1940, Battle of France
“Basically, the General Staff is like a bridge player being questioned from a nearby room:
– What should I do with my queen of spades?
The isolated player would shrug. Having seen nothing of the game, what would he answer?
But a General Staff has no right to shrug. If it still controls a few elements, it must make them act, to keep them in hand, and to take every chance while the war lasts. Although blind, he must act, and make them act.
But it’s hard to assign a role, at random, to a Queen of Spades… You’d think the defeated player would be overwhelmed by a torrent of problems, using his infantry, artillery, tanks and planes to the limit in order to solve them… But defeat first removes the problems. You no longer know anything about the game. You don’t know what to do with the planes, the tanks, the Queen of Spades… You just throw her randomly on the table, after having racked your brains to find an effective role for her. Malaise reigns, not fever. Victory organizes, victory builds. And everyone struggles to carry their stones.
But defeat soaks men, in an atmosphere of incoherence, boredom and, above all, futility. For first of all, they are futile, the missions demanded of us. Every day more futile. Bloodier and more futile. Those who give the orders have no other resource, to oppose a mountain slide, than to throw their last trump cards on the table”.
This beautiful text by Saint Exupéry, expressing his personal feelings as an airplane pilot at war, is, all things considered, those of many field managers when their company suffers a crisis due to external or internal causes. They wonder about the injunctions that come down from management, who want to do in 3 months what hasn’t been done in 3 years, while cutting budgets with an axe.
Management is perhaps in a state of mind akin to that of the General Staff described by Saint Exupéry. You have to “do something, fast, to reassure shareholders, customers…”.
Sometimes there is a virtuous effect: what was “impossible” before, becomes possible overnight.
More often, it’s the start of a never-ending slide. We act haphazardly, forgetting any strategy, cutting costs as quickly as possible by trimming everywhere, while no longer having the means to invest in the decisive areas. The subject may be global to the company as a whole, or more circumscribed to a specific area. It may involve responding to a call for tenders worth several hundred million that you feel you’re losing, launching a product in a hurry to counter a competitor, or a merger-acquisition operation that isn’t going according to plan…
I found remarkable the work done by the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Army, Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Army, Valeri Zaloujny, who took the time to explain his thinking and make an uncompromising diagnosis of the progress of the war with Russia. His analysis was criticized from all sides, more for its form than its content: “You shouldn’t say that”. Well, yes, we must confront reality and make a reasoned diagnosis, rather than throwing our last strength into the battle by denying the facts.
Let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. Imagine the pressure this man has been under since July 27, 2021. How does he manage to take a step back, without giving in to futile agitation?
This general, renowned for his ability to adapt to rapidly changing battlefields, says “the key here is principles. Changes have to take place mainly in the broad vision of the environment and the attitude towards people. I’d like you to turn your face towards people, towards your subordinates. My attitude towards people hasn’t changed during my service”.
This approach gives Zaloujny stability, a verticality that protects him from the futile.
To achieve this, you need to have made the effort to clarify your World precisely, i.e. the force field that structures your values around our 4 mutually nourishing and reinforcing items: Grandeur Recognition, Interactions, Decision.
Leaders who give in to the “futility” described by Saint Exupéry are those who have not solidly built their World. I help leaders of major companies to develop their talents as Creators of a World to which their stakeholders want to belong. The essence of my work, that of P-VAL, is to guide them in this work of solid foundation.