Step aside Clausewitz, a new thinker has entered the professional military education (PME) ring – Sir Terry Pratchett.
Military theory and history are the bedrock of PME. They should remain so. However, popular fiction, even books which at first blush have very little to do with the military, can contain very useful insights for leaders. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld setting is an excellent example of this. Pratchett’s books are not just immensely entertaining. They also teach lessons on leadership, population dynamics, and media management in one witty package.
One of the most popular sub-series which make up the Discworld books is about the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, and how it grows from a tiny and irrelevant group into a recognisably modern police force due to the leadership of Captain Sam Vimes.
Vimes is a good leader. He is hands on, taking a fair share of night patrols and investigations, despite an increasingly lofty rank. He knows his area of responsibility in minute detail. A recurring example is that he can tell from the feel of the ground underfoot where he is in the city with unerring precision. He has deep – if rather well hidden – empathy for the downtrodden and is immensely stubborn in defending his men.
His most important attribute, however, is a flexible approach to regulations; he enforces some very harshly, and others in a highly selective fashion. For example, one of his corporals is a man called Nobby Nobbs. Nobbs is a prolific and unapologetic petty thief – if anything is lost, the plan is usually to hold him upside down and shake him until the item in question falls out of his pockets. Despite this predilection, Vimes keeps him on the force because he has an unmatched knowledge of criminal motivations. But on the other side of things, he insists on strict adherence to the law when dealing with fellow citizens, and on minimal violence. For example, in one of the books the dwarves and trolls are about to have a race riot. He conspires to make them both so overwhelmingly drunk that neither want to fight, as opposed to wading in with batons.
Now, obviously, these leadership lessons do not map one-to-one with real-life organisations and challenges. However, the essential concepts that leaders are hands on, deeply knowledgeable about their responsibilities, and understand where to apply regulations in different intensities remain useful.
Pratchett also demonstrates the costs of poor leadership. In the book The Fifth Elephant, Vimes is sent on a diplomatic mission and his second-in-command, Carrot, is unable to replace him. Interim command devolves Fred Colon. Colon is normally amiable, but the power goes to his head and he becomes a martinet obsessed with appearance over results. The City Watch under Colon haemorrhaged manpower and expertise, while the prioritisation of aesthetic brilliance over administrative capability badly impeded operations. Again, this is not directly applicable to all modern challenges. But it does paint an insightful and amusing vignette.
As you may have gleaned from the mention of race riots, the challenges Vimes faces are serious. While the Discworld books are comedy, they do address real world problems. Simmering tensions between dwarves and trolls in Ankh-Morpork – analogues to interethnic disputes today – drive the plot of most City Watch books. Without wishing to unduly spoil them, they engage with questions of radicalisation, integration, and community-led efforts to break cycles of violence. Of course, this is not to devalue scholarly & analytical approaches to the topics. But the books provide a novel way to think through those real-world case studies and their implications.
Mass media presents another problem to Vimes and the City Watch. In the book Thud, Vimes takes a team to investigate a dwarvish mine. He insists on bringing the best people for the job, which happens to include a troll. A situation occurs in which the troll holds a crowd of dwarves at crossbowpoint – which is featured all over the front pages of the tabloids, spurring tensions. The next time he deals with dwarves, he still employs his troll officers, but he also makes pains to frame the investigation as community justice, complete with greater outreach to dwarvish citizens. This is an example of astute media management not out of place in a textbook.
There’s a lot more of great interest in the series. There are ruminations on the nature of jingoistic mobs, socio-economic analyses using shoes, and object lessons in why you should never call an orangutan a monkey. In short, the Discworld series is amazingly funny, deeply insightful, and contains a lot of applicable lessons for leaders. Perhaps the next time you prepare a PME class, consider a little less Clausewitz and bit more Pratchett.
Editor’s note: We wholeheartedly endorse this message. If more people read Pratchett, the world would be a better place. And there would be fewer meetings. If you want a good place to start the Pratchett series, try “Guards, Guards.” We also love “Good Omens” because it’s basically conflict management at the apocalyptic level.
About the Author: Matthew Ader is a first-year War Studies student at King’s College London. He’s previously written for the Army Mad Scientist Blog. He has a Twitter account (@AderMatthew) which he doesn’t really use.
About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.