1917-2017: Leadership Lessons from the ‘Great War’

Recent growth in the ANZAC legend reached its peak with the 2015 centenary of the miscalculated Gallipoli landing of the First World War which claimed more than 11,000 members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. It was later said that, had the outstanding Australian General, Sir John Monash, commanded all the allied troops, the war would have been won earlier. Australian contributions to success in this ‘Great War’ are often undersold, but the 100th anniversary of three key battles reveals some important leadership insights.

1. Strategy needs foresight not hindsight.

Messines, in Belgium, had been held by German troops since 1914 and Monash’s famed meticulous planning was integral to the success and became a model for future conquests. The battle helped not only to promote Monash to greater leadership influence in the latter part of the war, but was critical to advancing the allied cause.

Any success needs us to be more thorough in our planning than we often believe we need to be. The problem is that we typically have to make our assessments without the benefit of hindsight. Leaders therefore need to see what others don’t see, to know their challenges well and to be great students of the situations they face and the people they lead. Leaders may well be informed by experience or intuition, but their ‘sixth sense’ still needs to be undergirded by hard work, rather than presumption.

Greatness is seldom the result of accidental success.

2. Courage is needed when rewards outweigh costs.

The 31st October this year will be the 500th anniversary of birth of Protestant Christianity but also the 100th anniversary of the conquest of Beersheba. The strategic town in the south of Palestine was the source of water for the surrounding region and had shored up the enemy defences that seemed impenetrable.

A surprise attack by the Light Horse Brigade stormed the Turkish stronghold with minimal loss of allied life. It reclaimed the vital water supplies and initiated a Turkish retreat. The sheer momentum of the Light Horse charge had so overwhelmed the enemy, that they were unable to adjust their gun sights during the lightning assault. The courageous attack turned to victory within an hour.

Leaders often have to assess costs versus rewards. Some problem battles are simply not worth the fight where the price is too high. On the other hand, good leaders know the right battles to fight because they assess the objectives. Decisiveness is a precious commodity too often in short supply for leaders whose equivocation can sap vital momentum. Once a leader knows what is right, though, they still need to courage to proceed.

Where the price of failure would be too high, the cost of courageous advance is surely not.

3. Adversity can’t diminish the need to pursue critical goals.

In late 1917, the village of Passchendaele was taken after months of fighting in Flanders. Many thousands of lives were lost in a battle which saw barely five miles of territory gained in as many months. This was largely because unprecedented rains created so much mud that some men even drowned in it.

The Germans could ill afford the losses compared with the Allies who had been bolstered by America’s entry into the war. Pressing on through adversity became reasonable, even necessary, because breaking through to the Belgian coast would stop the German submarines being able to continue sinking British supply ships, without which the war could have been lost. Some 38,000 Australians were sacrificed for this necessity.

Leaders are sometimes faced with inevitable setbacks that have them questioning whether pursuing their dreams is really worthwhile. It is all too easy to lose hope, even though faith is hope’s substance. The line between recklessness and responsibility is sometimes wafer thin.

The pursuit of great goals might be hindered, but must not be halted. What is begun in faith persists in that same faith.

In some ways, these lessons are all connected. Courageous pursuit of great objectives invests heavily, even when we feel we are embroiled in our own ‘great war’. Despite the costs and challenges, and no matter what the setbacks, good leaders keep their eye on the end goal. It is one they often see, and cast vision for, long before others catch up.

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