Building the Organization for Uncertainty: Lessons from The German Army’s Prewar Leadership Model

[version en français ici]

How can an organization not only protect itself from uncertainty, but more importantly take advantage of it? The question is a hot one these days. It preoccupies many strategists, jumping from one crisis to another in a world that has become highly unstable and full of surprises. One source of inspiration, perhaps unexpected, is the German army, which built, from the end of the 19th century, a very powerful leadership model from which we can learn a lot.

Why was France defeated in 1940? The subject is still being discussed, but in his book L’étrange défaite (Strange Defeat), written in the weeks following the debacle but published after the war, the historian Marc Bloch believes that the German victory was above all intellectual. Contrary to a widely held belief, it was not due to technological superiority. The image of an ultra-modern and motorized German army is mainly the product of propaganda through well-chosen images; the reality is that it still used horses extensively: more than two million during the conflict. The Allied armies, especially the French and British, were not at all inferior in terms of technology. The success of 1940 was in fact largely due to a bold strategy and the leadership model of the Wehrmacht. As Ernest May notes in his book Strange victory, named after Bloch’s, on Hitler’s conquest of France, the German executive’s process of judgment – the way it made decisions – worked far better than that of the Allies. A process that Bloch describes as methodical opportunism. “The Germans,” he writes, “believed in action and the unexpected.” Indeed, they believed that the key to winning was to act mentally faster than their enemies. By “faster” they meant not only raw physical speed, but also making better decisions. The two are related: better decisions made in a timely manner translate into better physical speed relative to the enemy. In essence, they developed a model linking learning and action based on a repeated loop.

Methodical opportunism, the key to dealing with uncertainty

What is this methodical opportunism? May explains that decision-making under uncertainty consists of asking three questions: What is happening? What does it mean? What can we do? This is a judgment rather than a calculation, because in uncertainty – the fog of war – information is very limited and ambiguous, sometimes false. These three questions must be asked over and over again, until an original and feasible solution emerges. We recognize here the entrepreneurial posture of effectuation (what can I do now with what I have at hand now?) applied in a very different context.

Faced with uncertainty and the rapid development of situations, the decision-maker has two challenges: to maintain a certain control of the action and not be overtaken (this is the defensive part), on the one hand, and to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in the whirlwind of these events on the other. This is where methodical opportunism is useful. It is built on strong principles, but leaves a lot of room for autonomy: it is opportunistic, but based on a method. This model is not a series of tools, boxes to fill in, or diagrams to follow, but a culture. The Wehrmacht (the German army) achieved this through a progressive and innovative approach to developing its leaders.

Intellectual victory (Source: Wikipedia)

The Three Pillars of the Leadership Model

How was this methodical opportunism possible? Through the development of a leadership model. This model goes by the sweet name of Auftragstaktik, or mission (Auftrag) tactics (Taktik). The Auftragstaktik model (I will write it several times in the text, so you will eventually be able to pronounce it) is based on three principles:

1. Knowledge: soldiers are expected to master the basics of the profession, whether it be maneuver, weapons handling, or the specifics of their corps. It is the basis for action, to know what to do in known situations. This technical mastery reinforces the legitimacy with the comrades, and the trust between leaders and subordinates. It builds the team.

2. Independence: Independence is the ability to decide for oneself according to the circumstances. It is important because an agent may be the only one present who has the authority to make a decision at a given time. Soldiers can’t always wait for leaders to tell them what to do and when to do it.

3. The joy of taking responsibility: it is the will to continue to act, and to decide, even in the most difficult circumstances. It is what prevents soldiers from becoming passive and giving up.

This model of leadership requires a mastery of the known, through expertise, and defines a posture to react to the unknown, with independence and responsibility. In short, officers were taught how to think, not what to think, especially in the face of uncertainty. In this model, what is unforgivable is the lack of initiative in the face of a developing situation. Waiting for perfect information before making any decision was not tolerated. This attitude extended to all echelons, down to the individual soldier.

This model was misunderstood by the Allies, particularly the Americans who studied it long before the Second World War. For them, it boiled down to distinguishing between the intention of the high command, on the one hand, and the execution, on the other, the latter being left to the discretion of the executors. But the Auftragstaktik is much more than a simple Cartesian division between thought and action. It is a system of thorough selection and training at all levels of the army, committed over many years. The Auftragstaktik is the ultimate leadership culture because it enables the individual to solve problems in the best possible way after thorough professional development through trust.

Thus, it was not Hitler who built the German army that won in 1940. It was the product of a long process that began at the end of the 19th century. When he came to power, he found a German army that was certainly weakened by its defeat in 1918, but which had a remarkable leadership model. He made use of it as we know it, but above all, he gradually destroyed it. As the French general Yakovleff remarked about the Russian army in Ukraine, a model based on learning and improving performance presupposes a culture of truth, which is not possible in a totalitarian regime.

The ethical dimension

But there is another lesson that can be drawn, this one hollow, which is that the Wehrmacht model lacked an essential component, that of ethics, that is, the principles of doing the right thing. It is one thing to master an expertise, to be independent and to joyfully take responsibility, but it is also necessary to determine what one is doing it for, and especially what one refuses to do. The crimes committed by the Wehrmacht during the war are not so much the result of the misuse of an honorable army by a dictator as the inevitable consequence of his model of leadership conceived as purely functional, from which ethics is totally absent. Here again we see the contradictions of a model that emphasizes independence and responsibility in a totalitarian system that denies the moral aspect of these two dimensions. In essence, the system suffers from an internal contradiction. Ethics, when it is a component of a leadership model, undoubtedly constrains action in the short term, but it is a factor of superiority in the long term, because it confers a moral advantage. It is this advantage that makes the armies of free citizens strong.

Lessons for management

Many elements of this leadership model and Auftragstaktik are obviously specific to the military context, and a model designed for one context must be applied with caution in another. There are nevertheless some useful lessons for non-military organizations: first, the importance of developing a culture of truth; second, an understanding that technical knowledge, including tools and methods, applies to the known but is limited beyond it; and third, a reliance on the autonomy and initiative of the field for what is unknown. This model is requires a very long-term investment in developing this culture within the organization. By making each individual a leader at his or her own level, it goes against the current dominant thinking that reserves leadership qualities for the organization’s leaders alone and that, as a result, remains anchored in a decision-maker/executor opposition that makes the organization fragile in the face of uncertainty.

🔍Source for this article: How the Germans Defined Auftragstaktik: What Mission Command is – AND – is Not par Donald E. Vandergriff. See also: Ernest May Strange victory; Hitler’s conquest of France

📬 If you enjoyed this blog post, why not subscribe?

3 thoughts on “Building the Organization for Uncertainty: Lessons from The German Army’s Prewar Leadership Model

Leave a Reply