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Leadership lessons from The Battle of Britain

July 14, 2015

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the The Battle of Britain last Friday, July 10, the start of one of the most significant moments in British history. In the summer of 1940, Hitler, having captured France, looked to invade Britain, the last bastion of democratic free Europe, and he ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb Britain into surrender.

On 10 July 1940, the Luftwaffe carried out their initial attacks. Some 200 RAF patrols involving 641 aircraft were flown that day, shooting down 14 enemy aircraft and damaging 23 more. It would be the start of a battle for air supremacy that would take months to win.

Spitfires and Hurricanes were outnumbered by the German bombers, coming over the Channel in there hundreds. Many of the British pilots were young men still in their teens. From airfields around southern England, they would run to their aircraft at a moment’s notice when the sirens sounded. They would take off, often more than once a day, knowing that their chances of returning alive were not good.

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,’ said Winston Churchill in Parliament on 20 August, 1940 as the Battle of Britain raged overhead. But who were ‘The Few’? It was not long before the press of the day seized on the epithet as the collective noun for the RAF’s Fighter Command pilots who were struggling against almost insurmountable odds to defeat the Luftwaffe.

The average member of the British public in the Spring of 1940 probably thought of the typical RAF pilot as carefree, out for a good time, doing a bit of flying within a club setting and able to impress the ladies on a Saturday night with the lads. In reality nothing was further from the truth. Wartime flying, piloting a 350mph fighter daily to within an inch of your life, was a deadly serious business requiring a cool head and a steady, calculating nerve.

The average age of an RAF pilot in 1940 was twenty, some were as young as eighteen, many were not old enough to vote. Not all were British, Fighter Command was a cosmopolitan mix with Poles (141), Czechs (87), Belgians (24) and French (13) swelling the ranks along with those from the British Commonwealth who answered the call for pilots to defend freedom.

The cost of the Battle of Britain was high – of the 3,000 aircrew who fought, 544 lost their lives and a further 814 died before the end of the War. The Battle of Britain monument on the Victoria Embankment, London, records the names of the 2,936 flyers who flew. Today, around 30 are still alive.

There are many brave, brave men who engaged in this battle, but for me, two men stand out for their leadership skills.

Firstly, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Commander, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. He was regarded as a difficult, self-opinionated and determined man, and a man who knew more than anybody about all aspects of aerial warfare. Dowding is regarded as the architect of victory in the Battle of Britain.

Having joined the RAF in 1913, Dowding had originally been told he would retire in June 1939 but his retirement was postponed several times. Although he did not have day-to-day control of the air defences, which lay in the hands of his four Group Commanders, his management of these subordinates during the Battle of Britain was a crucial tenet of victory.

Dowding was criticised by some for not using the aggressive ‘Big Wing’ tactics favoured by people like Douglas Bader, but whether large formations of aircraft would really have been more effective is still in dispute. Figures show that the large number of Luftwaffe aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain proved that Dowding’s tactics were correct.

For all his personal foibles, Dowding was a forward thinking strategist who had encouraged the development of advanced fighter aircraft, and it was largely on his initiative that the Hurricane and Spitfire were ordered into production in 1934. Appointed to lead Fighter Command when it was set up in July 1936, Dowding oversaw the introduction new aircraft, bulletproof windscreens and the integration of electronic communications far in advance of anything else in the world.

In early 1940, heavy fighter losses saw Dowding warn the War Cabinet of the dire consequences should the present wastage rates continue, and a letter dated 16 May 1940 is one of the great documents of history, identifying the strategy to fight the Luftwaffe in the one place they could be effectively used – within the comprehensive air defence system he had built in the UK.

He continued to have constant brushes with the political heavies, but he did his job in winning the Battle of Britain. An unwillingness to break with Service precedents meant that Dowding was not promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Royal Force – even when it was suggested by the King, and he was forced to relinquish his position in November 1940. He retired in 1942 and spent the rest of his life largely away from the RAF. In later years he became President of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. After his death in 1970, his remains were interred in Westminster Abbey, a fitting tribute to his remarkable achievements.

The second great leader was Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park. A New Zealander, he came to Britain to serve in the First World War. By 1938 he had become Dowding’s right-hand man, and was appointed as Air Officer Commanding. Like Dowding, Park was relieved of his post almost immediately after the Battle of Britain, the outcome of pointed criticism of his tactics and wasn’t given the credit in the immediate aftermath he merited.

It has been stated that, Dowding controlled the Battle of Britain from day to day, while Keith Park controlled it hour by hour. Park organised and managed his squadrons and men brilliantly, he was respected and admired by many. Most of the criticism he received was due to the fact that he fought the battle in a defensive manner, when it was thought that he should give greater consideration to taking the fight to the Germans in an offensive manner.

Neither Park nor Dowding had much time for internal politics and fell easy prey to their waiting critics. Park was to remain indignant over his and Dowding’s treatment for the rest of his life. However, if any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. ‘I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did not only this country, but the world’, said Lord Tedder, Chief of Air Staff, in February 1947. Another ace who fought in the Battle of Britain, pilot Douglas Bader, said that ‘the awesome responsibility for this country’s survival rested squarely on Keith Park’s shoulders’.

There has been much analysis of the Battle of Britain and Park’s role over the intervening decades. Many issues on air-tactics which were not clear at the time to most in command have been researched, analysed and some clarity has been obtained through the mists of time. Keith Park though had such a clear grasp of air strategy that even with the benefit of this hindsight from decades of research little could be done to improve on his performance.

A temporary statue to Park was unveiled on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2009 until a permanent bronze version of the sculpture was installed at Waterloo Place on 15 September 2010, Battle of Britain Day, during the 70th anniversary commemorations. Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, said that Park was ‘a man without whom the history of the Battle of Britain could have been disastrously different’.

So what are the lessons from the leadership of Dowding and Park we can take from the Battle of Britain, into our business thinking of today?

Beware of the ‘Bad Idea Fairy’. Both leaders could hardly turn a corner without being pestered by others with some hare-brained scheme or opinion on strategy to win the war. Though in fairness, the only thing worse than a foolhardy new idea is a crackpot old idea disguised as something new, it is good to listen to others. However, being confident in your own judgement having weighted up options, risks and priorities and being decisive, is a key leadership trait in times of crisis. Be a paranoid optimist.

The requirement for moral courage. Courage is a fundamental of crisis leadership and is at the heart of earning respect and trust. Whilst physical courage is most often identified with the Armed Forces, moral courage is equally important, having the ability to do the right thing – and not necessarily the easiest or obvious thing. A business crisis is the acid test of leadership and it is the ability to see beyond short term expediency and make decisions which are right, even if they are not easy, which are the true tests of courage.

Integrity is about being honest and unafraid to stand up for what is right and to uphold moral values, even under intense pressure. It is about being transparent, knowing when to admit mistakes, to ensure there are no cover-ups and not shifting the blame onto others. The most respected leaders understand this intuitively.. For me Park stood straight and tall, always driven by his integrity.

Leaders embrace a ‘mop and bucket’ philosophy. The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s hamburger chain, when asked what made him so successful said, ‘my mop-and-bucket attitude’ – in other words, no work task was too insignificant for him to tackle, he simply jumped in and got the job done. Both Dowding and Park lead from the front, with a positive attitude and a desire to do whatever it took. They rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in. A leader is a dealer in hope, an aura of energy around them.

Position the leader where they can have most effect. Military leaders must know what the bigger picture looks like, whilst also having an accurate understanding of the tactical situation on the ground. Generally, a leader must ensure they are in a place where they can gain the best understanding of the situation with a clear line of sight, not too close to become embroiled in the detail, but not so far away that they are unable to influence events. Leaders need to be seen.

Manage your own fear. Fear of failure, particularly in a combat environment, is inevitable. The key is to acknowledge it and be able to deal with it. Failure to do so can result in a paralysing effect, which is contagious and can result in inactivity throughout a team unless dealt with swiftly. Both Dowding and Park showed they were able to identify, contain and overcome their own fear, to enable them to think rationally, set an example and encourage those around them, reducing anxiety.

For Dowding and Park this meant literally making life or death decisions, taking ‘calculated risks’. Crisis leaders must be comfortable with uncertainty and have confidence to take decisions, which may be imperfect, but are much better than paralysis from doing nothing.

Leaders are cat wranglers. Wrestling with flamboyant and committed pilots and your own line manager can be likened to ‘wrangling the cats’ – you’re constantly forced to lead on persuasion, argument, and the strength of your ideas. As you move up in responsibility, it’ll happen more often than you’d think. Get used to it!

See around corners In his book, ‘The Attacker’s Advantage’, Ram Charan, identified five basic leadership strategies to stay ahead of the game:

  • Always on the alert, sensing for signals and meaning of change
  • A mind-set to see opportunity in uncertainty
  • The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it
  • Adeptness in managing the transition to the new path
  • Skill in making the organisation steerable and agile

Examples of leaders who exemplify these attributes include Steve Jobs, who moved Apple from a computer company to smart phones and music, Elon Musk, who seems to be driving structural changes in the auto industry, and Jeff Bezos, developing selling books on the Internet to a whole new paradigm for shopping from home.

Many leaders allow the pressures of crises and total immersion in tactical details to narrow their thinking and to lower the altitude of their view. Everyone needs to find and hone the techniques that work for them in maintaining that perceptual acuity and looking forward.

Successful leadership in a business crisis requires qualities of courage, integrity, empathy, judgement, decision-making and communication. Dowding and Park displayed these qualities under the most intense pressure in the Battle of Britain. Business leaders who want to succeed in a crisis would be well advised to learn from their experience and performance.

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