Andy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Business and HRM at Anglia Ruskin University London and was formerly Regimental Sergeant Major, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.
With the recent release of the film ‘Darkest Hour’, Winston Churchill and the early years of World War Two have once again become temporarily fashionable topics of conversation. This provides an opportunity to briefly use historical events as a prism for examining modern-day military and political leadership. This short opinion piece is not an analysis of Churchill, but rather a wide-ranging, cursory consideration of how decision making is a critical skill for leaders; especially so for those in the military.
Traditionally, historians view the early part of World War Two as a disaster for Britain, faithfully (and sometimes gleefully) recounting one military misadventure after another; from the Norway debacle, through the fall of Singapore, to the RAF’s inability to deliver accurate bombing until around 1942. This catalogue of lacklustre performance is well-documented. However, very few commentators spend much time analysing the more successful military adventures of Britain’s commanders and politicians during this period, and there were more than a few successes to speak of.
With Britain’s army ejected from the continent by the Nazi war-machine, Churchill allegedly gave his senior commanders an order to “set Europe ablaze…” The order, it is claimed, resulted in the creation of the Commandos and several other special operations units, such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The intention was to prevent Germany from sitting on its laurels, and to get inside its leaders’ decision making cycle, whilst Britain set about the lengthy task of rebuilding and modernising its forces, and appealing to the wider world to form an alliance against Hitler. It is debateable how extensive the strategic effect of all this was, but the raids against the Lofoten Islands, and the spectacular ‘Great Raid’ on St Nazaire, although costly, certainly caused the Germans significant cause for concern.
Another Churchill-inspired action, which certainly got inside the decision making cycles of many actors, was the sinking of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, Algeria, in an attempt to prevent the significant French naval force surrendering to Germany following the fall of France. Not only did this action deny Hitler the possibility of expanding his naval strength with minimal effort, the sheer ruthlessness of the British action sent a signal message around the world, especially to observers in the United States, watching developments in Europe with deep interest.
The Mediterranean theatre provided further welcome victories for Britain in the dark years of 1940/41. In November 1940, Admiral Cunningham delivered a stunning, and hugely professional victory over the Italian Fleet; inflicting serious losses on it during a daring raid against Taranto. Delivered with ageing Swordfish bi-planes, the raid was a product of sound intelligence, meticulous planning and execution, and it removed a significant threat from the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean in one fell swoop. It is widely believed that the raid provided the blue-print for Japan’s subsequent attack on Pearl Harbour. Aside from the obvious courage of the Fleet Air Arm’s aircrew, the raid was a demonstration of courageous and bold decision making.
In North Africa just a month later, the British Army, confronted by superior Italian forces, were able to exploit minor success and transform it into a major defeat against the Italian Army. Encouraged by Wavell, General O’Connor’s Operation Compass, captured over 100,000 Italian troops and could, potentially, have put an end to the war in North Africa by March 1941, precluding the intervention of the German Afrika Korps under Rommel, had British and Commonwealth troops not been redirected to Greece.
These various actions were isolated, limited in their scope, and thus were insufficient to deliver any kind of corporate strategic effect, but nevertheless they stand as classic examples of what can be achieved when a commander focuses on disrupting his opponent’s decision making cycle and acts boldly.
There are modern day examples of British military commanders engaging in similar actions that disrupt their enemy significantly. During the Falklands conflict, the long-range air-raid against Stanley Airfield by a Vulcan bomber, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the raid on Pebble Island, and the rapid advance and capture of Goose Green, were all examples of commanders seeking to disrupt their enemy’s decision making cycle in order to deliver a critical advantage.
What is surprising perhaps, is how often in the modern era, western military commanders and politicians err on the side of caution, withhold from applying critical force, and avoid risk-taking behaviour. Or is it surprising? The ever-present media, sitting in immediate judgement, coupled with an aversion to even limited casualties by the general public, has perhaps made modern military commanders and politicians ever-more cautious.
Prudence is no bad thing in any commander, and indeed one of Montgomery’s saving graces was that he was more careful than many World War Two generals with the lives of his men. Nevertheless, it is possible that in this area of study, the modern military might learn something, not just from history, but also from business. In business, the chief concern of organisations is to seek competitive advantage. Achieving competitive advantage means gaining market share and increasing profits. Businesses pursue these objectives with a ruthlessness that would shock many. Their entire focus is to get inside their competitors’ decision making cycles, and they set about it with gusto.
The importance of getting inside the enemy’s decision making cycle (their OODA loop) is a well-accepted concept, and was certainly promoted by my Brigade Commander in Germany during the 1990s. His Ten Commandments of Manoeuvre Warfare seemed eminently sensible, and also very exciting, to me, a young platoon sergeant at the time. I took his point about disrupting the enemy’s OODA loop seriously, and used it to good effect in my own limited way both on exercise and operations. Naturally cautious and wanting to ‘get things right’, this change in my ethos was a pivotal moment for me. Not only did it make me more potent and effective as a soldier, it has done me an enormous amount of good in my subsequent civilian career.
Historians might criticise Churchill and Britain’s early war commanders for many things, but in the lesser known British successes of early World War Two, there are convincing lessons for the modern military and civilian leader alike. Novelty is often short-lived and counter-productive, but there is very much a place for bold decision making amongst leaders of all kinds, and we should all embrace the risk that comes with it, for wars are rarely won by the cautious.
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