The Right Leader at the Right Place & Time (or NOT): The Crucible of History and Business

Been watching a lot of World War 2 documentaries while in Shelter in Place these last few months.

Two clear examples in history stand out to me. These two pivotal battles could have gone either way with the outcome literally turning the war around. For non-history folks, these were the battles of Midway in 1943 with Japanese Navy versus the US Navy. At Stalingrad in 1942, it was German army versus the Soviet army. I guess we were lucky that our enemies had very conventional leaders such as Paulus (at Stalingrad) & Nagumo (at Midway) at the helm. These were inflexible commanders who followed the book & war plans to the tee. Not only this but they were not flexible enough or independent minded enough to take initiative or question orders.

At the critical point in time, the “by the book” Japanese & German leadership, could not step out of the doctrine and take the initiative.

I’ll give specific examples, at Midway when the Japanese had located the American fleet, they had part of their air wing ready loaded and ready for attack. But doctrine stated that only air attacks could only happen when there was full air wing ready. So Nagumo waited. This cost them time and allowed the Americans to launch their airwings earlier and beat them to the punch.

Both compounded bad decisions even when the data showed their original decision was wrong. Both put off the hard decisions to correct this ie. they were indecisive.

The original plan was to attach the land base at Midway island for 3–4 days, but when there was confirmation that the US Navy was closer than expected. Nogumo still decided to continue the land attack because that was the plan.

In the Eastern Front, by the end of 1942, it was clear Paulus and his German 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviet army. They were fast running out of ammo, food and winter supplies. Paulus continued to follow nonsensical orders from HQ to fight to the end. He refused to take initiative and break out of Stalingrad. He was trapped and his army was destroyed. From a number of 300,000 at the beginning of the battle, 91,000 were alive to march into captivity.

So why do I talk about history. There are plenty of lessons here. One lesson is that there are different leaders for different times. Both Paulus and Nagumo were “peacetime leaders” who came up through the ranks in peace time but when the crisis hit, it became clear they were not the right people. And their followers and soldiers paid for it. This is no different than a founder at a fast growth startup who then hits a major crisis whatever it is.

A crisis crystallizes what kind of leader you have. You literally cannot hide. Most folks crumble at this time or just disappear from sight. That is my frustration with these kinds of peacetime, bureaucrat leaders. They are so risk averse they just sit and wait or even worse, go into analysis paralysis mode. This critical point is when the rank and file need clear strong leadership as an example & to keep morale up. Your job is to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

True leaders step up during this time, are front and center of the organization and take the initiative to get through it. They take strong decisive action because they know that even if the decision is wrong at least there is movement. I’ve learned that being decisive is important. There is a 50/50 chance you could be right. In most situations, sitting around and waiting for more perfect information, it is almost always a 100% chance you are toast in the end.

Reminds me of the Prepper saying “What do you call people who overreact during a crisis? You call them Survivors!”


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Marvin Liao

Ever curious: Tsundoku, Reader, Aspiring Shokunin, World traveller, Investor & Tech/Media exec interested in almost everything!