How to Turn Defeat Into Victory
It was mid-1942. All of continental Europe was under the Nazi flag. The Soviet Union was under a violent attack, and its armies were in retreat. The United Kingdom had withstood many attacks, but was reeling from the German war machine. The United States had just entered the war, but had not experienced much military success yet.
In that precarious state, when Germany and the Axis powers had the upper hand, the British 8th Army in North Africa was being pummeled by the Afrika Korps, led by Germany’s pre-eminent General Erwin Rommel. At this low point in August of 1942, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery to lead the British 8th Army to face Rommel in North Africa.
Finding the morale low, and plans of retreat already in place in case of German attack, General Montgomery gave a fiery speech to the high command of the demoralized 8th Army only hours after taking over its command. That speech revealed the mettle of Montgomery’s great leadership, his understanding of how to speak courage into people, and the fire in the belly that we should all have as leaders when facing dire circumstances. His speech was the starting point in turning a deflated 8th army into a fighting group that defeated Rommel in North Africa, which was in Churchill’s assessment, the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime.
Here are excerpts from his speech which reveal to us many powerful lessons about leadership.
When times are tough, believe in your people.
General Montgomery began his remarks with:
I want, first of all, to introduce myself to you. You do not know me. I do not know you. But we have got to work together. Therefore we must understand each other, and we must have confidence in each other. I have only been here a few hours. But from what I have seen and heard since I arrived, I am prepared to say, here and now, that I have confidence in you. We will then work together as a team. And together we will gain the confidence of this great Army and go forward to final victory in Africa.
When I read this, his words struck me deeply. Remember, he was speaking to a leadership team that was in retreat, and was not prepared to fight. In essence, he was not speaking to a team who was doing a great job. So how could he say he had confidence in them? I believe it was because he understood this core leadership principle: A leader must have confidence in his people before they have confidence in him and in themselves. The great General Montgomery did just that. He took the initiative with the new people he was to lead. He told them he had confidence in them, and asked that they trust him and come with him to take on the challenges ahead.
To turn things around, create a new atmosphere.
I believe that one of the first duties of a commander is to create what I call ‘atmosphere,’ and in that atmosphere his staff, subordinate commanders, and troops will live and work and fight. I do not like the general atmosphere I find here. It is an atmosphere of doubt, of looking back to select the next place to withdraw, of loss of confidence in our ability to defeat Rommel, of desperate defense measures by reserves in preparing positions in Cairo and the Delta. All that must cease. Let us have a new atmosphere.
In the face of defeat, stand and fight!
And here’s my favorite part:
…Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burned, and at once. We will stand and fight here. If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.
…Our mandate from the Prime Minister is to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa. I have seen it, written on half a sheet of notepaper. And it will be done. If anyone here thinks it can’t be done, let him go at once. I don’t want any doubters in this party. It can be done, and it will be done, beyond any possibility of doubt.
General Montgomery did not just give great oratory. His actions backed up his rhetoric. After his arrival, the morale and energies of the divisions he commanded were lifted. The senior officers who could not instill this new culture were dismissed.
Within a few months, large German and Italian armies led by General Irwin Rommel were defeated, and until the end of World War II, the 8th Army never lost a battle. The victories of North Africa for the Allied forces were the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime. And it all started with a leader who came to a demoralized army and spoke confidence into them.
I salute one of the great generals of World War II, British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery.
In face of foreboding odds, we must speak confidence and courage into the people we lead.
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