words should help guide soldiers as they move through the infamous “fog of war”.

Yet even more importantly, his values are out in the open.  The words are deeply personal, and inclusive. The prose shows what he holds dear, and what he hopes his troops will also hold dear. He provides a context, and he provides road maps which let the audience visualize the meaning in their own terms.

Of course there are “bullet points” which are easily remembered, and which provide guideposts. But he does not only speak in simple phrases.

Tim Collins makes people think.

This approach stands in contrast to some other military Leaders talking about the same crisis.

Timothy_KeatingCompare, for example, Vice-Admiral Timothy Keating, Commander of the US Fifth Fleet, and a distinguished Naval Aviator. He was addressing the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation shortly before the first cruise missiles were fired, on March 20th.

He said, apparently borrowing a phrase from MC Hammer, the pop singer [as noted in the Detroit News]:

 "Make no mistake, when the President says `Go', look out, it's hammer time.  OK, it is hammer time".

Vice-Admiral Keating also said:

“We are going to make the world safer for our children and our grandchildren. There is a good reason for it.  It is to save lives – your lives.

… you are dying to get home, as soon as the old man will let you go home.

We have done everything we can to avoid war. We are now going to do everything we can to win war. If and when he tells us to go.  Stay ready.  The President is counting on you. 

Mr. President, the men and women of the Connie Battle Group are by God ready”.

Ironically it was reported that ship's loudspeakers at some point played the Queen song “We Will Rock You”.

Video at,0,4614152.story?coll=ny-education-sbp-utility

And on March 19th Vice Admiral Keating addressed hundreds of naval personnel, telling them:

"Your names will be written in gold on the pages of history. You will bring freedom to the people of Iraq ... And when you get home you will have the supreme confidence that what you did mattered.”

More at

Keating’s intent is very clear.  The main audience in both cases was the assembled military, and the goal of the words was to be motivational to them, whilst reinforcing their desire for action.  It was also a message of readiness for back home. In both he succeeded.

But the context seems missing.  Where are the broader responsibilities of soldiers? Is war all about glory? Should warriors only ever be addressed in sound bites? Was Keating exposing his own values and ideals? In fact, one has to wonder what values were being communicated and shared.

Virtually all Leaders involved on the public stage have spoken about the reasons for this conflict, and the need to respect innocent Iraqi people.  Vice Admiral Keating himself has addressed this in other speeches. But there is an old phrase – “Just when you are sick of saying it, that is when they get it”.

Put another way – unless a Leader keeps reminding the audience of his or her core message, of his or her core values, things gets diluted and lost in a sea of “what’s new”.

Perhaps unfairly, but one must also be concerned about the depersonalization of war to a series of MTV images and dramatic bullet points, which reflect the audience’s instinct, without challenging their minds.  Maybe I will in turn be accused of taking words out of context, like the tabloids that I so dislike. But in any case, contrast Vice Admiral Keating’s bullet points with the paragraphs from Lieutenant Colonel Collins, and draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps also one should also wonder about the message from a Leader on a battlefield, with a possible knife at the throat of his men, and one who unleashes missiles.  Whilst the actions steps are different, the human responsibilities are the same – and the context is really not so different.

Tommy_FranksAnother interesting example is from General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, at the first press Conference on March 22nd: 

"Let me begin by saying that my heart and the prayers of this coalition go out to the families of those who have already made the ultimate sacrifice. Because of the courage and the dedication of these heroes, the mission of Iraqi Freedom will be achieved.

As President Bush said, as last resort, we must be willing to use military force. We are willing, and we're using military force.

You know, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, my boss, yesterday outlined the military objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Let me review them with you.

• First, end the regime of Saddam Hussein.
• Second, to identify, isolate and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
• Third, to search for, to capture and to drive out terrorists from that country.
• Fourth, to collect such intelligence as we can related to terrorists networks.
• Fifth, to collect such intelligence as we can related to the global network of illicit weapons of mass destruction.
• Sixth, to end sanctions and to immediately deliver humanitarian support to the displaced and to many needy Iraqi citizens.
• Seventh, to secure Iraq's oil fields and resources, which belong to the Iraqi people.
• And last, to help the Iraqi people create conditions for a transition to a representative self-government.

Today I thought I would describe the campaign you're seeing and provide you an operational update.

Let me begin by saying, this will be a campaign unlike any other in history, a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force”.

Franks is clear, factual, accurate, and his purpose was to inform.  In that, he succeeded. But one wonders about the passion in the words? And, again, are bullet points what people need to hear?

General Franks was talking to the media, but he was also talking to the world.

Inspirational?  No one can be inspiring all of the time.  And sometimes facts and inspiration do not easily mix.  But I just wonder how Lieutenant Colonel Collins would have led the briefing. How would he have challenged his audience?  What paragraphs would he have used? What would the context have been? What images and metaphors would have accompanied the facts?


Let us turn to another couple of examples – this time from the press conference in Doha on March 23rd.

The two speakers are Lieutenant General John Abizaid, deputy commander of U.S. Combined Forces Command, and Major General Peter Wall, chief of staff of the U.K.’s contingent. Abizaid is one of the most senior U.S. military officers of Arab descent, born in the U.S. of a Lebanese family, and it is rumoured that he will likely be the top military officer in post-war Iraq.

Their opening remarks to the media were tempered by the news of the first UK deaths under “friendly fire”, and an Iraqi news conference displaying U.S. prisoners of war.

Both men are factual.  Both leave no doubt about their intentions.  Both are clear and forceful. And both men are clearly concerned about casualties. But it would seem that Major General Wall’s words are spoken more in the vein of the words of Tim Collins.

As you read these comments, how do you feel about the speaker?

John_AbizaidLieutenant General John Abizaid said:

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen….

We're now in the fourth day of operations in Iraq and continue to make good progress on the ground, in the air and at sea and in accordance with our military campaign plan.

Operations in the west continue to put pressure on Iraqi units. We continue to hit command and control centers and logistics nodes in that area as well.

Also in the vicinity of An-Nasiriyah, a United States Army supply convoy was ambushed by irregular Iraqi forces. A number of American service members were wounded in that action. And, as a result of that action, 12 U.S. service members are reported missing.

Subsequently, Iraqi regime officials displayed captured Americans on state television. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.

Earlier this morning, an American Patriot battery is thought to have downed a British Tornado in an accident that is both tragic and under investigation. The crew are at this point listed as missing.

In the various combat actions and accidents that have taken the lives of many of our comrades in this campaign, all of us mourn them. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those killed, wounded and missing. Despite our losses, the enemy remains in grave danger, and our victory is certain”.

Peter_WallMajor General Peter Wall said:

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to start by adding my personal condolences to the families and friends of the UK service personnel and United States service personnel who've lost their lives since the start of this campaign. Our thoughts should be with them and those that are still missing, including coalition military personnel and those from the media.

Even in peace time, the business that we are in is inherently dangerous. In war, the dangers and uncertainties our people face on a minute-by-minute basis are infinitely greater. However, this is what they're trained for. Our forces are professional, highly motivated and committed to this operation.

We don't know the full circumstances of the incident earlier today, but there is clear evidence to suggest that the U.S. Patriot missile battery shot down an RAF Tornado GR-4. A detailed investigation is underway, so we must not rush to judge. We need to establish exactly how this happened so we can take steps to minimize the risks in the future. But we have checked our current procedures, and we are satisfied.

We must also recognize that we're working at the edge of the operational envelope. The risks will never be eradicated, but we're always working to ensure they are minimized.

We mustn't forget that the Patriot missile system is deployed to provide an umbrella for the coalition. So far, the system has shot down four missiles that Iraq has launched indiscriminately at our forces and the people of Kuwait. Were it not for Patriot, many more lives could have been lost.

In this coalition, we have to share responsibility for each others' lives, and we each benefit from the capabilities that we each provide. We must remain focused on our objectives, and notwithstanding these tragic events, get on with the mission.

In the south, elements of 7 Armored Brigade and 16 … Brigade are consolidating their position around Basra and have taken many hundreds of prisoners. A camp to house them is currently being constructed near Umm Qasr, where they will be provided with food and water and their medical needs will be catered for.

As a soldier, I do not see these men as cowards. They have simply taken the very sensible decision that Saddam's regime is just not worth fighting for. We take our responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions very seriously, and having seen the disgusting TV images which appear to show the mistreatment of U.S. prisoners, the same cannot be said for Saddam's regime”.

 Both transcripts at

Personally, I find the emphasis interesting.  Major General Wall offers a broader context to the Tornado accident and the loss of military personnel.  He seems to make it clearer how he feels about his troops as individuals. Wall stands firm on where the Patriot missile system fits into the grand scheme of things, and goes on to stress that, whilst he has confidence in the actions being taken, risks are ever present.  And his discussion of prisoners of war contains both context and dramatic bullet point – “disgusting”.

Interestingly, Peter Wall also makes reference to missing journalists, reaching out to his immediate audience, and he uses the inclusive word “we” a great deal.


I have ambivalent feelings about the war, but I have no misunderstanding about the implications for Leaders in wartime.  They must lead and motivate their troops with clarity and truthfulness – and realise that everything they say communicates and measures their values.

There should also be no ambivalence about the need to support troops that our democratic processes have collectively sent into harm’s way. But Commanders must in turn deeply respect the culture, needs and desires of the civilian population they are impacting – not just of their own country, but that of others.  Only then can they exemplify freedom and democracy.  Only then are they liberators. They are not just soldiers – they are actors on a world stage, with immeasurable power. They have not just the power that comes from weapons and might, but the power of words and imagination.

Leaders from all parts of this world should remain focused on fairness, and must strive to see a big picture wherever possible. Leaders must offer context and meaning beyond the obvious.

I have to declare one personal card here – I am a Brit.  I think this is not overly colouring my judgement, as for almost 28 years I worked for American companies for which I still have the highest regard.  Many of my closest friends are American, and I am saddened by the attacks on America.  In fact, I am also dismayed by the divisions in European opinion and Leadership at present. So, there is no attempt here to take transatlantic “sides”. But as a Leadership student I find the comparisons above of great interest.

As I review these pages, I wonder what training and briefing the Generals of our armies are getting.  There is no doubt that they all care deeply about their mission, their personnel and the principles of right and wrong. There is much compassion in what they say. But does their training lead them in different directions when speaking to the world? Is their briefing burying their personality, or is it liberating them?

The words and spirit of Tim Collins demonstrate that balance is one of the keys.  Can there be any doubt that Collins is a soldier, who will do his duty to the utmost of his ability?  Yet can there also be any doubt that the way he will do it will show compassion for his troops, and for the innocent?

Values deserve a much more central role in the words of all of our Leaders.

Let us hope that all of our Leaders start to talk in paragraphs, and not just bullet points.

© Mick Yates, 2003 All Rights Reserved

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