“An army of a thousand is easy to find, but, ah, how difficult to find a good general.”
In 1904, France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale (the friendly understanding); shortly thereafter, Russia also agreed to join this alliance. As a result, the German military began to fear the possibility of a combined attack from France, Britain and Russia.
In an attempt to respond to what they perceived as a growing threat, the German staff began making plans of their own to fend off a potential attack from these allied powers. The plan became known as The Von Schlieffen Plan, named after its primary architect, German Army Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen.
In 1906 the plan was modified so that the main route of German counter attack would now be through the flat plains of Flanders, Belgium. The assumption was that Belgium’s small army would be unable to stop German forces from quickly entering France. This, in-turn, would enable Germany to defeat France before Russia was ready to mobilize and employ all of its forces.
Or so they thought.
In 1914, the spark that lit the fuse for the First World War occurred when Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand (heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and his wife Sophia were assassinated while riding in the motorcade through the streets of Sarajevo. The situation quickly escalated and by August of that year, all of the major European powers via their complex series of alliances were pulled into the first Great War. It also set the stage for Germany to put into motion The Von Schlieffen Plan.
Things, however, didn’t quite work out as the Germans had planned. Instead of advancing quickly, they were held up by tenacious Belgian forces and surprised by how quickly the British Army was able to reinforce both France and Belgium. Ultimately, the Germans were stopped in France before they could reach their final destination of Paris. The war quickly became a stalemate, with both sides digging in to create a terrifying new phrase in our vocabulary: “trench warfare.”
Most of us are familiar with the concept of trench warfare.
After all, who has not seen the pictures or read the stories of men clamoring out of the long lines of muddy trenches that were so common in World War I? Most of us have likely heard about the millions of men forced to assault an enemy on the other side of a space littered with barbed wire, fallen trees and often, broken bodies.
Those of us who serve in the military think of the worst when we hear the term trench warfare. It’s a word that evokes images of wanton death amidst the most horrific of conditions. It conjures thoughts of a time when the assumed path to victory seemed to discount the innate value of human life. And perhaps above all, it’s a powerful example of the tragedy wrought by choosing the safety of playing defense instead of pressing in and seeking every opportunity to be on offense.
You may be asking yourself what trench warfare has to do with leadership? I’d suggest, it offers quite a bit. In fact, I believe it serves as a powerful metaphor for the reality that if you’re leading, then you too are going to experience moments where you feel stuck. Progress is painfully slow. You are entrenched: Standing still when you’d rather be moving forward.
The choice you have to make is, will you too seek the safety of the trenches by avoiding challenging endeavors? Will you too, put off dealing with an uncomfortable, but necessary problem; or ignore an unhealthy or outright destructive situation? Please know that accepting this alternative is natural. It is easy. It is, after all, the path of least resistance. But be clear. Seeking the safety of the trench will come at a very high price in terms of time lost, energy dissipated, resources wasted, and potential squandered.
On the other hand, you can decide to stand your ground. You can muster the courage to press forward when it would be easier to fall back. You can seek out opportunities to make the most of every situation. How, you ask? Begin by:
Pausing and Thinking. The process of slowing down to think through the reality of your current situation equips you with a clearer grasp of what you are facing—good, bad and indifferent. It makes you more discerning, allowing you to be more intentional in the actions you take and those you don’t. And perhaps above all, taking time to calibrate to your surroundings seeds a confidence that subsequently opens the door for spontaneity and creativity.
Remember Courage is Organic. When you seek to pursue and maintain high standards that showcase your talents you learn to discriminate and refine what you do, how you do it and most importantly, why you are doing it. Once you’ve garnered this clarity, it will be easier to muster the strength to stand and fight for those values, goals and objectives worth fighting for.
Be Bold in Your Thinking and Being. Combining disciplined thought with disciplined action, serves as an accelerator for your success. It also instills confidence in those round you. It’s a well-established fact that courage begets courage. As such, your followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for those decisions when you model the way of thinking and acting you would like to see displayed around you.
Motivate from Within. Motivating yourself to initiate a change or take on a difficult task certainly isn’t easy. Yet we all intuitively understand nothing worth fighting for ever is. The key to success it to understand progress is rarely a byproduct of a single event. Rather, it is an accumulation of small steps that eventually lead to big feats. This simple recognition helps you to keep stepping up and out when conditions make it more appealing to play it safe.
Leaders are individuals we look to guide us in the direction of our potential. Anyone can choose to play defense in the trenches instead of remaining on offense in the open field. A leader worth following, however, will equip, encourage, empower and ideally inspire you to keep moving forward. As an ancient Chinese proverb wisely reminds us, “He who hesitates before each step spends his life on one leg.” Those committed to doing something to improve conditions around them stand still only long enough to discern the next smart step to move in the direction of their dreams. Begging the question, how long have you been in the same spot?
Have you settled for the safety of the trenches?