Leadership in Chaos

True leadership emerges when unusual or extreme BigRedOnecircumstances occur. Ordinary decisions become risky with outcomes threatening long term impact to the company. Delay or deliberation may result in the loss of opportunity to solve a crisis before it rushes out of control, creating organizational confusion and affecting the long term impact on company reputation.

The topic “Leadership in Chaos” came to mind while reading a book of the D-day invasion of Omaha beach, Normandy, France, by the First Infantry Division known as, the Big Red One. The invasion received a tremendous amount of planning and committed an unbelievable number­ of men to land on the beaches (Omaha was only one of 5 landing sites over a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coastline) and physical resources to transport them across the English channel to the shores of France.

Beach1Despite all of the detail planning and training: bad weather, poor visibility and heavy seas on the morning of June 6, 1944 resulted in delays getting to the beach on time, landing in unfavorable locations where enemy fire could be concentrated, and the loss of amphibious armor that were not designed to handle the heavy seas. Consequently, the first landings were made in the worst locations where US forces had to cross 400 yards of mined beach sand and between enemy shore installations that created a deadly cross fire. The early conditions were severe and raised serious questions about the ability of the men that survived the beach landing to overcome these conditions and get off the beach.

We now know the answer. US forces overcame losing significant numbers of men and were successful getting off the beach and eventually ending the war a year later. What were the compelling reasons and significant acts of leadership that turned this desperate situation around?

Training and Process
The Big Red One was victorious in campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. Despite their success, General Omar Bradley fired the well-liked and popular leadership of the division because of what he saw as a breakdown in soldier skills and discipline. He appointed, Major General Clarence Huebner, a non-West Point officer, who had served time as an enlisted man before becoming a commissioned officer and had a distinguished war record from WWI.

Attention to Detail
Huebner was a believer in the discipline, health and preparation of his troops for battle. Upon taking command, Huebner implemented a regimen of strict, by the book discipline. He maintained close order drill, physical training and regular inspections. He was aware that the infantry had become too dependent upon artillery. This conclusion was supported by an inventory of rifle ammunition that showed a surplus. He then discovered that over 2,000 men had never qualified with their rifles. Huebner, an excellent rifleman, then setup firing ranges and combat shooting courses and required riflemen to shoot expert (the highest rifle marksmanship qualification), or they could not serve as a rifleman.

It was not enough to just setup the rifle training. Huebner would personally observe men shooting and correct short comings in their shooting posture or technique. He would also ask their platoon leader what the man was doing wrong and if he did not know, then he asked the company commander to drop by. Huebner continued to ask the same question up the chain of command until he got the right answer. Consequently, officers in his command did not want to be embarrassed in front of their soldiers so they became very knowledgeable on how to coach shooting technique and shooting performance improved dramatically.

Colonel George Taylor landed about 2 hours after the first landing and saw a beachhead that was in total disarray. Once at the shoreline, he got the men to focus on getting off the beach. He used the following message to get the attention of the men, “It is better to die up on the bluffs than down here in the water.” He exposed himself by walking erect in the presence of constant shell fire. He continued to circulate among the men giving them encouragement, getting them organized into groups to break through barbed wire areas and attacking enemy positions. The men responded and began to control their fear and focus on what they had been trained to do.

Making the Call
Brigadier General Wyman landed shortly after Taylor and Beach2realized that if they were going to be successful more infantry was needed. The beach, however, was cluttered with vehicles that landed per plan but were destroyed and many of them burning. The plan assumed that by then there would be movement off of the beach. Wyman made the call and stopped further landings of things not needed and opened the beach to receive more infantry. The firing positions of the enemy had to be shut down if the invasion was to succeed, which would require more infantry to reinforce the troops that had landed earlier and provide a decisive push.

Business Application
The examples of leadership above were just a few of the many that occurred that day. There were many other acts of leadership, courage and valor documented that involved Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants and privates. They all shared the common traits of leadership – get the team focused on the most important task first, provide inspiration and encouragement, and establish and maintain organization of people, resources and identify next steps.

Business is “war” but hopefully not like that seen on D-Day morning. The example of General Huebner who focused on little things to ensure his troops were prepared and focused. He emphasized discipline and process. Battle skills were elevated to the highest levels to give the men confidence in conjunction with exhaustive cross training to prepare them to step into different roles as battle conditions necessitated.

Preparation and attention to detail are also important in business. Qualified employees are recruited and trained to perform at a high level. Cross training is provided to give your organization more versatility when business conditions or employee turnover require people to step into other roles in order to meet daily business objectives.

A leader is invaluable if they are able to read the conditions of a crisis and identify what needs to be done to focus the group toward goals, and bring the crisis under control. Not every “leader” is gifted with this ability, as it may require them to go against the flow and ask people to perform at a level where they have not been before. A leader in this type of situation will need the confidence of their convictions to guide the group through adverse conditions and lead to success.

Personal Experience
I recall one turnaround situation where a young contract administrator came to me after a difficult call with an important buyer over delinquent orders. He asked me if the company was making progress toward getting deliveries on schedule. He was constantly getting called by buyers wanting information on orders that were past due. However, when I asked him how delinquent his order list was today versus a week ago? He admitted the number of delinquent orders was better and that the list the prior week was better than the week before. He was able to recognize that the operations group was making progress and that they were on a path where orders would be current. He smiled and went back to his desk, answered the phone and began negotiating deliveries.

We can learn a lot about leadership from challenging situations. Leadership is not a new concept or recently discovered business skill. Fortunately, most leaders do not have to deal with situations where the outcome is measured in life or death. The basic skills of great leadership, when chaos reigns, are the same.

  • Preparation
  • Invest in perfecting process
  • Communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Focusing on the most important issue first.
  • Get people organized to be successful

Don’t wait for chaos to test your leadership. Work on your process, prepare your employees to perform at high levels, develop organization versatility through cross training, and be prepared for the unexpected. As a result of these measures, you and your group will demonstrate leadership when crisis events occur and will assist you in restoring order from chaos.

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