A lesson for managers from the Normandy Landings and D-Day

Most of us, thankfully, don’t have to deal with life and death situations in our day job – situations where pre-planning and strategy are as important as being able to think on your feet. Where good leadership can mean the difference between living or dying.

That’s exactly the situation our military leaders are in, and so it comes as no surprise that good business managers can learn a lot from their military counterparts.

Seventy-five years ago the western allies launched one of the most audacious and complex military operations in history – the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The landings and subsequent break-out set the conditions for the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany, including the liberation of the Channel Islands. The lessons from the operation still resonate and a group of business leaders in Jersey, were able to hear a unique perspective on how our military past can help shape our business future.

Leadership consultancy Amicus, led by General Sir Peter Wall, the former head of the British Army, and Jennifer Carnegie brought one of Britain’s pre-eminent military historians, Major General (retired) Mungo Melvin to the Island. The Major General is a published author and acknowledged expert on the Normandy campaign.

Despite 75 years passing and the character of war changing, the Major General said the lessons were still relevant because the nature of human beings did not change. ‘The battlefield represents the most testing and harshest environment for everybody, and particularly for the leaders and decision makers, because mistakes are not only bad for everybody concerned, they are ultimately fatal. Looking at the decisions made in that environment tells you a lot about the qualities required, the enduring human qualities of the individual, the commander and the decision-making process, and the planning involved.

‘A lot of that is directly relevant to military people today, and also to business, building the team making the decisions, doing the planning, then reacting to the unexpected when your plan doesn’t work. Having the understanding of where to cut your losses when things are not going well, where to invest further to reinforce success, or how to exploit it. Those are decisions that higher managers have to make as well, and those lessons can be brought out through the model and example of Normandy.’

Amicus and the Major General take teams to Normandy for experiential learning on the battlefields and he thinks it is particularly relevant for team building.

‘I think, above all, Normandy is a very good school for bringing together the command and leadership but also the teamwork of the Allied forces, Americans, Canadians, French and Polish, and how they worked and interacted most of the time very well together, but actually when they didn’t, to understand why.

‘If you’re a multinational business, or a business that has lots of multinational connections, understanding how nations work together and looking at national characteristics are still relevant.’

Mulberry Harbours, the temporary portable harbours developed by the British during the war, were critical to the success of the D-Day landings. Technology and innovation during wartime, born out of the pressures of war, show the importance of both planning and investing and the skillset that comes with that, and the vision required.

Of course, you can also learn from others’ mistakes as much as what they do right. The Major General said that the Germans made mistakes, most particularly on the leadership front; Hitler ignored advice from his generals on the ground and it had a big consequence for his men and the war.

Having said that, he told the group of invited business people, the Allies also failed to exploit all those mistakes. ‘The school of negative leadership – you can take some examples where people have prolonged offensives, long after they should have, wasting vast numbers of lives because they didn’t cut their losses and realise they were reinforcing failure.

‘In the business world you don’t have people trying to kill you, but ultimately you can go insolvent if you get the big decisions wrong, underestimate your competition, underestimate what the future market looks like.

‘Fail to make the appropriate investments, then your success one year can very quickly turn into a failure.’

The Normandy battlefields are on Jersey’s doorstep and could be an excellent outdoor classroom for management and team-building, a way to get office-bound people to think in a different way.

‘A relatively short exposure to some of the decisions and to some of the events that happened there can provoke some very useful introspection about how our businesses could perform better, how we could invest more in our people, how we can invest more in longer-term planning,’ said the Major General.

He added that looking at what happened it was clear that you needed a mix of long-term planners as well as those who could see context and react to live situations. Having the right person in the right place makes all the difference. If you invest in your people, then they will reward you when you need it.

‘The more diverse you are as a team, and I mean that in the wider sense, in both the background and in gender, then you get better decisions, and I’ve found that in both military and civilian environments. Diverse teams generally bring you better decisions, particularly if you are encouraged to constructively challenge perceived wisdom.’

Learning from history really can be effective and provide a refreshing and interesting new perspective for business leaders and their teams.

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