I’m sitting here thinking of something to say. Something suitably weighty. Something that, decades hence, some pompous jackass will slice out of context to prove some point with which I’d disagree were I alive.

This isn’t digital bird cage liner. This is the first draft of history…. (More)

Leaders and Stories, Part I – Planning vs. Prophecy

This week Morning Feature will consider leadership narratives, stories told by and about leaders. Today we’ll explore stories leaders tell about themselves, and how those stories reflect their frames more than facts. Tomorrow we’ll see that the same is true of the stories we tell about leaders; our stories reflect our frames more than facts. Saturday we’ll consider whether and how our leadership narratives influence our other frames, sometimes in surprising ways.

The ink was hardly dry on the German surrender documents in May, 1945 when World War II½ began: the battle over the history of World War II. Among the senior Allied leaders, there was a virtual stampede to typewriters … or ghostwriters. From Dwight Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe, to George Patton’s War As I Knew It, to Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story, to Bernard Montgomery’s Normandy to the Baltic, they wanted to cast history in terms of their own leader narratives. Memoirs are usually a mix of fact and fiction, and theirs were as well. Montgomery’s aroused controversy – among some British colleagues and especially among Americans – in no small part over this sentence about the campaign in Normandy:

I never once had cause or reason to alter my master plan.

That was, by any factual study of Montgomery’s plans and decisions, not merely a lie but a Double Whopper With Extra Bacon And Cheese of a lie. It’s a lie based in Montgomery’s frame of what leaders should be rather than events as they happened, a distinction between planning and prophecy that is politically relevant today as well.

Caen and Beyond … or Not.

Montgomery’s plans called for the capture of Caen and Beyond. His Second British Army was to have advanced 10 miles inland to capture the city of Caen by the day after the landings, and a further 20 miles to Mont Pinçon within two weeks. Every major road into Normandy passed through Caen; if the Allies held the city, German reinforcements would have to loop as far as Paris to threaten the Allied beachhead. Mont Pinçon dominated the Caen-Falaise Plain, which offered plenty of sites for airfields from which Allied aircraft could pummel German forces en route to Normandy. With Caen and Mont Pinçon held by the British, Omar Bradley’s First U.S. Army could capture the port of Cherbourg and move south to other ports in Brittany without fear of a major counterattack. With those ports in hand, the Allied armies were to swing east to advance on Paris and be poised to attack across the Seine by early September.

On June 6th, a combination of surprises and setbacks halted the British in the outskirts of Caen. In the ensuing days, every attempt to surround or bypass Caen met with more surprises and setbacks. Add a mid-June hurricane in the English Channel to delay the Allied buildup, and the British would not reach Caen until July 9th, nor Mont Pinçon for another month after that. But the British pressure around Caen pinned most German reinforcements in that area and blocked any major move against Bradley’s troops while they took Cherbourg. When they finally broke out at the end of July, the Allies encircled and destroyed the German Army in Normandy. The tattered remnants fled, and by early September the Allies had captured Paris, crossed the Seine, cleared France and Belgium, and were on the borders of Holland and Germany. It was, military historians agree, a stunning victory.

So Why The Lie?

Clearly the Normandy campaign did not go as Montgomery had planned. Yet despite the many surprises and setbacks – and changes of plan – the Allies reached Paris ahead of schedule and did not need a major assault across the Seine. The outcome of the Normandy campaign was better than Montgomery had envisioned, and military historian Carlo D’Este spends much of his book Decision in Normandy pondering why Montgomery lied in claiming he “never once had cause or reason to alter [his] master plan.” D’Este concludes that the lie was based Montgomery’s ideal of military leadership. Montgomery’s frame of good leadership was to devise a simple plan, build up overwhelming force, and then execute the plan with unswerving resolve. To improvise was to “grope about,” sowing confusion and doubt for one’s men and disaster for the mission.

Events in Normandy forced Montgomery to improvise, and in so doing he achieved results better than he had planned. But rather than question his frame he told a story of Aspirational Montgomery (a prophet who was never surprised) rather than Actual Montgomery (a planner who improvised when necessary). Ironically most historians and military scholars agree that Aspirational Montgomery, rigidly adhering to his master plan, could not have achieved the stunning victory in Normandy. Actual Montgomery improvised brilliantly, but would never admit it.

Planners or Prophets?

We see the a similar pattern in political dialogue, which is driven by frames more than facts. From now until November, political and opinion leaders will talk at length about their plans and what they expect to happen. Each leader’s statements will be based on his/her Aspirational self: frames of Who I Want To Be and How Events Should Happen. Life being life, surprises and setbacks will occur, but don’t expect most political and opinion leaders to admit they had to improvise. Instead, most will claim that successes proved their frames, and most will dismiss or deny events that disproved their frames. Like Montgomery, most will try to write the first draft of history with a variation on:

I never had cause or reason to alter my master plan.

Our frames matter more to us than facts. We talk about making plans, but most of us really want to be prophets: seeing the future with no surprises. If only Realworldia worked that way….


Happy Thursday!