Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I had started graduate studies in military history and was participating in a seminar on First World War strategy. The professor was an expert on French-British relations during that war. We were discussing the effectiveness of the French Army’s commanders, generals like Nivelle, who planned and commanded a major offensive in 1917. Like most other offensives at that point of the war, it failed, with massive French casualties. This failure was one of the causes of a near revolt in the ranks and a refusal of a large number of French generals to continue prosecuting the war in what they felt was an ineffective manner. The professor, like many historians before him, said that Nivelle was like many of his colleagues. He had no respect for the life of his soldiers and was willing to squander resources on futile and brutal frontal attacks. Now, I wasn’t an expert on the particular battle under discussion, but I did point out that it is easy to question decisions and leadership from the sidelines. In football that’s called Monday morning quarterbacking, right?

One thing that was drilled into us during our professional military training was that how plans would actually perform in battle was pure conjecture. If there is one thing that we learned from military history, it was that the best laid plans could go awry at the worst possible time, sometimes for the most inane or innocuous reasons. In war as in so many other highly risky endeavors, we seldom achieve our ends with perfect precision, and there are many random and non-random factors that can throw us off our game.

The French experience in the Great War colored the after war lessons learned and planning for the next war during the 1930s. Just like the British and Commonwealth forces, the Americans, Russians, and Germans, the French drew many valuable lessons about tactics, technology, strategy, planning, and logistics during the war. Just like the others, they also experimented a lot, until they found methods and formulas that got results. But the lesson the French seemed to learn above all others was “never again.” After all, the Great War was called the “War to End All Wars.” For four long years, most of northern France—the country’s industrial heart—was amputated and under harsh German occupation. The French high command was determined that they would never again fight a war on French soil, and allow its occupation by a foreign power. The crucial lesson of the Great War was therefore the absolute necessity to fight the war outside France, and the best place to do that was in the Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and tiny Luxembourg. Mostly flat and open, the terrain to the north of France would allow the wide, sweeping maneuvering, and mechanized battles that had not transpired in the First World War in France between late 1914 and mid-1918, between the initial German Schlieffen plan, a wide flanking maneuver meant to encircle the main French forces between the eastern border with Germany and Paris. That it had failed was testimony to French resolve in 1914 and the “heroes of the Marne.” By mid-1918, everyone was exhausted, materially and psychologically, except the Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders. British and Commonwealth forces were using tanks and other mechanized forces in greater numbers, and a war of position and attrition suddenly turned mobile again.

It was this traumatic experience that underlay France’s resolve to defend itself by forcing a future fight with Germany as far north as possible, even into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. So when the country invested in the massive and technologically wondrous Maginot Line, the idea wasn’t to cower passively behind it to absorb the Germany assault. It was rather an attempt to pin down German forces on the French-German border, while maneuvering further north with the bulk of the French Army’s elite mechanized divisions. The German army’s assault in May 1940 was a masterful combination of maneuver and subterfuge. The Germans knew they couldn’t possibly get through the Maginot Line. They also knew that simply replaying the Schlieffen Plan from 1914, which had already failed once, wouldn’t work.

They war gamed their options and came up with a novel solution. Send a significant armored force into the Netherlands and Belgium to create the impression that they were replaying the Schlieffen Plan, while sending token forces against the Maginot Line. The bulk of the German Army’s elite Panzer divisions meanwhile threaded their way through the Ardennes Forest in southwestern Belgium. The French High Command had estimated that such a maneuver was possible, but highly unlikely. French air force reconnaissance reported on the movements, but the French high command continued to evaluate the Ardennes thrust as a fake and the thrust through the Low Countries as the real deal. They quickly learned that it was the exact opposite. The Germans played on the French unwillingness to fight on French soil. They drew them north by playing to French expectations about the Germans’ intentions. Nazi Germany was a monstrous regime, but there is no denying that the Germany campaign to conquer the Low Countries and France in 1940 is one of the most creative and daring military maneuvers in history.

So, who learned the most from the experiences of the Great War? Can either side, France and its allies, or Germany, be said to have prepared exclusively for the last war? The situation is complex to the point that facile comparisons and pithy bromides can’t fully encapsulate the real lessons for both sides. Germany and France learned and adapted subsequent to the Great War, but they learned different things, in a different way. The difference wasn’t so much in tactics, operational art, and logistics, although these were factors. The real insight is that France and Germany had different mindsets when it came to readiness. The French were ready for a set-piece battle, orchestrated at the highest levels, and with little opportunity to reorganize on the fly when faced with a radically different battlefield situation than had been anticipated. There was little robustness or flexibility to adapt in a timely manner to German moves. When they realized what had happened and what was continuing to happen, the French high command and government became totally demoralized. Could they have continued fighting? Possibly. But they lost in their minds more than on the battlefields of northern France and the Low Countries. They were materially ready, but not psychologically or morally ready.

Conversely, the Germans had so much to lose going into the campaign that they had no choice but to be bold and take massive risks. That the risks paid off is a testament to the flexibility, resolve, and initiative of German leaders and commanders at all levels. The French military was larger, better equipped, had more and better tanks, guns, and aircraft. What the Germans lacked in materiel, they more than made up for in superior training, initiative, and resolve. They weren’t as ready as France materially, but psychologically, they were more than ready. That is what differentiated the two countries’ armed forces and, more importantly, high commands.

I admit it. I’m a history buff. Whether it’s reading about the Second World War, Renaissance Italy, the Roman Empire, or ancient Mesopotamia, I always find something of value in studying history.

I’m not talking about the so-called “lessons of history.” It’s more about gaining a general sense of perspective on current events by understanding three key things. First, human nature hasn’t changed that much in 2,500 (or perhaps even 5,000) years, with the consequence that events tend to reoccur in similar ways over time. I think it was Churchill who said, “History never repeats, but it does rhyme.”

Second, humans are pretty much the same everywhere. Yes, there are cultural differences. But we’re all basically the same. I’ve also observed this through my work and travels in many varied countries and cultures around the world.

The third point is that our current reality is contingent upon past events. Our world today didn’t just pop into existence the day before yesterday. You can’t understand the recent election of Justin Trudeau, for instance, without knowing that his father was prime minister from 1968 to 1984. Would he have been elected to head the Liberal party and now prime minister without that heritage? That’s not a criticism, but it is a legitimate observation and question.

By the same token, people complain a lot about how politics has supposedly degenerated in recent decades. We hear and read all the time that things used to be so much more civil. Really? Anyone with a passing knowledge of even the recent past will know that is not the case. Until the 1970s, bars and taverns were closed on election day because of the problems that were caused by round buying and brawling. A century ago, Protestants and Catholics fought street battles on Orange Day. Not just in Northern Ireland. In Canada. Go back a little further and see the level of invective during the presidential election before the US Civil War. If we go all the way back to the Roman Empire, only about 5 or 10 % of the emperors died peacably in their beds. Most of them were hacked to death.

In many ways, we live in peacable times, at least in civilized countries. But in many areas of the world, past history of the West is still playing out in political and civil violence. Maybe we’re fortunate, but I also like to think we’re reaping the benefits of past lessons and mistakes and our continuing upholding of civilized values and culture.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Brilliant Manoeuvre

Sometimes you need to withdraw in order to come back stronger and fight another day.

One of the things I learned in the military and from my study of history is that you sometimes have to withdraw from a position of weakness where you can’t win in order to come back stronger with a better chance of dominating the field of battle. The Roman legions were expert at doing this, as were the British during the building of their empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. In business we sometimes insist on throwing good money after bad in a losing situation. It’s okay to be persistent, but when you’ve been trying for years to, say, break into a market without much success and it’s burning up huge amounts of capital, it may be time to withdraw in order to fight another day on another battlefield, with different weapons and from a position of strength.

Food for Thought

  • Have you been failing repeatedly with a new product or market despite sustained effort and huge investment in resources? What would be the effect of withdrawing from this approach?
  • Are you maintaining products or staying in markets because of pigheadedness, or because you can truly win with them?
  • Do you have raging successes that you have ignored because they didn’t fit your ideas of the business or strategy? What about more obscure successes within your business?
  • What would it take to elevate these unexpected successes to replace the repeated failures? Can you transfer resources from the latter to the former?
  • Do you have a systematic approach to experimenting with new products, markets, processes, and business models? Are you open to change or do you stick to your approaches in the face of contrary evidence?


Join me for my first ever monthly teleconference series on Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles . I will be introducing new content and techniques to complement those in the book. The series starts on Friday 20 September 2013 with a monthly call on the 3rd Friday of every month until June 2014. The cost is $100.00 if you register before 14 September 2013. There will be a MP3 download within 48 hours of each call so you can (re)listen at your own leisure.

Register now!

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

Michael Beschloss wrote a book about the immediate post-WWII period called The Conquerors. There was a struggle between the forces of vengeance and the forces of enlightened self interest. There was no lack of government officials in the Allied camp who were more interested in punishing the Axis countries than in reconciliation and setting the conditions for democracy and wealth. Churchill thought the Nazi leadership should be summarily executed. Hans Morgenthau wanted to return Germany and Japan to agrarianism. Roosevelt’s leadership, and then Truman’s, was key in ensuring hasty reconstruction and a return to normalcy (which was quick given the circumstances).

To contrast with the Marshall Plan, the Soviets set up socialist workers paradises in all of the countries they liberated, and then proceeded to loot them, East Germany being the worst case. Amongst other things, they moved hundreds of factories lock, stock and barrel to Russia. The US and the other Western allies disarmed quickly and only left token occupation forces in West Germany. The Soviets kept millions of troops in Eastern Europe. They did the same in Korea north of the 38th parallel.

Which has been more successful in the long run?

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes authorized with proper attribution.

I’ve been reading Team of Rivals, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln’s political genius and his outstanding leadership. It is also about a whole period and the lives of his main political rivals.

One of the things I find most striking is the amount of adversity, hardship, sorrow and disappointment that men and women of this era had to endure. Even the wealthiest had to contend with the premature death of loved ones, illness, disease, and separation. Others who were not as well off, such as Lincoln himself, had to contend with physical and material hardship that we can scarcely imagine today. Poverty and financial ruin were always close, as was physical violence.

Despite that they led productive lives, got over disappointments and depression (economic and personal), educated themselves, and developed enormously fruitful relationships with political allies, friends, and their wives, who were their consciences and primary moral supports.

Through all of this, we have the riveting portrait of Abraham Lincoln, one of most exemplary leaders in history. He led the United States during its most harrowing period and maintained a principled stance against the spread of slavery and in favour of the integrity of the Union.

What set Lincoln apart was the peculiar combination of characteristics and habits that made him a highly effective leader, a great statesman, and a superb commander-in-chief. A review of some these is highly instructive.

  1. He was widely viewed as a poorly educated country bumpkin with uncouth manners, supposedly ill at ease in cultivated circles. This led to him to be consistently underestimated by his opponents, but he used that to his advantage as a means of relating to “common folk” and to disarm his rivals.
  2. He was ambitious and eager for the attention and respect of his fellow men. His desire for self-improvement and self-learning led him to read extensively, to argue and debate on all points with anyone who would engage him, and to develop his memory and skills of logic and reasoning.
  3. He developed an outstanding ability to communicate with people of all types, whether in public addresses to thousands, or to individuals in private conversation. In doing so, he was particularly apt at using powerful metaphors and stories, both of which conveyed his beliefs and sometimes-lofty concepts in a form that was unassuming yet highly effective.
  4. He was incredibly persistent in the face of continued setbacks. The highest federal office he occupied prior to the presidency was Congressman, and that only for one mandate. He lost every single senate race he attempted, sometimes having to endure last minute defeat due to supporters who turned on him.
  5. His nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860 was the result of meticulous planning and his ability to collect on favours and relationships built up over 25 years in politics. Lincoln rarely let anything to chance and consistently refused to credit biased information from his allies and supporters. This gave him a realistic portrait of his chances, which in turn impelled him to create a highly effective political machine, in many ways foreshadowing the sophisticated electoral practices of later decades.
  6. Whether by disposition or design, Lincoln seemed unable to harbour resentments against political rivals and enemies. This allowed him to “keep his friends close, and his enemies even closer.” He was therefore able to turn these rivalries to his advantage on numerous occasions through his magnanimity and capacity for forgiveness.
  7. He deliberately created his presidential cabinet from men who he knew would debate him on many points and who would provide a counterpoint and counterweight, both to each other and to him. Thus he continued a life-long habit of seeking advice from unfavourable quarters while treating the advice received from loyal supporters with a grain of salt.
  8. He always accepted the blame for the mistakes of those around him, including the members of his own cabinet. This disarmed most conflicts before they could fester and undermine his ability to govern.

Lincoln was not the angel that he was portrayed to be in subsequent hagiography. He believed in the superiority of the white man and wished for some form of segregation between blacks and whites. But he also believed that slavery should be held to where it existed, in the hope that it would eventually disappear, probably out of economic necessity due to the need for “free labor,” and a gradual realization in the southern slave states that the practice was unconscionable in a modern country that upheld liberty for all and the pursuit of happiness.

Studying Lincoln’ leadership and his era is a highly instructive pursuit. Team of Rivalsprovides unparalleled insight that contributes to this end.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

I was having a conversation a few days ago with a new acquaintance. When I told him that I had done graduate studies in military history, he asked me what I had learned from this and what this may mean to me as a consultant.

I thought for a moment about this and answered that my study of military history had taught me to look at the decisions of military commanders from their vantage point, with the limited perspective they had at the time and in the place they had to make their decisions. In other words, I told him that I thought that too much military history is written as if the generals and other decision makers had perfect information at the time of their decisions and that their so called “errors” were either due to incompetence, hubris, or a combination of both.

Military commanders try to see through the “fog of war” when they have to make decisions about strategy, operations, and tactics. Should they attack or defend? If they do decide to attack, where should they do so? How should they deploy their troops and resources? How many forces should they keep in reserve? What should they do if their forces run up against the main enemy defences, instead of finding a hole in them?

These questions show some of the complexities inherent in military decision-making. The consequences of error can be catastrophic, not just for the soldiers involved, but also for the success of the mission and even the survival of a country.

Few decisions in business and management have this kind of impact or importance. Nonetheless, business and other organizational leaders are constantly faced with decisions that can have a major impact on real people. A seemingly abstract decision about closing a plant can leave employees without a livelihood, or can lead to other forms of dislocation, such as relocation and retraining. A decision on where to invest in a new facility can create jobs and can also have a long-term impact on revenue and profitability.

We only have to look at the current carnage in the automotive sector to realize the path dependency of the present situation on previous decisions. It would be easy to criticize current management at Ford, GM and Chrysler for failing to invest earlier in fuel-efficient designs and production. However, the current model mix is the result of past market demand. Even Japanese and European automakers have SUVs and pickup trucks in their product mixes. Moreover, the fact that the latter have a ready supply of smaller, more fuel-efficient models is a by-product of a longstanding tradition of high oil prices in their own domestic markets. One could argue that it is blind chance.

So, in a way, the senior management of carmakers are living with decisions made, in some cases, decades ago. Some of these are also dependent on cultural, political, and other economic factors. Business leaders are merely reflecting the social realities of the markets they hail from or are operating in. The decisions today on what to do and how to adapt to change are no easier than those faced by military commanders. It may not be war, but the impacts are real and potentially devastating.

The study of military history, particularly of decision-making in the midst of battle, can provide much perspective to anyone wanting to understand the pressures and stresses that any leader faces “in the heat of battle.” Moreover, the same philosophy of study can be applied to business decision-making.

This means looking beyond the journalistic and political blame game that occurs whenever the economy turns sour and the going gets tough. This is readily apparent in the U.S., with a renewed focus on economic and financial moralizing, and an attempt to pin the blame for the current economic woes on a few bad apples, whether they are corporate scoundrels or “speculators.”

A much better approach for someone trying to actually learn something useful in all of this – in other words, someone trying to gain wisdom – would be to study the reasons for the past decisions. What information was available to the leadership when they had to make the decision? How was it analyzed and assessed? What factors were considered and how were they weighted? Even more important, what risks were envisaged and how bold was the leadership prepared to be?

This may not make for fascinating copy, but it would help aspiring business leaders and executives to better understand the organic nature of business decision-making, its complexity, and the concrete impacts this can have on real people, both inside and outside an organization.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.