Tanks on Omaha beach during the D-Day landings

Historic success: Leaders can learn a great deal from the success and failure of different commanders during the D-Day landings

Business leaders can learn a lot about leadership from the experiences encountered in the Second World War according to research by Keith Grint.

Professor Grint explored the most complex 24-hour operation ever attempted in a paper entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox: leadership lessons from D-Day, orginally published 10 years ago to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. 

The extraordinary historical insights into D-Day reveal that 'leadership' is just one of three decision-making styles that are critical to any kind of organisational success, with the others being 'management' and 'command'.

Professor Grint sets out a framework for understanding the event as a set of different but related problems:

  • Strategic challenges that had never been faced – that is a wicked problem that can’t be solved by one person and needs a leader to galvanise a community to face up to it, like 'fixing' the NHS.
  • Basic tasks that would be simple in normal circumstances – ie tame problems that can be solved by managers following a set of procedures.
  • Crisis situations which would require fast-thinking and decisive action from a commander.

Professor Grint said: “Success for the Allies on the day had less to do with the leadership qualities of the senior group addressing the big strategic issues and more to do with the management of the basic but necessary tasks, and the command skills of the junior decision-makers facing critical problems on - and off - the beaches.

“In contrast, the German forces - who had enough resources to defeat the invasion, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by reversing their usual combat philosophy, by undermining their own defensive strategy, and by misunderstanding the fundamental importance of logistics.”

And Professor Grint believes there are lessons from the D-Day landings when looking at effective leadership for the top group of people in their organisation.

“For professionals such as the police, the fire and rescue service, the military, or even the health service, the issue might be to consider whether success as a ‘commander’ in critical situations is a sufficiently broad skill base to lead an organisation where the leadership of wicked problems and the management of tame problems seem just as important in the age of austerity,” he said.

“For business more generally, one might ponder the seductive dangers of ‘focusing on what you’re good at’ - when that drove the financial sector to the brink of collapse - and when a more balanced strategy that covered the viability of the system as a whole and questioned the value of genuflecting before the god of mammon - might not, on reflection, have been the wisest thing to do. Hedgehogs are usually fatter than foxes – but they don’t last as long.”

The hedgehog and fox in the paper refers to Greek poet Archilochus’ famous line: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

It implies that the hedgehog’s one ability to roll up into a spiky ball is enough to defeat the many wily skills of the fox.

Professor Grint said “The German obsession with the ‘critical problem’ of combat, the unifying role of Nazi ideology and its association with command as a decision style - a single philosophy associated with the hedgehog - undermined their attempt to deal with the Allied fox, whose comparative weaknesses in combat, ideological cohesion and command were compensated for by their understanding of, and expertise in, the relatively tame problem of logistics and materiel, and the relatively wicked problem of strategy.

“The romanticisation of combat on the part of the German military made it the most effective organisation for a battle - and simultaneously the least effective for war.

“The Western Allies operated from the opposite approach: relatively weak in combat and battle command, but much more resilient and robust in terms of configuring war as a holistic process where management and leadership were as important as command.”

D-Day (Operation Overlord) was the largest ever amphibious operation. It involved 175,000 Allied troops and 50,000 vehicles, all of which were landed either by air, using 11,000 planes, or by sea, using 6,833 ships, and all within 24 hours.

German soldiers were extremely well trained in combat, so they were prepared to make tactical decisions on the ground in critical situations and did not need to wait for orders.

But Adolf Hitler became increasingly authoritarian during the Second World War, so neutralising their one 'hedgehog' skill of combat.

Plus, the German cult of combat meant it threw huge numbers into battle, but left precious few to service its tanks and planes or find the resources to fuel the war; the Allies' preference for scientific management generated the opposite extreme, an excellence in logistics and the operation of mobilisation.

Indeed, D-Day involved moving a city the size of the UK’s Birmingham across the channel and all the way to Berlin while under fire.

Professor Grint added: “Once the Americans entered the war, it became clear that the conflict was going to be between the science of total war on the Allied side and the culture of combat on the German side.”

On D-Day itself, the German Luftwaffe had only 319 operational aircraft left in Normandy to repulse the 11,000 aircraft of the Allies. By the end of the war, the Germans had not run out of aircraft; they ran out of fuel and pilots. Indeed, some of the German defenders on the beaches in Normandy stopped fighting not because they believed the cause hopeless but because they ran out of ammunition.

Despite the lack of aircraft, bad weather meant the Germans could still have stopped the Allied invasion. General Bayerlein’s elite armoured division was ready to move against the invaders and the low cloud would have effectively rendered the movement invisible.

However, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr was unable to move until personally released by Hitler. He was asleep, though, and nobody dared to wake him. By the time Hitler gave orders to move the light was good and Bayerlein's division was attacked 10 separate times from the air. By the end of the day, the Panzer Lehr had still not reached its destination but had lost 40 fuel trucks, 50 other trucks, five tanks and 84 half-tracks and self-propelled guns.

Professor Grint said: “This was an inversion of the traditional German combat philosophy of ‘mission command’ -decentralised decision making in the knowledge of superordinate intent and support - towards a model much closer to the Allied philosophy - hierarchical control.

“So the only really effective advantage that the Germans had over the Allies - their combat philosophy - that should have been sufficient to repel the invasion, was itself undermined by Hitler and the weakness of his senior military commanders.”

Further reading:

Why heroic leadership is a dangerous idea

What can the US Navy SEALs teach us about leadership?

How to build a more ethical team


Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management and is author of Leadership, management and command: rethinking D-Day.

Learn more about leadership on the four-day Executive Education course Leading People through Change and Disruption at WBS London at The Shard.

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