Strategic Leadership in a Medieval State: Dreamers and Pragmatists

Strategic Leadership

Historians have often been harsh about the leadership style of Frankish generals.

But strategy and the leadership styles of those who implement it are a series of trade-offs. Arguably the most fundamental trade-off is that between those who identify capabilities and those who identify aspirations: the contrast of ‘pragmatists’ and ‘dreamers’.

To Dream…or To Do

‘Pragmatists’ are those who take a practical view of what is genuinely possible. They see the problems. They develop a strategy from the bottom up. They see the gaps between what is available and what one would ideally want in place. The main danger is that they might then fail to act at all.

‘Dreamers’, on the other hand, are those who focus only on ambition and the opportunities in store. Dreamers tend to fail to achieve a realistic connection between ends and means. They develop a strategy from the top down. They have a grand view of what they want, but sometimes take a less than realistic view of what they have at their disposal to make it happen.

Strategy at its highest level is arguably the juxtaposition of these two conflicting views, and much modern work has been done to explore the ramifications of each.

Simultaneously Holding Contradictory Views

As one recent commentator astutely wrote, strategy and strategic leadership are, in some respects, ‘the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities’. The best strategists are those who can combine both views (and these are generally contradictory views) in their heads simultaneously, understanding the difficulties but, despite having an acute awareness of the risks, still moving forward to implement a strategy that has realistic ambition and vision.

Aligning aspirations with capabilities is central to the implementation of a successful strategy, as it requires a sense of the whole that reveals the significance of the respective parts.

The Crusaders accomplished much of this alignment by playing to their strengths: by launching their superbly heavily armored cavalry into the centre of the enemy’s ranks whenever possible; by building sophisticated fortifications to offset their inferiority in numbers; and by maximizing their use of Western military assets, such as Italian fleets or French crusading contingents, whenever they became available. They did the best they could within the limitations they were facing.

King Baldwin I as ‘Pragmatist’

These limitations found expression in the very different styles of strategic leadership in the Latin East. King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, for instance, was in many ways the archetypal pragmatist. He presided over the capture of many of the coastal cities and did so in a determined and focused way. But his boundless energy also took him on campaigns every year, restlessly probing for weaknesses among his opponents, keeping them off-balance, and ensuring that his reputation as an aggressive and unpredictable opponent was maintained. He instinctively took the fight to the enemy.

Accompanied by just a few dozen men, he had carved out his own state in the north, establishing the County of Edessa in 1098. As King of Jerusalem, he launched raids into Syria with his tiny army. He built castles and founded colonies in the south, pushing the borders of the state further into the Fatimid empire.

Even in death, the ramifications of his restless opportunism reverberated. His body finally had to be brought back from al-Arish, in Egypt, with great difficulty and with inevitable problems of preservation in the appalling heat. Daring as ever, he had invaded the Fatimid empire in 1118, accompanied by only 600 men.

He followed the path of rational planning when he could (he had, for instance, implemented a logical and very successful strategy of rolling up the Muslim-held coastal cities), but he was also a risk-taker and chancer par excellence. He made opportunities, and he took opportunities.

King Amalric as ‘Dreamer’

But where Baldwin was pragmatic and opportunistic, a ruler such as King Amalric seems far more dogmatic—more of a ‘dreamer’, focused on ends rather than means. Amalric was certainly remorselessly focused on his ‘Egyptian strategy’. He made large-scale invasions an almost annual occurrence, despite the huge resourcing and logistical problems involved.

He tried, time after time, to make a major breakthrough in the South. He stretched his meager resources to the limit and beyond. He did not give up. His planning had its own momentum, and the Egyptian strategy petered out rather than stopping with his death.

However, the Egyptian strategy was an undeniable failure. Worse, it was also a clear case of strategic ‘overstretch’. While the Frankish field army was on campaign in the south, weakened garrisons were falling to Nur al-Din’s assaults further north, and the frontiers were ravaged on a regular basis. Ground was being lost that could never be regained. So one might argue that Amalric displayed a style of leadership that was far too single-minded and overreached itself. He put objectives ahead of resources, an unattainable outcome ahead of what was really achievable.

Navigating Strategy in Real Time

Neither example is quite so clear-cut, though. Baldwin I lived through a time of great danger, but it was also a period of opportunity. The Muslim enemy was deeply split. He could roll out the coastal strategy whenever naval assets—generally from Italy—were available, while at the same time moving aggressively inland to intimidate his opponents. Baldwin was operating at a time when everything seemed possible and when the array of strategic options ahead seemed to have no end.

Amalric, on the other hand, reigned at a time when strategic options were all but exhausted. The focus on conquering Egypt seems overly ambitious, but it was the only game-changing route left open to him. The alternative was defence and passivity, stagnation, and a slow path toward inevitable destruction.

We have the luxury of examining ‘ strategic leadership’ in theory, looking at the crusader states, and casting judgments on their styles of leadership from the comfort of our armchairs. But it was rarely as simple as that.

Playing With the Cards You’ve Been Dealt

In most cases, crusading leaders behaved in the way they had to, rather than in the way they might have wanted to. Generalship in the Latin East, with intrinsically limited resources, was extraordinarily confined and constrained. It was dictated by what was possible and what was available, rather than chosen based on individual preference.

Frankish leaders played with the cards they had been dealt, and they played them with greater or lesser degrees of skill. But they did not have the luxury of choosing the deck.

With hindsight, the crusader strategy often seems to have been biased towards a ‘dreamer’ mentality. Frankish leaders usually had a clear focus on what they needed to achieve but often lacked the resources to implement it effectively. This is not to imply that they were consistently turning a blind eye to reality; as we have seen, they knew the problems and tried to gather the resources needed to mitigate them.

But, more to the point, they often had little choice. Their strategic options were extremely limited. The Franks were ambitious because they needed to be; they took risks because doing nothing was rarely an option.

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.

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