The U.S. Army & Chivalry

Military Principles for Knightly Leadership

Writing in the mid-14th century, Sir Geoffroi de Charny in his book on chivalry as a way of life said:

“Every knight who does well in military vocation should be prized and honored, and one should observe those who are best and learn by listening to them.”

In short, Charny urges us to learn leadership by observing those who are the proven leaders. So let’s follow Sir Geoffroi’s advice to the letter and examine the 11 Leadership Principles put forth by some folks who have done fairly well in the “military vocation,” the United States Army. Modern soldiers come from a martial tradition that traces back to the Age of Chivalry, and, as Sir Geoffroi points out, there are valuable lessons to be found in the teachings of those who are truly today’s knights in shining armor.

  1. Be tactically and technically proficient
    Knights admired skill in battle more than any other quality. Medieval knights always worked to achieve a high level of prowess without cutting corners or making excuses, and they always applauded others (allies and adversaries alike) who demonstrated outstanding expertise and ability.
  2. Know yourself and seek self-improvement
    Bravado and false pride are the greatest enemies a warrior can face — these qualities result in an artificial sense of accomplishment. We don’t often associate humility with strength, but in this case, a knight who is humble enough to see his own deficiencies is one who is strong enough to correct them.
  3. Know your soldiers and look out for their welfare
    A knight required a sizable support staff: armor makers, farriers, stone masons, carpenters, valets, sergeants and victualers, just to name a few. To be an effective warrior a knight had to make sure his supporters were healthy, properly supplied and capable of doing their jobs.
  4. Keep your soldiers informed
    Among the knight’s staff was an officer called the herald, who wrote and conveyed messages to other knights, and made daily news announcements to the troops. Knights had to keep their officers and sergeants up-to-date all the time, not just when a battle was imminent.
  5. Set the example
    The people around a knight shared his values — but whether those values were integrity and courage, or laziness and greed depended upon the knight’s own character. Knights frequently had to ignore fatigue, frustration and vanity in order to demonstrate in importance of honorable behavior to the people who followed them.
  6. Ensure the task is understood, supervised and accomplished
    An indispensable part of communication among a medieval army was follow-through. A scout or surveyor whose reports were incomplete, or who failed to report back when the job was done could lead a whole army into a disastrous ambush.
  7. Train your soldiers as a team
    Jousting in a tournament was a way to win personal glory; marching with the army meant being part of a team. A knight might have been phenomenally successful in jousting tournaments, but he didn’t win battles that way. A knight, with his cadre of squires and yeomen, had to work in concert with others if he expected to achieve productive results.
  8. Make sound and timely decisions
    The medieval battlefield was a chaotic environment, and the knight-commander had to direct troops in the middle of a maelstrom. Basic maneuvers that worked were better than grandiose plans that failed in execution; a decisive leader often trumped one who hesitated or wavered.
  9. Develop a sense of responsibility in your subordinates
    Part of a knight’s duty was to train squires and men-at-arms in the ways of knighthood. These trainees needed to be know how to be strong, worthy leaders because one day they would be knights in their own right, and might well wind up protecting their mentor’s flank in battle. A knight who tolerated irresponsible subordinates might later find himself dependent on irresponsible comrades.
  10. Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities
    A knight who was put in command of archers didn’t try to charge into the enemy’s front ranks; a knight who led a battalion of cavalry didn’t form ranks in the rear echelon. To be successful on the battlefield, a knight had to be aware of the most effective placement of his own soldiers, rather than trying to force them to do a job they weren’t able to do.
  11. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions
    Integrity and duty were the foundation of a knight’s reputation. A knight who was brave and accountable in the face of defeat could achieve a more noble reputation than one who tried to blame others, or worse, who turned tail and sided with the enemy to save his own skin.

The job of the leader has changed very little throughout the centuries, and (as Sir Geoffroi would surely tell us) what was true of knights in the Middle Ages is still largely true for leaders today. The Army’s leadership principles encompass some basic doctrines of the Code of Chivalry, such as trust, integrity and responsibility. There are some important lessons in chivalry to be found in the Army’s principles of leadership.

These 11 principles, along with several other doctrines of leadership applied by the U.S. Armed Forces, can be found in the Army Leadership Study Guide.