Leadership Hubris (#324)

There’s a scene in the 1977 film, “A Bridge Too Far,” that’s stayed in my memory. The scene is of a thousand wounded British soldiers spread out on the ground awaiting boats to take them to safety after an epic battle during WWII. The camera pans over these soldiers lying there exposed and helpless and a lone soldier stands and begins singing the hymn, “Abide with me.” Soon all the soldiers join in forming a great choir:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide: The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Eventually, they make it back across the river safely. This film is about an actual military battle called Operation Market Garden. In 1944, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery believed the Allies could parachute nearly 35,000 soldiers behind enemy lines, cut off the enemy’s supply lines, and change the course of the war. He convinced himself that the paratroopers would face little resistance, only youth and old men with guns, even though reconnaissance photos provided by his subordinates and reports from the Dutch underground showed two German tank divisions and front line troops present. The operation was a disaster and Allied soldiers paid the price. Of the 10,000 British paratroopers sent, history reports only one in five returned.

This film isn’t about a military battle or even military strategy, really. That’s merely the dramatic container for an important history lesson. It’s rather about the hubris of leadership and the consequences when leaders don’t listen to those who may know more than they do. Montgomery failed a basic test of humility with respect to leadership. Believing something doesn’t make it so. And failing to listen to divergent voices, especially provided by the “rank and file,” often leads to disastrous decisions.

The real hubris in this situation (and in others since then) is the leader’s willingness to actively ignore facts that don’t fit what he wants to believe. So, we witnessed over 400,000 dead Americans and Iraqis over non-existent weapons of mass destruction that UN Inspectors had said clearly didn’t exist. We get the near collapse of the world economy caused by banks’ institutional hubris even though there were plenty of warning signs everywhere about the housing bubble. And today we see refugees, who are vetted for 18-24 months before entering this country legally, denied entry. None of them come from countries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that have produced terrorists on American soil and not one refugee vetted and brought to America has engaged in terrorist acts.

Once again, we’re witnessing the hubris of leadership, which demands a circular logic that goes something like this: “Because I’m the leader and I believe something is so, then it must be so, because I’m the leader.” The cost of leadership hubris is rarely paid for by the leader. It’s most often the weak and helpless or those who are bound to follow orders that pay the price. Wanting to believe something doesn’t make it so. Willfully ignoring the facts isn’t a leadership virtue.

Help of the helpless, O abide…

The Rt. Reverend Scott A. Benhase
Bishop of Georgia


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