Leadership Conference in Maynooth

Last weekend, I gave the keynote address at a conference held at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. The title of the conference was The Art of Leadership: Leadership in war, conflict and crises – past, present and future. The conference was hosted by NUIM’s Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies, which is run by Dr Ian Speller and Dr David Murphy (a very promising setup – I hope to work with them on some projects in the future). They deserve a lot of credit for putting together an excellent conference which attracted speakers from as far afield as South Africa and the USA.

It was a good conference for hearing interesting papers on unfamiliar subjects – Dr Harman Murtagh’s illustrated lecture on French generals in Ireland during the Williamite Wars was a case in point. The highlights for me included (and bear in mind that I did not hear all the papers, as there were parallel sessions, and timings of flights meant that I had to miss the Sunday afternoon sessions) Dr Ian van der Waag’s paper on ‘The South African High Command in 1914’, a subject that is close to my own research interests. Lt. Col Dave Dignam (Irish Defence Forces) gave a stimulating paper on ‘The Evolving Operational Paradigm and the Leadership Challenge’ and Dr Stephen Hart (RMA Sandhurst) examined the attempts of the Nazi leadership to stiffen resistance in the last days of the Second World War. Dr Greg Hospodor of the US Army Command and Staff College analysed the respective reputations of Taylor and Scott in the Mexican War, and Dr Harry Laver (South Eastern Louisiana University) discussed the development of Ulysses S. Grant as a leader.

I found the latter paper particularly fascinating, as I am rereading Grant’s Personal Memoirs and, while writing my recent biography of Douglas Haig, had to grapple with the comparisons between the two men flagged up long ago by John Terraine. In the end I only covered the subject briefly, but might return to it in the future, particularly in light of Brian Holden Reid’s recent JRUSI article on the American Civil War and the First World War, which was based on the 2011 John Terraine Lecture he gave at the University of Birmingham.

My keynote was, inevitably, on Haig, although in my defence I must say that a) the organisers asked me to speak about him, and b) I tried something a little different! Inspired by the work of my Birmingham colleague Dr Peter Gray on Bomber Command in the Second World War, I examined Haig as a strategic leader. For this I used some theoretical tools such as Rittel and Webber’s concept of ‘tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems, and various aspects of strategic leadership theory, including ‘tipping point leadership’. Using theory was helpful in making sense of Haig’s role on the Western Front, and although I only had time to examine a couple of aspects of his performance, concluded that in some ways he was a fairly effective strategic leader. Having put my toe in the water, I am now going to write a full-blown article on Haig as a strategic leader.

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