I’m reading the biography of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the commanding officer of RAF Fighter Command in the years prior to and during the Battle of Britain (Dowding of Fighter Command, Vincent Orange, Grub Street, 2008).
The story of the creation of an integrated national air defence system and the subsequent battle itself is familiar to reggie-spotters like me.
What’s most interesting though is the story of how he brought together all the skills, research, technological developments, manpower, finances and political clout (more on this in a moment) required to save the day.
The parallels with modern business are clear and close.
And here’s the problem with hindsight: it’s obvious after the fact where the successes and failures, the inspiration and the dead hand of officialdom, the politics and the collaboration, all appear or occur.
What’s so impressive about Dowding, and leaders throughout history, on the battlefield and in business, in government and in the community, is that they don’t know ahead of time if something is going to work.
(Which is obvious in a way. If they did, it wouldn’t be leadership, but simple good fortune.)
I think for me this defines leadership: pulling together everything and everyone required to make a decision to make something happen, and then having the fortitude (not foresight) to go ahead.
Back to the comment above on political clout. Dowding was effective and succesful in garnering the political clout needed to make the defence of Britain a reality, up to a point.
But political intrigue, even during the Battle of Britain itself (there’s that hindsight again), led to his sacking from Fighter Command in November 1940, just two months after Hitler postponed the plan to invade Britain.
Dowding’s confidence in the rightness of his arguments (without hindsight of course), and in the evidence he could bring to bear about what had worked and what had been successful, carried the day for him.
He was unperturbed by the forces that conspired against him, preferring to focus on the task as he saw it, which he distilled to the very simplest of objectives: don’t lose (the task of defeating Germany could wait until another day).
And sitting alongside leadership is communication: work the system (the bit he was less inclined to do), present the facts, inspire with both rhetoric and with insight, hold your ground.
Few scenarios have consequences as severe as those that confronted Dowding. Success was at a cost in lives and material. Failure was unthinkable. His approach to leadership – reliance on experts, calmness in the face of tension and opposition, firmness, a genuine concern for those at the sharp end, delegation of the execution of tactics, attention to detail, being across his brief – is one to emulate.
Thank goodness, perhaps, for hindsight after all…