[November 10, 2018] Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Today that war continues to provide valuable lessons for those who believe leadership can make a difference. Lions led by donkeys is a popular phrase used to describe the British Infantry during the war. It is said that valiant British troops (the “lions”) were led by incompetent and indifferent Generals (the “donkeys”); thus explaining the great loss of life on the frontlines.
“An army of deer commanded by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions commanded by a deer.” – attributed to Chabrias, Athenian general of the 4th century BC
This quote by Chabrias demonstrates the well-known, time-tested idea that leadership plays an outsized role in how any organization performs. Without great leadership, no group of people can ever play a prime role in accomplishing its mission. And while leadership is found in many forms, the basis of it is that leadership means motivating people to do things they would never do otherwise.
A good friend of mine in the U.S. Army took command of a “broken” battalion (approximately 700 soldiers). Several Army generals described the battalion as unfit to go to war, led by narcissistic officers who cared little about the men, poor morale, and had worn-out, rusty, and unusable equipment. The situation was intolerable. My friend took command after the commanding officer and command sergeant major were relieved of their duties.
It took my friend only a few weeks to fix the leadership and morale issues. He recognized the unit’s problem right away; a lack of discipline, sloppy paperwork, soldiers with attitude problems, etc. So he targeted these first. With the equipment problem he refused to request assistance from his higher headquarters. He wanted his men to do the work and pride was once again welcomed in the battalion.
Leadership matters and not just in war or in some emergency. If an organization is led by a “donkey,” the results will mean problems for all. Senior leader failures have been a common theme in this leadership blog and visualized through the failures of many generals during WWI. Many see those are pointed out by historians. Those organizations led by a “lion” will succeed far beyond what would ever be expected.