Leadership Lessons from the past: Operation Market Garden, 1944
By Neil McLennan
This week is the anniversary of Operation Market Garden, a bold plan by British military leader, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery. The military operation could have brought the Second War to an end a year early. The plan was to advance at speed through occupied Holland and over the Rhine by securing a number of bridgeheads with paratroopers (Market). The ground troops would then race the seized bridges (Garden), thus forcing a significant salient in the German position and potentially bringing the war to a swift end.
Sadly, the planned failed and World War II continued for another year before Europe was fully liberated from Nazi control. Throughout the plan there are a host of leadership lessons which are worth considering in the current era. The lessons from Market Garden are shared extensively with military chiefs in their leadership development. However, the lessons have resonance for political, public and private sector leaders at all levels with a number of warnings worth heeding:
1) Being too ambitious?
The operation to land paratroopers at various bridge heads throughout Europe and then race an armoured corps through these holding points and over the Rhine is well told in the book and film A Bridge Too Far. Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book and Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film are a staple for military leaders’ learning. Since then Anthony Beevor (2018) has revised thinking on the operation through his book Arnhem. Despite the revisionist critique, the central question remains: was Montgomery too ambitious in his plan? Did he go a bridge too far?
The Parachute Regiment were dropped at the last bridge over the Rhine, Arnhem Bridge, were left there for days without the armoured division arriving at the planned time to relieve them. Both the armoured division and the paratroopers suffered heavily in this bold, and ultimately unsuccessful, plan. Today’s senior public service leaders considering their ‘public value’ might reflect on Moore’s (1995) strategic triangle. Within this, capacity is a key pillar both in physical resource and staffing. Making strategic plans manageable, and yet with ambitious ‘stretch targets’ built in, is a pressing concern for senior leaders.
2) Not listening to lower ranks and good intelligence.
Local and military intelligence was presented to senior military officers that showed that German Armoured Panzer Divisions may have been moved to the Arnhem area, where British paratroopers’ drop zones were. This intelligence ran counter to assumptions which few wanted to re-assess. The intelligence was not taken on board by senior officers who were keen to press on with the plan.
I had a recent conversation with a military leader about distributed and cooperative leadership models (McLennan, 2020) which, perhaps, sit opposite to ‘command and control’ leadership models often associated with uniformed services. In certain situations, direct leadership approaches apply best, especially perhaps in operational leadership roles with fast changing scenarios and life or death challenges. However, particularly in strategic planning, communications chains must flow in both directions within an organisation and the culture must allow for anyone at any level to share innovative ideas and raise pertinent concerns.
In a recent leadership lecture to the Royal College of Physicians, Major General Bob Bruce made an insightful comment on leadership learning and practice when he said “a good idea has no rank.” We should consider in our organisations both how strategic plans filter through the ranks and are enacted throughout the organisation; but also how input from front line staff is effectively fed to executive levels and also acted upon where appropriate.
3) Assessing risk and having a Plan B.
When the Parachute Regiment landed around Arnhem Bridge and surrounding areas, they found that their radio equipment did not work. Was there a contingency plan for a breakdown in communications? If breakdown has potential, it needs to be planned for.
A second challenge presented itself during the follow up phases, when the Polish Paratroopers were seriously delayed by poor weather and fog. This caused a problem for those on the ground awaiting back up. Moreover, it led to a disaster for the Polish paratroopers when they eventually landed at drop zones which had now been well re-enforced by German troops alerted to the airborne assault.
It is always better to discuss risks and seek out contingency plans rather than scramble when hit with them in real time. Having risk assessments, business continuity and mitigation plans in place increases the chances of success adds to sustainability in organisations.
When I worked in education leadership roles, I was often asked about closing a school because of some ‘unforeseen’ issue. The default starting position was to go to the Business Continuity Plan which should cover how normal operations will continue at alternative venues. During my time working in the leisure industry I both enacted and wrote Normal Operating Procedures and Emergency Actions Plans for a number of facilities. It is worth checking if these sorts of plans exist in your establishment or organisation and how robust they are. If they are there or are not robust, the leadership imperative would be to flag up this issue and ensure something is in place. Preventative contingency planning can be cooperative in its formation (McLennan, 2020).
4) Balancing ambition and Public Value.
Montgomery and the American General Patton both wanted to be the first to enter Berlin and end the Second World War. Whilst we all want to achieve success, team and organisational goals should work alongside personal goals. The formation and execution of the plan should take both the team and leader with them. We have all seen the cartoon graphic images of the leader at the top of the mountain with the team either lagging behind or having dropped off at the other end of the mountain. Where is the leader in your image? At the top; in the middle helping others; or behind and shepherding the team towards the top?
Within a public service environment, personal goals must be aligned and squared against Public Value. Professor Mark Moore’s work on Public Value (1997) encourages leaders to consider the purpose/mission/goals in terms of value; the capacities and capability of the team and technology; and lastly and importantly in a political environment, the legitimacy and support for the actions. His strategic triangle is again shown below . In public service work entrepreneurial enterprise can clash with political permissions. Consideration of this is key for leaders operating in a political environment. In most leadership roles there is a political dynamic to consider- be it line managers, governance boards or shareholders. Due consideration of where your leadership starts, and finishes is critical to sustainable success.
5) You can only progress as fast as your slowest unit
Whilst we may all want to progress at pace, leadership requires us to bring everyone with us. That requires encouraging progress but also planning appropriately. The holdup of the Armoured Divisions, XXX Corps, caused serious issues to the overall mission in Operation Market Garden. Bridges being knocked out, a single-track road for tanks to travel along and air strikes all slowed the progress of the Armoured Division who were supposed to proceed at pace through Eindhoven, Son, St Oedenrode, Veghel, Grave, Nijmegen and then onto Arnhem Bridge. Each hold up had an effect on the overall plan. Effective planning and consideration of dependencies in that plan are key. For if one part of the plan fails, or slows, what is the impact of that on the overall plan?
In the public sector there is much consideration now of systems-wide leadership. In this, there should be a recognition of the multiple moving parts of an organisation and how each of them can impact on another. Like in Operation Market Garden, if one part of the plan fails or is delayed, it can have a significant impact on other parts and critical success. Those working with Project Management approaches would spend much time planning the ‘critical path’ and ensuring that dependencies and worst-case scenario delays were factored in. This ensures more chance of successful delivery on time and on spec.
6) Leadership culture matters
Much criticism has been aimed at Montgomery over the years, however, it can be seen that leadership issues were present throughout the chain of command. Personality clashes between General Lewis Breton and Lieutenant General Fredrick ‘Boy’ Browning were noted, and historian Beevor suggested; “The only characteristic the men had in common was vanity” (2018:24).
Furthermore, whilst competition between Montgomery and Patton is noted above, there were also tensions between Montgomery and Lieutenant General Bradly. Beevor (2018:4) cites Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff (General Walter Bedell Smith) when he said; “It is amazing how good commanders get ruined when they develop a public they have to act up to. They become prima donna.”
Three final and concluding observations on these historic lessons might be useful. The first is a well-known military leadership lesson: ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ In the case of Operation Market Garden that was certainly the case as the plan, and its various sub plans, seemed to fall like a pack of dominoes as the Armoured Division attempted to move through the bridgeheads captured by paratroopers. Beevor said of the situation; “Like most of Operation Market Garden, almost everything went wrong, usually due to incompetence compounded with bad luck” (Beevor 2018:317).
We might consider how the lessons above could avert incompetent acts and also the impact of luck. As golfer Gary Player is reported to have said, “the more I practice the luckier I get.” However, reflecting the people side of leadership Polish Major General Sosabowski noted an important variability when he said; “Human abilities do have limits after all” (Beevor, 2018:28).
Operation Market Garden gives an insight to both the process and people leadership matters that impact on successful strategy. On the anniversary of the Operation we remember those who lost their lives in those days, and we also seek to remember some of the lessons of history in the important work military, political, public and private leaders carry out today. The prophetic words “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it” are worth present-day leaders listening to and reflecting on.
If you would like to know more about the outcome of the Battle of Arnhem then read about the RSM of 3 PARA and his ordeal as a POW after being captured at the end of the battle in The Lord Down Here. Discipline Lessons from RSM John C Lord MVO MBE. You can also read more historical leadership analysis from Neil McLennan in his review of Leadership in War: Lessons from Those Who Made History.