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Lessons for Singapore from Normandy Beach — Choy Yong Cong

by November 21, 2016 General

NOVEMBER 21 — It was the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944. Allied ships and amphibious platforms were steaming across the English Channel and landing on Normandy beach, aiming to drive the Nazis out of Western Europe. Lieutenant Richard Winters stood miles inland. The night before, as a paratrooper of the 101st Airborne Division, he had parachuted with thousands of others behind enemy lines, to secure the breakout points for the beach invasion.

However, things had not gone according to plan and Lieutenant Winters, who commanded a hundred soldiers, was accompanied only by a ragtag group of 12 when dawn broke. Devising a bold attack plan, using bases of fire from different directions, ducking under the trench network and assaulting the artillery guns with grenades, Winters and his unlikely force overwhelmed a larger enemy force and allowed the Allied forces on the beach to move inland.

Today, Winters’ plan is studied in West Point as a classic tactical assault and has been immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s mini-series Band of Brothers. Beyond the tactics, this episode illustrates the nature of a battlefield and the kind of leadership it requires. In military operations, large forces are dispersed over large areas, with unpredictability (friction) and uncertainty (fog) contributed by the enemy, the terrain and, sometimes, luck and circumstances.

In such environments, soldiers need to understand the underlying intent of a plan, even when things do not go as anticipated. At the same time, the large scope of forces, fog and friction make complete centralised control and coordination impossible. Even if they were, they would be undesirable, as soldiers require speed and initiative to surprise the enemy.

Most of the time, commanders know ground situations best and can develop local solutions much better than a distant General. These seemingly contradictory, but actually strongly-reinforcing, traits of leadership involve what I term high alignment and high autonomy.

The beaches of Normandy in 1944 seem far removed from Singapore today, so why are high alignment and high autonomy as a leadership philosophy relevant for us and crucial for the future? I posit three societal factors.

First, lest our relative success lull us into complacency, our strategic vulnerabilities have not changed. Our small size, diverse and declining demographics, lack of natural resources and dependence on an open international system are likely to persist.

Addressing our challenges of maintaining security, economic restructuring and enhancing social cohesion will involve a coherent understanding and unified action across society — not just by government officials.

There must be high alignment within society on our challenges, constraints and opportunities.

At the same time, more educated, affluent and active Singaporeans will clamour for greater participation and self-actualisation, both in civic and personal life. In public institutions and businesses, citizens will be less keen to merely follow instructions — they will want to create, be entrepreneurial and, in the process, find meaning and purpose. These instincts must not be seen as distractions but sources of immense strength and opportunity.

Leaders who can create high levels of alignment and autonomy within their teams and communities will be able to reconcile these seemingly divergent trends — tapping people’s energies to meet society’s pressing needs.

Second, our complex and unpredictable challenges require more specialised treatment and nimble reaction. Just as Winters possessed intimate knowledge and the necessary expertise to devise a quick plan, leaders will need to rely on more specialists and ground commanders for optimal and agile solutions. Leaders will need to forge high alignment within their teams, yet devolve sufficient authority, autonomy and resources for their specialists to solve problems in their respective fields.

Third, high alignment and high autonomy can help innovation and creativity to flourish. We often romanticise Steve Jobs’ version of creativity — to sit in a garage and dream up a product that will fulfil unrealised mass needs.

That is visionary, but also rare. Often, innovation springs up as local solutions to local problems, or inventions adapted for other needs. For both to happen, autonomy must be allowed for people to experiment with different approaches to problems.

In present-day Israel, there is tight coupling between the military and start-ups, and between soldiers and entrepreneurs (they are often the same people). Autonomy is given to soldiers/entrepreneurs to solve operational challenges and start-ups are allowed to adapt military solutions for commercial purposes, reinforcing the cycle of prototyping and experimentation for even better military solutions.

In the book Start-up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer outline how two Israeli soldiers — who had served in Unit 8200, Israel’s elite army intelligence unit — used their experience and skillsets tracking online terrorist activity to detect online fraud. Their company, Fraud Sciences, was years ahead of the industry standard and eventually acquired by PayPal.

How can leaders practise high alignment and high autonomy? There is no universal prescriptive model but in military parlance, there is Auftragstaktik, or Mission Command. In this framework, a leader defines the problem to be solved, articulates the intent (the why), the mission (the what), the limitations (the cannots) and the key considerations (the musts). Subordinates are free to develop the concept of operations, details and other supporting plans (the how).

Of course, there is no clean line separating the two — the leader and subordinate can collectively discuss and iterate from top to bottom, but the framework allows both to create alignment and common understanding of the problem and task, yet provides autonomy for the subordinate to experiment and act.

The leader’s role is specific and precise: To articulate the why and what, to set boundaries, to give guidance on the how, to give autonomy and resources for the subordinate to act and to hold the subordinate accountable for outcomes.

Also, the autonomy given needs to be calibrated based on the complexity of the task and the experience of the subordinate, and any risks incurred must be analysed and mitigated.

Ultimately, the best leaders galvanise the power of individual human agency towards a collective good. Humans first banded together to hunt, protect and nurture one another.

Larger groups and clans formed to provide specialisation, secure territory and to compete. States and bureaucracies grew out of the need to collect and aggregate resources for a larger machinery of war. At every stage, individuals, by either choice or obligation, gave up part of their sovereignty to a larger authority — leaders — for them to exercise and inspire collective action.

Natural selection then acted both on the individual and the group: Today’s successful societies are those whose members achieve individual excellence within a larger collective direction.

As we contemplate our next big thing, Singapore’s leaders in all sectors must be aware that their authority should achieve a collective purpose and leverage the power of individual human agency. Leaders who lead with high alignment and high autonomy will not only chart us through a changing and complex landscape, but will also tap the best instincts hardwired within us all. — TODAY

* Choy Yong Cong is commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.