Intuition and Military Leadership

Columnist DAVID M KEITHLY writes about these important aspects.

What is the role of intuition in military leadership? Does it have one?

As described by specialists in the field, intuition is the practice of reaching decisions or conclusions without deliberate thought processes.1 That is, intuition compels the recognition of reality on the instant. Intuitive knowledge is to be distinguished from acquired knowledge through sequential procedures in deductive reasoning.

The value of intuition to the military commander has, in fact, long been acknowledged. Bernard Brodie, one of America’s most respected scholars, analyzed navies prior to theorizing about nuclear weapons and strategies for their use. In his classic A Guide to Naval Strategy, Brodie writes:

...the great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle...he must above all be able to see intuitively through the ever-prevalent ‘fog of war’...2

Similarly, intuition in philosophy often refers to the capacity of the mind to discern or “see” particular self-evident truths. The word, in fact, derives from the Latin verb intueor, meaning “to see.” Over time, philosophers have identified several distinct meanings of intuition.3 It can entail a “hunch,” a supposition not ushered in by inference. It can involve immediate perception devoid of the ability to define the respective concept. Or it can be non-propositional knowledge of something, that is, a comprehension not following from a series of deductive propositions.

To what extent, though, is intuition a facet of the female gender, as in the commonplace, but vague expression “feminine intuition”? Is it to be associated largely with psychics? To be sure, many in the military think so. It is ironic that military professionals whose responsibilities require a great deal of intuition, pilots of high-performance aircraft, say, are those most inclined to discount the significance of intuition and reject any serious examination of it.

To put some at ease, one can employ different terms to describe the same concept, coup d’oeil, for example, or the Teutonic, even Wodonic, Fingerspitzengefuhl or Blick.4 Coup d’oeil, for its part, is a Napoleonic term that has now been embraced by the US Marine Corps. The German, and before that, Prussian military used the terms Fingerspitzengefuhl and Blick to describe a sort of innate on-the-spot grasp of a situation. Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke referred to the phenomenon of coup d’oeil as Blick, literally a “glance”. German military literature has often used this term to denote the ability swiftly to assess circumstances. Regardless of what intuition is called, its deliberation by militaries has endured. A fair assumption is that coup d’oeil in combat leaders contributes substantially to military effectiveness. If it were otherwise, militaries would not have accorded this capability in their personnel the attention they have.

The following example illustrates military forces plying their trade in accordance with intuitive purposes. With the development of the Mitsubishi Zero prior to World War II and the adoption of attendant flying formations, highly skilled naval aviators of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) achieved remarkable results. Lack of good radio equipment induced fighter pilots to develop non-verbal and non-mechanical ishin denshin by which they claimed they could communicate, or at least understand others’ intent, during combat manoeuvres. This “sixth sense” surfaced after months of intense practice and training. The IJN experimented with expanding ishin denshin communication to larger nine-man divisions and eighteen-man squadrons.5 Such cognizance differs little from that fostered through the training of the US Marine Corps silent drill team. Indeed, ishin denshin is another name for intuition. The IJN developed ishin denshin in its fighter pilots and effectively utilized this faculty when sending men into battle.

Through the ages, distinguished commanders who have mastered intuition, or coup d’oeil/Blick, have included Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, Winston Churchill, Erwin Rommel, and Douglas MacArthur. Some of these have also been regarded as charismatic leaders. An almost uncanny power of intuition enhanced the professional reputation of Rommel, for example, and reinforced his standing as a charismatic figure. It was not for nothing that Rommel, largely because of his intuitive faculties on the battlefield, was known to friend and foe alike as “The Desert Fox”. Esteem for his abilities was reputed to be nearly as great in the British Eighth Army as it was among his own troops.

Germans have seemed perennially to grasp the value of coup d’oeil.6 In part, such appreciation stems from the healthy respect gained for the man who allegedly coined the term late in the eighteenth century. The military forces of another nation that suffered grievously at Napoleon’s hands also realized the benefits of command intuition. Accordingly, Russian/Soviet doctrine underscores that coup d’oeil is the product of training and experience.

Intuition is close to quickness of thought, and it is nothing more than a unique mental activity reduced to the limit in time. Intuition is possible only as a result of profound knowledge and enormous personal experience.
—Colonel M.I. Galkin7

Soviet doctrine suggested that as individuals gain familiarity with their capabilities and their environment, they are inclined to develop the intuitive ability to respond properly in battle (coup d’oeil/Blick).

Many US military successes in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War were attributable to naval commanders knowing intuitively what to do, as for instance, acknowledging that the role of smaller ships was to protect bigger ships, and that all were, in turn, tasked with protecting the landing forces. Even without written doctrine or operations orders, commanding officers as a rule understood such matters, much as the IJN fighter pilots needed no communications equipment to fight successfully as a unit. In its opening chapter on “The Human Element in Naval Strength,” the U.S. Navy’s 1944 War Instructions addressed such intuitive or instinctive actions. According to this combat doctrine:

“The human element is a combination of instincts plus intelligence.”
—War Instructions:
United States Navy, 19448

Later, the value of intuition would be officially accepted by the US Army, as evidenced by doctrine contained in FM 100-5 and other training and education booklets.9 The US Marine Corps has of late investigated an intuitive approach to command and control.10 Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Ret), former Assistant Chief of Staff for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) at Headquarters Marine Corps, described a new concept for developing field commanders that would enhance coup d’oeil through continued exposure to combat situations in war games, simulations, exercises, and studies of past battles. An article by British Army Brigadier General G. L. Kerr11 advises that the development of intuitive skills for operational level commanders initially entails coming to know oneself by use of one of the various self-assessment instruments, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which expressly measures intuitive behaviour. The impediments to the intuitive process then need to be removed, Kerr argues. He prescribes a series of practice exercises, encouraging the creation of an intuitive milieu where the regular practice of  coup d’oeil is feasible. Military doctrine, he says, should reflect the need for more intuitive decision making. Among the widely acknowledged benefits of coup d’oeil are speed in decision making; the ability to visualize the battlefield in a spatial manner; initiative and originality; and the ability to gain surprise. Intuitive decision making should, however, complement, not replace, the more traditional analytic approach.

Can intuition then be taught or is it a mental endowment that is largely inborn? The short answer is that it can at least be cultivated. What is judgment other than the exercise of intuition? Experience shows that good judgment can be developed in persons. Plato, for his part, maintained that moral virtue depends upon an intuitive concept of the good. At the same time, he contended that proper education makes all the difference in the development of the moral person with good judgment. In athletics, intuition is a skill that has been fostered as long as team sports have existed, the idea being that team members should anticipate the actions of others and instantly figure out what teammates are doing. Such intuition is the result of extensive training, familiarity, and a shared sense of approach.

Nor should one be oblivious to the potential advantages accruing from the blending of intuition with inferential reasoning, as many recent studies focusing on “learning organizations” have specified.12 Peter Senge maintains that individuals of most value to such organizations are those who have achieved a high level of personal mastery. Individuals with a profound understanding of themselves are at the same time those most likely to integrate their left and right brains. Senge reminds his readers that Albert Einstein never discovered anything with his rational mind.

1Richard L. Gregory, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 389.
2Bernard Brodie, A Guide to Naval Strategy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944, p. 12.
3The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. Three, New York: The Macmillan Co. and The Free Press, 1972.
4See Daniel J. Hughes, ed., [Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von] Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Harry Bell and Daniel J. Hughes, trans., Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1993, p. 196.
5David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun [Navy]: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, August 1994 draft book manuscript, chapter 11.
6Major General Baron Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven, “The Power of Personality in War,” contained in Roots of Strategy, Book 3, Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1991 [original text published as Die Macht der Persˆnlichkeit im Kriege, 1911], pp. 277-286.
7Colonel M.I. Galkin, “The Revolution in Military Affairs and the Increased Role of Science in Troop Leadership,” Scientific-Technical Progress and The Revolution in Military Affairs, Colonel-General N.A. Lomov, ed., Moscow, USSR: Voyenizdat, translated and published under the auspices of the US Air Force, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1980, p. 234.
8Admiral E[rnest]. J. King, Commander in Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, War Instructions: United States Navy, 1944, F.T.P. 143(A), Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1 November 1944.
9Headquarters, Department of the Army, Operations, F[ield] M[anual] 100-5, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 14 June 1993, p. 2-15; Headquarters, Department of the Army, Military Leadership, FM 22-100, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, July 1990, p. 47; Headquarters, Department of the Army, Leadership and Command at Senior Levels, FM 22-103, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 21 June 1987, p. 27, 31; and Department of the Army, Leadership and Command on the Battlefield: Operations JUST CAUSE and DESERT STORM, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-100-1, Fort Monroe, VA: US Army Training and Doctrine Command [TRADOC], 1992, p. 14.
10Glenn W. Goodman, Jr., “The Synthesis of Uncertainty: USMC Adopts ‘Intuitive’ Approach to Command and Control,” Sea Power, 39, no. 4 (April 1995), pp. 75-76.
11Brigadier G.L. Kerr, “Intuitive Decision-Making at the Operational Level of Command,” The British Army Review, no. 108, December 1994, pp. 5-13.
12Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 167-169.