Sunday, September 2, 2012

Inspiration from General Slim

Slim’s Story

“Anyone can be great in victory: it takes defeat to test character to the full.”

Slim held the ragtag Burma Corps together in 1942 for 800 miles of constant fighting and almost constant defeat. He was driven northward losing soldiers to death and disease all the time. After 3 months and 13,000 casualties the battered remnants of Burma Corps reached India, to reorganise, regain strength, to train harder and to recover the will to fight. The Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Kohima and the 14th Army swept south to retake Burma.

Slim on Leadership

Slim’s story sets the scene for the foundations for the fight-back. He focussed on Morale, that quality which will move a group of people to give their last ounce to achieve something. It has, he suggested, three foundations:

- Spiritual: there must be a great and noble aim in which the team believes
- Intellectual: all must be convinced that the aim is attainable and that the leaders have earned the confidence of the team
- Material: the team must have the tools for the job

Impact on me

I have never been in a situation as testing as those that Slim experienced. But the foundations above have informed my own punier attempts at leadership. For me, three things were vital to get right: the Aim, the right Skill Mix and the Commitment to Communicate.

Meeting the Aim

Everything should flow from the Aim. It will need questioning and testing. At the end, you as leader must own it and all your people must be confident that they can achieve it.

Getting my own aim right became important when I was asked to form a new military communications unit with 200 men and a hangar full of vehicles and radio equipment. The aim was to be an effective unit..

I told the team on 2 January that we would take our first trip into the field as a fully equipped and trained unit on 1 February. The team was horrified, said it would be a mess and indeed it was just that. But we learnt from that and exercised for a week each month for 6 months until we were good. We could do that because at the start we saw what we had to achieve.

Getting the Skills Mix right

When I ran a newly formed unit, I chose my top team. I made a great mistake by choosing people like me, with the same weaknesses. So ideas that should have been questioned at the top went unquestioned until they hit irritated people on the ground.

The leader must choose people who will challenge and test initiatives.

Committing to Communicate

I joined up two teams of several thousand military and civil servants in MOD. The amalgamated team was then halved. The civil service suspected that I would favour “my” military.

So we focused on communication: a top team meticulously balanced between military and civil and constant feedback to all on what was happening.

Anonymous by request

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