Leadership lessons: building your war cabinet

In times of crisis, we are drawn to war comparatives. The comparative of C19 to the Great Wars may well be over-egging, but none-the-less, the dialogue is one of fighting a war against the virus. In the last week, our PM has also announced another war — the “war on obesity.”  

Over the past few months, in day to day life, our essential workers have been on the ‘frontline’, whilst our politicians and economists draw up strategies and battle plans. Each of us has been encouraged to adopt the resolve that prior generations exhibited during WWII. The cry of ‘in it together’ echoed in neighbourhoods where people clapped for the NHS. 

But a word of caution. Although these similarities can be drawn, it is largely because globally, society has few other meaningful comparatives. It is also because there is an intent behind the language. With war comparatives, the government can ask us to rise to the challenge, to follow blindly, to rally with a sense of purpose, duty. Ultimately they ask us to follow orders because there is no higher calling. As Babington said : 

“And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his Gods?” 

How to lead in VUCA times?

Consistently in times of war, governments create war cabinets whose purpose and intent is clear to all. 

We may not be fighting a war but we are in a VUCA period. To ensure that we successfully navigate it, companies need the equivalent of a war cabinet to ensure the following:

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

So why am I perambulating on the subject of war cabinets six months into the crisis? 

Because there are valuable lessons from history, for those considering a board re-structure and/or the creation of a special group designated with resolving specific issues.

8 lessons from war cabinets to apply to your boardroom  

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, you must explore each phase and 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, 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…

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, 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.