The IDG Blog

Learning from Failure: Five Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Arnhem

Recently I was lucky enough to be enabled by the Board of IDG to go on a “Staff Ride” to the battlefield of Arnhem in Holland, to study Operation Market Garden. Scene of one of the Allied’s biggest defeats of World War 2, the Staff Ride is different to a battlefield tour, inasmuch as it is an opportunity to learn strategic and tactical lessons rather than it simply being of historical interest.

Launched in September 1944, Operation Market Garden was an attempt to land behind the German lines and seize several tactically important bridges, including one at Arnhem, with the intention of outflanking the German forces. Sixteen thousand Allied paratroopers were parachuted in, expecting little resistance, but instead were met by strong German armour. Beset by operational and logistical difficulties, the landing zone eight miles from the target proved to be too far away and the battle was lost.

It is not until you physically walk the ground that you can fully envisage the challenges, the ‘frictions’ as they were called, facing the commanders at the time. For me, several leadership lessons emerged that are just as relevant today as they were in 1944:

1. Timely Decision-Making. The importance of personal relations, and the importance of timely decision-making. There were several instances where, had commanders gone in earlier, they may well have had a different and better result.

2. Where are you best placed to influence? It was fascinating to consider the actual position of commanders on the ground. The experienced commanders frequently realised they needed to be physically visible in order to motivate and inspire their troops. Indeed, in many instances it was their example alone that enabled momentum to be maintained.

3. Mission Command. The concept that goes contrary to many peoples’ perceptions of military leadership, was reiterated: that if team members are aware of what is going on one, two, or even more levels above them then they are well-placed to take the initiative and make decisions based on a broader strategic understanding of the aim.

4. Ask for forgiveness not permission. IDG’s mantra was exemplified many times – more often by the Germans, to the extent that a great deal of study was carried out post-war to develop British Military Doctrine or “the way we do things around here”. This is reflected in some of the work we have done with large organisations, helping to codify their “Leadership Expectations”, i.e. what are the behaviours that are expected of a leader within the organisation? Many organisations have Competency Frameworks – and leadership is indeed more mercurial and intangible than technical competence – but clear and commonly-known standards enable performance management at all levels.

5. Maintenance of Morale. What also became apparent was that morale, translated into fighting spirit, remained high right through till the end. The highest strategic aim of Operation Market Garden was quite simply to launch a strike that would quickly enable Allied Forced to be on the German mainland, and thus shorten the war. So the soldiers who fought could see an immediate and hugely worthwhile vision of why they were there; they had confidence in the plan, in their leaders, and a tremendous Esprit de Corps.

Lance Gerrard-Wright in front of the John Frost Bridge in Arnhem, named after Major-General John Dutton Frost, who commanded the British forces

Lance Gerrard-Wright in front of the John Frost Bridge in Arnhem, named after Major-General John Dutton Frost, who commanded the British forces

This meant that they were prepared to suffer terrible privations and overwhelming odds and yet maintain that fighting spirit. Vignettes and anecdotes abound of the “ribaldry and tomfoolery” (General Urquhart’s description) of the officers and soldiers. Major Digby Tatham-Warner famously carried an umbrella throughout (on being told, “That won’t do any good!” he replied, “But what if it rains??”) and Freddie Gough was described as “grinning like a wicked uncle” whilst firing twin mounted machine guns.

Ultimately of course the operation was a disaster: the Relief Force failed to get through and out of some 12,000 troops, only some 3,000 managed to escape.

However, although the black and white photographs and footage of the time – cheery, wiry men with bad teeth, wearing their berets on the backs of their heads – seem distant and of another time, we can learn and benefit from their bitter experience.

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