Strategic Planning Versus Instinctive Genius – Where Would Winston Churchill Have Been Without Alan Brooke

After a week thinking about strategic planning and how we can improve out organizational matrix at work, last night I took some time off and watched an old Second World War film, the Battle of Britain, which was a good watch, even though it was a long time since it was made. Both the work week and the film got me thinking of strategy planning, it’s role in organizational and goal achievement success, and associated with this, the relationship between Winston Churchill and Alan Brooke in plotting Britain’s ‘pathway’ to success, or at least the part Britain played in the success, during the Second world war. Strategy is defined as a high level plan, usually generated by a team leader, to achieve one or more goals by the team under conditions of uncertainty. Strategic planning usually, but not always, involves all of the setting of goals based on awareness of resources available, determining both the plans and actions required to achieve these goals, and implementing the plans and actions in a way that the goal is reached in the most optimal way. Strategy has also been defined as a ‘pattern in a stream of decisions’, or as a ‘way of shaping the future in order to get to desirable ends with available means’. A key feature of strategic planning is pre-emptively attempting to look into the future to assess the multiple possible scenarios and outcomes of the different strategic plans which could be chosen to attain the required goal, whatever it is, and making a decision selecting one of the plans based on awareness of the environment, skills and limitations both of the team one leads and the adversaries one potentially competes with before achieving the goal. There is always a degree of guesswork involved in any strategic thinking and planning, but at its basic level, order, structure and logic underpin and are essential for any sound strategic plan.

A book / piece of writing that has most influenced my understanding of strategic thinking has been the War Diaries of Field Marshall Alan Brooke (later Viscount Alanbrooke), which I have read probably 20 or 30 times in the last decade after I first became aware of its existence, and I appreciate it even more each time I do so. Alan Brooke, as a General, commanded one of the two Army Corps of the British Expeditionary Force that served in France in the early stage of World War 2, then served as Head of the United Kingdom Home Forces during the dark days of 1940 and 1941 when invasion was a distinct possibility, then was appointed a Field Marshall and Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), the highest rank obtainable in the British Army (which included all Commonwealth forces) at that time. Brooke served in this role for the remainder of the war, and in which capacity he worked on a daily basis with Winston Churchill, plotting the overall war strategy adopted by the British forces, in conjunction with the Chief of the Air Force (Charles Portal) and Navy (first Dudley Pound and after his death Andrew Cunningham) Staffs. What is interesting about Alan Brooke is that his strategy, which he developed right at the start of his tenure as CIGS at the end of 1941, was that which was almost completely followed by the Western Allies during the war, and also that he is almost totally unknown to history except by a few history buffs and military academics who explore the war period and its strategy and battles with a strong microscope. The latter may perhaps be because of the fact that the most famous texts describing the course of the war from the British perspective were written by Winston Churchill himself, in a string of books described by several of his contemporaries as an autobiography of Churchill’s personal role in winning the war ‘dressed up’ as the overall (and bestselling) history of the World War Two in its entirety.

There is perhaps a reason Churchill did this (write his own history of the war), which is ego-related. While he was a brilliant man, and deserves just about all of the credit he is given for playing his huge part of that epochal period of Britain’s history (though of course the war was essentially won by the Russians and their huge manpower sacrifices to do so, which can only have occurred in a totalitarian state as Russia was at the time), his gifts were surely more those of the instinctive genius, who was superb in a crisis, but fickle in setting policy and strategy for either war and political goals both before and during the war. If World War Two had not occurred, Churchill’s epitaph would have been a far less significant one, as a political ‘will of the wisp’ who changed parties frequently, and was responsible for two of Britain’s great disasters during the First World War – the Dardenelles Campaign (known to most for the heroic failure of the Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli) and the Antwerp Raid – both brilliant in theory, but almost completely out of touch with the reality of what could be performed with the manpower available and the logistical issues which should have ensured they never even got past the planning phase, and led to both being disastrous campaigns, and Churchill being sacked from the war cabinet for a period of time. In the Second World War, just before he took over as Prime Minister, as Head of the Admiralty he planned and was responsible for the equally disastrous invasion of Norway, which lead to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, and for some reason which is still a mystery today, Churchill evaded the responsibility for this disaster, and became Prime Minister in spite of it.

Though Alan Brooke was not Churchill’s first choice as CIGS (he preferred his soldiers to have colourful personalities or to be strong external ‘characters’ such as Admiral Mountbatten and General Alexander, both whom history has shown to have questionable strategic ability, although both had unquestionable bravery and charisma), but proved to be his wisest selection of the war. Brooke was not a ‘peoples person’, had a quick brain and spoke quickly and always gave his honest opinion, whether it was welcome or not, and had an explosive temper (his nickname was ‘Colonel Shrapnel’, though paradoxically his most enjoyable pastime and hobby was bird-watching). Perhaps because of this, Brooke and Churchill did not enjoy each other completely from a social perspective, though each appreciated their respective strengths and skills. What Brooke had was an absolute brilliant strategic brain, and could see very quickly both what is now described as the ‘big picture’, and the ‘wood from the trees’ in any difficult situation where the outcome and strategy required was not immediately clear. He always thought several ‘steps’ ahead, and about what outcome an action or plan in one theatre of the war would have on the other war theatres and campaigns in what was a global and total war. He would not agree with any campaign or new battle plan without being very sure there was capacity to wage it, that it had a good chance of being won, and that it fitted into the overall strategy already set to win the war, or would help achieve this goal in a very clear way. Churchill, in contrast, while being a capable strategist, thought in a more intuitive way, and had a number of new ideas and plans he wanted to execute on almost a daily basis, some brilliant, most eccentric (such as wanting to invade Norway on a second occasion later in the war despite no chance of air cover for the landings, and invading the northern tip of an island near Sumatra, again with no chance of air cover and with huge logistical obstacles that would prevent it occurring, as just two examples, both of which caused major conflict between Churchill and Brooke and the Air and Navy Chiefs on Brooke’s side, with the Military Chiefs eventually vetoing Churchill’s plans). But as a partnership they were brilliant, and Churchill, even if often angered by Brooke – once waving his fist in Brooke’s face while saying he did not want his long term strategic plans to always hinder new potentially fruitful areas for fighting in – called Brooke his alter ego, and perhaps knew that he needed someone like Brooke to curb his erratic, even if often brilliant insights and impulsive behaviour. And again, if you sift through the evidence carefully, it was Brook’s strategic plan which ‘won the day’, even with the American military leaders (though they did hurry some aspects of his plan, such as the timing of the invasion of Normandy), and one can only imagine what could have happened if Churchill had a less brilliant and less tough (Brooke was one of the few people who stood up to Churchill’s temper and roared back when roared at by Churchill during late night strategic planning sessions) strategist to temper his erratic brilliance that went with his magnetic and charismatic leadership. The statue of Brooke in London bears the insignia ‘Master Strategist’, and as Brooke so well described Churchill in his diaries: ‘The wonderful thing is that three quarters of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the great strategists of history, a second Marlborough, and the other quarter have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again.’

So what do the Diaries of Alan Brooke, and his successful relationship with Winston Churchill tell us that could help us in our daily work life. Surely, that sound strategic planning is essential to achieve a required goal. Equally surely, that one needs a blend of both creative geniuses and logical strategists, the one that creates the ‘spark’ which sets things rolling, and the other that ‘knows what the one foot is doing at the same time as the other one is moving’, as Brooke always like to say when he was trying to tell someone that they were not thinking strategically. Brooke was by nature a cautious and systematic man (though his diaries were surprisingly emotional, perhaps as a result of being written usually late at night when tired after a long day ‘sparring’ with Churchill), and caution and systematic behaviour is perhaps inherently required for / essential in developing a strategic plan, and the capacity to adhere to the plan ‘through thick and thin’. But Brooke would not have had the personality that was required to maintain morale in the ‘bad days’ of the Blitz and early days of the war when most was going wrong for Britain as Churchill did so well. A team with only creative geniuses will surely be initially successful, but will equally surely not maintain its successes. A team with too many strategists will generate a lot of good plans, and have the capacity to administratively take them along as delineated, but the plans may ultimately all remain in the cupboard and never see the light of day without the input of the creative ‘go-getter’. Churchill used to often say at social events, that by adding together a dashing Army General, an Air Marshall and a Navy Admiral, he had got the sum of all their fears as a combination / outcome of the group – perhaps not realizing how denigrative he was being towards his military leaders by saying this, and / or not being aware of his own weaknesses that he was perhaps ‘hiding’ by projecting such aspersions on his more strategically minded military leaders (though of course Churchill was a political genius, and often the military leaders did not see the political requirements which often lay behind Churchill’s eccentric military ideas). Sadly, for some reason Churchill chose to ignore the contribution of Brooke to a large degree, for reasons perhaps ego related – great men cannot allow anyone else’s shadow to cloud their sun – and his huge contribution has all but disappeared with the passing of time. The moral of this is perhaps that if you want to be remembered for posterity, write your history yourself – but thank goodness historical works like Brooke’s diary survived to see the ‘light of day’ and were published many years after the war, which allowed us to learn the rich lessons in them about both strategic planning and the human effort required to maintain that strategy in order to achieve ultimate success.

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About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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