Mark Shields: Washington and the Von Moltke Grid

By Mark Shields

We who live in Washington are admittedly a little defensive about this city we call home. Be honest — you would be, too, if the nation’s elected leaders won their high offices by repeatedly running campaigns that bellowed how much they, and all right-thinking Americans, distrusted and despised Your Hometown.

Strange as it might seem, we Washingtonians can be a little puritanical about our work. Let me explain. We don’t really make anything here. We don’t grow corn or wheat. We don’t make cars, computers or movies. Sometimes when people have trouble measuring output, they instead measure input.

What did you do yesterday, Mark? “Well, I got here at 7 a.m. and did not leave until almost 9 p.m. “So, if I can’t tell you exactly what I did, I can at least tell you how long I didn’t do it.

But to understand Washington’s basic industry, the national political leadership, it helps to be familiar with Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, who from 1858 until 1888 was the chief of the German General Staff, which would become, under his leadership, the standard for all modern armies.

He developed the von Moltke Grid, under which he divided his entire office corps into one of four categories: 1) the mentally dull and the physically lazy, 2) the Mentally Dull and the Physically Energetic, 3) the Mentally Bright and the Physically Energetic and 4) the Mentally Bright and the Physically Lazy.

The officers assigned to the first group, the Mentally Dull and the Physically Lazy, were obviously not candidates for the general staff. But there are in any organization repetitive tasks to be performed to which members of this subdivision could be assigned.

The single most dangerous category in the military, or any other major organization, is the Mentally Dull and the Physically Energetic. He is both feckless and tireless. Having fouled up three assignments long before noon, he is cheerfully seeking new challenges to fail. This type who requires constant and vigilant adult supervision is not really a possibility for retention, let alone promotion.

The Mentally Bright and the Physically Energetic would not, under the von Moltke test, qualify to become a commanding officer. Instead, they were picked to become the staff officers who, while capable of seeing the sixth side of a four-sided problem, were, with their total attention to detail, compulsive micro-managers.

That left for candidates for eventual elevation to the general staff and positions of ultimate command the Mentally Bright and the Physically Lazy. These are the individuals who are so bright that they understand the problems and see what must be done, but lazy enough to figure out the easiest, least complicated way to do it. He is capable of successfully delegating.

So how do our presidents rate under von Moltke? Military scholar Dennis Showalter, a professor of history at Colorado College, once told me he thought Dwight Eisenhower the ideal: “George Patton thought he was a better general than Ike. Montgomery knew he was a better general than Ike. Omar Bradley thought he was a better general than Ike. But Ike alone was able to manage and to command all of them — along with the Navy and the Air Force and the allies.”

Lou Cannon, the respected biographer of Ronald Reagan, who covered the Gipper from Sacramento through two White House terms, made the strong case that Reagan was in fact bright, but that, like many other septuagenarians, he was not curious. Jimmy Carter, with his Annapolis training and his managing the schedule on the White House tennis courts, was the quintessential Bright and too Energetic.

And President Barack Obama? Let us stipulate that he is Mentally Bright, but if he is Physically Lazy, he has yet to figure out the easiest, least complicated way to get it done under the von Moltke grid.

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