Are you a leading Lion or being led by a Donkey?


On July the 1st this year it will be 101 years since the Battle of the Somme. Whilst we are distracted by another kind of battle across the UK today, we might ignore the commemoration of an event where over 60,000 men were killed or injured on the first day alone. The huge levels of casualties and the seeming unwillingness of the military leaders to adapt their tactics led to use of the phrase “Lions led by Donkeys” to describe the British Infantry. But what was it that held back leaders – the Donkeys – and are there parallels with modern leadership?

Firstly, changes in technology had rendered military tactics ineffective. The First World War saw the introduction of a great many innovations that disrupted how battles were traditionally fought. The war essentially became a stalemate as old tactics such as using soldiers on horseback to mount rapid attacks proved to be totally ineffective against heavy artillery and machine guns.

Leading a globally dispersed workforce
Soldiers on horseback mounting rapid attacks. (Ernest Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, most of the soldiers that took part in the battle of the Somme were recent volunteers – the so called pals battalions- drawn from towns and villages across Britain. They lacked the training and experience of the British Expeditionary Force that was wiped out in Northern France and Belgium during 1915. As such the leaders did not trust the competence of these relatively new soldiers and ordered many units to walk into battle, in order to control them better.

Finally, communication systems had not yet been developed to enable Generals to cope with the uncertainty and seeming chaos of Battle. Their “command and control” based systems of sending messages using telephones and flag signals were outdated and totally inadequate for the complexity and confusion inherent in modern warfare. The lack of effective communication reduced the Generals to bystanders, deprived of the information they needed to make decisions, learn and adapt their tactics.

These are similar problems faced by modern business leaders. Faced with a workplace that is being disrupted by the impacts of digitisation, globalisation and individualism, they find themselves struggling to control a globally dispersed workforce.  Business leaders are also increasingly uncertain that they have the skills required in their people to meet the challenges inherent in an uncertain future. They also aren’t able to find the time to build the levels of trust they need to let go and allow others to fight their own battles. Finally, they are often slow to utilize the technology available to them, relying on methods of communication – email, phone – where they broadcast their ideas and instructions, rather than engaging with the people who have the best appreciation of what is actually happening. The results are well documented – low levels of employee engagement and a perceived skills gap leading to reduced levels of innovation and productivity.

Ultimately, spurred on by defeat, it was the German Army that adapted and innovated after the First World War. In developing tactics, communication systems, and training systems they brought to life a philosophy based on empowerment of remote leaders known as Mission Command. This approach, which is still used by modern armies, is based on providing a clear statement of purpose – the mission – and defining the bare minimum of constraints to promote initiative and freedom of action of soldiers on the ground. To make such an approach work requires investment in training to create the practices necessary to build trust and the mutual understanding required to empower people. Here are four things leaders should do to empower others:

Engage, don’t broadcast.

Despite the innovations in communication technology, people are still human. Communication needs to be an exchange. The temptation with having technology that allows instant communication to the masses is to rush. Don’t be tempted. Stop and think about the receiver. Promote the exchange of information and critical thinking through positing questions in meetings, and using online forums and software such as Yammer to encourage sharing.

Enable learning.

Promote continuous learning through conducting reviews of activity. Stay curious (and avoid being furious) when things aren’t going well. Even in the heat of battle military leaders are taught to step back and ask what is not being done which should be done, and what is being done which should not be going on.

Create excitement for the vision.

People are far less likely to let go or give up on an idea that they have helped turn into a plan. Create the time and work environment to get others to co-create the vision. Focus first on what could be and then identifying what is getting in the way rather than continually focusing on problems and firefighting to give people a sense of purpose.

Build honesty into every day conversations.

People shy away from simple practices such as feedback and coaching as they don’t want to take the risk of opening themselves up to criticism. You need to set the example. Leave the ego behind and accept that leadership is not about heroism and perfection. Acknowledging your own mistakes, and using conversations to reinforce other people will build trust and make others more receptive to the small adjustments required to drive learning and growth.