I know many contractors and supervisors feel each day is simply a battle of survival. I also know that many of these same contractors are desperately looking for the next generation of leaders. What should we look for? How can we mentor them? History can be a good teacher, especially if we look at past wars. 

In 1943, the American tank division was about to have its first fight with a German tank division led by the infamous Erwin Rommel. He was a seasoned leader from both the first and second World Wars and then made his presence felt again in 1991 with the last great tank battle of the 20th century. Leadership lessons abound with him and his American counterpart General George Patton.


The Germans and the Americans 

The first tank battle between the Americans and Germans was at the Kaserrine Pass in North Africa. German tanks were more powerful. Kaserrine was another easy victory for Rommel, as the Americans retreated. Rommel requested his high command to allow him to pursue the Americans. Rommel suspected the Yanks would re-group and become a formidable foe. His request was refused. 

Over the next few months, that same retreating American tank division was given to U.S. General Patton. The next meeting for the Americans and the Germans went very differently. The German tank commanders anticipated an easy victory. However, Patton was better prepared and added some desperately needed leadership. This time, the Americans refused to retreat. Patton also deployed his light trucks with tank guns in a unique and new strategic plan never tried before. The Germans were caught off guard and they retreated.  

As more Allied reserves poured into North Africa, it became clear to Rommel that this campaign was a lost cause, but there were some strategic gains left. He requested his troops be pulled out before they were slaughtered. Hitler refused and many of Rommel’s men died. This was when Rommel became disillusioned about his führer. Rommel was a national hero but now a liability. Field Marshall Rommel was forced to take his own life in exchange to save his family. His memoirs, leadership quotes and tactical battle strategies are well documented. But how could this be influential in 1991?


The American and Iraqi Armies 

Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army had just invaded and taken Kuwait. A coalition force led by Americans was charged to push Iraq out of Kuwait. The American and the Iraqi armies both had about 1,000 tanks poised to fight in 1991. It was the last major tank battle of the century. While the numbers were huge, it lasted just a single day because the Americans destroyed the Iraqi tank division with superior machines, fire power and leadership. Most Iraqi tank commanders surrendered quickly as they could see defeat was imminent. 

One Iraqi tank commander who surrendered was put into a vehicle and saw a picture of Field Marshall Rommel hanging inside. He asked, “Why would American’s have a picture of Rommel?” The American soldier replied, “He was a great leader, a brilliant tactician on tank warfare and we study him in America. Maybe you would have done better if you would have studied him, too.”


Becoming a Real Leader 

There are many lessons to be learned from these fierce battles. First, caring about your people, really caring, shows you are a real leader. History shows us that Rommel’s men would and did die for him. Of course production rates are not death, they are the life-force in subcontracting. 

Adaptably is also important: Patton and Rommel were always thinking, trying and adapting to stay a step ahead. Another lesson is a supreme commander can make or ruin everything. Eisenhower listened to Patton and heeded his advice; Hitler ignored and belittled Rommel. “Don’t fight a battle where winning gains you nothing,” was a quote from Rommel. 

Most workers want to do a good job and want to make the company a profit. Most subcontractors are willing to forgo profits to make a customer happy so they can live to fight another day. However, they are not willing to go bankrupt to simply keep them happy. 

The same is true with your workers. They will work hard, but need a clear path, goals and trusted leadership. In many ways there are similarities between war and being in business. Battles are won and lost in the trenches and workers need a path and supplies to do their job. The most important piece to winning in both situations is leadership. Leaders will be judged from victories to profits to culture. Making and supporting a great leader is not easy. Judging them on results can be tough. But I suppose a sign of a truly great leader is one who is referenced—and dare I say respected—by the enemy almost 50 years later.