When I was given an assignment that was deeply imbedded in the UK Defense, Diplomatic, and Intelligence sectors, one of the first British role models I started to hear about was Field Marshal The Viscount Slim. My boss, a highly-respected maverick leader in the UK Army, told me more about William Slim as we walked near his statue near the River Thames in London. Many other senior leaders I met recommended his book Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-45.

When I consider great leaders, Slim immediately comes to my mind. I haven’t just simply read his book over the last few years; I have dissected it. Every page is covered in notes and symbols, and sometimes, I spend hours just re-reading a few pages to completely understand all the lessons he offers the reader. Slim offers lessons for leaders in every career-field and sector of society. His book ranks with Grant’s Memoirs for me, and I urge you to start reading it yourself.

General Slim as he readies his force to fight the Japanese in Burma

Slim had eight tactical lessons that he drafted himself to conduct the training his Army would need to defeat the Japanese when they went back into the jungles of Burma to face a foe that had previously pushed them out. In Slim’s own words, his forces had been “outmaneuvered, outfought, and outgeneraled” by the Japanese. Following these eight rules, he meant to re-train a force that could reverse the field and win the campaign.

Lesson One: Know your environment

“The Individual soldier must learn, by living, moving, and exercising in [the jungle].” that the environment is “neither impenetrable, nor unfriendly.” This applies to every person in every workplace, from the boardroom to the kitchen. If you spend enough time understanding how your environment works though experience, you will not fear it. Everyone requires a certain amount of time for simply studying their environment before they can feel comfortable enough to move at top speed in it. It shoud be part of your personal onboarding process.

Lesson Two: Everyone must know the tricks of the trade in the workplace

“Patrolling is the master key to jungle fighting. All [types of] units not only the infantry must learn to patrol.” You cannot just ask your most elite or the most numerous sections of your workforce to know the secrets to success. Every person must feel empowered to be a “bold and cunning” member of the team. If your assistants and dishwashers feel trusted to learn how to use the “master key” to unlock their potential and help guide the organization towards its mission –they will surprise you with their achievements.

Lesson Three: Confidence comes from embracing the chaos of battle

“All units must get used to having Japanese [soldiers]” get behind their lines. “When this happens,” units should feel it is the Japanese who are surrounded. A confident team is taught to always find a way to keep the upper-hand mentally in a fight. Your competition will always be trying to make you feel unstable and unprotected. If your team has a positive attitude about those moments and senses they will always come out on top, they will not panic; but instead turn the tables on the other team.

Lesson Four: You cannot guard everything

“In the defence, no attempt should be made to hold long continuous lines.” Watch the key routes your enemy will exploit with your most knowledgeable people. Every day, your organization is trying to hold its ranking or place in this world. You cannot dig a moat or build a wall thick enough to stop your competition from challenging you somewhere. Know where you are weakest as a team and make it stronger by placing your best people on the project. You have to accept some risk and keep moving forward, or your team will be immobilized by fear that every second they will be attacked by an overwhelming force.

Lesson Five: Find the way forward that finds your competition’s weak spot

“There should rarely be frontal attacks…come in from [the] flank or rear.” Every infantry unit today knows that you never want to charge straight down the barrel of a machinegun, but this isn’t always obvious to those who don’t practice finding their enemies weak points.  While it is easy to spot the front door to your competition’s building, it is easier to get in through the back door or a window. If you are facing a competitor that is hitting your strongest point, then move part of your force away from that engagement and challenge them where they are unprepared. 

Lesson Six: Synch-up your teams and use your strongest weapon wisely

“Tanks can be used [almost everywhere] except swamp…they must always have infantry with them…use the maximum number available. The more you use, the fewer you lose.” If you have a very strong team, send them out with their full strength and partner them with other teams that can protect their weaknesses. Never send one strong person that can be overwhelmed by a mass of weaker competitors. Also, train your teams to collaborate at all times. The more your teams train together, the easier it is to win and bring all your people back in one piece.

Lesson Seven: Everyone is a key player

“There are no non-combatants in jungle warfare. Everyone is responsible for their own protection.” If you have any teammates that feel totally dependent on someone else, they are not being empowered to stand on their own and contribute. Everyone must feel like a person you depend on for mission success. Everyone must feel they have an equal voice to make suggestions that can lead to team victories. If everyone realizes they must be ready to lead and get involved in the most critical tasks, they will not feel dependent, but instead indispensable.

Lesson Eight: Take the initiative, and keep it

“If the Japanese are allowed to hold the initiative, they are formidable. When we have it, they are confused.” You have to let your people feel empowered to find ways to take the initiative. If you try to control too tightly, your team won’t get the upper hand. Once you have your competitors on the run, stay after them. If your teammates feel they are allowed to charge ahead with good ideas, your competition will always feel off-balance.

Lessons from Slim Still Apply to Today

Why do Slim’s WWII lessons offer solid advice for today? Why not a seemingly more relevant time or person? Slim led a diverse army made up of many nations and peoples. He also had to partner with some of the most challenging personalities in the second World War. He operated in an environment that required every teammate to feel empowered to react quickly to chaos. Slim would have thrived in this era with our multi-national and interagency organizations, made up of diverse people with equally diverse ideas, operating around the globe 24 hours a day. 

Grab a few nuggets from Slim in here for your leadership kit-bag. The world is not getting less complex, so prepare your teams to relish the world’s challenges. One final thought from Field Marshal Slim might drive home how time-tested these lessons are: “These were the lessons I had learnt from defeat and I do not think I changed them in any essential [way] throughout the rest of the war” (1942-45).

*Note: for more insights into this topic read pages 141-146 of Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-45.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.