THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
Vol. 10, No. 4
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102
©2004, 2013 William A. Cohen, PhD
A friend of mine worked as a project manager in his father’s $10 million engineering company. He was his father’s only son, and had been well educated at one of the country’s most prestigious private colleges. However, his father didn’t believe in sharing power with a progeny. He felt that there would be plenty of time to train his son to run the company in the future.
Nine years later, when my friend was only thirty years old, his father suddenly died of a heart attack. In one day, he went from middle manager to the top job in the company. I met this man only five years later. In five years, his company had quadrupled in size. His leadership was heralded by experts, and he and his company were written up in several important business magazines. How had this unique individual taken charge and asserted his leadership under crisis conditions? How had he managed to do so well? If you want to know something, there is frequently only one way to find out. That is to ask. So I asked.
“It wasn’t easy,” my friend said. “First there was the shock over my father’s death. Then there was analyzing the company’s situation. My father hadn’t confided in anyone. Everyone had a little piece of the puzzle. No one had the full story. “The most difficult thing, however, was to assert my leadership. I was now leading people who had been very senior to me in the company. Some had been with the company since before I was born. Not all of them were able to adjust to my style, my goals, or even just me. They refused to accept my leadership.
“I tried to make it as easy as possible for them, and to give them every chance. But when you got right down to it, I was in charge. I had no choice but to fire a few.
“Gradually, things got better. People could see that my policies and strategies were working to improve the position of the company. They got behind me completely.
“When I think back to those first few months, I don’t know how I did it. It was the toughest thing I had to do in my life. But I had to do it. I had no alternative.”
How would you like to take charge of an organization under those circumstances? As a leader, sometimes you don’t have any choice. When you make decisions like this you need to be decisive.
A Heroic Leader Must Take Charge and be Decisive in Crises
When Lieutenant General Bernard L. Montgomery took charge of the British Eight Army in Africa during World War II, he faced major problems. The Eighth Army had been defeated by the German General Rommel and his Afrika Korps. After finally winning a victory, Montgomery’s predecessor, General Auchinleck had been persuaded to attack again prematurely. He had been defeated. There was the possibility of an immediate counterattack by Rommel. The Eighth Army had made withdrawal after withdrawal over the months. Orders were out to prepare for yet another withdrawal. Morale in the Eighth Army was at an all time low. Then, Montgomery arrived.
Here’s what Montgomery did immediately.
- He cancelled all previous orders about withdrawal.
- He issued orders that in the event of enemy attack, there would be no withdrawal. The Eighth Army would fight on the ground they held. Or in Montgomery’s words, “…if we couldn’t stay there alive, we would stay there dead.”
- He appointed a new Chief of Staff.
- He formed a new armored corps from “various bits and pieces.”
- He changed the basic fighting units from brigade groups and ad hoc columns to full divisions.
- He initiated plans for an offensive saying, “Our mandate is to destroy Rommel and his Army, and it will be done as soon as we are ready.”
Speaking later of the events of his first day in charge he said, “By the time I went to bed that night, I was tired. But I knew that we were on the way to success.”
Only a few months later, Montgomery’s Eighth Army attacked at El Alamein and won a major victory. It was the turning point of the war in the North African theater of operations. It helped to eventually gain for Montgomery a promotion to Field Marshal. That’s the British equivalent to the rank of full General in the United States. It also won for him the title of “Montgomery of Alamein.”
* Adapted from Heroic Leadership by William A. Cohen (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
* Adapted from The Art of the Strategist by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2004)
Henri de Jomini, The Art of War, translated by G,H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1862) p. 167.
THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS
“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen not Published in the Journal of Leadership Applications:
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- The Value of Drucker’s Contributions Today, from Human Resources IQ, Customer Management IQ, and Six Sigma Management IQ
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ENDNOTES Montgomery of Alamein, The Memoirs of Field-Marshall Montgomery (The World Publishing Company: New York, 1958) p.94.