A general takes advantage of his luck

In the late 1920s, early 1930s Ralph Bagnold was an engineering officer in the British Army stationed in Cairo. He and his colleagues explored the Libyan Desert in specially fitted Model T Ford cars. Although this was not a military operation – they travelled during their vacation time – it was serious exploration: they took risks and made discoveries. For navigation Bagnold developed a sun compass and invented a means of preventing the loss of cooling water for the engines. They did survey work and developed a method for driving up sand dunes. After retiring from the army in 1935, Bagnold’s studies on the physics of blown sand earned him membership of the Royal Society. He was touched by genius.

In June 1940 Archibald Wavell, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief Middle East Land Forces, was in his office in Cairo looking at a map. Although the war in North Africa was being fought along a strip close to the Mediterranean coast, he asked himself whether it would be possible for the Italians to launch an attack from further south, via the empty desert. Should he take action to prevent that? Who could advise him? As he pondered these questions, he received a memo from Ralph Bagnold who had re-enilisted and was again stationed in Cairo. Within an hour Bagnold was being interviewed by Wavell.

The memo from Bagnold addressed the questions that Wavell had posed and it did not take the latter long to realise that he had found exactly the person he needed to advise him.  Bagnold proposed the formation of a special unit for reconnaissance and raiding across the Libyan Desert. He told Wavell that “We could get into the emptiness of inner Libya by a back door that only I knew of, through the heart of the sand barrier.” Wavell asked Bagnold “Can you be ready in six weeks?”  Bagnold replied “Yes provided….” Wavell interrupted him and said “Of course there’ll be opposition and delay.” He called his Chief of Staff “Bagnold needs a talisman. Get this typed for my signature right away: ‘To all heads of departments and branches. I wish any request made by Major Bagnold to be met at once without question’”. Then to Bagnold “Not a word of this must go out. There are sixty thousand enemy subjects here. Get a good cover story.  When you are ready, write out your own operational orders and show them to me personally”. Thus, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was formed with Bagnold as its first leader.


When I read that story (in Bagnold’s excellent book Libyan Sands), I thought it showed very sound leadership by Wavell. His faith in Bagnold was not misplaced. The LRDG proved to be invaluable in the North African campaign.

I argue that a core strategy for solving complex problems is to be explicit about the principles to be adopted i.e. the ethos.  From the above story the following guiding principles can be identified:

    • As the leader responsible for addressing a multifaceted situation, e.g. fighting a war or a virus pandemic, create a set of sub-projects that address specific tasks.
    • Do not manage the sub-projects yourself.   Appoint leaders who have the necessary attributes, relevant experience and track records of success.
    • Give the leaders general instructions, let them form their own teams and let them get on with the work. Do not micro-manage.
    • Require regular reports and take action if the results are not satisfactory.

I pose this question: ‘To what extent are these principles being adopted by UK government ministers in their efforts to minimise the effects of the present pandemic?’ For example, there has been much disquiet about the provison of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Do the people who have been contracted to centralise this provision have extensive experience in procurement?

For more ideas on leadership and ethos see this paper and for ideas about the role of government ministers see page 5 of this paper.

Iain MacLeod  15.05.20

3 thoughts on “A general takes advantage of his luck”

  1. Interesting stuff. You are right about the need for experience in procurement. It’s not like going shopping.
    A wise and experienced purchasing manager knows the pitfalls of buying even simple stuff from new/unknown sources. My first job at Clansman Dynamics was as buyer/production manager – I made every mistake in the book. I assumed that because someone said they could do X that they could do X – instead of knowing that going and looking and judging is necessary. When a potential supplier said ‘nae bother’ I came to know that invariably meant trouble ahead with quality of dates or both! Maybe an experienced purchasing manager would have been able to buy PPE stuff from Turkey rather better than the person who led the process? Dick

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Here is an interesting article from the FT: https://www.ft.com/content/d45d8540-7bc0-4faa-aeda-a1ed73ed82f7
      It notes that Matt Hancock appointed Lord Deighton to be the Tsar for PPE. He is a banker lauded for his work as Chief Executive for the 2012 London Olympics but there is no evidence that he has any experience in procuremt. He does not seem to be a ‘Raph Bagnold’ i.e. a person ideally suited for the paticular leardship role. Deloitte was also given a contract to work on the project under Deighton’s management. Deloitte is an accounting firm and there is no evidence that they put an ‘experienced purchasing manager’ on the job.
      On the ohter hand, the article also states that accountants KPMG were apppointed to lead the very successful procurement of the Nightingale hospsitals. Maybe they put someone on to that job who does have the necessary experience in managing a project of this type. Note that army planners and infrstructure consultants were involved. That was clearly the right way to go.

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  2. Yes in my experience the choice of leader for a particular company or group is of almost unimaginable importance. Bagnold was a brilliant choice. He could lead from the front which is the easiest place from which to build a team and make the right judgements. Dick

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