The Great War of 1914-18—it became the First World War only in tragic retrospect—was the seminal event of the 20th century. Its after-effects reverberate in our day.
One might argue that the 20th century actually began with the war in 1914, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If so, then one might characterize World War I as the first phase of a 75-Year War.
The Great War and its immediate aftermath (including the flu pandemic) consumed 37 million casualties.
As shocking as the absolute number is, consider what it would mean in today’s terms. In 1920 the population of the earth was approaching two billion; by contrast, today that number has passed seven billion. By a conservative accounting, that would translate into more than a hundred million casualties in our time.
At the outset of a new century, it may be useful to reflect upon leadership lessons that the Great War provides.
Just as the war affected aspects of life far beyond the battlefield, its leadership lessons have resonance far beyond wartime.
13 Leadership Lessons World War I
1. Leadership Matters. Leadership—of individuals and elites in power—was of great significance. The war did not “just happen.” Barbara Tuchman’s enduring literary history, The Guns of August, made the case for the war being the result of failed diplomatic arrangements. Once the fuse was lit, the conflagration was inevitable. More recent scholarship, such as The Sleepwalkers, returns attention to widespread, identifiable leadership failures of various political and military figures.
2. Shared Interests Can be Overwhelmed by Other Considerations. Europe in 1914 stood astride the world. Globalization of trade and finance reached unprecedented levels. Against this backdrop, a protracted war between European nations would be manifestly irrational. Norman Angell’s powerful book, The Great Illusion A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage made this case in 1911. Nonetheless, European decision-makers stumbled toward continental self-immolation.
3. Health is a Critical Leadership Issue. At the highest levels, where judgment is their foremost added value, leaders’ health can be decisive. With tragic irony, Woodrow Wilson foresaw that American presidents would need to become “citizen athletes” to meet their responsibilities. Wilson’s own failing health and brittle, increasingly volatile temperament were significant factors in his troubled relationships with various stakeholders, from other nations and across Pennsylvania Avenue. English Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, a man of notable accomplishment and ability in peacetime, buckled under the combined pressures of long tenure and the war. He was succeeded by David Lloyd George. LG was exceptionally energetic and effective. Czar Nicholas of Russia was fragile psychologically, scarcely able to manage affairs. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm’s psychological profile was troubled. Taken together, the health of these leaders must be seen as of great significance in the unfolding tragedy.
4. A Century of Managed Peace Yielded No Guarantees for the Future. The Congress of Vienna, following the Napoleonic Wars, had resulted in relative peace on the European continent for a century. This accomplishment had habituated many people to assume that conflict could be kept within bounds, even as various European powers became entangled in a web of alliances. However, past performance is never a guarantee of future results. It may be that individual leaders each assumed that the broader “system” would ensure that their own forays into irresponsibility might be contained. It was not to be.
5. Social Reform Was Blocked by Outdated Institutions. In various nations, it appears that the capacity to forestall change outweighed the capacity to accommodate evolving experiences and expectations. By the early years of the new century, many came to see war as a necessary cathartic for the body politic. This was built on the breathtaking misconception that the clarifying conflict would be relatively risk-free and of brief duration. These factors were among the reasons for the initial burst of public support for the war in several nations.
6. Institutions May Be Most Vulnerable at the Moment They Are Generally Accepted As Inevitable. The stagnation of politics doubtless helped foster the illusion that familiar institutions were durable. Indeed, the years just prior to the outbreak of war were recalled as a high point of confidence, at least among the elites. In retrospect, it was more in the nature of an Indian summer, the last moments of a passing scene.
7. Failure of Historical Imagination. The intertwined elites of the European powers could not conceive a world without monarchy, aristocracy, and European primacy. Most could not imagine the destruction that could be wrought in a total war, mobilizing the untapped powers of modern industry and entire populations. In fact, the American Civil War, fifty years prior, constituted a chastening preview of coming destruction.
8. Management Dysfunction Can Consume Legitimacy. The shortcomings of political and military leadership were experienced on the ground as lethal management failures. The notorious acceptance of mass casualties prompted widespread mutinies in the French and Russian forces. The very names of Gallipoli and General Douglas Haig conjure up visions of unimaginable, unnecessary slaughter, with industrial age weaponry blasting row after row of young bodies into bloody bits. The butcher’s bill was unfathomable. Confidence in the authorities was swept away. This would hasten the emergence of anti-colonial movements and strip the legitimacy of military, social, and political institutions. Many of the young people who had ardently entered service would be disillusioned, a “lost generation.”
9. War Aims and Consequences Were Poorly Communicated. The Great War was notable for the development of mass propaganda. However, the capacity to communicate did not necessarily result in clarity or transparency. For example, the surrender of Germany in November 1918 was widely misconstrued. Many Germans believed that the Armistice was the result of betrayal by treasonous domestic forces, rather than dictated by defeat on the battlefield. This opened the way for Adolf Hitler and other unscrupulous politicians to cast blame on the “November Criminals” who “stabbed Germany in the back.” Politicians offered righteous war aims—such as “open covenants, openly arrived at”—and became objects of obloquy as the realties of the resulting peace became known.
10. The Allies Failed to Summon Magnanimity in Victory. With reason, the retribution wrought by the victorious Allies in the Versailles Treaty is generally reckoned a contributing cause to the desire for vengeance sought by many Germans. Hitler would play upon such sentiments. So, too, disquiet over them among many in England, France, and the United States may have been a factor in the fateful unwillingness to confront Nazi Germany in its initial conquests.
11. The Victors Wrongly Projected Their Post-War Views of the Catastrophe. Millions of people desperately sought meaning from the horror and sacrifice of the Great War. There was a widespread sentiment in the victorious nations that this must be “the war to end all wars.” A successor generation of statesmen would believe avoidance of a general European war to be their highest calling. Where they erred was in presuming that others necessarily took the same lessons. Hitler, who had served as a soldier in the Great War, saw others’ reluctance to fight as an opportunity to press his revolutionary policies. Horrific innovations, such as the Armenian genocide of 1915, were viewed by Hitler and his ilk not as cautionary tales, but as blueprints for expanded wickedness.
12. The Fog of War is Lethal. Entering a war has been compared to walking into a pitch-black room—and shutting the door behind. World War I was triggered by violence in the Balkans. The Armistice did not resolve the issues that prompted the outbreak. So, too, Second World War began with the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. The ostensible allied war aim of protecting Poland’s sovereignty ended with Russian domination.
The same principles hold for conflicts in all settings. War, or its parallels in business and civilian life, can take on a life of its own. The enveloping “fog” that descends can take the participants far from any outcome they would have foreseen, much less desired.
13. History Does Not Stand Still. Incumbency is dangerous. People must have action. Technology, culture, economics, trade, and finance were driving Europe in extraordinary new directions through nearly a century of peace prior to the fateful summer of 1914. Political and social structures, reflecting the values and value of earlier times, failed to keep pace. Looking past wistful renderings such as Downton Abbey, one recognizes the tragic shortcomings of a European aristocracy that squandered its birthright, bringing ruin to the nations it was theoretically intended to serve. The tides of history can be ignored for a time—but to do so is to risk being overwhelmed soon enough.
13 Leadership Lessons World War I