Leadership lessons: building your war cabinet

Originally published August 2020, updated August 2021

There was lots of war talk during the worst phases of the pandemic. We were “battling” the virus, receiving reports from the “frontline” and such. It shouldn’t be surprising – politicians regularly evoke the spirit of past common struggles to unite people – but we should approach the analogy with a little caution.

After all, society has few other comparatives for a crisis, and there are many differences between fighting Covid-19 and fighting an enemy army, not least that it’s much harder to define how we actually win against a force of nature.

There is one key similarity that should affect how businesses plan and operate over the next few years, however. Like a war, this pandemic is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (the dreaded VUCA).

While we may be at the “end of the beginning” of the Covid era, to paraphrase Churchill, we don’t know whether the worst of the pandemic is actually over. We don’t know if global trade and the global economy will bounce back or languish. We don’t know what will happen on home shores once the furlough scheme ends. We do know that things can change very quickly and unexpectedly.

Leading in VUCA times: Build a war cabinet

Consistently in times of war, leaders create war cabinets around them to direct their response in a more vigorous, focused, urgent way. This means they need:

  • Deliberate intent
  • Well thought-through strategies
  • Robust decision making by a tightly-knit executive
  • Mercurial speed
  • Capoeira-like agility
  • Strong leadership
  • Clear communication

For a company trying to grow and succeed in VUCA times like today, a board re-structure and/or the creation of a special group designated with resolving specific issues may be an equivalent response.

Here are some valuable lessons from history’s great war cabinets.

Lesson One:

Design your cabinet with the current phase as well as the end in mind. Most CEOs think about the endpoint, say three years or eventual exit. Whilst it’s important to keep the long-term objective in sight, the short-term matters too. You must adapt to each step of the journey – one size rarely fits all.

Lesson Two:

Consider the numbers well. Efficient execution requires smaller numbers. Churchill’s WW2 cabinet had five people. David Lloyd George initially had three.

Lesson three:

Align the specific nature of the challenge to the skills. If you’re looking to undertake a digital transformation, then hire an expert in digital transformation even if it is only to see you through this phase. Eric Geddes was recruited into the WW1 cabinet purely because of his expertise in railways, military transportation and small arms production.

Lesson four:

Ensure you have the right mix of behavioural profiles: Generals, Captains, Mavericks and Collaborators, for example, all need to be balanced to ensure boards perform well. You need diversity of profile to run a good ship.

Lesson five:

Accept that you might have to include people you don’t like, or are not the natural culture fit, particularly when it comes to specialist knowledge. David Lloyd George famously thought Lord Curzon was a pompous so-and-so…

Lesson six:

Be prepared to share information with those from outside or even from the opposition. At the outbreak of war, Andrew Bonar Law offered the Liberal government the support of the Conservatives in the coalition. Bonar Law was subsequently given senior positions in Lloyd George’s new war cabinet.

Lesson seven:

Communicate who your first and second deputies are, particularly where there is a risk of the primary falling. Churchill may have survived due to ‘pickling’ but as we saw when Boris was hospitalised in 2020, a plan B is required at all times.

Lesson eight:

Even in extremis, it is better to force change for the greater good than to ‘stay and pray’ as exemplified by the resignations of Asquith and Arthur Henderson in WW1.

It is important to look at the team you have around you. Are they ready for the fight? Do they have the skills you need for your current phase? The right people have never been more important to business success. CEOs who surround themselves with the right leaders to deliver each phase, as well as plan for the future, will not only win each battle, but the war. If you’re interested in looking at your organisational structure or hiring a new executive, get in touch.