Leadership in time of crisis

Today marks the centennial of the bloodiest battle in the history of the British Army. On July 1, 1916, British and Allied forces engaged with German forces in the Battle of the Somme. The first day was a disaster. The Allied forces sustained more than 54,000 casualties with 19,240 dead in just 24 hours. They gained barely three square miles of territory, and the battle raged on for another 5 months.

There are several theories as to why the Allies suffered so many casualties. They were extremely high because the Allied forces underestimated the strength of the German entrenchments. Although bombarded for a week, the Germans were able to emerge largely unscathed when the shelling ceased. They then set up their machine guns and proceeded to mow down the advancing Allied troops in their thousands.

A simpler explanation is that the Allies lacked decisive leadership, and communication between unit commanders was poor or non-existent. This resulted in lack of co-ordination and decision making when it was most needed. Another perspective is that the battle was fought using tactics that were antiquated. Advancing in a line across a field toward your enemy may have been an effective doctrine in the 19th Century, but against machine guns, barbed wire and minefields, it was disastrously ineffective.

What can we learn from this tragedy?

Firstly, good leadership is vital for any organisation. If leaders have no clear vision of where they are taking their organisation, failure can be expected. If they underestimate the strength of rival organisations, or fail to spot the weaknesses in their own, they will be in trouble. Leaders need to be decisive in their actions, but cannot do so without access to high quality information. When a crisis arises, they need to be at the front, leading, not running and hiding, or hoping that 'things will work themselves out.'

Secondly, good communication is important, at all levels. If leaders have no idea what their colleagues or teams are doing, or what problems and challenges are being faced, they cannot make informed decisions. Where they gain information relies on the quality of their communication systems and the quality of the networks they join. Often, associating with the right people pays off, but trusting poor sources can end in disaster. In a time of crisis, we should all know who our friends are.

Thirdly, the old ways are not always the best ways. Sometimes innovation is required. Leaders who are entrenched in old ways of thinking, or who are set in their ways, will miss opportunities to exploit events and change the direction of an organisation. Leaders are not always the best people to find new ways of doing things. But they should listen to those who work within the organisation that do understand innovation, and they should encourage and support new ideas that spur the organisation forward.

Everything is a risk, and leadership in any organisation is all about weighing up the risks against the benefits. That's why we need good leadership.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Leadership in time of crisis by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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