Business Lessons From The Battle of The Bulge
The World War II battle, the longest ever fought by American troops, offers insights into exceptional performance under impossible pressure.
This year marks 72nd commemoration of the Battle of The Bulge, a ferocious and devastating attack by the Nazi Germans on primarily American troops that began on December 16, 1944 across Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The battle was a desperate attempt by the Germans to rapidly and decisively turn the Allied advance into a retreat to the Atlantic. While unsuccessful, the surprise Nazi German offensive and the uncoordinated initial Allied response offers several critical business lessons during this time of unprecedented political change and tepid economic growth.
In late 1944, the Nazi German’s were in full retreat in Eastern Europe against the advancing Soviet Union (Russia) and the Allies (United States, United Kingdom, and Canada) in the West. The Nazi strategic answer to this “vise” of attacks was an unexpected, but sharp and powerful attack in the West to drive the Allies back to the D-Day invasion beaches, freeing the Nazis to turn their armies on the Soviet Union. The results of these attacks were a fleeting success in the West that lasted a few weeks, not months as the Nazi’s hoped, and did nothing to forestall the eventual success of the Allies and the Soviet Union by May of 1945. Still, the initial Nazi tactical success in this offensive contains elements of critical learnings that can be directly applied to today’s business environment.
1. The best intelligence comes from the front.
The predominant intelligence message of the American higher headquarters in early December 1944 was that the Nazi Germans were in static defensive positions and were expected to be that way for months. Contrary to the opinion of generals and headquarters staffs, frontline combat units heard from local people that German units were preparing for an attack. American units also captured several junior ranking German soldiers who also told of preparations for a major attack. No one in the higher American headquarters accepted or put together the consistent story that the Germans were preparing for a major attack.
The business lesson is executive teams must constantly be open to listening and hearing things that may go against their own beliefs and experiences. Listening to the front lines and then assembling those messages into a consistent story often times leads to the best competitive insight.
2. Assume the competition will take the most dangerous course.
American commanders had dismissed the local ground intelligence that pointed to a different conclusion on the Nazi German actions than what they thought likely. American commanders had also dismissed the combat skills, tactics, strategy and morale of the German forces. “How can the German’s fight back when they have been in full retreat?” American commanders asked.
The business lesson is that you must never underestimate the skills, passion and commitment of your competition. Indeed, the safe approach to the competition is to expect them to do what will become the most damaging to your position. In this way, planning and expecting your competition to take the most dangerous path will ensure that you anticipate and plan how to defeat the competition at their most dangerous.
Competitors are planning just like you. When you plan for the competition to be at their best, you will rarely be surprised.
3. The key to success is logistics, not tactics.
Logistics drives military success in battle. For both the Nazi Germans and the Allies, it was the logistics of fuel, ammunition, spare parts, replacement troops, food, water and medical supplies that ultimately decided that military actions on the battlefield. The German attackers quickly lost their military advantage when the weather cleared to allow for Allied attacks on the vulnerable German logistical supplies. For the Allies, the African-American logistical unit, the Red Ball Express, played a key role to supply Patton’s counterattacking tank units with fuel and ammunition, the two most vital military supplies.
Ultimately, the Allies' logistics and unequaled combat power from both the ground and the air defeated the German attack. The business lesson is that you can have great products and great strategy, but those need to be fully supported with quality manufacturing, great customer service and the ability to fix and repair critical customer issues.
4. In the face of adversity leadership needs humor and humility.
In the early days after the devastating destruction and retreat following the German surprise attack, grim faced Allied commander’s met to discuss the situation and next steps. Patton, alone among the senior commanders, expressed his passion and aggressive leadership that they should aggressively attack, not just defend.
After American forces in Bastogne were surrounded and cut off by the Germans, they demanded the American commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, surrender his position. McAuliffe famously responded “Nuts!” which both confused and infuriated the German attackers.
Throughout the battle, American leaders from sergeants to generals used combinations of humor, humility, initiative, bravery and leadership by example to calm, inspire and direct their forces from determined defense to a determined counter-attack and eventual victory. The business lesson is that humor and humility are powerful tools of leadership to inspire teams when morale is low and the situation dire. Indeed, the worse the business situation, the greater importance of leadership humor and humility.
5. Superior technology with inferior strategy will not carry the day.
When they Nazi German’s attacked they revealed some of their latest weapons. They possessed new tanks, new infantry weapons, and new tactics to make tanks and infantry attack faster. Even with these great new weapons, they were unable to create a victory in the battle even though they had initial success because their overall concept was deeply flawed and lacked sufficient logistical support. The business lesson is that even if you have one great product, but your company strategy does not reflect the needs of customers, the strength of your competition, then it is unlikely to succeed in the marketplace.
Understanding that great intelligence comes from those closest to the battle, assuming your competitor can chose a dangerous course of action, knowing that supporting your product is as importance as designing it, realizing the vital importance of humble leadership, and knowing superior technology alone is unlikely to win the day are the critical business lessons from the Battle of the Bulge. Remembering the sacrifice of the soldiers who turned around a desperate battlefield situation and won during a cold and snowy period in late 1944 is a great way to remember the military veterans of World War II. A better way to remember is to learn the lessons of the Battle of the Bulge and apply those lessons to your business.