Shortly after the war in Ukraine began, I read an interesting Twitter thread on the larger lessons of leadership and team morale. At the time, out of an abundance of sensitivity, I decided it wasn’t yet appropriate to share and comment. I still don’t know that the time is right. But there are reasons Ukraine, against all odds, is winning this fight, and I think the underlying reasons deserve broader understanding and bear lessons for anyone that considers themselves a leader or is part of a team.

Mark Hertling is a former U.S. Army officer, and now CNN military and security analyst. In 2011 and 2012 he was the Commanding General of the United States Army Europe. One could say he knows what he’s talking about. Below is his thread from March 24, 2022, lightly interspersed with commentary.

Yesterday on @cnn, I was asked several times about Ukraine “morale.” A difficult quality to define. It’s something commanders (& all leaders) struggle to ensure. There’s tons of research on the subject. Even Clausewitz discusses it. So here’s a thread of some thoughts.

Clausewitz says that morale (& will) is critical. For soldiers & commanders. He says this quality is found through moral & physical courage, the acceptance of battlefield responsibility, & suppression of fear. Interesting. But how do you achieve that?

Carl von Clausewitz was a 19th century Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the moral and political aspects of war. Note that while the observations above – courage, responsibility, suppression (not absence) of fear – are couched in military terms, they apply to every aspect of life, from business to sports to relationships and more. We’re headed into powerful stuff…

On 2/24 I wrote a thread discussing how power on the battlefield is defined by resources and will. I said then the RU had advantage in “resources,” but UKR had a greater advantage in “will.” And I predicted UKR would win. Will can often override resource advantage.

I believe will & morale complement each other. There’s been many articles on what contributes to morale & will. Some of them are random musings by business leaders, some are great research studies. But my experiences show there are 10 key elements contributing to morale.

Here are those elements (not in order of importance):

1. Trust in leaders, from the small unit level to the top of the “food chain.”
2. Belief that leaders will share the individual’s hardships.

Trust and belief in leadership, throughout an organization, is fundamental in team cohesion and success. The unmentioned but obvious subtext is that this trust and belief can’t be ordered, but must be earned. Note Hertling’s admonition on that point: leadership must show it is equally committed; it’s “in the trenches”with the team. Hertling makes the following observation:

It’s not difficult to determine which side – Russian or Ukraine – has the advantage in these ten areas. Examples: “Trust in leaders & leader’s sharing hardship.” Two pictures that represent trust, or lack of it. And, the organization takes on the personality of the leader.

Now back to his list…

3. The inherent self-discipline of individuals.
4. The discipline instilled by the leaders in a variety of ways.

I find the juxtaposition of these two points interesting; that which is self-generated versus that which is imposed from above. Both are equally important. While discipline has specific meaning in military terms, I think of it in the broader context of staying in control, understanding objectives and how to work together, and maintaining focus on larger goals. It’s inherent on both the individual and the leader to channel this energy and initiative.

5. Training… and the individual’s trust in their own ability.
6. Trust… in the quality of equipment.
7. Trust…in your team.

Again, trust comes up. This time in the ability of the individual, in the quality of equipment (in a business sense, I think this could as easily speak to the quality of the organization and product/service), and trust in the team. Again, that trust can’t be ordered, it comes through both training (which is supplied from another) and a learned ability of the individual to rely on the team, and the team to rely on product/service/organization to deliver.

8. The provisions of physical comforts: food, sleep, warmth & the ability to contact loved ones.

When I first read this list, I thought perhaps #8 was the least applicable in a business setting. But I don’t think that’s right. This speaks specifically to that sense of work/life balance. Not to get too metaphysical, but an unbalanced individual or team can’t expect to maintain the upper hand in will and morale.

9. Communication (about the situation & the related expectations: “what are we doing and why do we need to do it?”)
10. The belief you are on a “winning team.”

These last two are perhaps the summation of the previous points. If the previous eight put the team in a position to succeed, these last two point the direction: what are we doing? Why are we doing it? Why will we ultimately succeed? While obviously important, they can also be the hardest to sustain over time; it’s relatively easy to communicate around an isolated campaign, much harder to maintain that communication and direction over months or years.

Hertling again:

Yes, “morale” is a critical factor in combat. Leader’s know there are ways to instill that inherent desire for strong (high?) morale among their population and their forces. Lots of lessons to be learned from this fight… just like any fight in any conflict.

I think there are indeed broader lessons to be learned. I know I have work to do. If you’re interested in the rest of the thread, you can find it here.