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Leadership Excellence: Attract and Retain Great People Part 1

Whether you own a small business or work for a large company, non-profit or simply volunteer in your community, chances are you will find yourself having to lead and possibly recruit other people. Attracting and retaining talent is a huge issue for every type of organisation out there, and a big trouble spot for many corporate balance sheets.

So whether you’re wondering why:

• You’ve become “aggressively disinterested” in your own workplace, or…
• You can’t find a workplace you like, or…
• All the most talented people you’re trying to hire are yawning during their job interviews,

…just read on!



Bad Advice

Naturally, there’s a ton of advice to be found on this subject. Unfortunately, most of it is bad.

Why? Because it’s pretty much all grounded in the nineteenth century idea that employees are basically commodities to be selected from a list of requirements, used and disposed of- an attitude implicit in the term “Human Resources”. People working from this point of view try to slap all kinds of fancy new features on this crashed operating system, from open-concept workplaces to new recruitment initiatives for millennials to social media network-based recruitment. This keeps consultants busy, but the point they’re all missing is that the Human Resources approach is based on a self-defeating premise. But that’s alright, because there’s an analogue solution of elegant simplicity.

Back to Basics

If you really want to excel at drawing talented people to you, motivating them and getting them to stick around, there’s no getting around the fact that you have to dump this industrial-age claptrap. The emerging economy is starting to punish organisations that objectify their workforces, and so is the talent pool.

So, what’s the alternative? Let’s go back to basics for a moment. Forget for about organisations, companies, employers and employees. Let’s assume that none of those concepts exist, and your sole job is facilitation. Human beings are by nature creators, as well as beings with needs and wants. When you approach anyone, you should have two questions:
– What do you [want to] create?
– What do you most need or want?

Talk to enough people, you can begin to match the creative talent to the people who want what it produces, and to the people who can collaborate to make it better. Sounds almost too simple, right? And it would- after a couple of centuries’ worth of industrial propaganda, we can hardly remember a time when human beings worked for their own and each others’ benefit and not for the benefit of the company, the shareholders or some other organisation.

The truth is that the best leaders can take this approach and make it practical and profitable for everyone.

What Not To Do

As you may have seen, when many organisations go talent-hunting, the first thing they do is make a shopping list, representing an imaginary ideal array of traits, experience and training that their ideal employee should have. They then devise a series of hoops through which their candidates must jump to demonstrate that they meet these criteria. They are, in effect, looking for their perfect commodity and testing to make sure they’ve got it, much as an aerospace company might test a new alloy.

The moment you take this approach, you’re setting yourself up for failure. All you’ve done is create a series of barriers that prevent you from actually getting to know your potential coworkers and letting them get to know what you’re all about. Why do we say that? Because all those qualifications and years of experience don’t represent ability. They’re conventionalised proxies for ability, just as interviews and tests are proxies for workplace competence. None of these things guarantees you’ll get the people who can do the job well, let alone the people who can drive your organisation forward. All this process guarantees is an increasingly cynical talent pool exhaustedly jumping through your hoops without any idea of whether or not you’re actually what they’re looking for.

Worse, that list of requirements is not based on what’s possible. It’s based on preconceptions about what your organisation does now and how it does it. It’s an approach designed to fit a new cog into the machine. If you really want to get ahead, you need the people who can transform whatever processes you assign them to oversee. You need people whose ideas and efforts can help you grow, not remain static.

Two related problems with this approach are over-pitching and feathering. Over-pitching means requiring qualifications, experience and talent you won’t be able to fully utilise in the position. You can guarantee that anyone whose talents you can’t utilise fully is going to leave as soon as possible. Feathering means adding requirements that aren’t objectively necessary to be able to do the job, but serve to exclude a great deal of the talent that’s out there. If the people who would be willing to do the job, feel themselves able to do it, but don’t have those extraneous qualifications are driven away, and those who do have the qualifications look and say “What? I could do so much more,” who are you left with?

Check any job board – it’s guaranteed, there will be dozens of postings that have hung around for months or years because of feathering. You have to be willing to take in and train people new to your industry, especially for the lower level jobs, because, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the people with experience don’t need to put up with morons who think that an MA in economics and five years’ experience is necessary to push paper and write e-mails.

Who to Hire and How

So, if the old process in all of its incarnations doesn’t work, then what does? Again, back to basics. What does your organisation/company need? What does it want to build? What are its core principles? What are yours? Anyone who looks at their organisation and says “This is good like it is” either doesn’t care anymore or is comfortable and incompetent. There’s always room for growth and improvement. If you want to find talent, then tell the world what you want to do and why. Tip: “We want to increase our profit margins because money is good,” and “We want to execute someone else’s policies ‘cause, like, they pay us” are both wrong answers. If your mission is inspirational, people will break down your doors with good ideas that they want to contribute. If you can’t do that, then give people a problem to solve, a process to improve. Engage their creativity, and they’ll come.

In Part-2, we’ll cover the all-important next phase: what to do when those talented people start banging on your door. Yes, that’s a great position for you to be in as an organisation, but ONLY if you know how to handle it…

The Unresilient Society: When Integrity Leaves the Marketplace

Seven years after the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, we are still picking up the pieces of the worst economic disaster in modern history. At the same time, confidence that similar problems won’t derail us again in a few years remains at an all-time low, with good reason. Well, society’s resilience is a lot like an individual’s resilience – until you stop lying to yourself about the causes and face reality the way it is, you can’t fix anything…

Integrity in Business

Would it surprise you to learn that Wall Street had risk management officers who actually did their jobs and saw the crisis coming? Of course, in the heady sugar rush of unlimited profits from derivative financial products and improperly financed mortgages, those risk management officers were not just the minority voice, they were actively deprived of access to senior management, pressured and threatened into keeping their mouths shut. The results we know all too well.

And those managers who shut their doors and plugged their ears continued to make obscene amounts of money even at the height of the crisis (or found themselves nice golden parachutes) irrespective of the vast misery they had collectively created. Of course, they didn’t see it that way. They were merely cogs in the financial machine, professional gamblers who bet and lost. It happens.

One of the more interesting takes on the American financial sector came from the then-president of China’s sovereign wealth fund (which was heavily invested in the United States), Gao Xiqing. In an interview with The Atlantic, Gao pointed to the skyrocketing leverage ratios of investment banks as evidence of a disturbing economic trend. “Thirty years ago, the leverage of the investment banks was like 4-to-1, 5-to-1. Today, it’s 30-to-1. This is not just a change of numbers. This is a change of fundamental thinking.”

When called to give a presentation to the State Council under Premier Zhu Rongji, he explained derivatives using the metaphor of mirror images. You have a product with value, such as a book, and you sell that. Then you sell a mirror image of the book- the stock- in order to get money to make more books. Then you sell a mirror of that stock debt, and a mirror of the mirror of the mirror. Each individual product seems to make sense; collectively, the whole enterprise is inflationary.

Gao also sees a big problem with the compensation scheme for the financial sector: “People in this field have way too much money. And this is not right. It distorts the talents of the country.” He cites friends of his who should have gone into productive scientific fields but chose finance or law instead, because they pay so much better. When highly gifted people ignore their unique talents and do something completely different for the sole purpose of chasing more money, everyone loses.

Integrity in Regulation

The failure of governments to regulate in the last few years is not simply a matter of putting the right regulations to paper. It’s about willingness to hold the financial sector, and industry at large, accountable, to impose meaningful consequences on individuals and companies whose profits have come at the expense of their country and the global economy at large.

Let’s say you’re a manager in a large company. You have a group of employees who, despite plenty of warnings, have made a series of business decisions that have brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Should you:

a) Fire them and hire more competent employees?
b) Dock their pay until they correct the mistake?
c) Resign for your own failure to adequately supervise them?

Well, no matter which option you chose, you have a damn sight more business sense than US and European governments, whose approach was to give them a multi-trillion dollar bonus and send them on their way. The GFC and Recession bailouts were hardly the first time that taxpayers in a Western country have paid for the sins of the financial sector, but it was by far the worst, and it sets an appalling precedent. The moment you declare a bank, an investment firm, a car company “Too Big To Fail,” you turn your country into a big slush fund to underwrite corporate greed and incompetence. You are saying that the free hand of the market is a concept that keeps government from interfering in the economy- except to save industry from the results of its own bungling.

But what was the alternative? Accountability. Think about it. Trillions in bailout money, plus more in “quantitative easing” (pretending the economy is stronger than it is by printing more money). And you give it to the very people who created the crisis was in the first place, rather than letting them meet their natural end and investing in businesses models that do work, infrastructure, employment, not to mention debt and mortgage relief for ordinary people? Sure, big crashes hurt, and the state would have to take on responsibility for making sure the people with toxic mortgages get relief and the automotive workers get a new employer. At least that bailout money would go to the public and not to Wall Street. But the clean slate, the opportunity to design a more effective, more regulated financial sector which knows it had better hold itself accountable- that is priceless for long-term stability.

And that is the reason why Iceland, which seemed to be foundering in financial meltdown a few years ago, is well on track to recovery. They let their ailing banks collapse, prosecuted bankers for financial wrongdoing, devalued their currency to increase competitiveness, kept their social welfare model firmly in place and systematically rebuilt their economy and banking system.


Meanwhile in the United States, a recent survey of the financial sector by Notre Dame University has found that the number of people in the sector who have witnessed or would be likely to commit financial malfeasance outnumber those who would be likely to report them, especially given the proliferation of nondisclosure “gag” clauses in contracts. In short, the incentives to break the rules still outweigh the potential consequences of getting caught.

And that’s only part of the problem. The regulators are cozying up to the very people they’re supposed to regulate, and there’s a reason: a revolving door exists between the Federal Reserve and Wall Street, and many former “Fed” people go to Wall Street to make their fortunes. The result is that critical reports get suppressed or rewritten, and Fed employees who rock the boat can get the sack. In such a climate, the law on paper and the law as it is enforced are hardly ever the same thing.


Integrity was not simply lacking in a few unscrupulous people, the Bernard Madoffs of the world who were actually breaking the rules. Instead, integrity was ruled out of the very mode in which business was conducted. This is why the Global Financial Crisis happened in the first place. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, that same lack of integrity was implicit in the response to the crisis, and remains implicit in the post-crisis business world. Until our sense of integrity outweighs the blind faith we put in corporations, financial institutions and the market itself, we will not be able to create a framework of laws and corporate culture that can create a stable and resilient economic basis for our global society.
Perhaps we should also be asking ourselves to what extent all this is the fruit of our modern culture of political correctness, where no one is ever to blame and no one is held responsible for their actions. We’ve become afraid to “tell it like it is” and afraid to require accountability on the part of people in power. Until we wake up, the downward spiral will continue…
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

How Corporations and Governments are Trying to Manage Our Happiness

There was a time when we all thought that happiness by definition defied measurement. After all, it’s a qualitative, personal, emotional and spiritual state. To be happy in respect of certain circumstances was never the same as happiness overall.

Then came the social sciences in their madcap (or simply mad) attempt to quantify the human experience scientifically. Today we have the World Happiness Report (claiming to quantify the relative happiness of the world’s nations), countries like Bhutan adopting measures of “gross national happiness,” and of course, an endless stream of surveys and other attempts by managers and human resources departments to quantify the happiness of their employees.

Happiness Works, purveyors of the Happiness At Work Survey, put their business case as follows:

“Happiness is worth it. Big savings can be made for happy companies through lower staff absence, talent retention and productivity. Calculate the savings for a happy organization.”

Below on the same page is a calculator to allow the customer business to calculate their potential savings from a happy workforce. Happiness has become a commodity, and it’s big business. People who study happiness are highly paid to come up with ways for corporations to improve the happiness of their employees,

It’s not just companies that are looking for the magic espresso machine that will create a nirvana of satisfied and productive employees. Countries are using national happiness not only as an instrument of domestic policy, but as a means of political propaganda, either for a particular party or for an entire political system. China, where the Communist Party legitimises its rule through the provision of public goods and economic growth, is a great example. After all, if you can demonstrate “scientifically” that your people are happy you can:

1. Show what a great place your country is, especially for the wealthy people you hope to attract.
2. Prove that there can’t be anything really wrong with your system.
3. Show that the ruling party has things under control.
4. Legitimise a whole raft of state programs or policies which claim to increase happiness.

Discussion on this topic was one of the bright points of the recent International Conference on Happiness and Hope. Chen Hee Tam from Singapore reminded us of both that neoliberal state’s use of happiness for these purposes and why what you measure matters. After all, if you measure factors like income, housing and education, you can demonstrate that someone is materially well off. But unless you look into subjective factors, you can’t say that they’re happy.

The lack of subjective data was also an issue for Ilona Suojanen of the University of Edinburgh, who studies the use of happiness as a tool by corporate management. The Human Resources mindset, which treats the employee as an interchangeable resource to be managed through a system, looks for measurable factors that can make the mass of employees happy, and therefore easy to manage. The magic employee benefits package, the perfect number of coffee breaks, the optimal work environment, from rooms filled with gargantuan pillows to, in one case Ilona mentioned, the use of slides as an alternative to stairs- sure, having a nice work environment helps, but frankly some of this stuff reminds me of Dilbert’s Motivational Stone of Quality- pointless expenses that I’d rather have received in a paycheck or a dental plan:


What the quantification of happiness misses, as these presenters argued, is personal engagement, challenge, fulfillment, belonging, the things that make work worth getting up for- not to mention collegial work environment and effective leadership. But that’s the problem with the idea of management writ large, as we have written so many times- management reduces subordinates to utilitarian objects (typical of the Newtonian thinking of the industrial age), while leadership treats them as individual people and seeks to grow them as such, knowing that their growth is the organisation’s growth – an idea more compatible with the complex realities of the post-industrial workplace.


The Root of the Issue

This gets to the root of the happiness problem. If you’re a country or corporation trying to make reasonable provision for the needs of your citizens or employees, sure, you’re contributing to their happiness. Great. But at what point does creating the conditions in which happiness can flourish stop, and the management of human emotion start?

That’s exactly what this is about. Governments and corporations would very much like to make human emotion homogenous and manageable according to a universal rubric. Happiness becomes a commodity provided from above in the form of objective goods, rather than as an individual measure of the quality of experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one heck of an intrusion into personal autonomy.

If there’s one thing that cutting edge leadership and corporate culture has discovered, it’s precisely that you do NOT want to anaesthetize people with pseudo-happiness, to make them more pliable and more easily manageable. That’s surprisingly similar to the traditional military paradigm – break them emotionally so they’ll be pliable enough to follow orders.

The true win-win, though, is about providing people with a way to contribute to the maximum, to overcome challenges together, to grow and evolve. No, these folks, like Special Ops personnel, will never be pliable. They’ll be in your face, insubordinate and damned inconvenient. BUT… they’ll be the most productive, happy and reliable people you’ve ever met.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger

Leading Yourself Into The Situations You Want In Work and Life

Apropos of the Resilient Life Code’s upcoming unit on Self-Leadership, we thought we’d tie Self-Leadership in with two of our recent themes: corporate culture and the Newtonian worldview.  If we attempt to take control of and responsibility for our lives while we still believe that we are victims of a mechanistic world beyond our control, that we are at the mercy of whatever institutional contexts we find ourselves in, we will, inevitably fail.  Here are a couple of approaches that will help you short-circuit this focus on external obstacles and begin to create your own security and your own high-functioning environment from within. 



Stephen Covey recounts the experience of a corporation trying to reform its corporate culture in order to improve the quality of its services.

“They essentially said, Our problem is scarcity.  We have scarcity in the way we admit people into our ranks, scarcity in the way we promote them, scarcity in the way we compensate them, scarcity in the way they’re made partners, scarcity in the way the rewards of partnership are distributed.  No wonder we have such a messed-up culture!  No wonder there’s so much jealousy.  There’s so much feigned, pretended, cosmetic unity, but down deep inside there are forces that are splitting our culture apart – hidden agendas operating everywhere, relationship problems, departments at the throats of other departments.”

Scarcity is far less often a fact than it is an attitude.  As a concrete example, there can seemingly be no greater instance of absolute scarcity than famine.  And yet many of the great famines of history resulted from the underuse of alternative food sources that had fallen out of fashion yet could have survived whatever drought/disease/climactic conditions caused the famine.  The opposite attitude to scarcity is abundance.  Just as the scarcity of famine can be created by people’s attitudes, so abundance is also created by our mindset, specifically, a mindset of stewardship and cooperation.  The “reality” television show Survivor is probably the supreme example of scarcity mindsets in action.  Again and again, effective group action is undermined by the politics resulting from a scarcity mindset.  Yet all of humanity’s achievements depend on group effort.  In order to thrive, Covey maintains, people need trustworthy, coherently-aligned, accountable working environments. 

Why is this a self-leadership issue rather than just a leadership issue?  Not all of us are fortunate enough to work in such environments, and it is a key self-leadership skill to begin to turn that around through our interactions, to create our preferred environment around us by reflecting it in our behaviour.  Scarcity, as an aspect of the Newtonian worldview, focuses on an external problem.  Abundance focuses on an internal solution.  We have to become what we want to see in our environment.  That means we need, among other things:



Trust is the key factor behind the success or failure of any professional group endeavour.  Without trust, as you probably learned working on group assignments in school, it is impossible to do anything efficiently.  Covey roots professional trust in two factors: character and competence.

Character requires, naturally, an integrity based on a deeply-rooted set of principles, honesty and courtesy as we have reiterated so often- but it also requires an abundance mentality- there are always more possibilities, a reservoir of creativity to meet every challenge together, and life is always growing.  Without that abundance mentality, character evaporates, becomes unable to operate.  You can’t keep faith with others if you have no faith in the universe.

Competence includes not only technical competence, but the ability to see the big picture and ability to work well with others.  Competence arises from a positive outlook.  It is the sign of a person on a growth trajectory, of people endeavouring to improve themselves.


Mutually Beneficial Agreements

The logical outcome of personal trustworthiness plus the other trustworthy people it will attract is the ability to form mutually beneficial agreements about tasks you have to perform.  The more you do it, the more effortless it will become and the more efficient the collaboration will be.  But to make this work, you need one more thing:



Scarcity creates competition.  Abundance creates accountability.  First and foremost, that means you have to hold yourself accountable to the terms of the agreements you have made.  The more you do this, the less anyone else will have any need to check up on you, and the more you will encourage personal accountability in your colleagues.  The collective agreement thus becomes a standard against which you can measure your performance, but fundamentally, you are taking responsibility for the quality of your work under a framework of integrity and trust built with others. 

In high-functioning organisations, systems should be in place to reward outstanding work to reinforce personal accountability and encourage further achievement, but the primary reward for us is that by taking these steps toward self-leadership, we become the kind of people who can create productive, abundance-focused environments wherever we go.  Focus on abundance, as we said, brings an inner solution to the external problems of scarcity.




If sticking to your goals is important, and it is, the other side of that equation is flexibility.  Brian Tracy says “The opposite of flexible thinking is fixed or mechanical thinking.”  The latter is, of course, a hallmark of the Newtonian Worldview.  To be flexible is to be open-minded, to take in new information and differing points of view.  This means listening to what people think even if they don’t agree with you.  It also requires a willingness to admit that you were wrong.  This is excruciating for the ego, as evidenced by the millions if not billions of dollars spent worldwide every year on covering up unpleasant truths.  But ultimately, admitting that you were wrong and changing your approach is far less costly than persisting in a misguided venture. 

State your goal clearly, but be flexible about how to achieve it, and be open to both inner and outer promptings- if you feel good about a particular direction that has just emerged, chances are your intuitive guidance system knows something you don’t.  By being flexible in this way, you can avoid getting stuck in the machinery of set ways of thinking and going down with inflexible organisations.

This is where self-leadership and leadership meet- the two become the same thing.  When we let go of the Newtonian mechanistic universe and its attitude of scarcity and turn toward the quantum universe with its attitude of abundance, we are shifting our focus from the external to the internal, from the problems out there to the solutions we can create within ourselves. 



~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Comrade DILBERTsky: A Superpower Crushed By a Superior Corporate Culture

Too often, we see corporate culture as an optional extra, something that we try to do to make an organisation more productive once it is already formed.  Big mistake.  A resilient corporate culture based on proven leadership principles has to be instituted at the very foundation of any organisation, regardless of its purpose.  The truth is that without this one critical element, no amount of financing, no pool of resources or talent or facilities or anything else is going to end up meaning anything.  History has demonstrated again and again that an organisation with poor corporate culture can easily end up squandering overwhelming advantages.

We all know that great classic of corporate culture satire – the Dilbert comic strip.  Well, many decades ago, a Goliath of a nation tried to prey on a seeming helpless neighbour and got its ass royally kicked, because the Goliath had a corporate culture so poor it would make Dilbert blush.  Alas, not so for its opponent!


The Winter War

About this time of year in 1940, a forgotten war was taking place between the tiny Scandinavian nation of Finland and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union wanted a larger buffer zone for its Baltic port of Leningrad, and unfortunately for the Finns, they were in the way.  No one thought the war would last very long- after all, Finland had few modern weapons, modest military history and a tiny population, whereas the Soviet Union had the world’s largest army, more tanks than anyone else and more aircraft than the rest of the world combined!

But in that winter of 1939-1940, a strange thing would happen.  A barely-armed country would inflict so much damage on one of the world’s Great Powers in self-defence that it would guarantee its independence for decades to come.  The secret?  Despite the vast gulf in technology between the two armies, it paled in comparison with the even greater gap in what we might today call corporate culture.



The notion that a mainly Russian army could be unprepared for winter war might surprise us today, but it’s true nonetheless.  Not all Soviet units had proper winter uniforms, and none had proper winter tents.  Frostbite was claiming casualties even before the fighting began, while the Finns often wore their civilian winter clothing.  In the Soviet mind, the soldier was expendable, and as a result, the Red Army tended to neglect the details of their soldiers’ welfare.

Finland, at least on the surface, was completely unprepared, with meagre military equipment and supplies, no meaningful tank force and no significant allies.  But they did manage to build up solid defences along the Mannerheim Line, and their soldiers to an extent came pre-trained.  The Finns, as a nation of skiers, used highly-mobile ski troops for an endless sequence of lightning attacks on slower Red Army infantry and even tanks, while the Red Army did not yet have an equivalent force.  This alone would cost the Red Army vastly disproportionate losses.

Most importantly of all, the Finns fed their soldiers appropriately for a winter campaign- surviving an Arctic winter requires a diet high in fat and protein- while the Red Army expected their soldiers to survive on black bread in all conditions.  This would lead to the so-called “Sausage War” incident, in which a Soviet breakthrough came to a halt when their soldiers smelled the sausage soup being cooked in the Finnish field kitchens.  Ignoring their officers, the starved soldiers went straight for the food!



The Red Army had one main tactic on which it would continue to rely throughout the Second World War: mass a superior force and make a frontal attack.  Unfortunately for them, the Finns were so well dug in on the Mannerheim Line that they wiped out frontal assaults time after time, to such an extent that Finnish machine gunners began to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and deep crises of conscience because the battles were so pathetically one-sided.

When this tactic didn’t work, Stalin fell back on his second standard tactic of shooting the commanders and hoping things would improve.  Under this kind of pressure, alternate tactics were found.  Instead of charging the enemy, the Red Army decided to go around him.  However, when the Red Army tried to invade north of the Mannerheim Line defences, they found the Finns were just as capable of mobile guerrilla warfare as they were of static defence, and a horrendous number of Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the attempt.  More died when Soviet Forces attempted to flank the Mannerheim Line itself by crossing coastal ice under cover of fog.  The fog lifted, and Finnish coastal defence batteries (consisting of giant 12 inch guns) broke the ice and  consigned the flanking force to the icy depths.

The Finns, as previously mentioned, had very little modern equipment, and no tanks in an era of tank warfare, but their ingenious tactical flexibility allowed them to make up this gap, in part by exploiting the weather and terrain of their country.  They would ambush tanks in forests, jamming logs into their tracks and throwing Molotov cocktails and satchel charges at their engine decks.  Finnish use of ambushes, ski troop operations and snipers had an effect vastly disproportionate to their numbers.  In the north, they managed to split Red Army forces into small, besieged segments.  Even though the Finns were vastly outnumbered, their over-snow mobility allowed them to keep up the pressure.  When the Soviets attempted to air-drop supplies to their men, the Finns imitated Soviet radio signals and redirected the air drops to their own lines.  In one night raid, ski troops even managed to get two neighbouring Red Army units to fight each other.

The Red Army was a vast, regimented machine of conscripts fighting in a country they knew little about, while the Finns were citizen soldiers, fighting for the life of their country, and it showed.  No Finn, not even Mannerheim, the Commander-in-Chief, had had the slightest idea of what to do about the Red Army in 1938, and the country was not remotely prepared for modern war.  But with ingenuity, flexibility and the best use of the resources they had, they ran circles around their Great Power adversary.



The Red Army had another handicap.  The experienced officers who had fought in the civil war had either been shot, sent to Siberia or sacked by Stalin in the late 1930s.  The Purges removed 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 divisional commanders, and 36,761 officers of all ranks, over half of the officer corps.  The army’s leadership was decimated, inexperienced, terrified and clueless.  At the same time, the NKVD, the secret police, had the authority to shoot any officer at any time, which certainly did not encourage initiative.  Officers attempting to get their men out of hopeless situations were shot as cowards.  Command was shared between line officers and political officers, who vetted all decisions in terms of party dogma.  This atmosphere of terror and adherence to the Party line completely deprived the Red Army of the ability to adapt.

The Finns, by contrast, were relying on a small officer corps to command a rapidly-expanded citizen army.  Mannerheim, an ethnic Swede and an aristocrat who did not even learn the Finnish language until he was put in charge of the army, seemed an unlikely commander-in-chief.  But he had served in the Tsarist army and therefore knew something of his enemy.  He also consistently did his utmost to improve the morale of his troops, promoting officers for merit and effectiveness, providing his soldiers with good food and winter supplies.  Women’s auxiliaries were organized to provide winter clothing and decent burial for the dead.  The focus of the Finnish Army was on supporting its troops and empowering the initiative of its small units, and the results spoke for themselves.


Culture Tells

The Soviets expected total victory within a few weeks.  Three months later, they had lost 126,875 men to Finland’s 25,904, in addition to 3,543 tanks.  The Soviet Union’s technical victory was achieved solely through numerical superiority and the exhaustion of Finnish supplies, and as such was a political embarrassment.  Finland lost a small percentage of its territory, but not its independence- all because a small, underequipped, haphazard army was more motivated and flexible, better-supported and better-led than a much larger one.  That the Finnish Army was able to do what it did is nothing short of a miracle.  On the other hand, the dysfunctional organisational culture of the Red Army effectively rendered its vast resources useless.  There has never been a more object lesson in the price of a dysfunctional organisation or the rewards of a healthy one when results really matter.

The Finns exhibited all the classic characteristics of a resilient culture:

1. They were united around an emotionally compelling mutual goal (defending their loved ones),

2. They devolved initiative to the operational level so they could stay flexible and adapt to a fluid situation with blinding speed, exploiting all the opportunities that came their way,

3. And their organization was geared entirely to supporting the people doing the work.

Their unbelievable success did stun the whole world… but the reasons for it are not a mystery.  Build a resilient culture and you will emerge victorious in nearly any scenario.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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