Blog — Leadership Commentary

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

Lance Gerrard-Wright
Lance Gerrard-Wright
Director of UK
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
Lance Gerrard-Wright
Director of UK
Contact The Author

Related articles

The 5 Key Elements of Workplace Wellness

7 mins

blog, management-skills

The 5 Key Elements of Workplace Wellness

What do you picture when you think of the individual words in turn? Where is the ‘workplace’ going to be for many… and what do we mean by ‘wellness’ – or it’s alter ego ‘wellbeing’? And will it be different again before too long? Let’s consider it for a moment.

Read More
The New Leaders: why greater trust means leaders must change their mindset

3 mins

blog, leadership-development

The New Leaders: why greater trust means leaders must change their mindset

Post-panedemic, trust is more important now - and prevalent - than ever. And that means leaders must re-evaluate their skillset...

Read More
The Heart of Performance: Why Relationships Are Key to Leading in a Crisis

5 mins

blog, covid-19-crisis, leadership-development

The Heart of Performance: Why Relationships Are Key to Leading in a Crisis

Some may view the subject as toughy-feely or just a HR term, but Relationships are crucial to effectiveness and performance - and particualrly now in our post-pandemic world.

Read More
  • IDG UK

    Royal Berkshire Hotel
    London Road
    SL5 0PP
    +44 (0) 207 798 2848

  • IDG India

    Tower 2, Montreal Business Center
    Baner Road
    +91 955 271 5800

  • IDG Oman

    PO Box 1982, P.C. 111
    Maktabi 1 Building,
    Al Khuwair
    The Sultanate of Oman
    +968 2439 1942

  • IDG UAE, KSA, Bahrain, Kuwait & Iraq

    5th Floor
    One JLT
    +971 56896 4262
    +971 50550 8482

  • IDG South Africa

    Teneo House
    Central Park
    Esplanade Road
    Century City,
    Cape Town, ZA
    +27 (0) 21 492 7300

Get in touch

There are many ways to contact us. Select an option below to get started.