General David Petraeus, one of the great soldiers of our generation, posed an important question on going into Iraq in 2003: “Tell me how this ends”. He foresaw the enormous cost a political lack of vision would extract. Through his tireless commitment and leadership he delivered a manageable situation in Iraq, juggled the minefield of international conflict and geopolitics, and enabled the start of troop withdrawal. Without a vision drawn for him, he created one, got “buy in” from disparate parties, and ensured it became reality.
For a good example of strategy coupled with execution, look back to May 1944. The Allies were in the final stages of Operation Overlord, the plan to invade Europe. Deceptions had been in place for some time, running counter-intelligence that left the Germans guessing the landing places and the size of the force. For the Allies, all hinged on a knife-edge where even a vague weather forecast made for many sleepless nights. The Allied Staff knew losses would be very high in any attempted invasion. The Germans after all had years to plan defense of the French coast, and only a few years earlier had planned their own invasion across the Channel. If the enemy guessed right, or unlucky weather interrupted the landing force, disaster loomed, not victory.
Put in terms of strategy, the intent was clear. To attempt the biggest amphibious landing in history, recapture France and invade Germany. It also had to be somewhat of a surprise, too. Reading the diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the Chief of the General Staff of the UK Military Command, one is struck by the work ethic, the endless travel and almost inhuman pressures. Alanbrooke toured his operations endlessly, talked and observed first hand, evaluated new ideas and technology, made crucial “HR” decisions on commanders and assignments, dealt with the politics and managed the egos of generals and statesman. But he never lost sight of the strategic intent, first to defend Britain and then to defeat Germany.
As a case study in linking up strategy and execution, Operation Overlord had a strategic vision, breakthrough objectives, measured milestones and specific accountabilities all clearly linked up and committed to at the top. And they were focused on execution, not excuses. The top leaders moved swiftly to remove commanders that didn’t deliver results. Everyone had to perform, period.
Fast forward to modern conflicts and here we find Petraeus again cutting to the essence of strategy and focusing relentlessly on execution. When asked about alternative plans, his response was crisp. “There is a Plan B. Make Plan A work”.
In any important endeavor, success depends more on execution than on planning.
There is no strategy without execution, and there is no execution without leadership.
In short, make Plan A work.
Tight Lines . . .