Communicate, delegate and stay relevant: The Great War’s leadership lessons

Some of the lessons learned by generals in the Great War might have relevance in the boardroom
Military history is fertile ground for lessons in leadership. Scores of chief executives surveyed by Forbes cited Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as their favourite business book (with Oracle’s chairman Larry Ellison apparently applying the tome’s lessons in his company’s software standoff with SAP), while City folk taking Cass Business School’s executive Leadership course are shipped off to Sandhurst for weeks at a time. In the centenary year of World War One (WWI), here are some lessons for business leaders from generals in the Great War.

STAY RELEVANT
For organisations wary of investing in digital, the key message from history is: ignore new technologies at your peril.

WWI generals are often characterised as being out of date. But rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment. At the time, military leaders had a serious lack of skills and knowledge when it came to innovations like aviation.

Sir Douglas Haig famously favoured cavalry over modern warfare, and even went so far as to argue that the machine gun was an overrated weapon. Serious misjudgment over the complexities of new machinery led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

DELEGATE
Military leaders did not lack confidence. Haig in particular ignored the advice of experienced aides, as well as insights gained from earlier conflicts, including the War of 1812, which showed that outdated methods were seriously flawed. Examples included sending infantry against the enemy in neat ranks at a slow walk, or using the same commands at the same time each day, meaning the enemy knew exactly what to expect.

Haig wasn’t the only culprit. Almost two years into the war, an ambitious offensive spearheaded by French officer Robert Nivelle ended in failure when he ignored his troops’ advice that the terrain and conditions were too extreme for the commanded rate of advance.

Today, experienced executives frequently find themselves leading teams of people who are younger and have more technological skills. A more flexible, two-way management structure is key to success in business, leading from the centre but with far more delegation than in traditional hierarchical structures.

COMMUNICATION
In many of the great wars, disasters were due to too few people knowing the plan, or not being kept up-to-date through communications.

The battle of Verdun was the longest engagement of WW1, and it could have been ended far sooner by the Germans if teams on the ground were better-informed of strategy changes. Troops were left stranded while commanders waited for new instructions. Similarly, business communications need to be flexible and nimble.

DON’T OVERSTRETCH
A lot of the time, armies failed because they extended too far and couldn’t resupply ammunition and food. The German offensive in 1918 was its only remaining chance of victory. But even following a temporary advantage, targets were constantly changing and the Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain the advance on Paris.

HOLD ON TO RESOURCES
After the Franco-Prussian war, the French built forts along the German border. But just before WW1, the French command decided that forts were obsolete. Garrisons were run down, and artillery and equipment were moved. In 1912, they abandoned the fort at the western end of Chemin des Dames – Fort Malmaison.

At the start of WW1, the Germans walked into the unoccupied fort, and it took three years to oust them. Fort Malmaison had a commanding 360-degree view of one of the main routes to Paris. As such a valuable resource, it’s a mystery why it would be left undefended.

Gavin Wheeler is chief executive of direct and digital Marketing Agency WDMP.

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