Since I spent my boyhood years growing up during the Second World War, I've always been fascinated with its history. I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, and I was exposed to a lot of the military people coming and going, and to a lot of wonderful parades of returning war heroes.
My search for history has led me to George Arrington's bookstore in Ogunquit, Maine. I've found some fascinating old books, many written in first person by the men who fought in World War II. This past summer, I plowed through the war memories of Field Marshall Erich Von Manstein, who was labeled Germany's most brilliant general. Since I've come to believe that military leadership can offer many lessons to help anyone who is trying to lead a group of people in business, politics or any other organization, I found these memories very instructive.
Von Manstein spent 18 months commanding a large army group on the Russian front from the fall of 1942 until the spring of 1944. Although the huge Soviet armies finally overran and defeated the Germans, the Field Marshall seemed to be fighting with his hand tied behind his back as Hitler continued to vacillate on key battlefield decisions and interfered in almost every issue.
Perhaps Hitler's greatest blunder occurred at the Battle of Stalingrad. When Von Manstein took over the command of the army group in November of 1942, he found that Stalingrad was completely surrounded by the Russians. There were repeated requests to Hitler to allow the sixth army to break out from Stalingrad. But Hitler refused to consider these requests by his generals in the field as he did not want to give up Stalingrad. He believed it would have been a terrible loss to his world prestige. Finally, however, Stalingrad fell to the Russians with the loss of about 250,000 German soldiers.
As time passed on the eastern front, the Germans were faced with trying to hold a 500-mile front with ever-weakening forces, while the Soviet forces continued to increase, at times reaching a ratio of 8 Russians to 1 German. Repeated requests were made to Hitler to fall back, to reduce the 500-mile front to enable a better concentration of Germans. But Hitler continued to refuse his general's requests and, of course, the Russians continued to increase their forces and eventually overran the Germans and won the war in the east.
Hitler's ego would not let him accept his general's requests. He knew very little about military strategy, but he continued to exercise his role as supreme commander, regardless of what others thought or would say. He would personally hold back reinforcements when they were badly needed and made other very bad decisions.
This lesson in leadership shows how important it is to delegate to your team; to almost always recognize that those in the field know best and should be given the opportunity to manage their operations to the best of their ability. Of course, it's very important for the boss to keep informed. It's also important for the leader to clear the road blocks set up by bureaucracy in every organization so those in the field can make decisions and get the job done. Thankfully for the allies in World War II, Hitler didn't do this!
I'm Bill Marriott and thanks for helping me keep Marriott on the move.