Hands-on Leadership

In the latter part of the 18th Century, a stranger was riding his horse close to a battlefield when he paused to observe a group of exhausted battle-weary soldiers digging a trench in what appeared to be an important defensive position. The leader of the section, though making no effort to help was shouting orders and threatening punishment if the trench was not completed within the hour.

The stranger rode towards the group: ‘Why are you are not helping?’ he enquired of the unit leader.

The soldier gazed at the stranger dressed in civilian clothes with a contemptuous look: ‘I do not have to because I am in charge. These men do as I tell them, but if you feel so strongly about it you are welcome to help them yourself.’

To the unit leader's surprise the stranger dismounted, removed his coat and helped the men until the trench was finished.

Before leaving the stranger congratulated all the men for their work, and approached the bemused unit leader.

‘The next time your rank prevents you from supporting your own men you should notify top command - and I will provide a more permanent solution,’ said the stranger.

The unit leader now seeing the stranger’s face properly for the first time knew that his perception of the stranger dressed in civilian clothes had been entirely wrong. Before him stood General George Washington, and with shocked realization felt the full impact of the lesson he'd just been taught.

In the early part of the 20th Century, in the spring of 1915 the trench warfare of WWI had sunk into stalemate. Enemy troops stared at each other from a line of opposing trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Neither opponent could outflank its enemy resulting in costly and unproductive direct attacks on well-fortified defenses. The war of movement that both sides had predicted at the beginning of the conflict had devolved into deadly stagnation.

Allied leaders sought to find a way around the impasse. It was believed that a successful attack through The Dardenelles Strait leading from the Mediterranean to Istanbul could open a sea-lane to the Russians through the Black Sea and provide a base for attacking the Central Powers through what Churchill described as the soft underbelly of Europe, and divert enemy attention from the Western Front.

The Campaign was a fiasco, poorly planned and badly executed. Following an unsuccessful naval attempt to force a passage up the Dardenelles, the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula soon resembled the battleground of the Western Front - both sides peering at each other from fortified trenches, with over 50% casualties from the futile frontal attacks on well defended positions.

Though always critical of the campaign Winston Churchill as The First Lord of the Admiralty took responsibility of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and resigned. Distraught at the loss of so many and determined to regain his tarnished reputation Churchill made use of his military education and went to fight as a battalion commander in the trenches on the Western Front for over a year.

Correspondence with his wife shows that his intent in taking up active service was to rehabilitate his reputation, but this was balanced by the serious risk of being killed. Though strongly disapproving of the mass slaughter involved in many western front actions, he continued to exhibit the strength of character of doing whatever-must-be-done, whenever-it must-be-done that had been a hallmark of all his military actions.

Recorded accounts indicate that Churchill was very hands-on, personally courageous, unconventional, sociable, nothing was too much trouble for the former cabinet Minister - he trained his men thoroughly... and made it fun, or as much fun as possible and his men loved and admired him.

Both Washington and Churchill lived by the same values, though in different centuries. Both were active soldiers in war and great leaders during challenging times. Both did whatever was required as a leader. Both were prepared to get down into the trenches and to undertake what they commanded others to do.

Should not their leadership skill be better employed in more influential campaigns where they can make a bigger difference? The answer is yes and they did.

The time expended by Washington in helping that group digging trenches was well spent as a leader – as leading by example is what a leader should be doing, and the greater the reputation the greater the influence. And, very often, only one time in the metaphorical trenches is all that is required, in which case time and energy are well invested.

It was amongst the mud and death that Churchill regained his reputation. When his regiment amalgamated with another and he was no longer needed, as the equivalent officer from the other regiment was senior to him, this gave Churchill the opportunity to return into politics - having decided that he would now have more influence from London than from within the trenches. Before the trenches, he had poor reputation, low creditbility and little influence.

Business is about fortifying our most strategic positions. This means being involved in the building of our foundations – our metaphorical trenches. It does not mean staying in them, for that would mean staying in a rut.

Rather it means following the example of Washington or Churchill in the building of our foundations, by investing our time, energy and resources the most effectively whenever it matters.

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