“Regulations are for the stupid.” – General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, quoted in “The Silences of Hammerstein”
In a conversation about the most memorable German military minds through history, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord is not a name that often comes to mind. In those conversations, names such as Frederick the Great Clausewitz, and von Moltke (the elder) are typical; Hindenburg, Bismarck and even von Schlieffen are commonly referenced. But not Hammerstein-Equord. Even the German generals of World War II, who are mostly vilified at this point, are more memorable than Hammerstein-Equord.
In his time, he was certainly memorable. He came from nobility, rose to some prominence during the Great War, and eventually led the Reichswehr as Chief of the German Army Command. He famously refused to participate in the Kapp Pustch, the 1920 attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic, despite his father-in-law’s ardent support of the coup. He even survived Hitler’s infamous “Night of the Long Knives” while being a fervent opponent of the future dictator. However, it was his role in German army doctrine that made him truly memorable, even if most of us have forgotten that he ever existed.
In 1933, while overseeing the writing of Truppenführung, the manual for leading combined arms formations, Hammerstein-Equord made one of the most historically prescient observations on leadership. During the writing effort, he offered his personal view of officers, classifying them in a way only he could:
“I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90% of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
Nearly 90 years later, his classification of officers remains as credible as ever. It applies beyond just the officer corps and, quite honestly, extends into the business world, private industry, and every walk of professional life. If you take just a moment, you can easily apply names to the classifications. Frankly, it’s hard NOT to (and, to be fair, it’s somewhat entertaining to do so).
Clever and Lazy:
While most senior leaders will deny this classification, it applies well, and not just for the reasons cited by Hammerstein-Equord. These are the leaders who have the breadth of experience and depth of wisdom to ask the right questions, see the future for what it is, and make the right decisions under the greatest duress. They’re also renowned for finding the simplest solutions to the most difficult problems, and that drives a lot of people crazy.
Clever and Diligent:
No matter where you work or what you do, these are the people who do the proverbial “heavy mental lifting.” Seemingly inexhaustible, they will work industriously at whatever task they are assigned and won’t stop until that task is complete.
Stupid and Diligent:
To be avoided at all costs. These are those special people who make even the simplest tasks difficult, who create added work for everyone around them, and who lack the intellectual capacity to do much more than foment chaos.
Stupid and Lazy:
I’m not sure that 90% of the human race falls into this category, but there are quite a few that fit the description. The key with this group is to avoid assigning anything but the most mundane, simple tasks. Anything more than that and you will have no one to blame but yourself.
The next time you look around at your team, remember the legacy of Hammerstein-Equord. He saw them for who they are, for what they bring to the table. And you should, too.