Tag Archives: leadership

When Generals fall foul of the Politicians

The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.

During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.

During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.

Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.

Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.

In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.

While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!

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Filed under Army, politics

Thoughts on Leadership

Wellington - the Iron Duke

Wellington - the Iron Duke

My recent post on Leadership and Command in the Falklands War got me thinking about leadership in a broader sense.

I’m sure we’ve all worked with enough managers in our time that simply make us think ‘how in the name of hell did someone think they would make a good manager?’. Tescos in particular seem to be fine proponents of this art – promoting any old person who’s hung around long enough without any thought as to if they actually have the people skills or the brain cells for the job. Some of the biggest mistakes I have seen are the ‘I now have a fancy job title, im going to shout at you all until you do what I want’ style of management, closely followed by the ‘I’m going to make you look small, so I feel big’ style of bullying.

You can take a lot from military history that informs good leadership. Perhaps because command during war is the sharpest test of leadership anyone could face, and in that white hot crucible the factors that make a good leader tend to shine out. There are some shining examples of both good and bad leadership throughout the ages. Why shouldn’t we draw lessons from Montgomery’s plan for Alamein, and apply them to that new corporate strategy? Why can’t we look at the Duke of Wellington’s strategy at Waterloo, and use the same kind of defensive approach when we’re under fire at work?

Writers such as Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz give us some rather deep but useful theories for leadership. And then there are some fantastic examples through the ages of how and how not to do it. Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Marlborough, Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, Brian Horrocks, John Frost, Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bill Slim and more recently Sandy Woodward, Julian Thompson and Mike Jackson all offer useful examples of leadership in difficult situations. And whats more interesting, is that they all have slightly different styles and approaches, and some are good in different situations. Churchill was a great orator and inspirer, but in terms of real decisions and policies, maybe he wasnt so great. Wellington was a resolute commander and his men trusted him, but he was rather cold and aloof. Monty was a great thinker and cared about his men, but his prickly manner alienated his colleagues and superiors. By reading about them all, you can imagine different scenarios.

So for me, what qualities shine out that make a good leader? Firstly, you should never expect your staff to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Of course this helps if you have actually been there and done it yourself, or if you still do regularly. Having a fancy job title doesnt mean you cant roll your sleeves up every now and then. Secondly, rather than just shouting at people all the time, why not think ‘how can I get more out of these people?’ – some people respond to a firm hand, some people need a quiet chat. People have different strengths and weaknesses – use them. Thats cos all people are different. Morale IS vital too – if you treat people like dirt, you can’t expect them to go above and beyond for you. People do appreciate a genuine thank you, or a tin of biscuits every now and then. And don’t treat people like idiots – explain things to them so they know what’s going on. Don’t take all the credit for other people’s work – without them you’re nothing. And don’t feel threatened by people under you – its the mark of a good leader if they inspire and develop their staff. You won’t get it right all the time, we’re all human. But think about it, don’t just bumble along day to day, stand back and think ‘am I doing this right? what could we try different?’

I do wonder what exactly they teach on some of these corporate management training courses…

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Filed under Army, debate, Falklands War, Napoleonic War, Navy, social history, World War Two