Learn from the generals

When we are asked to name great leaders we are likely to include people made famous by conflict and war. This might include...

When we are asked to name great leaders we are likely to include people made famous by conflict and war. This might include Churchill, Napoleon and even Hitler. In the past, business people have said there is little crossover between the worlds of work and war. Until now.

David Taylor

Inside Track

The characteristics of great military leaders include the ability to think and act quickly in fast-changing environments, a focus on survival at all times and the ability to motivate people in high pressure and stressful times.

This is like the situation that faces IT leaders today. In the business world our experience does not extend to life or death. But increasingly, the similarity of skills, strategies and action needed in war are identified as those required in today's fast-moving, turbulent, uncertain times.

With this in mind, I looked back to a conflict, namely the US Civil War and, in particular, the southern generals. Historians are united in one conclusion: the South, outnumbered, with inferior firearms and no long-term goal, only held out as long as it did because of the thinking, actions and inspiration of its leaders. So what lessons can we learn from them then?

General Lee was an officer in the US army. He was offered field command of the whole army by the president Abraham Lincoln, but, when war threatened in 1861, he turned the offer down in favour of fighting for the South. He led the Southern armies throughout the war and it is said he knew the name of every officer under his command. Lee is now regarded as the most beloved war leader in US history, despite the fact that he dedicated his military life to its secession.

Lee taught us some valuable lessons on who we are and who we can be:

  • People will follow you if they believe your heart is in what you are doing - if you do not enjoy what you are doing, you will be found out

  • Belief - he instilled a deep and passionate belief in his people, at every level, from politician to infantryman

  • Charisma - he had total charisma: character, personality and presence Don't let anyone tell you these things don't matter. They do, in spades.

    General Longstreet was Lee's most trusted soldier, his right-hand man. His defensive theories were years ahead of their time.

    He believed in focusing only on the mission. If fighting could be avoided, all the better. If Longstreet had been listened to at the decisive battle of Gettysburg, the US would now be two countries.

    We can learn much about crisis-management from Longstreet:

  • Focus on the outcome, on what you want to achieve - be absolutely clear on this

  • Within that, focus on the important issues, those that take you closer to your desired end-game, put aside the trivial and ignore the unimportant

  • Deploy people according to their strengths - be aware of your project team's natural talents and use these to the maximum if things go wrong.

    General Jeb Stewart was the eyes and ears of the South's army. His cavalry would ride for weeks on dangerous missions into enemy territory and his men would often infiltrate Union bars and camps to gain information his generals needed to know. Many of the early Southern victories would have been lost without the inside knowledge of Stewart.

    Stewart was an early advocate of knowledge management, and competitor analysis:

  • Knowledge management is useless without a definition of what information we need and it must relate to your vision, aims and agenda

  • Proactive departments must anticipate information required and provide it ahead of it being requested

  • To truly understand our competitors, we must put ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they see it.

    Never before have we faced so many challenges and changes, in scale, scope and speed. Such ongoing "crisis" management means that today's managers may learn something by studying the military leaders of yesteryear.

    David Taylor's Inside Track, a provocative insight into the world of IT in business, is published by Butterworth Heinemann. Tel: 01865-88180

  • This was last published in March 2001

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