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A tree falls in the forest. No one is there. Is there a sound?
Some would answer that while there are waves in the air, unless there is something or someone to feel those waves, to sense the sound, the sound does not exist.
Another way to think about this idea is radio communications. There is a transmitter and there is a receiver. One requires the other to create communication. Oh you can transmit all you want, but there is no communication until someone receives it.
In the center of the maelstrom of World War II, Winston Churchill set himself up as a receiver. Not only a simple receiver, but as a multi-band receiver who requested an enormous amount of information from multiple directions. He listened and he read. He engaged in conversations with people at all levels of government. He had conversations with the military, conversations with the public, and conversations with people all over the world. His conversations enabled him to gather information, develop clarity, and help his team arrive at decisions that would deliver victory. He used the power of listening and reading to understand what was going on, to understand the details as well as the “big picture.”
If you look at the way that Churchill communicated—both what he said and what he listened to—there is a clear logic and beauty to the way he absorbed information as Prime Minister. This same logic can be applied to a supply chain leader’s view of information management.
As I described in an earlier article, Churchill demanded that all orders, opinions, comments, questions, and requests going into or out of the office of the Prime Minister be in writing. The main thrust of this requirement was to achieve clarity and to establish a communication history for important orders. His “Action for Today” memos were not only directives to take action, they were also requests for information—in writing.
If you imagine Churchill sitting in his bed—the special desk on his lap, an assistant handing him reports and memos to read, clerks and secretaries ready at keyboards—you will see the 1940 version of an “official” blogger of today. As he would read reports, news articles, memos, and letters, he would comment and respond, and a clerk would put the spoken word to paper. The flow of paper into and out of the PM’s office was a choreographed chaos that was really brilliant in design. It was a system designed to manage the flow into and out of a single point of concentration—Winston.
When he wanted to engage someone in critical thought, Churchill engaged on a personal spoken level. His facility with the English language and his ability to play with tone gave him the power to provoke thought and opinion, to get the best ideas from those around him. In group meetings he would solicit comments from all. In more personal settings he would listen with intent. Churchill’s playful quips, the asides, the sotto voce comments, the jokes, and the sighs—all were tools he used to motivate others to think and to communicate. He could badger, nag, and provoke; he would do everything and anything to get ideas and opinions out of the people around him when he needed them.
Churchill possessed a deep and broad understanding of the world and his nation. He knew things that his subordinates did not know, and carefully used his omniscience as a leader to ensure victory. Key to his ability was the understanding that he had to take both an “inward” and “outward” view of the war effort. Inward was what was happening in the country, in the military, with the people. Outward was what was happening in the world: which way the political wind was blowing in the US, what the latest intelligence on the Nazi war effort was, what the conditions in Cairo and Madrid were. Churchill used a balanced and continuous feed of information to lead.
Much is now known about Allied intelligence on the German war effort that was not public knowledge for over 30 years. The cracking of the German Enigma Code by the code-breakers of Benchley Park gave Churchill and his leadership team incredible insight into the tactical and strategic position of the Third Reich. Churchill required his intelligence teams to consider all tools and sources—the decoded messages, aerial reconnaissance, and reports from the network of field agents and resistance fighters—to provide “outward” reporting and vision. Knowing what your enemy and your allies are thinking is invaluable.
Churchill encouraged research and reporting outside the normal channels so that he had a feedback loop outside the governmental and military chains of command. Early on, Churchill created the Statistics Branch, headed by Professor Fredrick Lindermann, which he would use to obtain information that might not otherwise have been collected by the government. He also used Professor Lindermann for information that might have been “colored” by the “official” channels, as the following request illustrates: “Let me have on one single page a statement about the tanks. How many have we got? How many of each kind are made each month? What are the forecasts? What are the plans for the heavier tanks?” Requests and summary reports like these, based on clear and concise questions, gave Winston Churchill an independent eye on production and manufacturing. This kind of reporting is an example of being “inward-focused from the outside,” so your point of view is not from “within the machine,” but from an external eye.
Churchill also read the daily papers, both in the morning and in the evening; not just one newspaper, but many, from different cities. He also read the newspapers from major US cities. The newspapers gave Churchill a window into the life of the public, their attitudes, their troubles, their opinions, and the problems they faced. Churchill gained insight into the American public through the window of American newspapers, and he developed an understanding of the political challenges FDR faced in 1940 and 1941, deftly using that knowledge to craft his letters to the US president. Often, based on the reading of the English dailies, Churchill would direct government ministers to take actions for the public welfare that would head off public dissension by asking the right ministry to take early action. Churchill reserved a specific time for reading the newspapers—the end of the day. He would get through as many as he could before retiring for the night. There was always more than he could read, but from what he did read, he picked up priceless outward information about his clients, the British public.
Understanding that the art of communication is more the art of reception than transmission is important. Leaders are targets for many firehoses of information, and the art is knowing which one to drink from and when. The constant barrage can be fatiguing, but a leader who shuts off one or more of these hoses does so at great risk. The right leader figures out how to manage the timing and intensity of the flow.
Great leaders know that most of their focus needs to be outward. Leaders who constantly look inward run their organizations into walls. A leader needs to look inward to measure against what he sees as the needs of internal customers and clients, but paramount is the leader’s need to look outward at external customers, competition, and the market.