As I have said previously, one of the failings of the leaders on all sides during the First World War was their apparent failure to learn from their mistakes. Once both sides had established their positions in the trenches, the tactics hardly ever changed despite the stalemate. Winston Churchill commented at the time that there must be an alternative to “sending men to chew barbed wire.” Yet no such alternative seems to have been adopted until towards the end of the War when the use of tanks was introduced.
You might think this was the result of a lack of imagination on the part of those in charge, and to some extent you could be right. However, I learnt recently of another factor influencing their decisions, or arguably their lack of them. This was revealed by Field Martial Haigh in his memoirs. He explained that he would have considered trying different approaches if the Army had consisted of professional soldiers. Being aware that the vast majority of the men were volunteers, and later conscripts, with only a limited amount of basic training, Haigh, and apparently the other generals, did not trust them to carry out any more complicated tasks than those required for returning enemy fire from the trenches and occasionally attempting to advance in great numbers straight towards the enemy, through bomb-craters and over barbed wire, while being fired upon. Haigh wrote that he was afraid we could lose the War if he allowed the men to try anything more difficult, and it had gone wrong.
You might think that this lack of trust in the men was due to the snobbish attitude prevalent at the time among the upper classes, of which he was a member. Many of them seemed to think uneducated people were unintelligent. They also believed, with perhaps more justification, even if they may have been actually wrong, that people whose lives were spent doing what other people told them, would not develop the initiative needed to carry out difficult tasks unsupervised, and that on the battlefield, quick-thinking is essential if there is any chance of encountering the unexpected. It has to be said that the horrors experienced day after day at the Front probably did not contain anything unexpected after a short time.
You might however adjust your opinion, as I tell you that the Field Martial extended his lack of trust to the officers as well as other ranks. He believed that even these Eton-and-Oxbridge-educated sons of the aristocracy had such little knowledge or experience of military things that they were quite likely to make very poor decisions if they were given too much responsibility, with possibly catastrophic results.
Whether Haigh was right or wrong in his assessment of the men and the officers under his command, I certainly believe that trust is an essential element in battle. I pleased to tell you that I have come to this understanding at second-hand, but am convinced it is true. It is also true that we need trust if we are to work together effectively in many other areas of life, and it is worth asking yourself how much you trust the employees, partners or other colleagues in your business. Perhaps you are, like me, not of a naturally trusting nature. Perhaps you have had good reason to regret trusting people too much in the past. Perhaps you are reluctant to delegate. Do you believe that “if you want something doing right you have got to do it yourself”?
When I look back, or look around, I can think of too many examples of managers who did not or do not trust their subordinates. In many cases the remedy would be better training or mentoring, not to mention communication. Remember, we have to develop the managers of the future. In most businesses it should be possible to organise things so that one slip-up by an employee would not be catastrophic. An option not available to Field Martial Haigh.
If you really cannot trust the people around you – if you are sure the answer does not lie in training etc. – then perhaps you should think of changing something. Like your employees, or yourself.
Another famous general, Napoleon, said that every French soldier carried a Field Martial’s baton in his knapsack, and he won a lot of battles. Who will be your role-model?