Tactics: Mandatory Imagination in #Leadership

War is both a science and an art. Therefore, it requires certain qualities that, prima facie, are not those of the military leader. Among them is imagination, a creative capacity that offers the opportunity to represent objects that are not perceived or to make new combinations of images.

Set in complex environments and subject to severe budgetary constraints, military operations – today more than ever – require us to shape innovative solutions. Accordingly, using imagination in military tactics should no longer be restricted to a few genius leaders, but institutionalized among the army.  This requires every leader to intellectually work on oneself but overall to be able to promote an organizational culture that allows this skill to develop.

The Tactical Imagination, a Key to Victory

Imagination does not dissipate the fog of war but it helps the tactician to have a vision of what could be beyond it.  Always facing a lack of information, military leaders must adapt and decide a maneuver based only on a situation they have conceived. Tactical imagination can also help to compensate for an unfavorable force ratio. At the Battle of Bir Hakeim (26 May-11 June 1942), General Koenig of the Free French Army ordered the establishment of an innovative defensive system, coupled with a bold offensive capability inspired by English methods: the “jock columns.” This allowed an unexpected resistance from French forces though they were highly outnumbered. Moreover, tactical imagination can achieve surprise by offering new and unexpected solutions. This is what the Germans intended to do at the end of the First World War by developing the Sturmtruppen concept. Finally, tactical imagination is crucial to adapt our tactics, techniques and procedures to the incessant arrival of new technologies that are often force multipliers.  These innovations always remain inefficient if they are not backed by an appropriate doctrine. Tanks were not immediately catalysts for change when they arrived on the battlefield, as can be seen during Cambrai in 1917.

Marie Pierre J.F. Koenig (1898-1970)

Marie Pierre J.F. Koenig (1898-1970)

The issue is that relation between armed forces and imagination is not simple. This was quite different until the eighteenth century in Europe. Fancy was an aristocratic attribute and encouraged among officers.[1] This culture was devalued from the nineteenth century and gradually disappeared with the development of military administration and the growing technical nature of armies. In fact, armies are facing a paradox: to meet the combat requirements, they must obtain orthodox tactical behaviors while encouraging imagination and originality. For leadership, this means a permanent and difficult balance between initiative and control.

Power to the Imagination

What can be done to foster imagination in the military institution?

Of course, education has a major role to play. To think "out of the box" on tactics we must have a complete knowledge of its contours and contents. Doctrine is a foundation for this understanding and must be known. As a basis for thinking, it is also necessary to acquire an "intellectual library" and to form basic tactical principles through - mainly - military history. Finally, “creative methods” could help better analyze a tactical problem – either in an individual or collective manner – and find innovative solutions. But beyond those basic requirements, tactical imagination relies on five key qualities for leaders.[2]

The first is questioning, which allows us to interrogate the tactical problem as it is and go beyond our habits. Indeed, our culture and education curses often push us to focus on linear and standardized approaches. François Jullien wrote about this: "I believe that the Greek way of thinking about efficiency can be summarized like this: to be effective, I build a - perfect - model form, which becomes a plan and which I place as a goal, then I start to act according to the plan, depending on this goal. "[3]

Secondly, tactical imagination enjoins us to look at the world with fresh eyes and detect the origin of the problem we are facing. This is difficult in the military field where action is largely a priority and can sometimes restrict our perception because: "Before philosophizing, we must live; and life requires us to put blinders, we don't look to the right, left or back but straight ahead in the direction we need to walk."[4] The tactician should take the time to look at his surroundings, and - like the artist - develop the innocence of the eye.

Soviet T-34 tanks and infantry assault German forces at the battle of Kursk.

Soviet T-34 tanks and infantry assault German forces at the battle of Kursk.

The third required quality is the spirit of experimentation.  Though experimentation could be fostered through training sessions, these often follow a scripted scenario and an orthodox course of action. We should be able to carry out real experiments. To do this we would need to accept that some exercises could be "spoiled" by testing an iconoclastic course of action.

The fourth quality needed is the ability to associate different sorts of knowledge, not directly linked to tactics, in order to get out of our usual patterns. Admiral Mike Mullen says about his experience of studying in a business school: "I learned a lot there, and one of the things I learned is that there are always ideas out there that you don’t know anything about. The more senior I got over time, the more I tried to seek those areas of diverse opinion to incorporate into my own thinking in making decisions."[5]

Finally, networking - that is to say exploring and testing ideas through a network of individuals - is the last essential quality to foster tactical imagination. Blogging is a great way to do so, but is not enough. Tolerance and encouragement from the hierarchy regarding debate, iconoclast ideas, and criticism is crucial to help develop the debate.


“Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master.”[6]

This article does not advocate mindless tactical imagination: taking unnecessary risks and focusing solely on the “beauty” of a maneuver would be dangerous. However, tactical effectiveness can only be achieved through an unbridled imagination passed through the sieve of a decision-making method. Eventually, the real challenge for any military leader might be this: encourage creativity within his unit and abolish the feeling that any criticism is a criticism of the leader.

Rémy Hémez is a French Army officer and a military fellow at the Security Studies Center (CES) of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).  He is a regular contributor to Ultima Ratio, the CES’ blog.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the French Army.

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Header Image: Free French Foreign Legionnaires assaulting an enemy strong point at Bir Hakeim.


[1] Thomas Flichy, La fantaisie de l’officier, DMM, 2012. (French)

[2] Inspired by Jeffrey Dyer, et al, “The Innovator’s DNA,” Harvard Business Review, December 2009.

[3] François Jullien, Conférence sur l’efficacité, PUF, 2006, p.16. (French)

[4] Henri Bergson, “La perception du changement,” La pensée et le mouvant, PUF, 1975, p.152. (French)

[5] Geoff Colvin, “Adm Mike Mullen: Debt is still bigger threat to US security,” Fortune, 21 May 2012.

[6] Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007).