Helmuth von Moltke may have been the most important military leader of the nineteenth century. Napoleon was a brilliant shooting star but his ‘methods’ (such as they were) required a genius to make them work. Moltke, in contrast, refined and developed a system and architecture for military leadership that is still used by modern militaries today.
The Prussian system of command was not at all like the stereotype of mindless automatons in spiked helmets. It, instead, combined meticulous pre-war planning with audacious, decentralized leadership when the shooting started.
Hajo Holborn summarized Moltke’s views thusly:
On several point Moltke agreed completely with Napoleon. One of the latter’s maxims was “One bad general is worth two good ones.”
No war counsel could direct an army, and the chief of staff should be the only advisor of the commander with regard to the plan of operations. Even a faulty plan, provided it was executed firmly, was preferable to a synthetic product. On the other hand, not even the best plan of operations could anticipate the vicissitudes of war, and individual tactical decisions that must be made on the spot.. In Moltke's view, a dogmatic enforcement of the plan of operations was a deadly sin and great care was taken to encourage initiative on the part of all commanders, high and low.
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If one surrounds the supreme commander with a number of independent men, the situation will worsen both as their numbers increase and the more distinguished and intelligent they are. The commander will hear the counsel of the one, then of the other. He will carry out one proper measure up to a certain point, then a better one in another direction. Then he will recognize the entirely justified objections of a third and the proposals of a fourth advisor. We will wager a hundred to one that with the very best-intentioned measures he will probably lose his campaign.
Another point of agreement.
In war there is but one favorable moment; the great art is to seize it!
In the decades between Waterloo and Sedan, the telegraph had revolutionized communications. Moltke did not see this as a boon to commanders or a justification for centralized direction on the battlefield:
An audacious decision can be arrived at by one man only.
In the Prussian system, this independence was expected at all levels of command. Moltke is especially discerning on the temptation of micro-management and its negative consequences.
But the most unfortunate of all supreme commanders is the one is under the most supervision, who has to give an account of his plans and intentions every hour of every day. The supervision may be exercised through a delegate of the highest authority at his headquarters or a telegraph wire attached to his back. In such a case all independence, rapid decision, and audacious risk, without which no war can be conducted, ceases.
So we are left with a series of paradoxes: Battlefield audacity depends on leaders with self-control which can look like passivity. Effective leadership requires independence and self-confidence but also the capacity to defer to those lower in the chain of command.
The advantage, moreover, which the commander believes to achieve through continuous personal intervention, is mostly only an apparent one. He thereby takes over functions for those whose fulfillment other persons are designated. He more or less denigrates their ability and increases his own duties to such a degree that he can no longer fulfill them completely."
Moreover, it must be pointed out that if one orders much, then the important thing that needs to be carried out unconditionally will be carried out only incidentally or not at all because it is obscured by the mass of secondary things.
Another Prussian Paradox: