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On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence (Pimlico)
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 25 March 2003
Everyone who manages anyone should be required to read this book. By focussing on the military Dixon has written a book crammed with examples that show the drastic consequences of incompetence.
In management situations it's seldom a matter of life and death (despite the way some bosses act) but the consequences are still there: demotivated, under-utilised, confused and stressed staff.
So if you're the boss and this sounds familiar you should read this book and learn it's lessons.
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 29 September 2004
The author's central hypotheses is that incompetent decision making stems not so much from a lack of technical knowledge or theory, but rather personal inadequacies that prevent someone in a leadship role from making appropriate decisions under pressure,i.e. they freeze up.
Also discussed are the possibities of why such personality types are attracted to those roles involving such high pressure decision making, where the consequences of the wrong decision can be dire.
Unlike a lot of 'psychology' books, the author presents a critcal and convincing chain of reasoning to support his hypotheses.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 March 2010
Dixon does a good job of examining both social and individual psychological / structural reasons for military incompetence. The author does not folow the approach of finding individual scapegoats, or blaming the individual's knowledge or prowess for failure but looks for systemic explanations for failure. These are to be found in the socialisation of people who are drawn to the military career (individual psychology), reinforced by the organisation of military establishments.

It's a very solid piece of systemic research and dos a good job of showing the interdependencies and causal loops between individuals drawn to the authoritarian organisation and those individuals, once in power, cementing the authoritarianism further. On top of that Dixon also shows a good case of how developmental psychology of a type of individual influences the development of institutions.

The book starts with a section on case studies of military disasters, follows on to the main thesis of the systemic issues bringing about military incompetence and closes with a section on trying to fit individual commandersi nto the framework - the way they are chosen the framework is largely confirmed.

The book is also written in a light, witty style and the author will probably not rub many people the wrong way even if they find some of the theory preposterous (not uncommon if unkind things are being said about you or an organisation you identify yourself with) because of his self deprecating manner.

Finally, the book is 35 years old and in some ways it shows its age - several issues, which would be useful in explaining the military performance, even from a psychological perspective are omitted - work done by Marshall (Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command) would usefully enrich the thesis posed by Dixon, as would Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. While Marshall should have been known to the author, Grossman wrote significantly later. On another note some of the insights on the development of institutions as well as the military from as far back as Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class (Dover Thrift)) is another piece of the puzzle that someone interested in the subject should look at. In addition to the subsequent developments in the field that the author could obviously not have captured, his view of Zhukov was also clearly still a product of inference rather than careful scholarship - facts coming to light subsequently would have made a slightly grimmer picture emerge.

Is the book applicable beyond military organisations? Certainly - there is a case to be made that most civilian organisations and corporates will exhibit some of the traits described here and that those will to an extent impede performance. It will however not provide the reader with a good enough guide to a sufficient range of situations to be primarily recommended for that purpose.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 2 January 2007
This book contains some superb information regarding the personality types behind military success and failure, along with considerable evidence and anecdotal support. Dr Dixon's knowledge of both psychology and military history is breathtaking, and his prose is precise and warm. This is not a difficult book to read or enjoy at all, in spite of its subject matter and the academic nature of the subject. Very highly recommended.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2002
I was lent this book by a retired friend who had risen to a high level in the RAF. He told me that it had been required reading at Staff College.
As soon as I finished it I immediately bought my own copy (from Amazon!) and tried to persuade as many of my work colleagues as possible to read it.
It is a study of the authoritarian character and its need to rise in an hierachy. A rise that is usually totally unwarranted. Just to limit this to a military context is to miss the chief benefit of the book. It should be required reading in every management school.
It also has the advantage of being a very entertaining book (despite the title).
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Dixon's work extends far beyond the realm of the military. It's a wonderful guide to the psychology of organisations and projects of all kinds, especially those where objective progress is hard to monitor.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2013
I was first introduced to this book in 1979 and it struck an immediate chord with me. Since then, I have seen examples (too many to list) of the incompetence Dixon ascribes to the media in commercial management, government and education.

The book's central thesis - the Freudian idea that those who aspire to leadership are frequently anally-retentive (surely Dixon is responsible for the current popularity of this term?)authoritarian change-resistors - seems to be borne out by, for example, the collapse of British manufacturing and the propensity for governments to interfere in the affairs of other States before being aware of the consequences of so doing.

Perhaps the state of English education is most closely reporesentative of Dixon's fears, with old, failed, ideas such as times-table recitation and payment-by-results being promoted as the way forward, and micro-management of the system by politicians and administrators relegating teachers to the role of form-fillers and deliverers of prescribed content.

Yes, Military incompetence is alive and well ... read the book and have your critical faculties switched-on. It's more relevant today than when originally published...
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 30 May 2001
The more I read, the more it sounded like work? This book is an excellent insight into how we fail under pressure and exhibit stress. A very worthwhile read. This is a book I have returned to and re-apppreciated.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2000
The book starts by charting some notable examples of military incompetence by senior British commanders, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. These examples are highly readable and are quite shocking in revealing ridiculous mistakes,oversights and blunders. The character and history of the commanders is set against the actions of them and the all too often tragic consequences. The book in no way sets out to rubbish the entire structure and training of the officer corps of the British army, but does reveal fatal flaws in the personality of individual commanders in the field. Later in the book the author tries to analyse the thinking and stratergy of General Haig during the first world war. This is where I feel the book loses direction slightly and becomes bogged down in the psychological aspects of incompetence. An example being the fixation Haig had for dirt and mud, being linked to overly strict potty training as a child! A bit strange I thought. Otherwise an excellent read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 25 November 2012
This is one of my favourite books of all time. The descriptions of British military defeats are eye-popping and concise, the interpretation using Dixon's theories, can sound a bit out of date now, but some chapters like 'Education and the Cult of Muscular Christianity' are pretty relevant for today. The public schools are in his sights:

two traits in particular must be blamed: the first an absence of curiosity and dislike of new concepts, and the second such complete self-assurance as to rule out ancilliary traits, including a mystical belief in the virtues of amateurism back up by the equally optimistic credo that a mind encumbered with little more than a rudimentary knowledge of the humanties will somehow muddle through, provided its owner has irreproachable good manners, unquestioning loyalty, total obedience and a sense of public duty.

These values may well do for the Conservative Party.

The book is full of anecdotes, character studies and psychological theories, but it's always easy to read. It's helped me understand our cherished British institutions.
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