It is no coincidence that this blog takes a lot of its examples of good practice in leadership and strategy from military history. Modern management theory is a direct descendant of military strategy, and several early management theorists had a military background. They simply applied the principles they learned in the army to business:
“Maintain your objective but be flexible in the means you use to attain it;”
“Select your subordinates carefully but then trust them to do their jobs as they see fit without interfering with them;”
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy [or the marketplace];” and
“Keep your organisation intact but flexible.”
It might be a surprise to some to learn that the best known exponent of these, and many other maxims which are often quoted in board rooms, was a 19th Century Prussian Field Marshal, Count von Moltke.
It is particularly interesting to note the emphasis von Moltke places on flexibility. After all, the stereotypical Prussian is supposed to be stiff and unbending, doing everything “by the book”, like the character played by the great Gert Frobe in the film Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.
In fact nothing could be further from the truth than that stereotype. The German military tradition, more than any other, always emphasised flexibility, a constant refrain in the writings of the likes of von Manstein, Rommel, and Guderian. It is, for example, hard to imagine a British or American Lieutenant in the First World War being given the freedom of action enjoyed by the young Erwin Rommel when he held that rank. This led to phenomenal success against the odds. Although the German Army was hamstrung by incompetent political leadership in both World Wars, its accomplishments in the field are in many ways far more impressive than those of the eventual victors. Happily for humanity, Hitler, thinking he knew better than von Moltke, interfered constantly with his subordinates, undermined their flexibility and initiative – and lost.
As we have said before, while a good man is not necessarily a good leader, a bad man is almost invariably a bad manager.