With one simple story he outlined his leadership philosophy, and what he expected of the leaders under his command. The leadership trust he described set a high bar, but it also made very difficult things possible. Here’s what he said.
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Leading the Leaders
The General stood on top of an ammunition crate. It may have just been the handiest thing, but I think the symbolism was deliberate. Under the blue Bengali sky, he removed his slouch hat, and began to speak.
The British officers and Non-Commissioned Officers of the 11th East African Division sat on the ground and listened to their commander’s words. Tomorrow, the division was going to move into the front lines to try and take Burma back from the Japanese. It was 1945.
Field Marshall Viscount Slim was telling them what to expect in the difficult campaign ahead, and what he expected of them as leaders.
Slim had served in both world wars, been wounded three times, seriously at Gallipoli, and had commanded Soldiers in Africa, the Middle East, and Burma. He knew what he was talking about.
He condensed his leadership philosophy into a single short story, which he shared with the leaders seated in front of him.
“Worse Than I Supposed”
Three years earlier, when things were darkest for the allies, Slim had led a months-long fighting retreat, grudgingly giving ground as the Japanese advanced relentlessly through the jungle during monsoon season. They had been chased a thousand miles all the way back to the Indian frontier. But in one of the few bright spots of the war, Slim had managed to keep his army together.
Leadership was the reason.
At one point during the retreat he came to a clearing where a unit had stopped. Slim knew his troops were near their limit of endurance, but when he saw the haggard condition of this unit, he thought, “My God, they’re worse than I supposed.”
Then, he says, he saw why.
“I Will Break You”
Around the corner of that clearing he found their officers. They were no less tired, but they were focused on making a bivouac for themselves, taking care of their own personal needs even as their men languished leaderless nearby. The general exploded.
This behavior was absolutely unacceptable, he told the leaders of his new division seated before him:
“Officers are there to lead. I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”
General Slim finished his speech, replaced his hat on top of his head, and stepped back down from the ammunition crate. The division’s leaders rose to their feet in applause.
Over the next difficult months Slim’s 14th Army reversed the score against the Japanese. They retook the strategic port of Mandalay and rooted the invaders out of Rangoon. They were steadily advancing when the Japanese finally capitulated and the war ended.
Leadership Trust – The Takeaway
Leadership is a trust. It may have its privileges, but it also comes with duties. Foremost among these is to care for the people under our charge.
The moment we put the privileges ahead of the duties is the moment we start to lose the respect and loyalty of our teammates. Pray that General Slim doesn’t appear while that’s happening.
But when our teammates see us fighting for their benefit and putting their needs before our own, we build trust and set the conditions for great things to happen. If we want to lead well, the bar is set high. We have to demand more of ourselves than we expect from others.
“If you do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world.”