Book Review: Guerrilla Leader: T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

This book I read last year and have been meaning to do a review.  T.E. Lawrence in my humble opinion was the epitome of what a leader should be. As you read the book you will find it is much more than a lesson in history and that it is in fact, a lesson in leadership. T.E. Lawrence took the principle of know yourself and no your enemy to a level I have not read of anywhere before. He dug in and learned all he could about the Arab culture and adapted his leadership style to meet the task at hand.

Think about it a British officer becomes liaison officer to the Arabs during the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule. He is able to gain their trust which forms into mutual trust and inspires them to action in campaigns of insurgency distracting the Ottoman Turks.

          The book covers the campaigns, his ideas on strategy and tactics, his triumphs and troubles and my favorite part his leadership style which is adaptive and relevant today.

The next couple of pages are straight from the book Chapter 7: “The Grief of Leaders” which ultimately discusses the toll combat, combat leadership, betrayal and distrust can take on an individual and talks of Lawrence’s internal struggles within himself and the British Army. I found this particular section on what the author describes as Heroic verses Autonomous Leadership very intriguing. 

…Lawrence’s grief opens a further window unto an understanding of tactical leadership. He seems to assert that leadership is a fundamental human need: that every human being possesses both a desire to lead and a desire to follow, but these desires are never in balance. The Confucian project, for instance, was an effort to establish in the East a doctrine of followership as a way to order a just society. The West took a different path. Here the idea of heroic leadership came to reside at the center of Western culture, and the myth of the warrior king became its exemplar. In literature, the epic of Homer’s Iliad and its two heroes, Achilles and Hector, express the heroic paradigm better than any other work, with this style of leadership dominating Western culture to this day. Essentially, the heroic leader is the man of quality whose worth and worthiness are reflected in his personal honor and reputation: a man of low honor has little worthiness, small esteem, no reputation. The hero is a physically strong man, for a weak man is an unworthy man. The heroic leader manifests all the exterior qualities that enable the force of his physical presence, and this presence represents his personal core identity, which he projects vigorously among his followers and protects with utmost savagery. He has little time for self-reflection, since reflex and passion dominate his action.  Indeed, long reflection is counterproductive when immediate action dominates the idea of tactics.

The projection of his identity as a kind of physical magnetism becomes registered among his followers as the leader’s charisma. This, of course, has significant implications on a battlefield and the premium leaders must pay is denominated in courage, valor, bravery, and, after the rise of Christianity, lip-service virtues like chivalry, fairness, and moderation. Self-identity through reputation thus serves a core human need. As followers, our identification with the leader serves the same psychological need and so completes and essential symmetry.

But there is an alternative to the heroic leader, which could be described as the autonomous leader who seeks to transcend the level of psychological need and gain personal autonomy for human desire. The idea is exemplified in the leadership of T.E. Lawrence. Again, literature offers a model in Homers Odyssey. Here Odysseus breaks fundamentally with the heroic tradition. The human qualities that Odysseus strives to foster are interior and intellectual. This is not to say that he eschews physical prowess. Instead, his actions are shaped by due consideration and self-reflection, trying to hold reflexive action at bay through careful design and planning. Only then is action appropriate. It should come as no surprise, then, that Lawrence would personally identify with Odysseus and spend over two years translating The Odyssey while on active duty with the RAF in India.

The autonomous leader asks the central question that the heroic leader chooses to ignore: If I am to lead others, how do I feel about myself? There is only one answer: he must overcome the leadership of his desires and passions and become independent-autonomous-of them. But practically, how does he accomplish this? For the heroic leader. There is no issue. He has been anointed to lead by right of succession or through some other social legitimation. The autonomous leader can overcome his desires only through learning and self-knowledge, hence the Socratic imperative “know thyself.” But this is a struggle of a lifetime, and it is precisely in this struggle that character and confidence are built. As Lawrence said to Liddell Hart in 1932: “I was not an instinctive soldier, automatic with intuition and happy ideas…. When I took a decision, or adopted an alternative, it was after studying (doing my best to study) every relevant, and many irrelevant, factor. Geography, tribal structure, religion, social customs, language, appetites, standards, all were at my fingertips. The enemy I knew almost like my own side. I risked myself among them a hundred times to learn.” The autonomous leader becomes and expert learner. The struggle to learn creates the dynamic tension between character and competence. And here character develops beyond the trivial sense of virtue as a checklist from Boy Scout manual to mean strength of character and its natural corollary, strength of mind. Character is about respect and not reputation: it is societies signal and lasting embrace to the members of its community. Character revolves around living in accordance with certain key ethical and moral values, but in the enduring paradox and tragedy of our existence, war subverts this centrality and places martial competence at its heart.  Thus a military leader gains respect in direct proportion to his prowess.

How did this paradox come to pass? In a peaceful and just society, ethics and morality create and preserve the very existence of peace. War is the ultimate breakdown of morality, and personal survival comes to the fore. At the social level, we turn to leaders who will guarantee our national survival. We are willing to accept the philandering leader as long as he gives us the best chance to exist. In war, this social compromise has already been made: men follow the most competent leader because he is the best guarantor of their lives; the competent sinner will always supplant the incompetent saint in tactical leadership. Yet in a further evolution or twist of the paradox, within the society of soldiers war often brings out the best character qualities among the combatants: self-sacrifice, self-discipline, generosity, initiative, hopefulness, spirit, camaraderie, responsibility, patience, determination. All these qualities were manifest throughout Lawrence’s life, before and after the desert. The crucible of combat simply refined the metal and mettle of his humanity.

The autonomous leader, like Lawrence, seeks respect rather than reputation, for only the autonomous leader, who finds ultimate solace within himself, can find self-respect as meaningful, while “self-reputation” makes no sense. Reputation is always exterior to the self, dependant on the estimate and esteem of others. The autonomous leader also views charisma much differently. Where the heroic leader derives immense satisfaction from the adulation of his followers, who sense the gravity of his presence, the autonomous leader is more concerned with making others feel good about themselves. This sense of enabling helps to foster a spirit of empowerment. The subordinates feel self-actualized in their engagement with the world. Their identity shifts from the leader to the self and creates a sense of self-confidence, a willingness to assume responsibility, and a spirit of initiative. As an expert learner, the autonomous leader naturally becomes and expert teacher, further reinforcing conditions of empowerment. Within the context of conflict learning, mutual learning becomes crucial since the military milieu is so ambiguous, volatile and dynamic.

Perhaps the best précis on Lawrence as an autonomous leader was penned by the commander who knew him best: Edmund “the Bull” Allenby. After Lawrence was killed, Allenby wrote: “he depended little on others; he had his private reasons for all he did and those reasons satisfied him. Loyal pursuance of his own ideals, and the habit of independent thought, brought about sound self-education; practice in analysis of character resulted in a full understanding of other men. His exceptional intellectual gifts were developed by mental discipline; and the trained mind was quick to decide and to inspire instant action in any emergency. Hence his brilliance as a leader in war.”

In perhaps the final testament to Lawrence’s leadership, almost sixty of his body guards died in his service, over half of the original compliment. They had formed a fellowship out of sinews of leadership. As pariahs outcast by thirty or more desert tribes, they has developed into a firm union bound fast by a courage of despair, whose only hope was mutual trust. Only the intensity of mind-numbing activity seemed to transcend the loss of personal identity, which they seemed always to rediscover in the freedom of the group. Over time, Lawrence’s iron will and determination in creating his own tempered striking force challenged him to higher standards of leadership: “to live up to my bodyguard,” he said, “to become as hard, as sudden, as heedless.” Lawrence ascetic self-abnegation had created a refined and efficient desert fighting machine and added yet another jewel to a never-ending chain of irony: the image of the ascetic Templar knight leading a band of renegade Muslim raiders in a holy war.

Thus, leader and led in a dance of mutual self-respect, changed each other, slowly, irony by irony, the transformation bending to the will of Lawrence: “Into the sources of my energy of will I dared not probe…. The practice of our revolt fortified the nihilistic attitude in me. During it, we often saw men push themselves or be driven to a cruel extreme of endurance; yet never was there an intimation of physical break. Collapse rose always from moral weakness eating into the body, which of itself, without traitors from within, had no power over will. While we rode we were disembodied, unconscious of flesh or feeling; and when at an interval this excitement faded and we did see our bodies, it was with some hostility, and with a contemptuous sense that they reached their highest purpose, not as vehicles of the spirit, but when, dissolved, their elements served to manure the field.” 

The autonomous leader, though, often pays a heavy psychological and emotional price.  His predilection for self-reflection creates a self-awareness that, over time, can create the personal grief experienced by leaders like Lawrence, who refuse blithely to rationalize the moral ambiguities of their actions and the actions of their men and the doublespeak and even betrayal of superiors.

I highly recommend this book.

Stay Oriented!


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