Startup leadership lessons from the Charge of the Light Brigade

I’ve long held an interest in British military history, taking leadership lessons into my business thinking. One of the harshest examples is the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. It highlights for entrepreneurs on how shortfalls in planning, poor working relationships and ineffective communication can have a hugely negative impact on decision-making and consequently, outcomes.

It is one of the least edifying episodes in British military history. On October 25th, 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava, the elite of the British army, The Light Brigade, charged suicidally into a phalanx of Russian heavy guns. The result was a tragedy: 673 men and officers engaged in the charge – fewer than one hundred survived. The Charge of The Light Brigade is one of the most compelling examples of incompetent British military leadership.

One reason startups plunge headlong into failure is by ignoring the rules of good decision-making and effective communication. The causes have an echo from the Crimea – entrenched attitudes, blinkered leadership, weak planning, clear thinking overcome by emotion. The results are familiar – great passion and effort but wasted energy and missed opportunities.

The story starts in 1853, when Russia invaded the Balkans. Britain and France had Treaty obligations, which they decided to fulfill because they did not want Russia with access to a warm water port and potentially greater political and commercial influence.

 The first problem they had to face was one of leadership. Who would lead the British Forces? Choice was limited. There hadn’t been a major war since the defeat of Napoleon forty years before and there was a lack of experience in the senior ranks.

The choice for leader eventually fell upon Lord Raglan, Wellington’s son-in-law, who had held a desk job as a military secretary for 40 years. There was hope that Wellington’s genius might have rubbed off on him. He was affable, likeable, well mannered – the perfect English gentleman. But he had no experience of leadership in the field.

The Cavalry Division was made up of the Light and Heavy Brigades. Lord Lucan was in charge of the Cavalry Division, a disciplinarian not respected by his troops. He was a hard worker and up before dawn each day. Lord Cardigan was in charge of the Light Brigade. He had a fiery temper. He was dismissed as Colonel of the 15th Hussars for his vindictive and tyrannical rule.

During the Crimean campaign, Cardigan lived on his boat, away from the troops, unlike Lucan who chose to stay with his men and experience the same conditions. Cardigan and Lucan were brothers-in-law and disliked each other intensely.

The lack of a warm relationship between the brothers-in-law impacted the chain of command, and was ultimately one of the factors that created a dysfunctional leadership culture. Raglan was the Head of the Army and Lucan reported to him; Lucan was Cardigan’s boss but Cardigan did not want to report to Lucan and tried to bypass him whenever he could by going direct to Raglan.

When Lucan complained to Raglan, Cardigan complained of Lucan’s interference. Raglan’s natural reaction when faced with interpersonal conflict was to avoid it and not resolve it. His tactic was simply to ask both men to get on with each other. Cardigan and Lucan’s relationship never improved, the pattern of behaviour was set from the outset.

By October 1854, the Allied armies were besieging Sevastopol. On the morning of 25th October, there were large movements of Russian forces threatening the British supply lines at Balaclava. Raglan sent messages for reinforcements to come down to the valley to help defend the base. One of these messages went to Sir George Cathcart, in charge of the Fourth Division, but Cathcart failed to see the urgency. He saw it as one of many urgent requests and considered this to be yet another false alarm.

As it was, history meant that everybody’s expectations were different and unaligned. Raglan thought Cathcart would support Lucan; Lucan thought Cathcart would appear and waited; Cathcart thought it was another false alarm and didn’t move instantly. This had fatal consequences.

On top of the hill, watching the events at Balaclava unfold, were Raglan and his officers. One of them noticed that the Russians were preparing to take away some British guns, captured earlier in the day, which would have been an embarrassment, but of little military impact. Raglan decided to try to stop them – a decision that was emotionally and culturally driven.

Raglan sent down a series of four separate orders to Lucan, telling him to use cavalry to stop the Russians taking away the guns. However, they had totally different physical perspectives on the theatre, and what the key actions and focus were for the next stages of the battle. So the schism was formed. Lucan literally couldn’t see the same guns as Raglan, but he could see guns. Because he could only see one set of guns, he assumed Raglan meant those.

They weren’t the British guns Raglan didn’t want the Russians capturing and enjoying a political and psychological victory, they were Russian guns at the far end of the valley, heavily protected on three sides by Russian infantry and cavalry. Lucan didn’t understand the orders from Raglan; he was confused. However, there were enormous pressures on him to do something.

One of the observers on the hill with Raglan was a young cavalry officer, Captain Louis Nolan. Nolan was experienced and knowledgeable, but, he was a junior officer and not from the right class, so senior officers didn’t take much notice of him. When he saw opportunities for victory being thrown away he was beside himself. Remember, he was seeing what Raglan saw – but he had little respect for the abilities of the cavalry commanders and, watching the activities below, his opinion was being confirmed.

Nolan was chosen to take the fourth and last order to Lucan. It was a disastrous decision considering Nolan’s perspective of the immediate event and his opinions of his superiors, which drove his behaviour. Nolan’s instructions to Lucan were unequivocal – attack the guns. His tone in delivering the order carried the full force of his anger and frustration. He didn’t explain. Lucan had to obey.

Paradoxically, the one time Lucan ought to have delayed and asked for clarity, he didn’t. Lucan ordered Cardigan and the Light Brigade down the valley to attack the (wrong) guns. When Cardigan received the order from Lucan he said I shall never be able to bring a man back but didn’t want his brother-in-law to have the satisfaction of seeing him appear to be cowardly. So he led the charge with 673 men straight at the firing enemy. Everybody knew the order was insane, but everybody followed it.

So what business lessons can we take from this catastrophic failure of leadership? A pointless effort due to muddled orders, especially when compared to the entirely successful and equally gallant charge of the Heavy Brigade earlier on the same day is generally forgotten?

Create a unified leadership culture At one level, the battle is a story of personal ambition, animosity and prejudice. Lucan and Cardigan detested each other and went out of their way to undermine each other. Leaders must put personal differences aside to create a shared consensus and collaborative culture, the adverse impact of personal vendettas is clear to see.

An entrepreneurial leader helps their people achieve greatness, even during hardship. It’s important to push your folks to meet their goals and advance their development and personal growth – it’s about their journey too. Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

Leadership is about people Raglan had never commanded an army in the field before. Politically adept but lacking emotional intelligence, he simply didn’t know the job of leading people, above or below his command.

As an early-stage entrepreneur, your team will be small, but with trustworthy people in place and proper coaching, you can better compete with the big guys. Be courteous to all, and intimate with a trusted few.

Leadership means listening The individual who ended up taking the blame for the fiasco of the Charge, Captain Nolan, was intelligent and motivated, eaten up with frustration at being ignored by a prejudiced class system that refused to acknowledge ability. No one listened to him. The arrogance of leaders means they often ignore others who are younger, more intelligent and from a different background to themselves.

Building a startup team is key, an entrepreneur can’t do it on their own. Assemble a core team of trustworthy people, create an open style of communicating, and listen to them. Consider different viewpoints and figure out the best approach.

Agility over hierarchy in decision making For his part, Cardigan’s pride prevented him from directly challenging an order from his superior. Why did Lucan, against his better judgement, obey Raglan’s order as transmitted by Nolan? Was it obedience to his superior, and the personal authority implied, or a desire not to be bested by his despised brother-in-law?

Under pressure, it is the quality of relationships that matter most. As an entrepreneur, you will make mistakes, but it’s how you learn from them and share this learning that will define your success as a leader.

Focus on clarity of communication From an organisational perspective, the Charge is a catalogue of inadequate channels and clarity of communication. Raglan`s last ‘urgent request’ for reinforcements was dismissed as scaremongering by its recipient. Nolan was responsible for transmitting Raglan’s final order to Lucan to charge, and it is possible that his repetition of Raglan’s order built upon the vagueness of the original message with his own bitterness and anger, resulted in Lucan’s reckless interpretation.

Leadership is about respect and humility As The Light Brigade blundered into a battle in the wrong place at the wrong time, the entire campaign narrowly avoided total disaster due to the heroic independent action of General Colin Campbell of the Sutherland Highlanders 93rd Black Watch Regiment, in forming what became immortalised as The Thin Red Line.

In this incident, the 93rd routed a Russian cavalry charge, which if successful would have signaled total defeat. Convention dictated that the line should be four-men deep. The Times correspondent, William H. Russell, wrote that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment’s base of operations at Balaklava but the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” of the 93rd.

The line was two-men deep. This scared the Russians into thinking it was a trap, and they pulled away. Campbell’s relationship with his men was unconventional, he treated them like sons, as individuals, with warmth, compassion and humility.

We can condense this event into a symbol of how personalised leadership and personal connectivity is key to creating composure in battle, and this in business. Treat people as individuals, not resources.

Leadership is personal Asking future leaders to re-interpret their present reality through the lens of past examples is simply indoctrination, instead embody their learning experientially and facilitate an understanding of personal perspective and relevance in the current context. Helping develop essential skills, such as empathy, personal vision and personal presence is vital.

When you respect your folks, they will respect you, and when people believe in their leader, they’ll go to far for her. The forbearing use of power forms a touchstone for respect.

The paradox of leadership is shown clearly between Lucan and Cardigan, and Campbell. The difference is largely down to Campbell’s personal leadership skills. Campbell had that capacity for peripheral vision that enabled him to see what was at stake, and the single-mindedness to do something about it. It is a wonderful contrast with the blinkered myopic response of Lucan and Cardigan, unable to step outside a fixed behaviour.

Leadership is about calmness, not bravado Lieutenant Lewis B. Puller is the most decorated US marine in history, his service spanned four decades. He led marines in nineteen campaigns and some of the most critical battles of the C20th. Puller is most remembered by his fellow marines for his quick-witted encouragement in the midst of combat.

In the face of adversity, you have to stay calm and positive. If you lose it, your team will follow suit: All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us…they can’t get away this time.

One valorously tragic incident, immortalised by Tennyson’s epic poem, is a story of a tragic defeat, commanded by officers without a clear view of the battlefield, distracted by personal agendas and plagued by communication problems. Someone had blunder’d. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred. Was there a man dismayed? It truly was the valley of Death.

The story of the Charge of The Light Brigade is where 673 men charged down the wrong valley after the wrong target. Are you charging down the wrong valleys after the wrong targets in your startup? Ask yourself the question about your direction and purpose, your strategy and tactics. But most of all, reflect on your leadership culture, style and communication.