Monday, January 23, 2006

Patton: History, Eccentricity, Reliability

Last year Janet Roach told me (and about 30 other people in the room) that Patton was one of the best films ever made.

It took a while, but I finally saw it this month. It is an outstanding portrait of someone you may love or hate - but can't ignore.

Of course I'd heard something of Patton from watching Band of Brothers and Ike. I'd heard his famous quote about dying for your country ("No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." or similar) and the infamous slapping incident where the general slapped a shell-shocked soldier in hospital.

Those two facts alone had given me the impression that Patton was a man's man, a soldier's soldier, a bully, a warmonger. That impression was only partly true.

Patton did love war. He was really made for the times in which he lived and, unlike Eisenhower, was unsuited for the politically sensitive peace which followed. He was at his best on the battlefield, leading his men.

The side I'd never seen, though, was Patton's love of poetry, and his fanatical devotion to history. Patton believed that all of history was one contiguous string of accomplishments - in other words, everything that has happened directly impacts on what happens now, and what will happen.

So yes, Patton was a soldier, a man's man and so on. But he was also very smart, and very unorthodox in his thinking. And he wasn't afraid to keep being different, despite setbacks.

It's a good piece of literature (or film) that can simply present someone, warts and all, and let the audience judge the quality of that person. I felt Patton did this admirably.

I started the film somewhat suspicious of this man. What kind of leader was he? One who gets results at the expense of his men? It seemed so, but as the story progressed I saw troops express genuine loyalty to their commander. He was doing something right.

What were Patton's keys to obtaining that loyalty?
  • Integrity. Patton was eccentric but never unreliable. He said what he meant and he meant what he said.
  • No BS. He couldn't stand politics or the diplomatic stuff expected of him. That's an unhelpful attitude in the big scheme of things, but it strikes a chord with those who feel they are doing the real work - the hard work of risking their lives.
  • Personal risk. Patton, like all great commanders, didn't ask his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself.
  • Decisiveness. The famous shoot-the-donkey story was a great example of decisive action, being able to quickly size up a situation and its priorities. Great leaders are able to make these decisions and live with the consequences, whether good or ill.
Patton makes for good viewing, and if you have some time, the audio essay from the Patton Society is very illuminating too - a more in-depth look at the man himself.

By accident I found the text that the commentary comes from, so if you'd prefer to skim-read it rather than listen to an audio commentary - be my guest. It's a PDF file and well worth reading for some leadership insights.


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