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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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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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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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on 24 August 2003
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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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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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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on 10 September 2016
I was initially fooled from the publishing date into thinking that this had been written in the 1990's but the moment I started reading my first thought was "hang on- this can only have been written in the 1970's. Probably 1976". So that's me being smug.

I found the earliest parts of the book insightful and historically really quite interesting - the Crimean campaign is particularly easy to empathise with because the sheer inadequacy of leadership just springs off the page: the leaders were utterly out of their depth, didn't want to be in charge and didn't dare challenge their superiors even when they could see a fairly clear solution to a problem (one great example being when soldiers were dying of cold because they were without firewood, there were ships and soldiers who could be used to collect it and a safe place to get the firewood ... but nobody dared take the decision to ask for the authority to fetch it). I found that this section really resonated with my own experience of leadership and the strange moment that hits you when you suddenly have to think "Oh, I'm the one in charge? Oh. Best get on with it then. Blimey."

But for reasons that are rather hard to follow, the book quickly loses its way after this: as we move toward more modern conflicts, the author becomes progressively more and more certain of his own opinion and that 1970's theories of psychology provide a complete explanation for all the behaviours observed. Perhaps more important is that the author gets more and more damning of everybody and all their actions: I don't have a particular problem with criticising the actions of the military, but it's worth remembering that in any military situation the main thing that you have to deal with is uncertainty. In a conflict, there's normally a winner and a loser (often two losers and - really rarely - two winners) and therefore your chance of being wrong in any situation are likely to be about 50%. It's therefore not hard to pick instances where the wrong decisions have been made, disasters have happened and lives lost without good cause. That would be war, which is why we try to avoid it.

What I really don't think is true though, is that the leaders in question made all their bad decisions because of the aggressive potty training they experienced as children. Being terrified and incompetent when you're in the middle of nowhere, people are shooting at you and your attempts to find out what is going on are being deliberately sabotaged by people who want to kill you isn't a character defect and probably isn't due to an emphasis on shiny boots for the troops - but Dixon is utterly certain that this is the case -to his faint credit he observes that he wouldn't make a good military leader himself, but that rather feels like a way of heading off any criticism of hypocrisy. The fact is, military leadership in battle is unbelievably difficult, almost certain to fail in some horrible way and has to be done by normal people doing their best with limited information and imperfect resources. And sometimes it's being done by people who really aren't any good at it.

But I don't think the main problem is potty training.
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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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on 6 August 2016
The first third is a truly fascinating description of past military blunders which makes your blood boil for the sheer perversity of the poor quality commanders involved and those who appointed/tolerated them. I am now into the second third which is an intensive academic study of the sociological factors in the performance of military leaders which is somewhat dry and lengthy but is none the less well worth the effort. Despite the urging of the writer, one cannot but draw parallels with the commercial and public service world and the leaders one encountered there. Speaking as a former human resources practitioner, the read is worth it for that alone. However, this book is definitely mandatory reading for anyone contemplating entry into the armed services, at whatever level. Mike
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on 8 January 2012
Dixon tells us that military organisations are inherently prone to inefficiency and mismanagement. This is due to the sheer obtuseness of some military officials, the inertia entailed by large numbers etc. He enlists some of the best known historical expamles of military failure from the recent past to prove his point. I am not sure I agree with his indictment, which appears one-sided. The book has become famous, something of a classic, and has contributed to a fixed view of the responsibility of the military for the tragic outcome of many conflicts in our time. I do not think the author is always right, but it is a provocative polemic that I have enjoyed engaging with.
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