Lions Led by Donkeys

By | November 10, 2018

[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.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Lions Led by Donkeys

  1. Willie Shrumburger

    Wow, nicely written and researched. I’m glad you quoted Chabrias because he is one of the major figures from ancient time that actually showed great leadership. The Spartans were fierce warriors yet Athenian Chabrias was able to defeat them.

  2. Greg Heyman

    There are a number of books out on WW1 and many of them are worth the purchase; especially those published in the last 10 years or so. It should however, entice us to read histories of that war written long ago because they were “closer” to the war in that they were able to interview participants.

    1. Tracey Brockman

      Spot on comment. I’ve read a few and, yes, they are getting better in my opinion.

  3. Andrew Dooley

    Now that we are at the anniversary of WWI it is time for us to review the lessons from that war. Leadership matters more than many people would suggest. The dynamics of leadership in war differs only slightly from leadership in a large complex company that produces widgets for consumption. I would suggest that we all learn more about this war (and others, of course) to strengthen our knowledge about people and what motivates us.

  4. Dennis Mathes

    Please keep bringing us good articles like this one today. Smiley face !!! HaHa.

  5. Janna Faulkner

    An older but informative book of the war that addresses this very idea is “British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One” by John Laffin (Sutton, 1988). I read it several years ago after stumbling across it at a book sale in my local library. Great book in my opinion and sad also in many ways. The idea that a general should not go where his men go is a problem that has haunted wars since they became an organized affair.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Excellent book. I read it just last year and found it extremely informative.

  6. Mike Baker

    All thumbs up on this article. Very appropriate that you are on this subject when tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of World War One.

    1. Scotty Bush

      I think you will find most of us think the same way that this is a great website.

  7. Bryan Lee

    This morning I got up, made coffee, brushed my teeth and sat down with my trusty companion dog (her name is Little Bit because she is so little) and read your article. Well said and spot on.

  8. Albert Ayer

    Yes, I think the phrase originated because of this battle in the Somme. “Marked by Teachers” is a good website that goes into a little detail and supports your point.

  9. Mr. T.J. Asper

    Hey thanks for another great article. This one is especially worthwhile on the day before Veterans Day (in the US).

  10. Drew Dill

    Great quote. I’d never heard it before but now that I read it, there is no surprise and I understood what it meant instantly. Either I’m learning more about leadership or something else is happening in my coffee-soaked brain.

  11. Army Captain

    Right on target with this blog today. Thanks Gen. Satterfield.

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