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Innere Führung – Leadership Culture in Camouflage

No commercial enterprise would brag about a leadership culture that has been applied for well over 60 years in (almost) unchanged form, and still with full conviction. The German armed forces (Bundeswehr) see things differently – and rightly so. Since 1953, the self-image and leadership culture of the Bundeswehr have largely been defined by the term Innere Führung which can be translated as “leadership development and civic education.” Admittedly, it does not sound very modern and hip.

In the German armed forces, the concept of Innere Führung is the guiding principle for leadership and for dealing with one another. The goal of applying Innere Führung is to reconcile the functional conditions of operational armed forces with the liberal principles of a democratic constitutional state. It is notable that as long ago as 1947, one of the fathers of Innere Führung, the future Lieutenant General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, wrote that the potential new German armed forces should present themselves as an organization that “serves humanity, recog­nizes its primacy, and grants it opportunities for development.”1

Today, corporate cultures are considered to be key competitive advantages in civilian enterprises, and they have a major impact on permanent improvements in productivity, quality, and hence in the respective output. It is certainly difficult to measure or compare the output of the Bundeswehr. However, it can be assumed that the production of security – or to put it another way, the fulfillment of tasks assigned by the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG) and the German Bundestag, as well as the integration of the armed forces into society – can be regarded as equivalent to products and services. To quote the former President of Germany, Gustav Heinemann, “peace is the emergency.”

So does Innere Führung – the leadership culture in camouflage – meet the requirements of a combat force in the 21st century? And, not least, does it also meet modern leadership requirements? With regard to the output, is Innere Führung one of the main “force multipliers”? “Peace” as the output, job satisfaction among soldiers, personnel turnover, the number of complaints about management style, and the public image? No doubt all of the above influence the effectiveness and assessment of a leadership culture, but the essential and possibly even decisive assessment standard remains the individual person: the soldier. Innere Führung is the basic requirement for everything that soldiers do. It is an obligation to be met by every soldier, regardless of rank, official position, or mission. It was always thought of as socialization, as active shaping, and hence “raising” to become a responsible citizen in uniform, who is bound by the common good and does not share a vision of the state within a state.

Soldiers of the Bundeswehr therefore each decide for themselves, in a very personal way, whether Innere Führung is just a set phrase or whether it happens to them every day in whatever form – in other words, whether it is an integral part of their professional lives. In terms of its approach, the validity of Innere Führung is timeless. Nevertheless, its development should continue on a regular basis, in dialogue with others, and in consideration of the circumstances. It is all the more important, therefore, to protect and preserve this concept and to shape it in such a way that it can be practiced and experienced on an everyday basis. Leadership culture in camouflage – Innere Führung – is more than simply an approach to leadership. At least for the German armed forces, it describes the identity of a responsible and constructively critical soldier in the 21st century.

An outdated model or indispensable leadership philosophy?

And yet, for all its good points, criticism of Innere Führung has never fallen completely silent over the last 60 years.2 And that is a good thing. After all, giving serious consideration to the meaning of military service forms part of the essential nature of Innere Führung. In the early days of the Bundeswehr, society was critical of rearmament, while military criticism was often directed at the “business model of Innere Führung” itself, at the citizen in uniform.

Discussions became highly controversial in the 1960/70s. There were those, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Deutschen Bundestages), who perceived tendencies for the German armed forces to become a “state within a state.” Others, meanwhile, such as the then-Chief of the Army (Inspekteur des Heeres), Lieutenant General Albert Schnez (in his “Schnez Study” of 1969) criticized the concept of Innere Führung as being too heavy on theory and essentially counterproductive to the military’s effectiveness. This, in turn, prompted a backlash from the authors of “Leutnant 70.” They formulated nine key points, considered excessive at the time, which caused the pendulum to swing in completely the opposite direction: fundamental codetermination or participation, the open questioning of superiors’ decisions and leadership behavior, and a strict separation of work and leisure time. In fact, these are themes which the Bundeswehr has now itself embraced: coaching for top-level personnel, participation rights and obligations, work–family balance, and not to forget the Soldiers’ Working Time Ordinance (Soldaten­arbeitszeitverordnung). In response to “Leutnant 70,” the authors of  “Hauptleute von Unna” were more in line with Schnez. All of this took place against the backdrop of a deepening Cold War between East and West, which in the perception of many could have turned into a hot war.

Did the discussions do any harm? Quite the contrary. They helped to further spell out the concept of Innere Führung and sharpen the understanding of it. In addition, many important documents were produced as a result of this debate about the content of Innere Führung. These included the endorsement in the 1970 White Paper for the German armed forces, the guidelines for Innere Führung (Hilfen für die Innere Führung) in 1972, and the regulation for civic education (Vorschrift zur Politischen Bildung) in 1973, to name but a few. Then, in the 1980s, the debate flared up again. Human chains and Easter marches during the arms race debate and hostile criticism such as “soldiers are murderers” once again triggered a discussion about the role and meaning of the German armed forces and their anchoring in society. The Bundeswehr withstood all of this – not least because of the concepts on which it is founded. The meaningfulness of soldiers’ own actions and the conviction that they were faithfully serving their country made this possible. With German reunification in 1990 and the “Army of Unity,” the Bundeswehr proved again in the 1990s that the basic idea of Innere Führung bears up. Standards, values, a conception of statehood, human dignity, and a clear vision of what it means to be a soldier of the Federal Republic of Germany – together this paved the way for the “all-German” armed forces. And because the Bundeswehr was a conscript army at the time, this became the driving force of German unity. 

The development of the “army for deployment” into an “army in deployment” more than 25 years ago again aroused criticism from those who felt that Innere Führung and a combat force were mutually exclusive. Innere Führung is like a fabric softener, they said, and so it is unsuitable for survival in battle. But once again, no evidence could be found. Of course, combat situations are fundamentally different from the situation at home during routine duties – but this does not apply to leadership principles, respect for human dignity, or to responsibility for one’s own actions and inaction in a changing political context. This is underlined not least by the fact that in more than 25 years of deployment for peace and security, no member of the Bundeswehr has been prosecuted before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague or convicted of crimes under the law of war.

All the same, the suspension of compul­sory military service, the transition to volunteer armed forces, and a peace dividend (i.e. a cut in defense spending) to be delivered continuously over two decades raise new questions. Professionalization, shortage management, and depoliticization of the military were keywords along with the greater integration of women into the armed forces, the personal appearance of soldiers in times of tattoos and body piercings, and the question of how civic education can be implemented in a volunteer army. In this context, the discussion recently initiated by officers studying at the Helmut Schmidt University (Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg) in their book Armee im Aufbruch (Armed Forces on the Move) is both essential and valuable: essential, because Innere Führung is intended to be dynamic, as it must, with its immovable core,  constantly readjust to the challenges of the times; and valuable, because it is precisely the critical discourse that shows the very great extent to which the German armed forces put Innere Führung into practice. No clicking of heels and a loud “yes sir!” – come what may. Instead, the responsible fulfillment of duty in the service of our country. And that includes the great support that the Bundeswehr is providing in the refugee relief effort. Whether in the Mediterranean or here in Germany, the concept of Innere Führung stands firm. The challenge remains of putting it into practice in everyday military life.

In 1982, Graf von Baudissin – the father of Innere Führung – defined its general sense as follows: “Innere Führung is military leadership with special consideration of the individual and social aspects of the person.” This leadership philosophy is what clearly distinguishes us from other armed forces around the world, and it is the envy of other armies of the world.

Export hit for others

Many other countries are therefore interested in this “German way,” and in taking part in lively discussions about it. At Strausberg, near Berlin, the external affairs office of the Leadership Development and Civic Education Center (Zentrum Innere Führung, ZInFü), has facilitated a dialogue of this kind since 1994 with seminars in Germany and other countries. The discursive core of this a dialogue always includes the question of the extent to which the concept of Innere Führung is transferable to the armed forces of other nations. Can Innere Führung be an export hit for others?

The basic and in some respects sobering message from many expert discussions is always the same: the success of Innere Führung as the management philosophy of the Bundeswehr does not rest on any single element. Instead, it is based on linking the ten key areas of Innere Führung3, the democratic inclusion of the German armed forces, and social acceptance.

When giving serious consideration to whether Innere Führung can serve as an export hit for others, whether it is transferable in the international context to other nations’ armed ­forces, the “danger” lurks at the beginning of the discussion. Anyone who fails to recognize that the historical derivation of Innere Führung in Germany cannot simply serve as a blueprint for other countries is committing an intercultural error. Every country has its own history, culture, roots, its very own pride, and its own opinion about the role, meaning, and integration of armed forces. Each country therefore needs to develop its own answers.

Especially for countries whose culture differs greatly from our own, it is a matter of discovering things in common and spurring interest in a leadership culture that for many people requires a new way of thinking. What is not needed is a German “master” of the subject who proclaims the “only” truth. Instead, through talks and discussions, we aim to find a way to apply relevant elements of the Innere Führung concept to the respective historical and cultural situation in the other country. Thus, the starting point is always to find some common ground: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” This guiding principle of our constitution provides a good foundation for a common understanding of the values and standards on which the principle of Innere Führung is based. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this statement, which we regard as universal, may be interpreted differently in other cultural milieus and may not even meet with undivided acceptance. 

So the question of whether Innere Führung can indeed be an “export item” cannot simply be answered “yes” or “no.” A better answer is “to a greater or lesser extent.” “To a greater extent,” the more ideas about the role and importance of armed forces in a democracy and the underlying conception of man are similar. “To a lesser extent,” the greater the differences in these matters. But, in any case, the question of transferability is the starting point for a hopefully constructive and also interesting discussion. Only by reflecting on our leadership principles in light of the respective other historical development and culture is it possible for the spark to catch and stimulate thought.

Innere Führung lives by being a role model. Consequently, the many German soldiers in international staffs, in mixed units, and during deployments assume a special intermediary role. What use would fruitful discussions be if German superiors did not put their own leadership principle into practice on a daily basis? Ultimately, the fire of Innere Führung should burn in each of us, if the spark is to ignite the same lasting enthusiasm in others.

1 Wolf Graf von Baudissin (2014), Grundwert: Frieden in Politik- Strategie-Führung von Streitkräften (ed. Claus von Rosen), Berlin, p. 51.

2 Reeb, Hans-Joachim (2015), “60 Jahre Innere Führung: das Wesensmerkmal der Bundeswehr im Lauf der Geschichte,” in: Zeitschrift für die Innere Führung: if.-59, vol. 4, pp. 23–30.

3 The ten key areas according to Joint Service Regulation (Zentraler Dienstvorschrift, ZDv) A 2600-1 (formerly ZDv 10/1): civic education, leadership, law and military discipline, compatibility of family and duty, information activities, training and the organization of military duty, pastoral care and the practice of religion, organization and personnel management, medical care, welfare and recreation.

Author team

Written by a team of authors at the Leadership Development and Civic Education Center of the German armed forces: Colonel Enno Bernzen, conceptual design and development department, Captain Dirk Peddinghaus, head of the international cooperation department, and Colonel (General Staff) Robert Sieger, leadership department. The views expressed here represent the personal opinions of the authors.
The Leadership Development and Civic Education Center (Zentrum Innere Führung, ZInFü) is a competence center tasked with constantly developing and adapting the concept of Innere Führung, and following ministerial guidelines for its formation in the German armed forces (Bundeswehr). The center’s responsibilities therefore include preparing the concept for practical implementation and communicating its content. There are ten key areas integral to the concept, with focuses on leadership, civic education, law and military order. It contributes to making the guiding principle of the “citizen in uniform” practicable and viable within the Bundeswehr, and visible externally.
With its products and activities, the Leadership Development and Civic Education Center reaches around 12,000 people in the military and government every year. Essential elements of current leadership training comprise coaching top-level personnel and leadership in military organizations.