The Strategic Value of Morale2/03/2010
“The beatings will continue until morale improves” ~ WWII Japanese submarine commander
This classic sarcastic quote illustrates the impossibility of forcing morale. Morale unlike tactics or logistics is a much fuzzier force and thus there is a tendency to ignore it in strategic thinking. This is a mistake as the impact of morale is huge.
When I was in primary school and up until halfway through high school I used to get into a lot of fights. While I wouldn’t say I always won I never really lost a fight either. Being a classic Dungeons and Dragons playing, computer club geek I received my fair share of provocation but I was pretty stubborn and refused to be pushed around. This meant the bullies would often pick on some of the softer targets which always got my sense of justice riled up and next thing I was confronting the bullies. Hence all the fighting.
I grew up in pretty strict Christian all-boys boarding schools in South Africa where we wore uniforms and had to call the teachers ‘Sir’, however at the bottom of the playing fields or in the dormitories after dinner we had regular mini fight clubs going on. One of the benefits of fighting a lot is you start to get pretty fearless and somewhat competent. My main tactic was generally to charge at top speed, head-on at someone then start grappling on the floor – this meant the bigger kids couldn’t use their reach or weight against me and on the floor sheer aggression and energy counts for a lot.
A lot of this aggression and energy came from knowing I had something bigger on my side – justice. I was in the right & I knew it. These guys were picking on us and bullying us and it wasn’t going to wash… It was only when things changed in my teenage years that I realised how big an asset that belief in the rightness of my cause was.
When I was 15 it all changed the arrogance of adolescence and a desire to seem cool had eroded my moral clarity and I took the first serious beating of my life. The whole school was away on something called “Veld School” a rite of passage all South African schoolkids had to go through in the 1980s, ‘Veld School’ means roughly ‘Bush School’ and is basically a week away in the countryside with your classmates running obstacle courses and eating dreadful food – a kind of stripped down boot camp presided over by overweight Afrikaaners. The supposed intention was to build character but it seems the primary reason was for teachers to get out of town for illicit affairs & heavy drinking – it was considered unpleasant by almost all the students on it.
Anyway while there we each got a turn at serving food and while on breakfast duty I gleefully handed out extra food to all my friends. A new kid at the school asked for extra and when I refused grabbed some anyway, I proceeded to whack his hand with the serving spoon – HARD. He was justifiably pissed off and thanks to the provocation of 150 odd bored 15 year old boys we were soon squaring up behind the dormitories for a fight.
I lost badly. Even now I can recall his knee slamming in to my head….repeatedly. No agression, no speed, no desire for the fight. The thing is this kid was no bigger, faster or tougher than any of the others I semi-regularly clashed with at school but the fight was just not in me – I really should have been apologising to the guy not fighting him.
The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole, and at an early stage they establish a close affinity with the will that moves and leads a whole mass of force, practically merging with it, since the will is itself a moral quantity. ~ Von Clausewitz
Morale is one of the key considerations in formulating a strategy. Your team, your customers even your competitors will be affected by your sense of purpose and the rightness of action you bring to your endeavor. Think of the dramatic momentum Google had in its early days. How much of this was down to its mission – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” ? Compare this to Microsoft’s mission of “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.” A mission which began to seem downright creepy when Microsoft was facing anti-trust actions. Any wonder Microsoft has in the last 5 years leaked much of its top programming talent to Google?
The Blue Monster was a quixotic attempt by Hugh Macleod and some friends of his at Microsoft to shift Microsoft morale from the grass roots but lacking deeper buy in from higher up in the organisation it seems doomed to simply make Microsoft look even more stodgy. Morale is’nt just a high-level ideal though it is also profoundly affected by operational and structural issues. By all accounts Google is no longer the incredible working environment it was in its early days – it has simply grow too large to keep the same sense of unity and purpose.
The French, typically, have a fantastic term for morale – Esprit De Corps. How is yours?