Monday, 4 August 2014

Six Strategy and Leadership Lessons from Studying World War I

Today (Aug 4th) is the 100th anniversary of Britain entering WW1. Here is a fascinating post on leadership from the time from Art Petty from an American perspective...

Note from Art: this post is not for the faint of heart or for those that fail to enjoy the lessons of human history and warfare.

I often look through the lens of history for lessons in leadership and strategy that can be applied in business.  While the lessons are subject to the interpretation of the historian and his or her biases, it is instructional to view pivotal events in human history with the benefits of the passage of time and a significant amount of analysis.
Unfortunately, it seems as most of the pivotal events of human history involve wars.  We seem to be preternaturally disposed to fighting each other for power, land ideology and resources, and in spite of the passage of time and the lessons learned in blood, we have not purged this lust, although the form of the fighting evolves constantly.
While war is an odious event, there are many lessons to learn—both good and bad from the leaders that give birth to the events as well as from the leaders and followers that prosecute them. 
Perhaps it was my era in the U.S. education system, but our focus in history classes tended towards the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II.  Somewhere in the process, World War I was covered, but never in detail.  Perhaps because we came late to that horrific European conflagration, but nonetheless, in my educational upbringing, WWI received short shrift.  
I’ve set out to fill in the gaps of my knowledge by reading John Keegan’s work on World War 1, and just to keep things moving along, I added in the historical novel on this same period from my one of my favorite writers, Jeff Shaara.
While absolutely not qualified to comment in a scholarly fashion on this fascinating and difficult point in modern history, a number of powerful and oft-repeated leadership mistakes and lessons jump out at me.
Six Leadership & Strategy Lessons of WWI:
1.  The signs of impending disaster and conflict are generally visible for all to see well ahead of time, however, whether due to idealism, naïveté or fear (or some combination), we often choose to ignore the signs. 
It was inevitable that the U.S. would enter the War, because our fate and the fate of Europe were inextricably linked, we just choose to ignore this reality for as long as possible.
By the way, weren’t the signs of our current economic debacle there for us to see?  Of course they were, we were just too busy enjoying the excesses of our policies and hoping the bill would not come due.   
2.  The hubris of leaders is always the issue.  This distinctly human characteristic gives rise to our wars; helps determine outcomes and sets the stage for future disasters.
Wilson’s idealism and naïveté were every bit as wrong as those of the leaders creating and prosecuting what came to be a nightmare in slow motion.
This same failing is visible in the many decades of mismanagement of our auto industry and more recently in the financial and real estate markets. 
3.  The failure to innovate leads to stagnation and demise.  Like so many insane people, the parties to the conflict defined the rules of the game and refused to change, despite the fact that the results were guaranteed not to change.
The trench warfare that evolved became the way of life and death for years, with little attempt to innovate out of that nightmare.  The barbed wire barriers proved to be killing traps with no way through or around.  It took an American innovation—the use of chicken wire over the barbed wire that allowed troops to literally march over the acres of wire and change the rules of the game. 
Businesses often metaphorically beat themselves to death in a slightly more civilized version of trench warfare, relying on obsolete tactics and ignoring the reality that no one will gain a sustainable edge. It’s only when a more nimble entrant changes the rules that the outcome of the game changes.   
4. Mistakes beget future mistakes. The Allied conduct and policies towards Germany at the end of the war….more hubris tinged with vengeance and a hefty dose of head-in-the-sand” guaranteed World War II. 
The conflict was never resolved; it just was allowed to fade away, much to the chagrin of General Pershing and others that dared to peer into the future.  And while the fighting faded, the handling of the human side of the process sowed the seeds of the next conflict.  The Allies broke the economic back of Germany, and in the eyes of the more radical leaders, including Hitler, humiliated her people. 
This same thing happens every day in the world of post-acquisition integration.  Much of the value of the potential merger is squandered due to the egos of the acquirers and the horrendous handling of people issues.
5. The right leader and the right charter count!
Perhaps the one thing that Wilson did right was put the responsibility of the American involvement in the war on the shoulders of a remarkably capable man, General Pershing, and provide him with an unencumbered charter to lead.  Although the U.S. government was often a barrier instead of a help to the effort, Wilson was true to his word and let Pershing conduct the theater of operations without interference.
The lessons here are obvious, and still we often fail to learn from them.  Find and cultivate great leadership talent and give them a charter and the requisite latitude to operate.  
6.  The leaders don’t win the battles, the soldiers do. It’s fascinating to wonder what type of leadership skills are necessary to ensure that humans willingly climb a muddy hill in the face of machine gun fire, bombardment and near-certain death. 
For the farm boys from Nebraska and the city boys from New York and Chicago, this was not their fight and their land, but they willingly fought and overcame their natural fears to face down the machine guns and help turn the tide of the war.  What remarkably brave, courageous people and what tremendous followers.  Will your team members metaphorically do the same for you in business?  Will they crawl uphill in the mud and in the face of fire, bent on success and innovating and adapting along the way?
Closing Comments:
There are literally hundreds of other lessons to be gleaned from studying this time in history.  It was a period of remarkable innovation with the birth of air war, submarine warfare and of course the rise of the tank.  All of these dramatically affected the rest of the twentieth century.
On the people side, there are ample lessons to learn from the logistics magic pulled off by a few of Pershing’s staff.  The creation of supply lines across the Atlantic and the massive logistical efforts created the infrastructure necessary for success.  The same holds true in business, where an entire organization’s efforts must be coordinated to deliver value to the customer. 
There is much to learn from our experiences as humans, and while war is horrible, it is also instructive. Learn and grow, and perhaps we can avoid many of the mistakes that repeat so frequently both in business and in the business of nations. 

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