June 1, 2008  

Managing manpower

A fatigued soldier is a sign of poor leadership

Throughout the history of warfare, it has been common knowledge that leadership can have crucial effects on battlefield success. During pre-industrial-era warfare, the measure of a leader’s ability was directly tied to the results of his key battles. The Spartan-led Greeks at Thermopylae are an example of the impact of a successful leader (King Leonidas) on a battle that changed the fate of entire civilizations. This direct form of assessment changed during the rise of the industrial era, during which the concepts of assembly lines and mass production dominated the organizational patterns of entire nations. Correspondingly, new political perspectives viewed war as an organized, national event that was conducted in a mechanical fashion rather than purely the realm of a few elite in the military caste.

The world wars revealed how this change affected the ways a military leader’s actions were assessed. Massive loss of men’s lives and multiple unsuccessful battles did not immediately translate into the death or dismissal of the leader(s). Ultimate victory required more than just an Alexander gallantly leading the charge.

Modern victory required a nation to effectively mobilize and control huge quantities of men and materiel. This, in turn, necessitated the most competent tactical leaders to be supported by the best logisticians. The greatest leaders in the modern era achieved victory by keeping control of their behemoth of men, personnel required to overcome the other nation’s behemoth. Now we have launched into the globalized InfoWorld, which requires renewed scrutiny of those ideas and their relevance.

Industrialized nations have proven exceptionally well-versed in generating and using global supply chains, but our enemies have identified this strength. When added to our significant tactical training and technological capability, the Darwinian process of modern war has eliminated enemies who believed in the stand-and-fight doctrine. What remains is the slow burning fuse of guerrilla warfare, which results in few tactical casualties relative to set piece warfare, but also a massive potential for economic and political casualties that can still lead to defeat. To guide our forces to victory in this battlefield, a modern leader must maximize combat power against the tactical threats (when found) while also ensuring the behemoth moves in the most efficient manner, lest it exhaust itself swinging at flies.


Leadership effects can be measured in some degree using the economic terms of finite resources. Every military leader at the O-5 level and above is directly responsible for managing a number of finite resources that generally include monetary budgets, expendable goods, vehicles, equipment and service members. All of these are easily quantified and organized in formats that make it possible for a leader to manage their consumptions as they see fit, except the efforts of service members. Manpower understanding and management is the area in which there is a great lack of focused leadership and that has, therefore, become a significant core weakness. This can be corrected through conceptualization and accountability of use.

The best form of measurement is the constant of man-hours. Every day has a fixed quantity of 24 hours available and each service member is capable of reaching his optimized productivity quantity in eight hours. Why only eight hours, when troops regularly pull 12-hour shifts? Because a massive volume of research stretching back to 1893, and supported by British economist Sidney J. Chapman’s theory on working time, fatigue and productivity. “Hours of Labour,” clearly defines eight hours a day as the mark beyond which everyone suffers from diminishing marginal returns. A 12-hour work day conducted five days a week may produce a short-run gain in productivity, but at about eight weeks, the total productivity drops to equal an eight-hour day.

A thorough understanding of this concept allows leaders to maximize the productive capability of their staff over extended periods while maintaining a reserve ability for short, focused surges. Leaders who use man-hours more efficiently than their enemy become force multipliers, while leaders who squander this resource become force exhausters. The point of exhaustion is not the best time to determine that you have reached the behemoth’s limits because soldiers do not instantly recover after one good night’s sleep.

The next important step for a leader is to distinguish how many man-hours a specific event requires to be accomplished. Man-hours requirements already are measured quantifiably by using a variety of activity-based concepts. The Army uses these types of measurements when planning and assessing maintenance needs and efficiencies, as well as flight crew work/rest schedules and guard shifts along any perimeter. We also have generated doctrinal guides for manpower quantities required to achieve tactical objectives; for example, 3-to-1 odds when attacking on open ground versus 10-to-1 odds when attacking in military operations in urban terrain. Similar concepts could be used to better organize our staffs and gain greater efficiencies in their strategic and tactical applications. For example, a weekly update brief should have a preset guideline of man-hours assigned to accomplish it based on the volume of data collected and refined. For every five subordinate reports collected, for example, one man-hour is required to process it into the overall brief. The key player in achieving this success is the executive officer and/or chief of staff. This individual traditionally has been responsible for staff organization and functionality but seldom follows any organized management pattern. More often than not, they manage by personality and bend their staffs in whatever direction they perceive as the commander’s last comment. When you consider the ripple effect constantly throwing manpower toward the latest issue instead of maintaining focused efforts, it becomes easy to perceive the brain of the behemoth changing its minds numerous times before the foot receives the first message to step forward. The bigger the behemoth, the harder the fall and the wider the effects.


A leader who understands the concept of manpower available vs. level of effort can use this knowledge to better focus his staff’s efforts to accomplish the mission. A G3/S3 shop with 10 personnel producing eight hours of effective work (not merely presence) per day will yield 400 man-hours of effort every five-day work week. If two personnel represent the daily battle captains and focus all efforts on managing data flows in/out and updating the various tracking boards, then they are producing the equivalent of 112 hours of effort per operational week (i.e., seven days of work). Correspondingly, their assigned duties require a matching level of effort analysis.

From a leader’s perspective, adding further mission requirements must be accompanied by additional man-hours equal to the predetermined rate of consumption, or by the assumption of a degradation of all the tasks assigned. There always will be more tasks than manpower available, and it is vital for the staff leader to clearly understand the commander’s priorities. If a leader fails to prioritize, he is delegating this authority to subordinates who will prioritize based on their understanding of mission needs. The efficient leader prioritizes tasks without jeopardizing the quality of the mission-essential efforts but accepts that some tasks must wait for a lull in the fight. The behemoth may not kill all the pests today, but it will confidently kill the ones it swings at.

In the case of urgent requirements, a leader who grasps this man-hour management concept will actively control the priority of work to ensure that the emergency tasks are accomplished to standard with the cost of lesser tasks being delayed. A leader who fails to understand these limitations will insert the emergency tasks into the normal staff processing with no priority guidance but with the false expectation that everything still will be accomplished to standard and on time. This delusion of organization not only fails to accomplish all the tasks to standard (usually requiring additional rework effort that commonly exceeds the normal man-hour standard) but also has a profoundly demoralizing effect on the staff. This is a result of staff members recognizing their inferior work that is necessitated by an overloaded task list when the true priority of effort is clear but not enforced. When compounded by time, the efforts eventually revert to the standard human capacity of eight hours per day. Thus, a poor leader of staffs uses man-hours inefficiently and reduces overall man-hour capacity through morale degradation, diminishing the capacity to surge when the next real emergency appears. The behemoth can sprint but eventually must catch its breath before the next round.

When this problem is magnified over multiple layers of staffs, often with geographic separation plus the ripple effects of any large organization, it becomes clear that small changes in higher staff efficiencies can vastly affect an entire theater of operations. The efficient staff can positively affect the behemoth’s actions by focusing its resources against our elusive enemy. The inefficient staff loses control of its own processes and consequently tends to act in slow and predictable fashions, offering our enemies ample room to maneuver against us. The wars we are fighting now are not limited operations with clearly defined end states but, rather, struggles that stretch across the political, military and economic landscapes in a globally connected InfoWorld. We must look at every aspect of our operations to maximize efficiency, and staff leaders play a vital role in this effort. In a struggle of endurance, every ounce of energy is precious.

MAJ. DAVID F. BIGELOW is with the 401st Army Field Support Brigade in Kuwait. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.