Management lessons from the Battle of the Somme

Management lessons from the Battle of the Somme

“Lions led by donkeys”

Eric Ludendorff – German World War I General

This quote is attributed to World War I General Eric Ludendorff. Although he didn’t actually say this, he was describing the British tactics in the Battle of the Somme in France. The battle lasted for over 4 months in 1916, and resulted in just under 624,000 casualties

146,431 British Commonwealth and French Allies deaths

164,907 German deaths

It became a potent symbol of the futility of war, where the ‘flower of British manhood’ was lost and a byword for incompetent leadership.

The plan in World War I was to the break the German trenches through a week long arterial bombardment. The aim was to destroy the German trench system including the barbed wire protecting the German trenches, its occupants and neutralise the German artillery. The Allied infantry would then advance in waves through ‘no man’s land’ with little or no resistance and take the German positions.

However, the plan failed in its main objectives.

Why?

The German troops were too well dug in and low-level cloud prevented aerial artillery spotting. It had also been confidently assumed that the shells would destroy the German barbed wire in front of their trenches. Unfortunately, it was only partially successful and left ‘no man’s land’ a tangle of barbed wire and craters that made it difficult for the advancing infantry to negotiate. After the bombardment the Germans emerged from there bunkers and met the advancing infantry with well-placed machine guns.

Were there other reasons?

Yes, more importantly many of the artillery rounds were duds. An estimated 30% failed to explode or were the wrong type of projectile. This lead to the barbed wire remaining largely intact. Furthermore, much of the bombardment had been of shrapnel, not high explosive, and it failed to make sufficient impact on blowing away the wire or damaging the deep enemy dugouts.

What caused the high level of dud artillery shells?

World War I was an industrial war. Massive amounts of materiel were required – shells, ammunition, ships, railways and aircraft as well as kitting out millions of combatants. In 1916, after 2 years of war Britain was running short of artillery shells. In order to meet the demand many companies who had no experience in manufacturing munitions began production. While manufacturing shells may not be difficult, it was a different story with fuses. Fuses were technically difficult to manufacture, and quality suffered. Quality controls in the expanded munitions industry were poor. It is also difficult to expand production capability rapidly without quality issues. This was exacerbated by worn gun barrels (1.5m shells were fired in the first week) which contributed to shells not landing fuse first and exploding. The majority of the faulty fuses were tracked to a single manufacturer. Remedial action was quickly taken, and progressively, after the Battle of Somme, the problem was resolved.

What were some of the other reasons?

Although technology was a major factor, it was further exacerbated by incompetent leadership and strict adherence to a flawed and untested strategy. General Haig, the British commander had never visited the front and saw the effects of the bombardment and later the massive loss of life.  A patrol into ‘no man’s land’ the night before the Allied infantry were to advance reported that the barbed wire had not been destroyed. This report was ignored.  Also, low-level cloud prevented aircraft from spotting this problem. Other patrols into ‘no man’s land’ reported hearing the Germans singing in their trenches, indicating the barrage had failed in its objectives, and were also ignored. Other factors were the inexperience and immature state of training of the officers and artillery gunners.

Should Haig and his staff have done something different, once they knew the bombardment had been only partially effective?

Could they have avoided the tens of thousands of casualties of the opening attack?

It is easy in retrospect to believe that they could have.

However, the Commonwealth forces faced an impossible situation. Their major ally the French, were pushing hard for the British to launch an attack to reduce the German forces pitted against them in the Battle of Verdun and prevent the destruction of the French Army. There had also been no opportunity for surprise and with the artillery barrage the Germans knew full well the attack was coming.

What could they have done?

Cancel or delay the attack?

Yes, this was possible.

Fire an even longer bombardment?

This was not practical due to shortage of shells, and dud or incorrect shells. The die was cast.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight.

So, what are the management lessons from the Battle of the Somme?

  1. Do NOT overly rely on technology – – technology is an enabler and not the answer
  2. Quality control and competent supervision is essential in organisations, as demonstrated by poor management in the factories
  3. Incompetent leadership severely impacts on organisations. Over 150,000 Allied deaths could have been prevented if the facts had not been ignored. This was further complicated by not having a Plan B, using an unproven strategy, not having enough equipment and not doing their homework

There are valuable lessons for managers in learning from military blunders.

Can you think of examples in your work life or in your organisation where the over reliance on technology, poor supervision and quality control severely impacted an organisation?

As managers, what can we learn from the downfall of Robert Gabriel Mugabe?

 “Only God who appointed me will remove me”

Robert Mugabe – President of Zimbabwe

Ironically, it was not God who removed Mugabe but his own army.

Normally I send my monthly blog on 21st of the month – this forces me to have the blog ready. A self-imposed discipline that now has become a habit. However, each December I send it out early so it does not get lost in the clutter and busyness before Christmas.

With the fall of the despotic dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe last month, it would be a pity to waste the opportunity to discuss issues of leadership.

Dictators, even when putting their humanitarian and moral crimes aside, are usually poor managers. Most dictators run their countries in such a way, that if they were companies, they would have failed long ago. Despite the lessons of history, it does not stop many managers today from doing their best to emulate the world’s worst management techniques. Most of us have worked for such people during our working life.

Mugabe is a great example. In 37 years of corrupt, bloody, incompetent and chaotic rule, Mugabe managed to reduce the size of the economy to a third of its size in 1980, turning the country from a net food exporter to a country where three quarters of the population now rely on food aid to survive.

Successfully leading a team isn’t easy, however it takes a special skill to lead as incompetently as Mugabe. Without trivialising the effects of brutal regimes on citizens where many “national shareholders” pay with their lives, there are some undesirable management characteristics that managers and leaders frequently exhibit that are displayed by dictators such as Mugabe.

What three lessons can we learn from Mugabe’s leadership?

  1. Inauthentic leadership is not sustainable. Whilst it might appear that 37 years in power implies sustainable leadership, Mugabe’s leadership was only sustained by military force, violence and vote rigging. Even his own political party, ZANU-PF turned on him very quickly indicating that his leadership was inauthentic. Without military support his leadership ceased to exist. His departure brought the population out dancing in the streets.

I can remember working for a general manager who people did not trust, always managed upwards and ignored his subordinates and peers. When he eventually headed the company, there was a rush to the exits of senior managers. The business struggled and was taken over 2 years later.

  1. Surround yourself by people who are not afraid to say ‘YES’. Mugabe ensured that any potential leadership rivals and political rivals were silenced, often in suspicious vehicle accidents and mysterious house fires, thereby surrounding himself with sycophants who would play to his ego (Egos Destroy Businesses) and enrich themselves through his corrupt patronage. Promoting his wife to Vice President, and firing Vice President was probably the last straw. Ironically the ‘fired’ Vice President has since replaced Mugabe as president.

The downfall of many great organisations can be traced to the hubris and arrogance of its leaders. Mugabe fits this picture. Having a fixed mindset, he closed himself off from feedback, and saw himself as the smartest person in the room, was unwilling to listen to others whilst surrounding himself with sycophants who praised him as a ‘revolutionary hero’.

Surrounding yourself with “yes” people may make life easier in the short-term, however it does not create long-term, sustainable outcomes, whether in business or politics.

I once witnessed a senior manager surround himself with ‘yes men’ who were sycophantic to his requirements, while he failed to develop them as professional managers. It was a smokescreen so that he could corruptly enrich himself through the business. Like most dictators he kept his team weak and did not plan for succession. His corrupt activities were eventually found out, was dismissed and left his division in a perilously unprofitable state.

  1. Blame others to divert attention from your own failings whilst never admitting that you make mistakes. Mugabe was a past master at this strategy, whether it was blaming the British government for his own incompetent economic management, the white commercial farmers for not wanting to support his government or his political opposition for civil unrest, he always diverted the blame.

On a visit to Zimbabwe several years ago, a local friend, who was not born when Mugabe came to power privately expressed cynicism about the government by stating:

“Why does the government blame the previous rulers when they have been in power for over 35 years? The Vietnamese are still not blaming the Americans for the war they have just got on with it”

We see this behavior by many managers today. They blame the market, their employees, the government or even their customers for their own management failings. I think we have all worked for managers who have displayed this characteristic.  Instead of being accountable for the performance of the organisation, they blame external factors and ignore the cause of the problems. For example, a good employee who leaves under a dictatorial manager is never given an exit interview and their performance or contribution is normally denigrated.

As a boss are you displaying dictatorial management behavior?

In recognising dictatorial management behavioral traits such as those displayed by Mugabe, it allows us to ensure firstly, that we do not act in this manner and secondly to take action if we see it in others. This is the role of a good leader.

Good team leaders display authentic leadership because it is sustainable and best for the team. They surround themselves with competent people, often brighter than themselves and are inclusive of all team members. Furthermore, they develop a succession plan and focus on the issues that drive the business and hold themselves accountable for both successes and failures.

If you would like to test your knowledge of dictators, try this quiz – I got 50/60.

Goodluck (Dictator Quiz)