A changing playing field
In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman recounts how, when the World War I was about to start, the French minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, tried to change the military uniform because it was very impractical. The french soldiers had been wearing their blue jacket, red trousers and red hat - kepis - for over 50 years.
The British had adopted khaki for their uniforms after the Boer War and the Germans were changing from blue to gray, colors that would become virtually invisible amongst the mud of the World War I trenches. And Messimy, who had visited the Balkan front in 1912 and had seen the advantages gained by the Bulgarians with their dull greenish uniforms, was determined to clothe the French soldier in grey-green or grey-blue.
But the French red and blue uniform was a symbol of patriotism in France, and the proposal to remodel it was met with fierce opposition that transcended the military ranks.
“L’Echo de Paris” for example, a conservative daily newspaper, participated in the debate, arguing that doing away with the colourful uniform was “contrary to both French taste and military function”.
Messimy tried to point out that the two were no longer synonymous, but he could not make his opponents budge. A previous minister of war, when confronted with the proposal said:
“Eliminate the red trousers? Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!!”
“That blind and imbecile attachment to the most visible of colors”, wrote Messimy afterwards, “was to have cruel consequences”.
50 years had passed since the Franco-Prussian war, during which all encounters were at close-quarters, so there was no point in “hiding” from the enemy. But armament had evolved significantly since then and it was now possible to pick up targets at a distance.
Still, bent on an offensive strategy, the French sent soldiers in droves towards positions defended with heavy machine guns and artillery.
The red pants gave German soldiers easy targets and so did the bright red Kepis, which offered no protection from incoming bullets and gave away soldiers’ positions easily.
The battlefield had changed completely since the last war and the French were not paying attention, preoccupied as they were with their Army’s prestige and enamoured by the image of their soldiers winning over their old foes from the French-Prussian war while clad in their patriotically coloured uniforms; instead they saddled their soldiers with a uniform that, far from helping them in the war they were about to wage, put them at a disadvantage.
Apparently, the heavy defeats suffered by the French in the opening month of the war and the sight of so many lying dead on the battlefield, triggered an emotional public response, and an all light-blue uniform would soon replace the symbolic uniform for the remainder of the war.
History is full of episodes like this one, where decisions are not made facing the reality of the situation, where drastic changes in the playing field are ignored for the sake of “sticking to the plan” or where leaders blind themselves to the reality of the situation in fear of abandoning their most sacred beliefs or life-long assumptions.
We are seeing this on a daily basis now: administrations all over the world ignored the perils of Coronavirus for too long, meanwhile venturing absurd statements (‘our country will not be affected’) or the wrong - or unproven - advice (‘masks are not effective to prevent contagion’).
This doesn’t just affect administrations, it affects all of us at work and in our personal lifes. Reading that story about the french red trousers, and many more in “The Guns of August” about the failures by the people in charge to accept the reality at hand, has been a stark reminder of how important it is to, when facing new decisions in this new playing field, be willing to put aside what you knew, what you took for granted or what you hoped to be true.
This is easier said than done - we tend to hear what we want to hear and tend to do what we want to do, rather than what we should do.
But even so we have to, to the best of our ability, try to decide with the best information we have at hand about the current situation and the possible future.
The reality is we don’t know what’s going to happen and it is probably better to accept that we will be wrong in some of our decisions and be ready to adapt, be happy to go back to the drawing board with whatever new information comes our way, and to continue hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.
I hope you are all healthy and safe. If you feel I could help you with anything or need someone to talk to about your product, team or startup during these times, I would be very happy to do so. Don’t hesitate to reply to this email.
Jorge G. Sancha