World War I’s Crucial Lesson for Today’s Leaders

By Sir Robert Fry

A great power looks on anxiously as two overseas rivals square off to resolve ancient hostilities and new frictions. One of the rivals has aspirations of supreme economic dominance and has embarked on an ambitious naval building program. The great power is hesitant to act, as two recent military engagements have illustrated the limitations of its power. Evidence of decline can be seen in all dimensions of national life, and a reordering of world affairs looks possible.

This description could equally fit Edwardian Britain on the eve of World War I and America today. Exactly 100 years ago, on August 23, 1911, the form of British involvement in World War I was decided at the meeting of the Committee for Imperial Defence. The fact that an intervening century has replaced France and Germany with China and India seems an appropriate parable for our times.

In World War I the Allied strategy was to engage and defeat the center of gravity of the Central Powers, the German field army. This strategy was simple in conception but heartbreakingly difficult in execution, being based on flawed assumptions, an irreconcilable gap between strategic design and execution, and a comprehensive failure of management information systems. But by 1918 firepower had been integrated with protective cover and mobility, in the form of tanks and military aviation, and had been complemented by the use of radio to open the lines of communication and facilitate alignment from top to bottom and across units. This ultimately restored mobility to the battlefield and initiated the blitzkrieg form of warfare that would dominate the battlefields of the twentieth century.

Great story, but what does it have to do with American business leadership today? A lot, because the strategic models are strikingly similar. Rarely in warfare have the challenges of the battlefield looked so insoluble as in 1916 and ’17; rarely in business have the macroeconomic, fiscal, and technological characteristics of the marketplace looked so complex as in the post-2008 world. And the fundamental problem is the same: a failure of alignment, by which I mean of the elusive ability to link strategic intent at the top of an organization to tactical performance at the bottom, via an unbroken internal narrative.

In business terms, this means a chief executive must not only have the intellectual clarity to define his vision but also be willing to give leadership away to those around and beneath him. Only by mandating, and explicitly trusting, successive levels of management to execute according to his strategic design can he release the full potential of his organization.

Today’s CEO must:

—Foster an environment of highly effective internal communication skills,

—Encourage the improvement of procedures to the point of praising a failed initiative even when the status quo is “good enough,”

—Cultivate a like-minded culture of innovative experimentation and collaboration, and, above all,

—Have the personal and institutional confidence to lead by communicating the mission and then letting go.

The alternative—C-suite jealously holding fast to the levers of execution at the top—looks like the worst example of 1916 chateau generalship. It will end the same way.

When you look at the parallel between the breaking of armies in 1917 and the corporate challenges of the twenty-first century, you see that the battlefield and the marketplace are comparable scenes of adversarial competition, and the path we must take to achieve success is simply timeless.

Sir Robert Fry is executive chairman of McKinney Rogers, a global consultancy. In a previous military career he held posts that included commandant general of the Royal Marines and deputy commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq. His postgraduate thesis at King’s College, London, was written on British war planning, 1906-14. He holds the U.S. Legion of Merit.