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:
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:
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:
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