Global Resilience Solutions > Category:military history

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