Leadership theory and practise is continually evolving. But do we spend enough time looking to the past and seeing what lessons can be extrapolated? A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on 31st July 2017 prompted me reflect deeply on what the past can teach us.
I was honoured to attend the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Initially I made the trip to Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres in Belgium, to honour the memory of my great uncle, who died in the Battle of Broodseinde. The trip quickly became a study and reflection upon the consequences of poor leadership and arrogance.
By 6 November 1917, 325,000 Allied casualties and 260,000 German casualties were almost all there was to show for more than three months of sustained attack at Passchendaele, which gained the British and Commonwealth forces just eight kilometres of ground.
British Commander Sir Douglas Haig was the man in charge. Being at the emotionally-charged ceremony, and reading and hearing about some of the decisions that were made, caused me to reflect on how different things could have been.
Against the advice of other high-ranking army officers, Haig ploughed ahead with the offensive at Passchendaele. The worst rain in 30 years stopped tanks in their tracks and turned a flat open field already churned up by ordnance into a mud bath in which thousands of men and horses drowned.
On the first day of the offensive 60% of the 100,000 men who went into battle were lost, only two kilometres were advanced and the Germans were still in control of the ridges. Despite these desperate statistics Haig called this “a fine day’s work”.
Haig was fixated on winning the ground at Passchendaele to try to cut off the Germans’ supply routes. This tunnel vision led to one of the biggest losses of the war, with more than 450,000 soldiers not coming home, and many hundreds of thousands injured.
So just what is a leader’s job, and what did Passchendaele reinforce for me?
- Above all things, a leader’s job is to create a listening environment. Had Haig listened to his officers, all of those lives may have been spared. While most business environments are not life and death, I was left thinking that we should school our leaders to listen as if their lives depend on it
- Be humble enough to admit you have made mistakes, pay attention to their effects, and always apologise. Failure has become a dirty word in corporate culture, but it can be a very positive experience to fail and view it as an opportunity to improve. As Thomas Edison said about his attempts to make the lightbulb, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways it won’t work,” Ploughing on regardless is rarely a good plan as you will inevitably get the same results
- Leadership is not a competition. It’s not about who can succeed bigger or faster or being proved right– as some have theorised Haig was trying to do – but about supporting one
- another to create something bigger and stronger than its constituent parts. Why not create a thinking partnership with a colleague so you can collaborate and support one another? It can be a safe space to explore ideas and get feedback, and you know what they say about two heads…
- Appreciate others – and make this appreciation visible. Say thank you, commend good work, be positive instead of critical and your team will rise to the challenges you set
- Most importantly, ask really incisive questions. If you were in my position, what would you do? What are you feeling that limits what we’re doing? What needs improving that I haven’t noticed? What do we know now, that we’re going to find out about in a year? If asked this critical question Haig’s generals would likely have told him they could win the war without Passchendaele, which might have led to different decisions about sacrificing so many young men
I was proud to attend the ceremony at Passchendaele along with so many others who had lost family in that area during the First World War. Tyne Cot is the largest commonwealth war cemetery, with 12,000 graves and 37,000 named men whose bodies were never found.
Then, as now, entrenched positions led to the loss of so many young lives and drove decisions that changed countries for generations. I hope 21st century leaders can learn some of the lessons of Passchendaele and bring them to our modern work environments.