Adlertag — Meritocracy be damned

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Today is August 13th, 2012, almost to the day 67 years after the end of World War II, by far the deadliest conflict in all of human history.

August 13th, 1940, 72 years ago, was Adlertag, marking the commencement of what was officially called Unternehmen Adlerangriff, but is probably better known as the Battle of Britain — not to be mistaken with the Blitz, which took place between September, 1940, and May, 1941.

The objective of Unternehmen Adlerangriff, the aerial attack on and pacification of Great Britain, was clear and flowed directly from Führer Directive 16, Unternehmen Seelöwe, which established the intent to invade Great Britain, and which in itself, as it is the case with most top-level directives (including, for instance, the remarkable directive for Operation Overlord, the Allied’s invasion of Normandy in France in 1943) was clear, unambiguous, and measured.

Clearly in 1940, the invasion hinged on the ability of Luftwaffe, the German airforce, to neutralize the Royal Air force, the Great Britain airforce, and the ability of the Kriegsmarine, the German navy, to deny the Royal Navy, the Great Britain navy, access to the English Channel.  Whereas naval supremacy in the channel could, it was hoped, be achieved by — comparatively — passive means, principally mine-sweeping and mine-laying by the Kriegsmarine, aerial supremacy would clearly require an assertive application of force by the Luftwaffe.   In essence, if the Luftwaffe could not exterminate or paralyze the Royal Air force, then the invasion could not take place and Germany would be better served by directing its attention East.

Colonel Schmid

Joseph Schmid in 1943 – Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The burden put on Luftwaffe’s intelligence department was tremendous and would eventually prove to be too much.

At first, however, things look good, when, in an astonishing case of timely and anticipative analysis, Colonel Joseph Schmid, Luftwaffe’s chief intelligence officer, delivered a comprehensive assessment of the capabilities of the Royal Air Force on July 16th, 1940, the same day that Directive 16 was issued.  

This assessment, which, in turn, would show to be catastrophically erroneous, underestimating the standing strength of the Royal Air Force and its ability to increase its strength, mis-characterizing primary targets, and, crucially, failing to take into account Great Britain’s significant capabilities in command and control and radar, concluded that a battle for achievement of air supremacy would be short and would be overwhelmingly won by Luftwaffe — a cakewalk, if you will.    Colonel Schmid’s report became the basis for operational plans and the rest, so to speak, is history.

Generally, Colonel Schmid was the wrong man for the right job.   Having had a non-illustrious career, Schmid was generally not appreciative of the importance of intelligence, astonishingly was not an airman, was disliked by his Luftwaffe colleagues, and throughout his career, consistently underestimated Luftwaffe’s opponents – a cardinal sin for an intelligence officer.  What Schmid did have going for himself, however, was a strong ability to understand what Herman Göring, his superior and Adolf Hitler’s trusted partner, wanted to hear.  Moreover he had a strong affinity-relationship with Herman Göring and Adolph Hitler, having participated in the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, during which Herman Göring was wounded by gunfire and Adolph Hitler went to jail.

The short-term consequences of the report was the bleeding of Luftwaffe at a point in time where experienced pilots were badly needed, which in itself was bad enough, but the long-term consequences were truly catastrophic, causing Germany — and German civilians — to, as Marshall Travis (Bomber) Harris, the commander of the Royal Air Force’s bombing arm, put it, reap the whirlwind from 1942 and onwards in a coordinated bombing campaign by the United States and Great Britain that effectively leveled German civilian infrastructure to the ground. Astonishingly, Colonel Schmid would go on to commit similar errors in preparing Luftwaffe’s assessment of the Soviet Union’s and the United States’ respective capabilities.

The corporate lesson

The rise of an individual to (and beyond) his or her level of incompetence is a common tale in organizations, and more often than not the astonishing truth is that this rise is predicated entirely on likability… on a superior’s positive feelings towards an individual for reasons that are not — in any way — related to performance.    

Moreover, in a manner similar to that of the abuse cycle, whereby abused children grow up to become abusive parents, managers who are promoted on the basis of likability tend to promote based on a likability, creating, in effect, a steep pyramid of incompetence.  

Herman Göring, for instance, was an able fighter pilot during the early part of World War I with more than twenty confirmed kills, a bad squadron commander during the end of World War I, and an increasingly terrible leader of Luftwaffe in World War II as the stakes were gradually raised, but, ultimately, did this not matter, for, as Adolph Hitler was fond of saying: “I liked him.”  I will bet you that Herman Göring liked Joseph Schmid right up until the time when the chips were down.

I have worked in companies undergoing growth, decline, and turn-around, and, so, I have seen a lot of hiring, firing, and promotion, almost all of it based on personal bias, rather than individual performance and qualification and organizational needs.   Certainly, one conclusion that I have reached is that employees are not misguided if they invest most of their time in socializing with — or, crudely put, sucking up to — their superiors, a process that we now refers to as networking.   Unfortunately, for the most part, promotions and hirings are not objective processes, and to the extent that proof positive emerges as to why an individual should not be promoted or hired, the decision process rapidly gets polluted by the confirmation bias virus.  

Likewise, the act of firing (I could use the words right-sizing, letting go, or laying off, but I won’t since these are simply euphemisms for what effectively is a firing,) again and again comes down to who is likable and who is not, rather than focusing on the value that an individual brings to the organization and its stakeholders.

The lesson, of course, is clearly that senior managers need to be mindful of this bias when hiring and promoting, ensuring that these critical acts are not based on anything else than merits — and need to be downright suspicious of sycophants.  Unfortunately, this run counter to humane nature and, so, it falls upon the Board of Directors to provide oversight of these aspect of senior managers’ actions, questioning at every turn the rationale for promotions and hirings.  

Not doing so will ultimately lead to a dilution in the quality of leadership and cause the organization to fail.  And here we run into an issue in that Board of Directors level corporate governance today is an illusion, because, crucially, at the Board of Directors and Executive Officers level of an organization, the place where the command structure needs to be most strongly enforced, there is perversion in the direction of chain of control with Executive Officers, in general, and CEOs in particular, effectively controlling the Board of Directors, rather than the other way around — something that I suspect that I will be writing more about in a separate blog posting.

Ending on a low note

In closing, with the political climate being what it is, it is worth noting the observation by Herman Göring, who famously said “Education is dangerous – Every educated person is a future enemy,”  that:

“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

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One Comment on “Adlertag — Meritocracy be damned”

  1. […] a recent posting about Adler-Tag, we discussed the dangers in letting something else than meritocracy guide hiring, firings, […]