review-leadership-montgommery
The Art of Leadership
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
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Visitors to Canterbury Cathedral are often struck by the impressive sight of a late seventeenth century German clock flanked by figures of a monk and a soldier hanging on the wall of the north-east transept. They are even more surprised to discover that it was actually made as recently as 1898 in London, apparently to a special commission funded by a young mother whose father just happened to be the Dean of the cathedral! One of her children was then just 10 years old and would grow into one of the greatest military leaders of the twentieth century.

Half a century ago that little boy, by then known as Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, published a remarkable book entitled “The Path to Leadership”, and it has now been republished as “The Art of Leadership” by Pen & Sword.

What makes the republication so important is that when originally published Monty had removed two sections, on Churchill and Eisenhower, as both were then still alive. This new edition sees those sections restored to the book so that now for the first time it can be read in the form the author had originally intended it to be. That alone is sufficient to make it essential reading for anyone interested in the skills required of those on a position of command or leadership. The book now gives a clear insight into why Montgomery fell out of favour with Eisenhower. The rivalry between US and UK Generals during the second world war is well known, but it is now interesting to see it discussed in terms of leadership and competence of command in combat.

The authors own skills had of course been a function of his harsh upbringing, and his experiences on first world war battlefields where he must have realised that some of his commanders were out of their depth – indeed some would have been out of their depth in a car park puddle. Inevitably therefore, his views are at times rather forthright, and do need to be read in the context of the time in which they were written. For example, his views on the leadership of Chairman Mao were much more positive than would be written today.

But at the same time he could be remarkably far sighted. On Russia he wrote:

“My final reflection is that we have just got to find a way of living peacefully with the Russians; we need leadership which will persist until the way is found with honour to both sides – which, in my view, is possible.”

He got that right – more than a quarter of a century before Reagan and Gorbachev!

The book opens with a discussion on what leadership is, and then how it relates to military command – but this is not a book of his memoirs; look elsewhere for those. The author then goes on to consider some examples of military command, ranging from Genghis Khan to senior commanders of World War Two. This is particularly interesting as of course he knew them and counted many amongst his friends. And all the more interesting for his incisive insights into why some, like Gort and Wavell, were to fall from grace.

He then goes on to discuss political leadership, taking Alfred and Cromwell as an example before discussing the leadership of Lincoln, Nehru, and de Gaulle. He describes the Lincoln Memorial in Washington as “moving me in ways that no other can – a noble statue of a noble man, and one of the greatest national leaders of all time”.

Montgomery then goes on to discuss Churchill and Alanbrooke as a case study of a good relationship between stateman and soldier in war. In considering their professional relationship Montgomery concludes that while both were great men in their own right, neither could have done without the other, and that the way they were able to work with, and complement each other, was crucial.

For a nation to thrive good leadership is needed in other aspects too, and the author considers examples in the form of leaders in industry and administration, and his concern was that too few leaders in industry were expert in human relations or who had made an intense study of leadership.

The chapter on communist leadership is interesting, though out of date considering all that has happened since 1989 – but to be fair the changes only started thirty years after the book was written While Montgomery saw Stalin as a monster he had a positive view of Chairman Mao in China – something I suspect he would have changed after the reaity of the Great Leap Forward became public knowledge in the west.

An important section is that discussing the leadership of youth. He takes the view that the role of education and parenting in preparing young people to both lead and be led is crucial. This section holds many important lessons for today and deserves careful reading. It is, however, where some will find greatest fault with the book. Montgomery talks about schoolmasters and boys, rather than teachers and children as we would today. He is not being sexist, nor is he presuming that only males go on to become great leaders. It must be remembered that he was a man who reached his teenage years in the nineteenth century and we are now in the twenty-first. Inevitably, his writing style reflects a bygone age, but that does not make him wrong – indeed his use of language makes it all too easy to think that it has only just been written. It is just that the reader must remember that he is writing about the world of more than half a century ago, and that was a very different world.

The art of leadership remains pretty much unchanged. Montgomery was undoubtedly one of the great leaders of his time, a man for whom the Sandhurst motto of "Serve to Lead" was both inspiration and guide, and his book deserves wide readership.

(Reviewed by Richard Neville)

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