Before I joined the Canadian Forces I was not very knowledgeable about the military. Admittedly, I joined the Canadian Forces to get a university degree at the Royal Military College of Canada. If it was movies like “The Devil’s Brigade” that inspired me to join the infantry after graduation, it was the movie “Patton” that shaped my attitude towards being an officer and combat leader. In fact, in 1987 just before departing on the Canadian Army Command and Staff College as a young Captain, I mainlined the movie several times from beginning to end just to get my game face on for the course. It was actually at Fort Frontenac in Kingston, Ontario, where I was first introduced to the writings of General Patton. I took the book “War as I Knew It” and found it to be every bit as compelling as the movie, and like the movie I read the book several times. I swear, I almost committed it to memory. Thus began a phase of enlightenment for me, as I continued in my quest to become a combat leader.
Mounds have been written about General George S Patton. Indeed, his military philosophies and practices have even become a literary focus in the domains of business and management. I have read a fair amount about him from a variety of sources and, although I do not consider myself to be an expert on the man and the leader, I can say categorically that his example made a tremendous impression on me and my attitude towards officership and combat leadership. Patton’s insights on life and the profession of arms are as profound as his persona was flamboyant. As an officer, Patton was not about going to war, he was about winning wars. He was both critical and creative in his approach to his profession, having identified the net worth of the tank in contemporary warfare of the day and prepared the troops under his charge mentally, physically, spiritually and collectively for the legendary campaigns in which they would engage in North Africa and Europe.
In his approach to his profession, as his approach to life, he was ambitious but selfless. Yes selfless. He sought promotion as a grander opportunity to serve, not merely as enrichment of personal status. Outwardly he was bold and arrogant, but that concealed a base of self doubt. He worked very hard to overcome his fears and self-perceived frailties, adopting a cloak of, as Martin Blumenson said in “The Patton Papers”, “protective callousness” and promoting a public image that he very much strived relentlessly to embody. He once mused something to the effect that the higher he rose in rank the less confident he became. That is not surprising because, in the tradition of Gorilla Leaders, he was blazing a trail to victory through a forest of constipated contemporary thought, self-serving opportunists and glory seekers, masters of managing and manipulating the status quo.
Patton made his share of enemies, but he also had his share of fans. He got the name “Blood and Guts” out of respect from not the adulation of his subordinates, who would sometimes complain “Our blood but his guts”. Never-the-less, the troops under his command would follow him into the vey gates of hell because they knew he was a war winner! Patton’s arrogance even annoyed his superiors, Eisenhower and Bradley, but they had to have him on their team. Patton was singled out by his adversaries as a foe to be feared, his mere whereabouts as a commander being a decisive consideration in the German’s defences for D-Day.
As much as Patton had an ego the size of a house, he had a sensitive side. Patton was not above apologizing for his misdeeds, as he did during the Italian campaign after having assaulted a soldier who had succumbed to battle stress. Patton’s detractors would argue that he did so only to protect his command, which may be so. The fact remains that he acknowledged that he did not do the right thing, and he made the admission very publicly. In one of the best reads on Patton, Gen. Patton’s Principles for Life and Leadership, author Porter B. Williamson describes the sensitive side of Patton. Patton insisted that a commander should never ask his troops to do something that they would not do themselves, and he lived up to that. Patton recognized the value of every person under his command and the lessons that everyone could learn from each other. Williamson also describes how Patton wept at the thousands of lives that he felt were lost needlessly due to the “pussy-footing” delays in pursuing the enemy.
It is not possible to do justice to such a complex and gifted leader of the 20th Century in this blog. Moreover, I wouldn’t expect tomorrow’s leaders should spend too much time studying the exploits of a single, accomplished and acknowledged leader as I did as a young officer. It is worth having a look at Charles M. Province’s “Patton’s One-Minute Messages” to familiarize oneself with some of the philosophies and principles that Patton contributed to the concept of Gorilla Leadership.