High Morale: Lessons from D-Day to the House of Lords
By The Army Leader
…Remember Monty’s pep talks to us on the eve of the invasion? Then the emotional feeling as we threaded our way through the English countryside, heading for our embarkation points. I can recall some barracking dockers as we approached Southampton, shouting to us ‘are you down hearted’?
To which, of course, we all shouted back, ‘No!’
‘Well you bloody soon will be!’ came the encouraging reply…
Field Marshal Dwin Bramall commissioned into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1943. He took part in the Normandy landings as a platoon commander, winning the Military Cross in March 1945. Advancing rapidly through the ranks, he retired as Chief of the Defence Staff in 1985. Last year he published his collected papers and speeches in a book sub-titled Reflections on War and Peace. Throughout his book one of the lessons he repeatedly draws on is the importance of a single factor in success in peace or war – what he calls ‘high morale’.
Bramall doesn’t mean ‘keep people happy’ or avoid making difficult decisions that might upset people. He means that a leader needs to make people feel like they can achieve anything and can overcome any odds. A combination of confidence, discipline and self respect. Something that leads a soldier to believe they can triumph over a numerically superior enemy.
Often high morale means getting your subordinates engaged in challenging and rewarding tasks. Tasks where they can use their initiative and intelligence to achieve success. When people are personally engaged in the challenges, and are the owners of the outcome, their confidence grows with each success. As he wrote of his time in the jungle of Borneo, fighting the Indonesian Army,
This was a very strange environment for British troops and it was necessary to graduate the tasks in order to build up confidence and ensure the steady progression of successes, which does so much for morale…
The campaign in Borneo… was a very satisfactory campaign from the point of view of a professional soldier… The physical challenges imposed by the country and the climate were tough and demanding, and the successful surmounting of them correspondingly rewarding. There was plenty of opportunity for young men to prove their nerve and endurance in contact with a tough and brave enemy, and there was considerable scope for initiative and intelligence as well.
If you want to achieve high morale in your team, here are seven pieces of advice direct from Bramall’s book.
The best way to build high morale is through success in battle.
Naturally, success in battle is your aim in any case. Bramall’s view was that training was no substitute for success in battle. So giving yourself some easy successes in the short term was an important step to having the confidence to take on bigger objectives in the future. In Borneo this meant graduating the tasks he gave his troops so that there was a steady progression in the risk and difficulty of his companies’ missions. When the enemy allowed it (which it didn’t always) this allowed a steady increase in confidence and a steady increase in morale.
Building confidence through tough, imaginative, interesting and progressive training.
Outside of battle, building confidence in your soldiers is achieved through tough, imaginative, interesting and progressive training. Bramell repeats this theme many times. ‘Officers who believe their soldiers will be grateful for soft and easy training do not understand human nature and will never succeed in producing high morale.’ Training builds physical, mental and emotional strength. As these build, so does a soldier’s confidence in himself and his team. But this only happens if the training is tough, realistic and of obvious value. Physically tought training that has no obvious value doesn’t tick this box. Nor does useful yet undemanding training. Bramall also recommended aiming for 25% of training to be conducted at night.
Drill and high turn out are means, not ends.
Controversial for some. Bramall felt that there was a place for drill, but only only if approached with caution and a real understanding. He thought drill built up pride, self-respect and self-discipline. However, drill should only be done in enough quantity to achieve those aims. Especially when there were more pressing operational needs. ‘The important thing is to keep the aim always in mind and not get obsessed by the means to an end… Drill, and ultra-high standards of turnout, are not an end in themselves.’ Never confuse the means with the end; drill is useful to instil discipline, not useful in itself.
Self-discipline: in barracks and in war.
Bramall’s advice was that if you want to build high morale then, after training, turn to discipline. He also warned about running into the same maze of uncertainty and conflicting standards that we still have to navigate these days. What exactly is the right standard of discipline in barracks? Bramall defined discipline on operations as ‘having the capacity to carry out an essential, irksome or arduous task without supervision; keeping going and staying awake when fatigue is overpowering; obeying unpleasant but necessary orders; and above all continuing the fight when the instinct of self-preservation is advocating something totally different.’
It’s a good definition. His view was that in order to find discipline in war you needed to find it in barracks too. In peace-time, he defined it as all those things displayed in war, plus ‘an absence of crime … good soldier-like appearance … smart bearing, good manners and good saluting.’
But self discipline is learnt thought example.
Discipline, he thought, was more easily ‘caught than taught’. If you want your subordinates to demonstrate self-discipline you need to make sure that those who administer the discipline in the unit live by it themselves. ‘What must be avoided at all costs is the bullying, blustering type of junior leader who covers up his incompetence and lack of leadership by shouting and swearing. That is not discipline under any circumstances.’ Leading by example means displaying self-discipline as a leader.
Treat subordinates with dignity
Self respect comes from confidence and self-disciplines. But you won’t create self respect unless you treat subordinates with dignity. Bramall also thought self respect was built by keeping subordinates informed, looking after and taking an interest in the conditions in which they (and their families) live and ensuring punishments and grievances are dealt with with dignity. All of these, he believed, were underpinned by a leader that was engaged with their subordinates and approachable. Not one who was distant and removed. In particular, a leader who was responsible for discipline should also be open to dealing with grievances about that discipline. ‘The principle of direct access to officers’ he wrote ‘has always worked most effectively’.
Leadership – publicly and from the front – underpins it all.
Leadership is based on the context. Leadership is also based on the values and identity of the led. Bramall was clear that public leadership, delivered by doing everything you asked of your subordinates, is essential in the context of soldiering and the identity of the British soldier and officer. Whatever your qualities, leadership in the Army is rarely executed from the shadows. As Bramall said, ‘[your] qualities must be fully recognised … Until you are fully recognised you may have to work harder, expose yourself (not your men) to more risks, take more trouble and show more versatility and endurance than are strictly necessary for carrying out your command function.’ If you want to lead in the Army, get out there and do more.
Dwin Bramall had the distinction of serving in command of every size of formation in the British Army from platoon to division, as C-in-C Land Forces, CGS and CDS. The words he wrote as a Green Jacket CO in 1966 are still the basis of the Rifles pamphlet Leadership The Rifles Way. His views on high morale and the importance of fighting spirit are perhaps best summed up by these words. They are taken from the directing staff notes for the 1961 staff college battlefield study of Normandy. It was a study of battlefields he had personally fought on.
The Main Lessons From Operations In Normandy.
Ultimately, battles, particularly those conducted under hazardous conditions and in the face of a numerically superior enemy, turn on the fighting spirit of the soldier. High morale and determination to win can only be developed by hard, tough, purposeful training and with the aid of good leadership…
…This is our main responsibility in peace time.
What could you be doing to follow his advice and build high morale in your team?
Brammall is not the only senior officer to share their leadership advice. Lt Gen Richard Nugee shared his thoughts on leadership when we interviewed him in The ‘Adding Value’ Dilemma: An Interview with Lt Gen Richard Nugee and Maj Gen Paul Nanson, Commandant of Sandhurst did the same in Honesty and Inspiration – An Interview with Maj Gen Paul Nanson. Check them out.