Leadership in the Trenches

By | November 19, 2019

[November 19, 2019]  While watching the classic anti-war movie Paths of Glory (1957) this past Veterans Day got me to thinking about leaders who are in the trenches.  I’m not thinking about those literally in the trenches of World War I, per se, but symbolically of leaders who do the day-to-day hard work with people at the level things are getting done.

Starring Kirk Douglas as French Colonel Dax, the basic story line is not uncommon.  A group of people fail in their attempt to accomplish an impossible mission and punished for it, despite the group leader’s intervention.  In this WWI drama, a unit commander (Col Dax) must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack.  Several of Col Dax’s men are found guilty of cowardice and shot.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s movie is about the futility and irony of the war in the trenches of WWI.  But it also tells another story.  There are leadership positions where the “rubber meets the road;” the work is not glorious but hard and unpredictable.  Soldiers fighting the enemy face-to-face, shop workers building and repairing vehicles, food service workers cooking and delivering food; this is the level where the real work is accomplished, or the mission fails.

Recently, I wrote about the camaraderie found in military units and the closeness that only those who have experienced it can explain.1  That camaraderie exists when people experience great challenges together.  It certainly does not have to be in war but could be found in a community struck by a natural disaster, and they work together to recover.  Or, camaraderie is in a group of friends shipwrecked on an island without food or water.  These are the things that put us under immense pressure to overcome the challenges we face.

More often called “bonding,” the togetherness is where leadership in the trenches works.  Leadership in the trenches is about getting the job done and doing it in person with everyone working in unison.  Our duty is to leverage this closeness to get the mission done at the least cost (in money or lives).  Doing this is hard.  That is why I’m the first to say that leadership is complex, difficult, and uncertain and also why duty, honor, country, and courage are so important.

Looking back on my service in the U.S. military, I always wanted to be at the troop level where the soldiers were.  I wanted to be around those young men and women who were building bridges and roads, those blowing up obstacles for the Infantry, and with the IED hunters.  It was where the action was, and I was there.  Someday, I hope, those I led will think back to those times and remember me as a leader in the trenches.


  1. https://www.theleadermaker.com/what-is-camaraderie/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “Leadership in the Trenches

    1. José Luis Rodriguez

      I would watch it but I think you may have hit onto something. Today, movies glorify violence for its own sake and not as a product of something that might actually be good. Anyone who believes war solves nothing is wrong. WWII was fought to stop fascism and imperialism. Too bad Gen. Patton didn’t live long enough to make it also a war on communism.

      1. Kenny Foster

        Jose, you are so right. Communism continues to lull away the weak minded.

  1. Jerome Smith

    There are many paths to great leadership. However, I will support this article because it shows that the leader values the worker so much as to share the good and the bad with them. That is how you earn credibility as a leader.

  2. Edward M. Kennedy III

    It is, indeed, not an easy task to dig lessons from the dirt we often find in movies. Many have advocated for someone smart and experienced in leadership to shovel the crap away from those valuable lessons we should all ponder. Perhaps Gen. Satterfield would do it for us on a regular basis. A good thought? Keep up the great work being done here in https://www.theleadermaker.com and thanks to all those who comment to help us more fully understand leadership at the worker level.

  3. old warrior

    Hello all. I’ve been a reader of General Satterfield and his blog for a long time now; perhaps since he began. What I see is that many, so-called leaders are quick to shed their hardships at the lower level of leadership for greater responsibility but also less risk to themselves. Maybe that is the way things are, but I don’t think so.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      Great to see you finally on our chat room. Please make more comments and let’s see where it goes!

  4. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    There are several classic war movies. I noticed in Gen. Satterfield’s TOP 20 WAR MOVIE blog post that he didn’t list “Paths of Glory.” I’m sure that was no oversight but a commonsense choice. Stanley Kubrick is highly talented but a bit of a nut. Anyway, I digress. See the top 20 by Gen. Satterfield at this link ….

    1. Jane Fillmore

      Hi Otto. I went back to read them and I think I will be watching them over the next few weeks. There is always a lesson from these movies and one lesson is NOT about how hard it is to be in combat. Today’s article addresses one of them.

    2. JT Patterson

      Right! It’s easy to be “against” war but not easy to be against the “cause” of war. The latter requires a higher level of intelligence and willingness to see things others cannot see.

    3. Yusaf from Texas

      Good point Otto. I enjoyed each of these movies and rewatched them for lessons earlier this year. I recommend watching them again to pick up on what you may have missed the first time. I would like to add the Alamo with John Wayne as another great war movie.

      1. Len Jakosky

        Movies, in my opinion, are not the best use of our time and energy to learn leadership lessons. Direct experience and reading select leader books are better.

  5. Army Captain

    I would like to think that this is also my philosophy while being in the military. There is something more satisfying about being close to the “working” soldier than to the bureaucrats in the Pentagon.

    1. Valkerie

      I believe you are right about this. General Satterfield has made it clear that he likes and most appreciates those who are at the side of those who do the real work. That means he and others like him share the same dangers and risks. This is what real leadership is about. Real leadership is not hobnobbing in a party with the wives of high ranking officials.

      1. Greg Heyman

        Spot-on comment, Valkerie. The whole idea of being around others is what leadership is about; I think so any way. ?

  6. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Saw the movie too, on Veterans Day. Lots of messages we can get from it despite the anti-war theme of Stanley Kubrick. I like the idea of those leaders who are in the trenches with the men and women who are getting the job done.

    1. Jonnie the Bart

      Only watch the best movies. Too many are simply about violence and the primal satisfaction we get from them.


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