When Leadership Counted

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One of the objectives of the Institute’s Leadership and Career Development Committee is to promote leadership capability through thought leadership. I think most of us would recognise that effective leadership is both instinctive, and learned, through both study and example.

I would like to add to the collection of examples by reference to the leadership styles of a select group of World War II military naval and military leaders, and see how these might be applied to the modern business world.

Marie Antoinette (who was fitted-up when she is alleged to have said ‘Let them eat cake’) did actually say ‘There is nothing new except what has been forgotten’. So, with the Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI in mind, I discovered this useful list of 11 leadership traits that successful leaders share. It was written by a journalist, aptly named Napoleon Hill, in 1908 (who was also an associate of Dale Carnegie).

Hill said that all successful leaders exhibit the following:

  1. They have unwavering courage based on self-confidence.
  2. They have self-control.
  3. They are fair.
  4. They don’t wait for perfect answers to make a decision.
  5. They work by a plan.
  6. They do more than what is required.
  7. They are exceptionally likable.
  8. They are sympathetic.
  9. They pay attention to detail.
  10. They assume full responsibility for their team.
  11. They are cooperative.

Okay, I know, another list which you could have peeled off LinkedIn. So, to make the exercise more interesting, I’m going to see how this list compares some 35 years later to the actions of some of the greatest western Allied WW2 generals and admirals, and then see whether these traits are still relevant today.

In the eclectic group I’ve picked are an Australian, three Americans, one Englishman and a New Zealander. I apologise in advance that these are all men – unfortunately there was no real choice for this period of history.

Let’s start first with arguably the greatest naval strategist of the Pacific War – Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz – who commanded the United States’ enormous and powerful naval assets in the Pacific. Nimitz inherited his command in the worst possible circumstances. Most of the US Pacific fleet’s capital ships (less, thankfully, his aircraft carriers) lay wrecked in Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, and he was under enormous political pressure to do something to salvage the prestige of the United States against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Without going into too much detail, Nimitz picked up his sacked and disgraced predecessor’s team, and got down to business, methodically planning how the US could effectively strike back, most notably at the Battle of Midway in 1942. Ultimately, of course, he was successful, and with the strength of the US economy behind him, the once-mighty Japanese Navy was literally destroyed by 1945, three years later.

Nimitz in my mind ticked all 11 leadership boxes. However, the one thing that has particularly stuck with me is that he didn’t take the easy route and sack the HQ staff he inherited – they would have been an easy scapegoat. He assumed that the majority were competent and good people, and invested his faith and trust in them on the basis that they had been trained by the US Navy, an institution he knew very well given his immediate previous posting with the Navy as Head of the Bureau of Navigation, effectively the Navy’s Head of HR.

Let’s jump now to someone quite different. Field Marshal Viscount Bernard Montgomery is widely regarded as the pre-eminent British field general of the war. ‘Monty’ as he was known, was the architect of the pivotal second battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, where British and Dominion forces, including Australia’s formidable 9th Division, were able to inflict a decisive victory against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s overstretched German Africa Corps. Churchill himself said “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

While Montgomery is viewed by some as vainglorious and self-promoting, what he brought to the job was complete and utter self-confidence, meticulous planning and, unusually for the times, an instinctive flair for public relations. He understood that he needed to boost the confidence of the men of the Eighth Army who had been on the run from Rommel for close to two years. Most importantly he was able to connect with his men and instil a belief that they could beat the hitherto unstoppable Wehrmacht – for example he issued an order that any plans to retreat beyond the Nile should be torn-up, and that Cairo would be held.

Despite his flaws I have selected Montgomery as an example of a leader who understood that the key weapon he had in his armoury was his soldiers. He understood to realise their potential, he needed to do something different, and employ direct personal communication with his men – he used to visit them at the front line, hand out cigarettes, and talk to them about how he intended to beat the enemy.

While we are on the subject of effective communication, US general, Anthony McAuliffe, earns a special mention. During pivotal Battle of the Bulge in late 1944/early 1945 – Hitler’s last major offensive in the West, the men of the elite 101st US Airborne Division found themselves surrounded by superior German forces in the strategically important Belgian town of Bastogne. Responding to a lengthy German demand to surrender, McAuliffe sent back a one word response: “Nuts”. While the Germans were puzzled, the Americans got it. History records that Bastogne was eventually relieved by Allied forces.

General Dwight Eisenhower is probably the person who best fits all of the 11 traits identified previously. While he was criticised by some (especially Montgomery) for not being a real battlefield general, ‘Ike’ as he was affectionately known, had one of the toughest assignments of any leader in the Second World War – the Commander in Chief of Allied ground forces in Western Europe.FZD_shutterstock_19878823

In modern parlance he had many difficult stakeholders to deal with, including his own President, Prime Minister Churchill, his military bosses, his own army commanders, various civilian authorities, and various protagonists from many different countries, including the prickly leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle. Eisenhower handled it all with humility and aplomb, despite some self doubts, and of course he went on to become the US President in 1952.

The one incident that stands out in my mind as exemplifying his leadership was his gut-wrenchingly difficult decision to commit the might of the Allied forces to the cross Channel D-Day invasion in June 1944. Facing the prospect of very bad weather to cross the English Channel and the potential of catastrophic failure, and enormously difficult consequences to further postponing the invasion, Eisenhower made his decision with the simple words “Ok, let’s go”.

Bravery as a leader takes many different forms. In the case of Australian general, Iven Mackay, the hero of the Battle of Bardia in Libya in 1941 (known as ‘Mr Chips’ for his school headmaster-like demeanor), his next moment to shine was during the disastrous campaign in Greece later that year. Alongside their Greek allies, the British, Australian and NZ forces were defeated by a technically superior and better equipped German force. As the leader of a major portion of the Dominion forces, Mackay showed personal courage by refusing to duck for cover when the German air force repeatedly attacked his troops. He had been concerned about the morale sapping effects of the Luftwaffe’s raids, and was determined to show, by personal example, that it is important not to be overwhelmed by seemingly impossible odds. Mackay showed unwavering courage, and there is evidence that his example inspired his soldiers.

Finally, I turn to New Zealand’s most famous and celebrated general, the leader of NZ’s army in North Africa and Europe, Bernard Freyberg, a great bear of a man known, inevitably, as ‘Tiny’. During the rout in Greece and subsequent evacuation of the Allied forces to Crete, Freyberg ignored the order to return to Egypt, by a higher command fearful of a senior general’s capture. Freyberg understood that it was a bad look to have a bevy of senior generals leave for safety when their soldiers were in harm’s way.

I think that Hill’s list still makes sense today for any leader, including in the business-world. Certainly when I think of the best bosses I have had, they have exhibited these traits in different ways, as did our military examples. Perhaps the one glaring omission from Hill’s list is a potential twelfth characteristic: “They are great communicators.”

As for the relevance of history, I will leave you to choose whether you agree with Marie Antoinette or Henry Ford, who said that “History is more or less bunk”.

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About the author

David Bell

David Bell joined the Actuaries Institute as CEO in January 2014, bringing more than 20 years’ experience in management and public advocacy. Immediately prior to joining the Institute, he worked at Ogilvy PR and was the General Manager Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Westpac. He held similar roles at IAG and Telstra. David also spent a decade as CEO of the Australian Bankers’ Association, where he worked closely with the Government and industry during the global financial crisis to make sure that the best policy and regulatory settings were in place. He was previously Chief of Staff to the NSW Minister for Agriculture, Ian Armstrong in the Greiner Government, a management consultant with Anderson Consulting, and the MD of public affairs and financial communications consultancy Gavin Anderson and Kortlang. His first job was with the Australian Army as an Infantry and Paratroop Officer. David is a member (board) of the Medical Council of NSW.

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