Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Britain

most dangerous

Guest post: Jon Putt

These are all drawn from Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy.

Lesson 1 – success and failure have deep roots. The British made decisions in the late 1930s which helped them win the Battle of Britain; the Germans made decisions in 1940 which virtually guaranteed they lost the war. Equally, Britain made decisions in 1940 which would lead them to losing the peace as they prosecuted an aggressive war of no surrender, ‘whatever the cost may be’. The cost turned out to be enough to bankrupt them several times over.

Lesson 2 – effectiveness is harmed when people fail to get on. Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, the genius commander of 11 Group fostered a fantastic spirit within the group by frequently visiting his front line units, humbly listening to them, and sharing information with them. By contrast the commander of 12 group, Leigh-Mallory was not known for such humility and concern. It is no surprise that 12 group was home to the relatively ineffective, and militarily costly ‘big wing’ pioneered by Douglas Bader. Furthermore, when 12 group was asked to co-operate with 11 group, the results were underwhelming thanks to the animosity between Park and Leigh-Mallory. When 10 group worked with 11 group, the results were far more satisfactory. Tellingly, Park was known by the Germans as ‘the defender of London’, Leigh-Mallory as a pedantic bureaucrat. Such rivalry was far more marked in the Luftwaffe who experienced some disastrous moments in their campaign over the South East.

Lesson 3 – Victories can be dangerous – Britain was ‘psychologically damaged’ by the Battle of Britain victory because it attributed success to all the wrong factors and failed to learn the real lessons:

Myth 1 – victory was due to acts of collective and individual heroism of which only the British are capable. Failed to see the importance of collective hard work and careful thinking, therefore these latter factors have been subsequently under-valued.

Myth 2 – Victory was against the odds, therefore other victories can be won against the odds. The odds were in many ways in favour of British victory, therefore not ensuring this in the future can be disastrous.

Myth 3 – Despite being under-prepared the British muddled through via ingenious improvisation. Actually, the British air defences were probably the best organised and deployed in the world at the time. Furthermore, the Royal Navy began the war as they ended it, by sinking enemy ships from the Arctic circle to the Indian Ocean.

In their teutonic thoroughness, energy, and capacity to organise, the British excelled in qualities they more frequently ascribe to their continental rivals, though they failed to recognise it both at the time and subsequently.

Lesson 4 – humble collective team effort trumps the individual warrior ethic. The latter, enshrined in Nazi ideology and the Luftwaffe, led to inefficient tactics, an amateur approach to strategy and tactics, and the pursuit of individual goals at the expense of overall victory, which cost the Luftwaffe dear in terms of both lives and machines. The RAF on the other hand downplayed the roles of individuals, ‘heroism’ was frowned on, and were ruthless, thoughtful and careful in planning, prioritising the task over individual advancement.

These approaches were reflected in the military decorations awarded. The Luftwaffe awarded medals for numbers of planes shot down, which led to reckless activities on the part of their aces, even sacrificing their juniors to pursue targets, and led to vastly exaggerated kill claims (something of which the RAF was not innocent). When these turned out to be false, the affect on morale was devastating. A lesson in the danger of over-promising, over-estimating one’s success, when in fact one is under-delivering, under-achieving. By contrast the RAF awarded military decorations for valour, which recognised and encouraged RAF pilots that stuck to their tasks despite sometimes bleak consequences. In the Battle of Britain, awarding effort, or input, rather than achievement, or outputs, appeared to secure greater success overall. It at least reflected a more fruitful mindset.

This mindset also made it easier to solve problems quickly as it promoted moral courage, not just in combat but in speaking truth to power. So Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, encouraged robust to and fro within his team in his search for excellence. Air Marshall Dowding and Air Vice Marshall Park listened to feedback from their pilots and fought their superiors to ensure effective policies and strategies.

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