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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Of late, there seems to be a tendency to believe that we ought to “manage” troops instead of commanding them. I know the SADF of old almost fell into the trap of “Management” as opposed to “Command”. I have my own very pretty management certificate to prove the point.

There is however differences between a marketing plan and a design for battle.

“Unity of Command” is a golden albeit a forsaken principle of war. The word “command” is used and has been for years – not “Unity of Management”. The military has senior commanders and not senior managers – or at least it ought to have senior commanders.

In my view, commanders issue orders and managers issue instructions. Although some may view this as hair-splitting, the principles of management are somewhat different from the principles of command. The circumstances under which orders vs instructions are issued are also vastly different. When orders are not followed, disciplinary action – usually severe - takes place. When instructions are not followed, managers reprimand the guilty parties. That in itself is a difference.

In the field, a commander will issue an order: “Place the machinegun there and engage targets!” A manager will issue an instruction: “Please move the machine gun to that position and then open fire”. There are differences in how these actions are requested and enforced and they differ from one another.

Orders are obeyed as a result of discipline. This discipline is taught on parade grounds across the world. Soldiers are taught to immediately react to an order without question – unless it is of course an order that is not legitimate – such as killing an unarmed civilian or executing a POW for no reason. I have yet to see a manager tell a worker to “give me 30 push-ups” if the worker has not complied with an instruction – or confine him to his office for a lengthy period.

Situations like this cannot be “managed”

 Some may consider the strict discipline of an army as being too harsh and vicious. Wars are harsh and vicious and there is not time for niceties when it comes to doing battle. Men who do not instinctively obey orders are a danger not only to themselves but to everyone with them. Disobeying a simple order can mean the difference between victory or defeat. To get soldiers to carry out their orders requires commanders and not managers.

The military is not a business entity dressed in uniform and armed with assault rifles and other weapons. It is an organisation that is tasked to carry out missions as required by the Grand Strategy and the Military Strategy. These missions ultimately require the army to win battles, not manage them. In the process of winning the battles, soldiers are required to do things they would not normally do – such as killing people. It is especially here that soldiers need to instinctively follow orders and react – if not, they are dead.

 Some academics, management consultants and other non-combatants are keen to enforce their ideas of management on the armed forces. Whereas there are times that some management skills can be exercised in the military, for example in headquarters or administrative offices, we cannot “manage” an army as they wish us to. We cannot “manage” a firefight or a mechanised infantry assault on an enemy target.

If commanders continue to fall into the trap of wanting to “managing” as opposed to “commanding”, they risk an identity crisis – a crisis a wily enemy will rapidly exploit.

The time has come to stop trying to follow ideas that are aimed at making war more politically correct and politically palatable. That will never happen as wars are vicious and destructive. Ask any soldier – they will tell you so. By trying to make war and conflict more businesslike is only going to degrade the efficiency of the armed forces. 

It is time for the real commanders to step forward and those who want to manage, to rather leave and find a job elsewhere.


Herbert said...

Mr Barlow,

During a 20-year career in the US Marine Corps (a long time ago) I lived through a pseudo-academic campaign to impose business-world management on the military. Notwithstanding that many management tools can be applied to military functions such as budgeting, logistics, and personnel administration, at the end of the day the imposition of management techniques on the military is ridiculous in the final analysis.

The litmus test consists of the fact that the military's mission involves killing and being killed, unlike the corporate world or academia. Commanders, not managers, make decisions that cause human beings to be killed. Bad decisions can be measured in loss of life in your own "company." Management experts and academics wither in the light of that indisputable fact. It really all comes down to that.

By the way, I have a masters degree in business management. I only mention that to establish that I am not unfamiliar with or biased toward effective management. I just know the difference between a manager and a commander.


Unknown said...

Brilliant. now if only the civilian world would conduct themselves and their approach to business in a more "military" fashion, with honour and discipline, the civilian business world would be a far more ordered and possibly profitable place.
the military dont go out their way to undermine the man next to them in the field and try and trip him up but, in the corporate battlefield your business associate or co worker will quite literaaly stab you in the back and trash talk you to others for accolades and promotion and then still with a fake cheesy grin shake hands with you and have a drink at the bar after work with you and supposedly console you on losing that contract which he fully knows he yanked out from under your feet.

i have experienced the civilian management techniques and although i am a manager, i never treat those that i am "leading" like lower beings. my approach frustrates the civilian managers because i always tell mty bosses that i lead from the front and do not push from the back. i was once dragged into the MD`s office by the workshop manager and crapped on because i dont stand and simply bark orders, i get down on the floor and assist and show the guys i was in charge of where they were making errors. i was in charge of a team of 16 people in the panelbeating industry in the quality control area, my designation was QC manager/ service advisor. the workshop manager did what we in south africa say is "steeked manne se gatte toe", and it showed blatantly that he was never in the military. i lead by example and i sit and take lunch with my team as opposed to disappearing into the office to sit and skinner and "manage" in that fashion.
the military has no business for management ala civilian world, if the military employs those practices they will never win another battle and their casualties and desertions will be astronomical. order, commands, discipline, honour and team are what is needed in the civilian world as it is in the military.
i believe that we must keep the army the army and aspire to start running the civilian world on the same lines as the army. our kids of today are the biggest losers, they have no honour, no respect, no discipline and they expect everything to be dropped into their laps. the military teaches you a modicum of respect and self sustainability. i fear that the current SANDF may be heading on the management route at its own peril. mike da silva

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Please drop the “Mr” Herbert – it makes me feel too important!

You comments are really valuable as they confirm my concerns that we appear to want to forge ahead with the management route as opposed to the command route. Again, I also agree with you that there is a role for management but it should never overshadow or even be on par with command. This “pseudo-academic” route you refer to is bound to cause us many headaches one day.

I would rather see my commander carrying a gun than a pen and a clipboard. Besides, I would love to see how these “military managers” manage a fire fight. Were it not so disconcerting, it might actually be funny.

I suspect it is also mainly the management types that think out all of the new terminology, acronyms and abbreviations – all aimed at creating confusion within our own ranks. Trying to wage war according to scientific and academic principles will never work.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I suspect that the odds in the business world are not as severe as on the battlefield, Mike. As Herbert pointed out, on the battlefield lives are at stake. However, as for backstabbing, that also happens in armies.

The divide between the armed forces and the commercial world are vast and will never be bridged – thank goodness. But as the management fad takes hold and increases, we undermine our own efficiency in combat.

I agree with you re a large majority of the kids of today. However, many out there (my son included) know that without hard work, self-discipline and self respect, honour and manners, all doors will close for them. But, sadly since National Service was abolished, one can see how the young male society of today has become soft, flabby, undisciplined, disrespectful, lacking in a moral compass and lazy.

If the SANDF continues down the path of “nepotistic management”, it will definitely head for the abyss.



Tango said...

Hi Eeben,
Your post made me look up for more info regarding a commander:
This handbook seems to cover your topic more comprehensively.

The Battalion Commander's Handbook, 1996,
was complied, written and edited by former Army battalion commanders of the United States Army War College, Class of 1996. The purpose of this handbook is to help newly-designated and present battalion commanders command effectively. This document does not express official Army doctrine, nor is it a complete checklist for how to command a battalion. It is, however, a synthesis of the combined wisdom and distilled experience of 62 successful former battalion commanders. Therefore, it may prove a valuable resource for commanders seeking guidance, information, and the counsel of peers.

The battalion commander faces many challenges in today's uncertain world. Some in our society question the need for an Army, while others question its proper role. At the same time, our Army units deploy more frequently than in the past, to missions more varied and more ambiguous. What has not changed, and will never change, is the commander's requirement to lead his or her soldiers with vision, caring and competence. Each commander in our Army must strive to be this kind of leader; our great American soldiers will follow him or her, and deserve no less.
Major General


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Many thanks for that, Tango. However, I would hope that it covers more than my little piece!

I am sure that many will find value in the book although I haven’t seen it yet. But, I will make a point of getting a copy and go through it.



Levi said...


Sun Tzu lists the commander as one of the five constants of war. Which ties into the awesome book you were gifted. I was blown away by that. beautiful.

Good to be reading you again.

best regards,


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Absolutely correct he was, Levi. A good commander is able to lead and direct his men through good times and bad. Sun Tzu’s constants of war have not really changed that much.

Yes, I am very proud of that gift. It is rather amazing and very special.



Jeremy said...

Downloaded the Battalion Commanders Handbook as PDF here:


and its free.

Eben, keep on going, huge respect, great reading.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for the link, Jeremy. An interesting read. I still find it strange how soldiers are now “war fighters” and “commanders now “managers’. It explains a lot in terms of lack of success.