Sir William Slim and Organizational Change

Recently I posted a critical view of the notion of organizational vision, especially as the term vision has evolved into specific targets for production or behavioral change.  I talked soon after with my friend John Dick from British Columbia about this and he suggested that I take a look at the life and works of Sir William Slim.

John told me that of one the most outstanding examples of institutional transformation occurred in World War II in Burma and is described in Field Marshal Sir William Slim’s autobiography “Defeat Into Victory”.

To set the historical context:   In early 1942 Slim was appointed commander of Burma Corps, described by a compatriot as “a promotion one would not have wished on an enemy, let alone an old friend”.  In late 1932, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the newly organized 14th Army Group comprised of a polyglot of British, Hindu and Muslim Indian, Gurkha, and East and West African formations.

His 14th Army (known as the “Forgotten Army) fought in difficult terrain against a highly committed enemy and did so with limited resources and with one of the most ethnically diverse forces in history. He led that army through a long retreat, restored morale, then led it to victory.

Slim recognized that one of his first tasks following the retreat would be to strengthen the morale of the defeated and shattered army.  He reasoned that “morale, if it is to endure, must have certain foundations: spiritual; intellectual; and material.  Spiritual first, because only spiritual foundations can stand real strain. (Slim wasn’t using the term spiritual to refer to a particular religion – and of course he had many different religions represented among his troops.  It is likely he intended something more like “connected to a larger purpose, emotional, intuitive.”) Intellectual next, because people are swayed by reason as well as by feelings.  Material last – important, but last because the very highest kinds of morale are often met when material conditions are lowest.

He elaborated the foundations of morale as follows:


  1. People must be made to feel that they are engaged in a good and noble enterprise that is important to society.
  2. The method of achievement must be active.
  3. People must feel that what they are and what they do matters towards the goals of the enterprise.


  1. People must believe that the goals can be achieved; that they are not out of reach.
  2. People must believe that the organization they work for is an efficient one that will provide a context for the effective employment of their efforts; that it will not squander their time and emotional resources on useless or irrelevant activities


  1. People must feel that they will get fair and respectful treatment from their superiors and from the organization.
  2. People must be given a voice in decision-making.
  3. As far as possible people must be given the legal and material tools to carry out their jobs effectively and efficiently.

From late 1943 to May 1945 Slim totally changed the culture of the 14th Army Group, then fought a brilliant series of offensive battles that led to the defeat of all Japanese forces in Burma – the single biggest land-based defeat of the Japanese in the war.

On rebuilding the moral and effectiveness of the British/Indian army, Slim ascribed the failures of his predecessors to overly rigid strategies that became liabilities when situations were in rapid change.  He defined a good strategy as “a commonly understood and accepted framework or basis from which to adapt to uncertainty and change.”

He points out that a strategy begins to enter obsolescence the moment it’s formulated, and thus is time-limited and must be regularly revisited.  He attributes his successes to the creation of a flexible strategy that provided both enough direction to ensure cohesion and sufficient latitude for his field officers to make plans, take decisions and initiate action based on local conditions and changing circumstances – not a bad objective for any organization!

Slim also wrote about leadership and management: “What is leadership? I would define it as the projection of personality. If leadership is this projection of personality then the first requirement is a personality to project. The personality of a successful leader is a blend of many qualities – courage, will power, knowledge, judgement and flexibility of mind.”

And, finally, he clearly thought of leadership as an art: “Leadership is of the spirit compounded of personality and vision; its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, time tables, and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.”

What strikes me is that writing over seventy years ago, Slim captures the essence of the most contemporary thinking on leadership!  Contemporary leaders would do well to listen to this “voice from the past.”

The Manager and Social Support

Many recent graduates in business and public administration find themselves valued by their “bosses” because they bring new and “cutting-edge” ideas and skills to the organization.  For example, a young woman with strong analytical and methodological skills is hired into a rather conservative accounting-oriented budget office in a local government.

The new employee, let’s call her Susan, immediately feels pushed aside by the existing group.  There are “sniping” conversations in the hall, there are rumors and stories about Susan’s past work, and the older group generally leaves Susan out of anything that might be welcoming.

Susan tries to be friendly and goes out of her way to develop positive relationships with her colleagues.  She asks them to participate in her projects, she invites them to lunch, and she tries hard to keep a smile on her face – even when it’s tough.

But much of the situation is out of her control. Her manager gives her the choice assignments (knowing that she alone can get the specific work done).  He also asks her to make presentations to the City Council on her projects and joins the Council in praising her for her excellent work. That’s good, but it only fans the flames of jealousy in the office.

Susan faces a dilemma and is now considering leaving the organization just to find a more supportive environment in which to work.  As she considers her options, there are several things on her mind.

  • She might talk with her boss about the situation, though recognizing that there’s little that he can do. (On the other hand, if he doesn’t know what’s happening, there’s nothing he can do.)  See below for some options.
  • Susan could leave for greener pastures. At some point, the work environment can become simply too oppressive for someone to remain. Of course, Susan’s experience will help her sort out in advance the office culture in a new location.

These possibilities are often discussed, but here our interest is in what the manager or leader does in this situation?  One response might be that this is small potatoes – there are many more important things to do.  And to some extent that’s true. The manager might also take the position that, as an adult, Susan will simply have to work out these difficulties on her own. And to some extent that’s true as well.

But such a hands-off approach by the manager has its downsides as well. We talk a lot about the complexities of major changes or organizational transformations, but sometimes forget that small changes can be disruptive as well. If the manager sees the skill set and perspective that Susan brings to the organization as important for the future, he should be attentive to not only rewarding that new perspective (which seems to be happening), but also creating an environment in which that perspective and the people who hold it can flourish.

We know that the full engagement of people in organizations depends in significant part on the social support they find on the job.  Clearly, if Susan is not finding such support within her work group, then the manager should look for other opportunities to bring her into contact with others elsewhere in the organization that share her perspective.

This could be done through temporary assignments in other parts of the organization, through creating cross-functional team projects, or through leadership development programs aimed at the next generation of top managers in the city. (Note that all of these suggestions have a explicit purpose of contributing to the work of the city, but an implicit purpose of bringing together “the best and the brightest” to form a network of support for new ideas and perspectives.)

It’s always worth the manager’s time to consider the social support (or lack thereof) that employees like Susan are receiving.  Their continued engagement depends on it.