Clash of organizational cultures – the deadliest day for the French army

Leadership in the military – immediately calls to mind: Command and Control, Drill and Slavish Obedience. But I came across a book recently in a French bookshop that set me thinking; It was about the First World War and the title read: “22 août 1914 – Le jour le plus meutrier de’l histoire de France“. The book recounts the day on which the French army suffered more than 27,000 casualties, more than on any other day during the war, near Rossignol, in the Ardennes. To give you a comparison: German losses on that day amounted to about 1,000 men.

What had happened was that as the two armies met, the German army took cover in good time – something which the French, who were charging the enemy, did not do: This resulted in a disastrous defeat of unprecedented dimensions. One of the results of causal research has elucidated the decisive role played by the structure and leadership culture of the French officers in this catastrophe. The French officers lived a culture strongly oriented to hierarchy and plotted their battle strategy against the Germans accordingly, at their headquarters near Paris – some 300 kilometers from the front. The officers fighting at the front had no authorization to change the order to charge (total attack); even when they saw their soldiers being slaughtered like cattle. Going against an order given by the generals and assuming the responsibility for making a different decision: quite unthinkable for the field officers at the front.

Although the German Kaiser’s army was equally hierarchy-conscious, when it came to commands, it was quite a different matter: Despite all clichés about Wilhelminian leadership culture, and although the battle strategy was likewise devised at German headquarters, the field officers at the front were permitted to adjust the battle strategy to the relevant situation.  Most of all, the subaltern officers and subordinates – the middle management, so to speak – were trained to react in a flexible manner and thus to create decisive advantages in battle.


What does all this mean for corporate leadership in 2015? I have identified three key points:


  • Don’t interfere if you’re not directly involved: Without a culture where employees are trusted, a company will not prosper in the long term. To be successful, there has to be uncomplicated, swift decision-making and efficient processes – hierarchies written in stone mean the opposite. And the quality of decision-making often improves significantly if decisions are taken by those they will affect directly – by those who know most about customers, products and projects.


  • Leadership culture which encourages the spirit of resistance…it’s lonely at the top. If this cliché truly reflects company leaders, that company will hit a serious problem in the middle term, because if no one dares to give the boss feedback openly, the boss may not find out valuable information about market trends, innovative ideas or dangerous problems until it’s too late. Companies need a culture in which employees can contribute freely and where they dare to do so, otherwise a great deal of potential will be wasted.


  • The organizational structure can indeed make a critical difference – because paralyzed decision-making systems are –  in the worst case – deadly. This is particularly true whenever constantly changing markets and customer requirements demand appropriate and swift action.


So, that’s why I’m asking you: When was the last time you thought about the operating system in your company?


*Jean-Michel Steg, 22 août 1914 – Le jour le plus meutrier de’l histoire de France, Editions Fayard, Paris 2013


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