Life in the trenches: A cautionary tale of leadership

I presented about leadership at a conference of business heads. The premise of my topic: how leaders, who are typically non-technical, need to embrace technology innovation if they intend to properly lead their organizations through the digital revolution. I shared an example about the leadership during WWI. How decision makers failed their troops by using old “go to war” (as a business leader, think “go to market”) strategies despite new technology rendering the old ways impotent. I spoke about life in the trenches.

Life in the trenches

After a series of bad decision after bad decision (too many to get into in this blog), in 1914 the world found itself at war. The Great War lasted from 1914 to 1918. Sixteen million military personnel and civilians were killed and 20,000,000 more injured. If those numbers are too abstract, here’s an ugly statistic that I ran across: A quarter-million British soldiers suffered a partial or full amputation during this war. SENSELESS!

When the conflict escalated, each side thought the war would be over in a few months (another grave miscalculation). When that didn’t happen, everyone dug in. By November 1914 there was a continuous line of trenches covering some 400 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Hell on Earth

Trenches were dirty, smelly and rampant with disease. For soldiers, life in the trenches meant living in fear. In fear of diseases like cholera and trench foot. And, of course, the constant fear of enemy attack.

And rats! Millions of rats infested the trenches. A male and female rodent could produce as many as 900 young a year. YIKES!

Trench warfare was not new. It was used in other wars, most notably toward the end of the Civil War. But now, breech-loading artillery could shoot shells several miles without having to be re-positioned after each shot. Artillery fire killed and maimed more men in the trenches than any other weapon. Remember those 250,000 British amputees? Another 80,000 British soldiers suffered from shell shock over the course of the war, two percent of all the nation’s soldiers.

A close second to the new artillery killing technology was the machine gun. Eight hundred rounds per minute aimed knee high. A far cry from muzzle-loaded riffles popular in war only a few years before. Russian leadership was so out of touch–they commanded a country with more military and civilian deaths than any other nation–that they believed in the bayonet’s supremacy over the bullet. The leaders made no effort to build up factories for increased production of shells, rifles, and cartridges.

Even barbed wire was new. It was used to slow advancing troops. In fact, intentional gaps were left in the barbed wire to channel the enemy into a machine gun killing funnel.

And the poison gas…. Chlorine, phosgene, and eventually mustard gases were used. While less effective than the other advances, it did serve to make life more awful for everyone one.

Ten percent of the soldiers who fought in WWI were killed. That’s more than twice the rate of those killed in WWII.

Leadership failure

The leaders had been trained in the tactics of cavalry and cannons. They were entirely unable to deal with the stalemate in the trenches in an era of advanced weaponry. Nearly the entire history of the Western Front consisted of desperate human-wave attacks by British and French soldiers who bravely charged the waiting German lines, only to be hung up on the barbed wire entanglements and mowed down en masse by German machine guns. It was slaughter on a scale that had never been seen before. Post-war accounts referred to the French armies as “lions, who were commanded by donkeys”.

The tactic finally settled on by the military leadership was to precede every attack with a massive artillery bombardment, lasting for days or even weeks. The hope was that the blizzard of shells would tear up the barbed wire emplacements, knock out most of the machine guns, and drive the German troops to the rear trenches, allowing the British “Tommies” and the French “Poilus” (and later the American “Doughboys”) to simply walk across No Man’s Land and mop up the remnants of the surviving “Boches.” Although the tactic never worked, the generals nevertheless tried it again, and again, and again, simply because they had no other alternative. MADNESS!

The last day of the war brought the final absurdity of futile death. By dawn on November 11, 1918, every commander knew that the Armistice signed the night before would go into effect at 11 a.m. All everyone had to do was sit tight and they would all get to go home intact. Instead, Allied commanders launched attacks all along the front, in a final gesture to gain glory or just to strike one last time at the hated enemy. As a result, over 10,000 casualties occurred on the last day of the war, all to try to capture ground that the troops could safely walk across that very afternoon. The last man to die a futile death in World War One was American private Henry Gunther, who was killed at 10:59 am, one minute before the Armistice, while attacking a German machine gun nest.

The leaders spent their time either in the safety of their home country or, if they neared the battle field, only ventured as close as a captured village a few miles down the road from the front. Of course they did not live in the squalor of the trench, nor in tents or shacks, but in confiscated mansions. Eating the best food. Drinking the best wine. Giving instructions to hold the front line.

Be a better leader

How does a leader instruct their people to use outdated strategies with zero chance of success?

The typical answer: “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

It’s that simple.

Over time, leaders simply get disconnected with life in the trenches and have no training to deal with innovation. They continue to construct strategies that became ineffective years ago. In business, these leaders are leading their business to slaughter.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing still happens today. A lot.

Why doesn’t anyone tell them how wrong they are? Often, they are told but don’t listen. They think they know better and usually surround themselves by like-minded people who all have similar backgrounds and training.

Get in the trenches and embrace innovation

If you haven’t been lately, spend some time on your organization’s front line. Live there for a while. Not forever, but long enough to “feel it.”

Ask your people what they think is working and what isn’t.

As you reconnect with life in the trenches, embrace innovation too. Surround yourself with leaders from different backgrounds and perspectives (especially in technology) and be open to their input. Study and get your arms around what technology is coming down the pike. I’m not saying you need to become a systems engineer capable of designing and integrating I.T. solutions. All I’m saying is get familiar enough with technology that you understand where new strategy ideas and concepts are coming from… so you can make smart decisions on the future of your firm.

What’s the worst that can happen?

The good news today is that it is unlikely business leaders disconnected from the front lines and technology will result in tens of millions of deaths. The bad news, however, it will likely result in the death of your business.


Several websites and articles explore the role of leadership in World War I. This blog uses the following as references:

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