German tank destroyed in the Battle of Bulge, World War Two (Source: US National Archives)
They had lost the battle before it ever started. No motivational speech or appeal to the soldiers’ patriotism could solve that — and his commanders knew it. Yet, 79 years ago this month, Adolf Hitler hurled his army into what he believed would be the decisive victory of the war. Die Wacht Am Rhine, the German Army’s great counteroffensive in the west, would strike a surprise blow at a supposed weak point in the Allied line, drive a wedge between the Allied forces, and seize the Allies’ key logistics hub at Antwerp. The Allies’ resultant defeat, Hitler believed, would bring their governments to the bargaining table to negotiate an end to the war.
Hitler’s goals were ambitious. Some would even call them lofty. But his ground commanders called these goals foolish, unachievable, and an unnecessary waste of their once vaunted army. They were demoralized. Still, they dutifully carried out the plan which, from the outset, was neither feasible nor attainable. Worse yet, the ground commanders and their soldiers responsible for carrying out the plan were poorly resourced and under-equipped for the task at hand. And they failed.
Military history is rife with similar examples of leaders who impose unrealistic expectations on their organizations while simultaneously failing to provide them with the tools necessary to succeed. America needn’t look any further than our own failure in Vietnam. Lacking a comprehensive strategy that synchronized the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments of national power, the United States’ efforts in Vietnam were destined for failure. Despite our military’s successful battlefield performance and superiority over the North Vietnamese, no amount of military might was adequate to achieve the US government’s unrealistic goals in Southeast Asia.
But examples of failures to achieve strategic outcomes aren’t confined to military history. Comparatively, business leaders fail at a much higher rate to achieve their strategic goals, we just never hear about said failures. Well, that’s not entirely true. The BIG failures of the BIG corporations make the headlines. But what about the smaller businesses? What about the smaller teams? You know, the ones like yours? The teams with incredible people who are slugging it out in the trenches to make a powerful impact on those they serve. When they fail, nobody knows. Nobody, except for the ones who were in the trenches doing the work. The ones who were given unfeasible and unattainable goals without being provided with sufficient means to even have a chance to succeed. Still, they tried.
What goals have you set for your team? Are they lofty? Are they ambitious? I hope they are. I also hope that you’ve equipped your team with the means necessary to achieve them. If you haven’t, your people (already) know this. But still, they’ll try. They’ll try hard. Demoralizing as this may be.
A Fighting Chance: Equipping Your Team With the Means to Succeed was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.