Charge of The Light Brigade

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Charge of The Light Brigade

"Fire, Aim, Ready" - How Managers Can Learn From Other Peoples` Mistakes

Historical perspective provides a way to learn from the mistakes of others.  Proggramme tutor, Jon Chapman, explains why "Battlefield to Boardroom" is the perfect tool for leadership development.

Monday October 25 th marked the 150 th anniversary of a nadir in one of the least edifying episodes in British history - the Crimean War. On October 25 th , 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava, the elite of the British army, the Light Brigade, charged suicidally into the mouths of a phalanx of Russian heavy guns. The result was a disaster, and of the 673 men and officers who engaged in the charge fewer than one hundred rode back unscathed.

The Charge of The Light Brigade went 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. The public outrage that resulted led to deep-seated reform of an army that had fossilised under the dead hand of the Duke of Wellington, whose baleful influence had prevented any significant change since his victory at Waterloo nearly forty years before.

And there the story might lie - a colourful footnote in military history, and a proud example of the British penchant for transforming the reality of bungled command into a fiction of chivalrous self-sacrifice. And yet in the 21 st century, organisations - both public and private - continue to show a remarkable habit for plunging headlong to disaster by ignoring the most simple rules of good decision-making and effective communication. The causes have a hollow echo from the past - entrenched attitudes, blinkered vision, egotism, anachronistic systems and procedures, lack of intellectual clarity and emotional illiteracy. The results are often depressingly familiar - accusations of blame at the top and redundancy for the rank and file.

Putting an historical perspective on a sensitive issue, such as the need to challenge entrenched attitudes within an organisation, can help those engaged in the issue achieve a measure of objectivity that is essential if progress is to be made. The Praxis Centre, part of the Cranfield School of Management, has a `Battlefield to Boardroom` approach that encourages managers and leaders to use historical events as a metaphor for change within themselves or their organisation. Together with AIM Associates, Praxis is developing a classroom-based programme using the story of the Charge of The Light Brigade as a vehicle for explore the nature of effective decision-making and communications within organisations.

At the individual level it is 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. 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.

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 in an Indian Army officer. 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, and resulted in Lucan`s reckless interpretation. 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. 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.

It is a supreme irony that the great defender of this `caste` system, the Duke of Wellington, had made his own reputation as a `sepoy general` in India half a century earlier. 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, in the `fog of war` it is the quality of relationships that matter most.

From an organisational perspective, the Charge is a catalogue of poorly deployed resources and inadequate channels of communication. Without proper support facilities - in this case medical supplies, clothing, fuel and shelter - the army suffered appalling casualties from exposure and illness 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, General Cathcart. Lucan, believing that Cathcart was coming up to support him, refused to react to Raglan`s initial orders in the belief that support was coming. Raglan, failing to understand why neither of his subordinates was responding, became impatient.

Without an effective means of transmitting messages across 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. Leaders should ask themselves how such initiatives are dealt with in their own organisations, and whether their decision-making processes are properly attuned to deliver resources in line with strategic requirements of their products, their customers and their people.

"Unfortunately, direct learning does not always work in the field of personal and leadership development. There is an old saying `I hear, I forget I see, I remember I do, I understand`. Too much management teaching is simply telling", says Jon Chapman, a Visiting Tutor at At the Praxis Centre, part of Cranfield School of Management. "At Praxis we specialise in developing effective indirect, experiential learning routes, using the arts, mythology, and history. 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 deep-seated understanding of what the issue means to them, both personally and organisationally. We use these historical stories to help managers develop essential leadership skills, such as empathy, creativity, personal vision and personal presence.

"There is far more for us to learn from our mistakes than from our successes, but in order to achieve this organisations must learn to avoid giving people their daily BREAD - Blame, Rationalisation, Excuses, Anger and Denial. 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 150 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", says Jon Chapman. " 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. Instead of celebrating the doomed failure of the Charge, Tennyson would have done us all a favour if he had penned his immortal lines in praise of the Thin Red Line. Learning from failure is one thing, celebrating it is entirely another."

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". Organisations and their leaders need constantly to reinterpret these immortal lessons in the light of current events and the historical examples that provide much-needed perspective.

The Praxis Centre at Cranfield offer a range of Open Programmes in Leadership, Communications, Interpersonal Skills and Creativity. In addition to the Charge of The Light Brigade, Praxis has also developed battlefield tour programmes based on The Battle of Naseby and The Battle of The Somme, around the themes of transforming organisations and organisational breakthrough. The battlefield programmes are developed in conjunction with the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Royal Military College of Science.

Jon Chapman
The Praxis Centre


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