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158. Leadership, innovation and the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919

Disclaimer: This isn’t a post about war or soldiers or technology. It’s a post about organization, about purpose and about leadership. And it is especially a post about impressive innovation and disruption.

Our story begins with the end of a war

The First World War ended in 1918, with peace being signed in a railway car in the Compiégne Forest. The terms of the peace, however, came in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles.

Many things can (and have been) said about that agreement, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to focus on what it meant for the Germany military.

I am going to talk about why the harsh conditions imposed ended up being a major factor in making the Wehrmacht, the German military of World War, such a devastating force. Or in other words, how lack of resources fueled innovation.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, there’s an excellent video titled “Germany Army Mechanization” by The Dole Institute of Politics, featuring Dr Louis A Dimarco. If you want the shorter version, with my thoughts attached, read on. ;-)

The Treaty of Versailles: The starting point

As part of the peace settlement, the German military faced some pretty severe restrictions. If you want to know more details, the wikipedia article is a good place to start, but here are the three major things I’ll focus on.

  • Their army wasn’t allowed to have more than 100,000 soldiers in it, and only a few thousand of those could be officers. This meant that Germany’s advantage in population over France was nullified completely.
  • They were allowed no tanks, no aircraft and no submarines, which essentially meant that they were forbidden from utilizing the new tech that had been developed during WWI.
  • Last, but not least, the famous German General Staff was abolished. This had been an institution devoted to training the best and the brightest, and since it had proven fiercely effective, it was disbanded.

Now, let’s take a closer look at these three. Each has its own impact on the German military machine and each sparks its own innovations.

Size, Auftragstaktik and the right to disobey

“Tell them what you want done, and let them figure out how to do it.”

This is at the core of the German concept of Auftragstaktik. Roughly translated, it means mission tactics. The idea was that those in command would tell their subordinates what they wanted done and then let them figure out how to do it on their own. It even gave junior officers the right to disobey orders, as long as they found solutions and created results.

This approach was pretty revolutionary for a number of reasons.

First of all, the idea that you’re allowed to disobey a senior officer as long as you produce results is a wild one. In most militaries at the time, disobeying an order would result in severe punishment. In the new post-WWI German army? Not necessarily so.

Second, everyone was trained to be competent up to two levels above their rank. This meant that battlefield promotions didn’t propel people into jobs they weren’t suited for, and in the case of a leader falling in combat, there were many who could take over. It also meant that more effort was spent on making sure subordinates understood the overall mission.

Third, it rewarded initiative and daring, not obedience and ignorance. The phrase “Orders are orders” doesn’t have the same ring to it when you’re not only allowed, but expected to disobey, if it makes more sense. This had a bearing on who was promoted, and what kind of leaders rose through the ranks.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and there are many other factors that had a major impact on the success of the Wehrmacht. The fact that German tanks had two-way radios while many French tanks only had one-way receivers, for example. But that’s neither here nor there.

Stay on target!

For me, the really interesting thing is that the leaders of the German post-WWI army (most notably the commander in chief of the German Army, Hans von Seeckt) looked at their situation and chose to innovate rather than give up.

  • Faced with the limitation in size, they trained the lower ranks to think like leaders, which made it easier to scale up in the late 1930’s.
  • Denied the right to have a technological focus, they then decided upon a leadership and training focus.
  • Having lost the war in the trenches, they aimed to make the next war a different kind, with emphasis on speed and manuever instead.

Most of all, they took a look at the defeat of 1914 — 1918, said “We lost. Let’s change the way we fight.” and made radical and sweeping changes to make that a reality. Especially “the right to disobey” would have seemed insane to many at the time. Even today, many companies would cower in fear if someone suggested that as a doctrine.

Alas for the German army, this doctrine faded more and more as the war progressed, and while the “right to disobey” was certainly a thing on the battlefield, it didn’t keep the Wehrmacht from committing atrocities or from supporting a regime that was morally defunct. That’s a discussion for another blog post, though. Suffice to say that German officers followed plenty of orders that were questionable, even with this system in place, especially late in the war.

No tanks, no planes, no subs

World War I was a terrible affair, in which many millions of lives were lost. Most of the casualties were due to the horrors of trench warfare. Unsurprisingly, the three main technological attempts at breaking free of the stalemate that was the Western Front, were relatively minor in terms of deaths caused, but major in terms of strategic impact.

  • Tanks were developed as a means to cross the deadly No Man’s Land between the trenches, and to punch holes in defensive lines.
  • Planes provided aerial recon and even bombardment capabilities reaching above and beyond the front lines.
  • Submarines were Germany’s attempt at starving out the British, and in March 1917, they came frighteningly close to doing just that.

As a result of the Peace of Versailles, Germany was allowed none of these things. In other words, they were cut off from the most modern military tech of the day. So how come they ended up becoming famous for exactly these three things during World War II; their tanks, their planes and their submarines?

Again, the answer is that they chose to innovate rather than give up.

Denied the right to have an air force, crafty military men masterminded the creation of civilian flying clubs and made sure that talented pilots ended up flying for the national German airline, Lufthansa. Some of those civilian pilots would later become expert aces in the feared Luftwaffe.

With no tanks allowed, the decision makers in the army chose to focus on armoured cars and motorized transportation. Just because they weren’t allowed to have panzers (they’d come in the late 1930's) didn’t mean that they couldn’t develop fighting tactics based on speed and maneuver.

And submarines? There’s no elegant “So they didn’t have subs, but instead they did THIS” answer, but suffice to say that the Germans managed just fine to get a terrifying submarine arm up and running during the war.

The navy experimented as well, but not nearly on the same scale as the army and air force did. Why? Because while it wasn’t allowed subs, it could still have surface warships, and wasn’t forced to innovate as radically.

The irony of it all isn’t lost on us who look at things in hindsight. By denying Germany access to three core pieces of military technology, an opening was made for innovation in that space – because tech isn’t just hardware, it’s application as well.

No General Staff = No special leadership training programme.

Now it gets really interesting. Because while it’s pretty easy to understand the two other major restrictions placed on the Germans (small size, low tech), the thinking behind this third item is very different indeed.

See, during the 19th century and the years of the 20th leading up to World War I, the Germans had something they called the General Staff. It was a pretty intriguing and complex concept, but the short version is that it was a formal institution that focused on studying war, training the best and brightest officers and providing the army with a sort of connected “nervous system”.

For a more thorough description of the General Staff and its history, there’s an excellent wikipedia article here, and a short 7 min video by a fellow named Peter Smith here. If you’ve never heard of the German General Staff before, Smith’s video gives an excellent introduction to it.

But what I want to discuss is the fact that the allies chose to forbid this institution as part of the Peace of Versailles. To me it says something very powerful about leadership and leadership training; the fact that this was one of the three major restrictions placed on post-WWI Germany:

  • The army must be small and can only have few officers.
  • All the newest military tech is forbidden to it.
  • And last, but not least, its leadership institution is disbanded.

Think about the underlying beliefs that made such a decision meaningful. Sure, we’ll force them to remain small and powerless in terms of raw strength. We’ll also take away the technological advancements they might otherwise have access to. And finally, we’ll order them to stop training leaders in that special way they used to.

To me, that’s an incredible thing.

First and foremost, it shows a tremendous respect for the German General Staff. If it hadn’t been deemed effective, why bother to get rid of it? Second, it beautifully demonstrates that allied leaders recognized that military might is not just numbers and technology, but also mindsets and culture. Third, it is a great example of the fact that there’s a difference between informal learning (which is hard to outlaw) and a formal training institution (which was forbidden in this case).

Of course the Germans did what they could to ensure that the General Staff continued to exist in a decentralized and informal form, but the fact that the allies specifically put its disbanding into the peace treaty terms speaks volumes about how feared it was.

Organizations matter. Leadership matters.

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So… because the allies punished the Germans after World War I, they indirectly created the Wehrmact?

That would be an oversimplication. But it is definitely part of the truth. Because here’s a tricky thing about innovation. There are essentially only three types of organization in the world, when it comes to innovating.

  • “Desperate” organizations, who — for one reason or the other — need to embrace radical innovation or perish. The German Army in 1919 could have been the poster child for this category.
  • “Untouchable” organizations, where there is such a level of abundance and surplus that massive amounts of resources are used on innovation. Both the US military of today and Google fall into this category.
  • “Normal” organizations, which is everyone in between these two. These are the ones where innovation usually happens in small labs that don’t have a huge impact, or is postponed for tomorrow because “we’re busy”.

“We know we need to change, but we can’t afford to.”

“We don’t have time for innovation right now.”

“We can still keep afloat — we just have to work harder.”

If you’ve ever heard (or spoken!) words like this you belong in the Normal category. This is where everyone agrees that innovation is necessary in theory, but it’s just not happening in practice. There are many reasons for this, but the most common ones are lack of time, resources, energy, passion and agency.

Sure, we should change, but just not right now… no time… I have a meeting.

Untouchable organizations are rare. They’re so far ahead of the game that they have resources to spare and can spend them on “What if?” scenarios. They rarely keep their “Untouchable” status for long (usually because they fail to innovate while they’re ahead) and they don’t always realize when they’ve slipped. But they do exist, and magic can happen here.

Desperate organizations are much more common. When you have your back to the wall and the wolves are closing in, you’ll try anything to save your ass. It doesn’t always work, but when you know that the status quo won’t help you either, there’s openness to experimentation. And while desperate organizations usually know their plight themselves, they do the best they can to hide it from the outside world until it’s too late.

The German Army after the First World War was a desperate organization.

Cut down to a fraction of the size of its rivals, forbidden to make use of new technology and with its leadership school dismantled, it had two ways to go; either do things very differently than everyone else did, or face certain doom.

They chose the former.

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Final thoughts: The bad guys can provide good learning too

Now, it’s fair to say that the world would have been better off if all this radical innovation hadn’t ended up serving a certain Austrian corporal with dreams of conquest and revenge.

Hitler couldn’t have won the victories he did without the work done by German generals in the interwar years, and while we can wish he never did, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from what they did and apply it for better causes.

When we look back at the Second World War it’s easy to say “Well, sure France and Britain should have stopped Hitler before the invasion of Poland, but they couldn’t. The Germans had a magnificent fighting force, and that’s why Hitler got as far as he did.”

But this fighting force didn’t come out of nowhere. Or rather, it DID come out of nowhere. It came out of a desperate organization that had nothing and had to work from there. Yet it rose from the ashes and achieved things that the Germany forces of World War I had barely even dreamed of.

In the world of business, this situation happens again and again. It’s rarely David vs Goliath when Goliath gets defeated, but go back a little, and David is there alright. Hitler may have had panzer divisions to spearhead his conquests, but without the Treaty of Versailles, the groundwork for those panzer divisions might never have been laid. Without the harsh punishment inflicted on the German armed forces after World War I we might never have seen a World War II.

Remember that, when you’re out there and you have your back to the wall.

You can choose to give up, or you can choose to innovate in radical ways. Who knows where it might lead you?

Thank you for reading.

If you want to get into contact, you can find me at clausraasted.dk, or you can find our company at dziobak.studio.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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