Vimy: Old Dogs … New Leadership Tricks

The Practice Collection

As we continue to study the fine arts and practices of leadership, engagement and systems thinking, we know that a really great story often helps us in our understanding of sometimes difficult and complex ideas.

This April of 2017, we in Canada returned to a founding story as we marked the 100th anniversary of perhaps the most iconic battle in our military history…Vimy. This was where on April 9th 1917, Canadian soldiers won the first Allied victory of the Great War, by taking a ridge in France that for three years the British and French were unable to win. It was a great moment for Canada and our sense of nationhood.

However it was also an interesting tale of why the Canadians were able to accomplish something that the old European countries could not. In this piece I would like to look at those difference through the lenses of leadership, engagement and systems thinking.

On the leadership side, it was the unique character of the British commander General Julian Byng and the Canadian general, Sir Arthur Currie that gave us some truly innovative leadership lessons. Military leadership style prior to WW1 and deep into the conflict was primarily classic command and control or do what you are told. When you combine command and control with a class based society full of hierarchy and entitlement you have a military that often can’t see beyond its own war room.

Still a problem in some places, I imagine …

The Canadians, on the other hand, still had a lot of lingering old school issues but they were raised in fishing villages, farms and mining towns where ridged old structural anathemas had long been tossed aside. Currie must have had a notion that all the so-called military intelligence at the top of the organization was flawed. As an example, in the previous battles like the Somme, where as soon as the top was cut off from the front, when communication fell apart due to timing or death, things fell apart and the soldiers had no ability to fight on their own or to even know what the hell they were supposed to be getting done.

Currie was obviously an innovative thinker and he was fortunate that his British trained boss saw value in his ideas. The main leadership value that they both carried into Vimy was a deep respect for the men they led and that respect was returned in spades. As we know now, if you put a few bosses in the boardroom, have them figure it all out without asking anybody else for their input, you get a plan and marching orders that will always require the dreaded “buy-in.” If you have an enlightened management group, that engages the whole system in a big conversation right from the start, you get a system “brought-in” at the front end instead of “bought-in” at the back end. You also get better decisions with front line system “intel” that comes from way beyond the boardroom.

Currie, in 1917, must have had a sense about this. For example he led a classic lesson in ‘teamwork.” The smallest British unit was the platoon. Byng and Currie cut that back to ten member sections. They were given latitude in the field and essentially became what we now call self-directed teams. They broke up the specialty units (infantry, artillery cavalry and engineers were all part of one team with a clear mission.) This approach gave the resources to the teams, which made them cross-functional as well. They used innovative ideas for training such as the “Glide” which was a measured step that kept the advancement at a steady pace. They were the most learned soldiers ever with clay terrain models so the front lines could see what they were facing. Instead of the brass alone having the maps in the war room, 40,000 maps were given to every front line soldier.

It was brilliant. Everyone knew what was going on, what the person above and below him knew…knowledge did not go down with the fallen.

To use a modern term, it was now becoming an “engaged” force serving under enlightened leadership.

The third interesting thought about Vimy was the venture into “systems thinking.”

Currie saw the real advantage in engaging his whole system as he pulled four divisions into one force at Vimy…interesting that they call them divisions! This brought with it, I am certain, the challenges of every division bringing its own “turf” and culture issues but in the end, the strength in the diversity of all the groups together brought more motivation, better communication and a change to bring the whole of the strategic thinking into the front lines.

Applied systems thinking required a fresh approach to learning and training as well. The innovative “creeping barrage” required every soldier to learn and practice advancing at a fixed speed/minute. Every soldier had to learn how to read maps and grasp terrain and topographical challenges. They were cross-trained at the ten-person team/platoon level so they could step in when someone above them or below them fell. They were trained way beyond the “job description” level. As well the new technologies were introduced at the front line level … all systems thinking approaches.

One should not over state the case but rather we could still learn from such remarkable stories …

We learned …

Canadian warriors at Vimy were some of the first to shake off some of the old “mental models” such as only “command and control” and “do what you are told” and take more front line leadership and responsibility.
They started to develop a respect for a more relationship-based style of leadership.
They started to work across silos (divisions and specialties)
Started to respect front line intelligence (team/platoon)
Started to understand that learning is your number one tool (learning organizations)
They started to see technology beyond just efficiency and more as a knowledge advantage (flash spotting aerial recon and sound ranging)
One hundred years ago, Canadians stated about how we could do the same things in a different way…and we won the first major Allied battle of the First War.

Today a hundred years later, I wonder how many people could say they now work in an organization that would now fully represent the leadership values of Currie regarding relationship building, engagement and systems thinking.

They were determined to not wage war as usual…are we still doing our business as usual or have we learned from a century ago …?