Erwin Rommel was arguably the greatest general on any side in World War II. Rommel earned his nickname “The Desert Fox” for his brilliant machinations in North Africa in 1941–42. His offensive tactics were highly successful, but by October of 1942 he had stretched his supply lines so far to the east that he was forced to adopt a more defensive position.
In addition, Rommel himself wasn’t in the best of health. And, he was literally out of gas. He was in trouble, and he knew it.
Someone else knew that the Desert Fox and his Afrika Korps were out of fuel. Bernard Montgomery had taken command of the Eighth Army in August and almost immediately had his first skirmish with Rommel.
Bernard Law Montgomery, 1942
Criticized for not pressing Rommel further at the time, Montgomery replied calmly that hasty action might very well spoil the plans he was carefully laying for decisive battle, plans which he stated would take some two months to implement.
Montgomery canceled all plans for retreat, declaring, “The defense of Egypt lies here at Alamein….Here we will stand and fight; there will be no further withdrawal. I have ordered that all plans and instructions dealing with further withdrawal are to be burnt, and at once. We will stand and fight here.”
To emphasize his determination he added, “If we can’t stay here alive, then let us stay here dead.”
Shifting immediately back to the positive, Montgomery continued, “I want to impress on everyone that the bad times are over. The great point to remember is that we are going to finish with this chap Rommel once and for all. It will be quite easy. There is no doubt about it.”
Audio recordings of Monty’s speech can be easily found and are worth listening to for inspiration.
Entire books have been written about the Battle of El Alamein. It is still discussed by military strategists and historians. Suffice it to say that after two months of meticulous preparation (and morale-building among the previously disheartened troops) the battle took place as Montgomery planned, in the amount of time he had forecast with the number of casualties he predicted.
The Battle of El Alamein marked a (some say the) decisive turning point in World War II. After El Alamein the Axis forces in North Africa were doomed, and entirely gone in six months.
As leaders, we don’t always have the option of taking as much time as we need to carefully plan and implement our strategies…or do we? If we carefully consider, in business (unlike war) we often really do have the luxury of taking the time we need to research, plot and launch our next moves.
Our era sometimes glorifies recklessness and rash decisions, but going down in a blaze of glory doesn’t really help anyone. “Pause, plan and proceed” is often better advice than “lead, follow or get out of the way.”
We use the metaphor of lemmings racing to the sea to criticize those who blindly follow, but think: one lemming is out in front. He looks over his shoulder and is exhilarated to see thousands of followers. He is a leader, no doubt, and in his haste he is leading himself and his followers to their imminent destruction.
You took a minute to read this story. You’ve paused. Now take some more time to plan before you proceed.