Changing the Mood: leadership lessons from the Battle of El Alamein

by | 16 Nov 2010 | Leaders from History

‘Changing the mood’ is one of the most challenging problems that a leader of any organisation can face. Successful organisations start off in life with enthusiasm and vigour, driven by the vision of the founders and the early management teams. Sadly, leadership and vision often fade over successive generations of management, and teams begin to see only problems, not solutions. People stop believing that they can succeed.

An extreme example of exactly this problem — a lack of belief, not a lack of ability — was faced by Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery (born November 17th, 1887), when he took over the British Eighth Army in North Africa at a crucial moment in the Second World War, after a series of defeats by the brilliant German tank commander, Erwin Rommel. Eighth Army command had lost faith in their ability to defeat Rommel. There were elaborate plans for defending against Rommel’s next attack, and a whole drawer-full of fall-back positions, but there were no plans for driving Rommel out of North Africa.

‘If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead’

As the campaign in North Africa staggered from crisis to crisis, Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, decided to replace the Commander-in-Chief, Auchinlek, with General Sir Harold Alexander, and sought a new commander for Eighth Army itself. Montgomery was not Churchill’s first choice for the command; Churchill was only persuaded to offer the job to ‘Monty’ after his first appointment, William Gott, was shot down on an internal flight across the Libyan Desert before he could even take up his new post.

Montgomery sized up the situation with astonishing speed and took immediate control. In a classic speech of its kind he electrified his staff with his clear vision of what they would do next and how they would ultimately win. An army that was convinced of its own worth but baffled by its failures against Rommel could suddenly believe in itself again. There was a clear plan of action and infectious self-confidence.

The main risk was that Rommel would overrun British defences in North Africa and break through to the east, overrunning Egypt and the vital oil fields of the Middle East. ‘The defence of Egypt lies here at Alamein,’ said Montgomery as he addressed his new team.

‘What is the point of digging trenches in the Delta? It is quite useless; if we lose this position we lose Egypt; all the fighting troops in the Delta must come here at once, and will. 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. I want to impress on everyone that the bad times are over.’

‘This Rommel chap is definitely a nuisance,’ added Montgomery, almost as an afterthought, ‘so we will hit him a crack and be done with him.’

‘We were different people. we suddenly had a spring in our step.’

The transformation in mood achieved by Montgomery in a matter of days was startling. One of Montgomery’s Intelligence Officers described the effect of the address as one of ‘exhilaration’. Other’s talked of the ‘electrifying’ effect of Montgomery’s speech; about his ‘professionalism’. One officer said, ‘Monty absolutely deserved all the credit he could get for the way he changed us. I mean, we were different people. We suddenly had a spring in our step.’ Winston Churchill, visiting the army a week or so after Montgomery’s arrival, could hardly believe the change.

Montgomery’s great assets were his meticulous planning and his immense self-confidence. His analysis of the situation at Alamein was perfect: the British armoured Corps had been ‘Too brave. They always attack’. German tanks would take shelter behind their anti-tank guns, which had a longer range than the guns of the British tanks; once the anti-tank guns had done their damage, the superior German tanks would join the battle and Rommel could use his cavalryman’s genius to the full. As a result, the British had fought a series of losing cavalry engagements and Army headquarters had developed a system of ever-more complicated defensive arrangements. The whole system prevented any concentration of force, either in attack or defence.

Montgomery pulled all of the troops up forward, to a strong defensive position offered by a ridge south-east of El Alamein: a natural bottle-neck between the Qattara Depression — which tanks could not cross — and the sea. Rommel would have to pass through this gap if he was to drive east towards Egypt, the Suez Canal and the oilfields of  the Middle East. Montgomery dug in not only his anti-tank guns but the tanks themselves, using them as stationery gun emplacements. His plan was to let Rommel attack Alam El Halfa — indeed to encourage him to do so — while building up his forces for a strong counter-attack, using the American-supplied, powerful Sherman tanks that were on their way to North Africa. Nothing illustrates Montgomery’s confidence in his planning more graphically than the fact that, when woken to be told that Rommel was attacking, he lifted his head from the pillow, muttered, ‘Excellent, excellent’ — and went back to sleep.

Montgomery’s defensive line held. There was a real danger that individual commanders would launch counter-attacks — which is what Rommel wanted most of all — but Montgomery had drummed the plan into his troops. Rommel attacked again next day but could make no headway, and withdrew. The German high-command berated Rommel for not pursuing the offensive. The official reasons given for were shortage of petrol, Allied air superiority and the lack of an element of surprise. In fact, Rommel knew that he had been outmanoeuvred — in a strategic sense. Rommel, the master of manoeuvre, had been presented with a powerful defensive line that he could not break through, outflank or ignore.

Montgomery, in his turn, was criticised for not delivering a killer blow against Rommel’s retreating forces. He bided his time while he was reinforced with British Commonwealth forces and American Sherman tanks. Germany, embattled on the Eastern Front with Russia, was unable to resupply Rommel.  Montgomery eventually launched a huge air and artillery bombardment and then drove wedges of armour through Rommel’s lines, forcing a retreat to the west as far as Tunisia.

Victory in North Africa denied Axis forces access to the oil of the Middle East and was the first major victory of the Second World War. Churchill, with his usual eye for a telling phrase (but borrowing heavily, in this case, from the French Napoleonic diplomat, Talleyrand), said ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’  And he also said (not quite accurately, but in homage to the turning point that victory in North Africa represented), ‘Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.’

A mood of defeatism in any organisation is self-fulfilling: a team that does not believe that they can succeed never will succeed. Changing a negative mood is a formidable leadership challenge, but teams that have faith in clear, well-presented strategies that they are confident of being able to implement, can suddenly regain their winning ways.

Lieutenant-General (later Field Marshall) Bernard Montgomery is featured in Section 1 of History Lessons: Changing the Mood.

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