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Leadership lessons from The Charge of The Light Brigade

March 24, 2014

The current unrest in Ukraine brings back to mind that great folly of the Crimean War, the Charge of the Light Brigade. It provides a perfect example of how a shortfall in planning, deficient working relationships and ineffective communication can have a negative impact on organisational decisions and outcomes. Historical perspective also provides a way to learn from the mistakes of others.

It was a nadir, one of the least edifying episodes in British military history. On October 25th, 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava, the elite of the British army, The Light Brigade, charged suicidal into a phalanx of Russian heavy guns. The result was a disaster: of the 673 men and officers who engaged in the charge fewer than one hundred rode back unscathed.

The Charge of The Light Brigade goes down in history as one of the most gallant, idiotic and futile examples of British military incompetence, encapsulating many of the idiocies and inefficiencies that characterised British military organisation and command at that time. Surely all the leadership lessons have been learned from this?

Yet in the C21st, businesses continue to show a remarkable habit for plunging headlong to disaster by ignoring the simplest rules of good decision-making and effective communication. The causes have an echo from the Crimea – entrenched attitudes, blinkered vision, leadership egotism, weak planning systems, lack of intellectual clarity and emotional paranoia. The results are depressingly familiar – accusations of blame at the top and resultant business failure.

The story of the Charge of The Light Brigade is a vehicle for exploring the nature of effective decision-making and communications within business organisations. The result of the Charge was that 673 men charged down the wrong valley after the wrong target. Are you charging down wrong valleys after the wrong targets? Ask yourself the question about your own direction and purpose.

The story starts in 1853 when Russia invaded the Balkans. Britain and France had treaty obligations to protect Turkey, which they decided to fulfill because they did not want to see a Russia with access to a warm water port and potentially more political and commercial influence. There were also enormous external public pressures, stoked up by the media.

The first problem they had to face was one of leadership. Who would lead the British Forces? Choice was limited. There hadn’t been a major war since the defeat of Napoleon forty years before and there was a lack of experience in the senior army ranks – most in senior positions had been young men at Waterloo, in junior positions.

The choice for the leader eventually fell upon the one-armed Lord Raglan, Wellington’s son-in-law, who had been a military secretary, a desk job, for 40 years. There was desperate hope that Wellington’s genius might have rubbed off on him. He was affable, likeable, well mannered – the perfect English gentleman. But he had no experience of practical leadership in the field. He was 66.

The Cavalry Division was made up of the Light Brigade and the Heavy Brigade. Lord Lucan was in charge of the Cavalry Division. He had been responsible for the clearances of his Irish estates causing suffering, starvation and mass emigration. He was a disciplinarian and not loved by his troops. He was a hard worker and up before dawn each day. He was 53.

Lord Cardigan was in charge of the Light Brigade. He had a fiery temper. He was dismissed as Colonel of the 15th Hussars for his vindictive and tyrannical rule. During the Crimean campaign, Cardigan lived on his boat, away from the troops, unlike Lucan who chose to stay with his men and experience the same conditions. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law and disliked each other intensely. Cardigan was 57.

The fact that these two brothers-in-law hated each other and interfered with the chain of command was ultimately one of the factors that determined the outcome of the Charge. Raglan was the Head of the Army and Lucan reported to him; Lucan was Cardigan’s boss but Cardigan did not want to report to Lucan and tried to bypass him whenever he could by going direct to Raglan.

When Lucan complained to Raglan, Cardigan complained of Lucan’s interference. Raglan’s natural reaction, faced with interpersonal conflict, was to avoid it and not confront it. His tactic was to ask both men to get on with each other. This was ineffective and Cardigan and Lucan’s relationship never improved. Thus, the pattern of behaviour was set for future events. The appointment of these two men was a disaster from the outset.

By October 1854, the Allied armies were besieging Sevastopol. On the morning of 25 October, there were large movements of Russian forces threatening the British supply lines at Balaclava. Raglan was notified and immediately sent messages for reinforcements to come down to the valley to help defend the base.

One of these messages went to Sir George Cathcart, in charge of the Fourth Division, but Cathcart failed to see the urgency of it. He saw it as one of many urgent requests and considered this to be yet another false alarm. If Raglan had thought for himself, he would have realised Cathcart’s reaction, and would have made sure Cathcart knew that this was no false alarm, by sending a more senior messenger and by making sure the note was unambiguous.

As it was, history meant that everybody’s expectations were incorrect. Raglan thought Cathcart would appear to support Lucan; Lucan thought Cathcart would appear and so waited for him; Cathcart thought it was another false alarm and didn’t move instantly. This had fatal consequences.

On top of the hill, watching the events at Balaclava unfold, were Lord Raglan and a group of his staff officers. One of them noticed that the Russians were preparing to take away some British guns, which they had captured earlier in the day, which would have been a serious disgrace. Raglan decided to try to stop them – a decision that was emotionally and culturally driven, not tactically driven.

Raglan sent down a series of four separate orders to Lucan, telling him to use his cavalry to stop the Russians taking away the guns from the ridge. Raglan didn’t stop to think that Lucan’s view and his view were completely different. They were literally seeing things from different points of view.

In making decisions, it is crucial to understand what other people are seeing, feeling and experiencing; it may not be the same as you. In this case, the difference was fatal. Lucan couldn’t see the same guns as Raglan, but he could see guns. Because he could only see one set of guns, he assumed Raglan meant those. They happened to be Russian guns at the far end of the valley, protected on three sides by Russian infantry and cavalry. He didn’t understand the orders from Raglan; he was confused. However, there were enormous pressures on him to do something.

One of the observers on the hill with Raglan was a young cavalry officer, Captain Louis Nolan. Nolan was experienced and knowledgeable, but, he was a junior officer and not from the right class, so senior officers didn’t take much notice of him. When he saw opportunities for victory being thrown away he was beside himself with anger. Remember, he was seeing what Raglan saw. He had very little respect for the abilities of the cavalry commanders and, watching the activities below, his opinion was being confirmed.

Nolan was chosen to take the fourth and last order to Lucan. It was a disastrous decision considering Nolan’s perspective of the immediate event and his opinions of his superiors, which drove his behaviour. Nolan’s instructions to Lucan were unequivocal – attack the guns. His tone in delivering the order carried the full force of his anger and frustration. He didn’t explain. Lucan had to obey.

Paradoxically, the one time Lucan ought to have delayed and asked for clarity, he didn’t. Lucan ordered Cardigan and the Light Brigade down the valley to attack the (wrong) guns. When Cardigan received the order from Lucan he said I shall never be able to bring a man back but didn’t want his brother-in-law to have the satisfaction of seeing him appear to be cowardly. So he led the charge with 673 men straight at the firing enemy. Everybody knew the order was insane, but everybody followed it.

So what business lessons can we take from this failure of leadership, a pointless effort due to muddled orders, especially when compared to the entirely successful and equally gallant charge of the Heavy Brigade earlier on the same day is generally forgotten?

Ensure alignment of management perspectives At the individual level, it’s a story of personal ambition, animosity, and prejudice. Two of the British commanders, Lucan and Cardigan, detested each other so heartily they went out of their way to ignore and undermine each other. While Lucan, the senior of the two, camped with his troops on shore, Cardigan, his subordinate and commander of the Light Brigade, remained offshore in Sebastopol harbour on his luxurious personal yacht.

Ensure leaders have the right experience Their ineffective leader, Raglan, had never commanded an army in the field before, and his natural instinct was to avoid rather than confront conflict amongst his commanders. Politically adept, he was Wellington’s son-in-law, Raglan lacked the emotional or operational intelligence required of leaders – he simply didn’t know the job, or the people, above or below his command.

Leadership means accountability The individual who ended up taking the blame for the fiasco of the Charge, Captain Nolan, was an intelligent, motivated subordinate eaten up with frustration at being ignored and passed over by a prejudiced class system that refused to acknowledge ability. Nolan was responsible for transmitting Raglan’s final order to Lucan to charge, and it is possible that his repetition of Raglan’s order built upon the vagueness of the original message with his own bitterness and anger, resulted in Lucan’s reckless interpretation.

Ensure clarity and sharing of objectives Instead of charging the guns being removed by Russian soldiers from British positions towards Sebastopol, as intended by Raglan, Lucan instructed Cardigan to lead his men headlong towards the only guns that he could see – the entrenched Russian artillery. By now impatient, Raglan’s order was peremptory and vague, and assumed that Lucan could see the battlefield from his perspective. However, from Lucan’s position only one set of guns – the wrong set – could be seen.

Agility over hierarchy in decision making For his part, Cardigan’s pride prevented him from directly challenging an order from his superior when such a challenge may have reflected badly upon his personal courage. Why did Lucan, against his better judgement, obey Raglan’s order as transmitted by Nolan? Was it obedience to his superior, and the personal authority implied in the nature of its transmission by Nolan, or a desire not to be bested by his despised brother-in-law Cardigan? Under pressure, it is the quality of relationships that matter most, which was absent here.

Ensure clarity of internal communication From an organisational perspective, the Charge is a catalogue of poorly deployed resources and inadequate channels of communication. Consequently, the army suffered appalling casualties until it was a shadow of its original strength. The unfolding of the battle shows how assumptions affect outcomes – Raglan`s latest ‘urgent request’ for reinforcements was dismissed as scaremongering by its recipient.

Feedback is essential Without an effective means of transmitting messages back from the battlefield, the army blundered into a battle at Balaclava in the wrong place at the wrong time, narrowly avoiding disaster due only to the heroic independent action of General Campbell of the Black Watch regiment in forming what became immortalised as The Thin Red Line. Business leaders should ask themselves how such initiatives are dealt with in their own organisations, and whether their decision-making processes enable feedback and are properly attuned to deliver resources in line with strategic requirements of their products, customers and their people.

Learning from mistakes By asking future leaders to re-interpret their present reality through the lens of past examples, we are encouraging them to develop perspective. By asking them to embody their learning experientially, we are facilitating a deeper understanding of what the issue means to them, both personally and organisationally. Helping managers develop essential leadership skills, such as empathy, personal vision and personal presence is vital.

Leadership is about vision and strategy It is a paradox that in order to succeed we need to learn how to tolerate failure. Failures do not come much more spectacular than that of the Light Brigade at Balaclava 160 years ago. It is interesting to compare this failure with the success of the Black Watch that day. The difference is largely down to Campbell’s personal leadership skills. Campbell had that capacity for peripheral vision that enabled him to see what was at stake, and the single-mindedness to do something about it. It is a wonderful contrast with the blinkered response of Lucan and Cardigan that day.

A leader creates options One valorously tragic incident, immortalised by Lord Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem, is a story of a tragic defeat, commanded by officers without a clear view of the battlefield and plagued by communication problems. A leader frequently has to change his plans as circumstances change. Presumably Cardigan had only a ‘Plan A’. In his poem, Tennyson explained why Cardigan needed a Plan B: Someone had blunder’d. It truly was the valley of death.

Over two thousand years ago the warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu identified five dangerous faults that would lead a leader to disaster: recklessness, cowardice, a hasty temper, delicacy of honour, and over solicitude. Despite these resonating as the perceived causes of failure of The Charge, Prime Minister at the time Benjamin Disraeli commented in the House of Commons that it was, A feat of chivalry, fiery with consummate courage, and bright with flashing courage.

Because of this misplaced rhetoric, which narrates short-sighted, internalised views seen today in business, leaders need constantly to reinterpret their perspective on strategy and overcome reluctance for reflective learning when unintended consequence of actions result. The historical example of The Charge of The Light Brigade is a powerful allegory to recall for business leaders today.

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One Comment leave one →
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