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David McNeill

Blogger of the Month - David McNeill

The 2020s Are Likely to Be Defined as The Decade of Resilience:  How Can a War 40-years Ago Help Us Get Our Own Ships in Order?  

It’s 2-months since global supply chains were impacted by the blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given.  This might seem like a distant memory already, but it remains a timely reminder of the fragility to supply chain.  

The mechanics of supply chains will always be a function of the underlying leadership.  In my own work I love taking the experiences from my military career to civilian organisations.  One example, pre-dating my own career but applicable none the less, is the loss of MV Atlantic Conveyor during the 1982 Falkland’s Conflict.  

What can modern day leaders take from this near 40-year-old example for leading through and beyond a supply chain crisis? 

1.  SITUATION:  Some basic history and geographical understanding is required.  Argentina invaded the British Sovereign Territory Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982, some 8007 miles from the UK.  The UK Government decreed that the Islands be retaken.  A Naval Task Force, along with land forces who would conducts a land war was assembled and set sail on 12 May.  

Anyone with military experience will tell you that logistical sustainment of any operation is key.  The supply line to Falklands was exceptionally fragile, with no ground line of communication or strategic air lift.  The task force needed to be entirely self-sufficient and the fragility inherent with the mechanics mitigated with resilience in leadership and resolve.  

To support the significant logistical requirement a number of civilian ships were taken up from trade.  One such vessel was MV Atlantic Conveyor; she carried most the Task Force’s support helicopters and significant ammunition stores for the land force invasion. 

2.  LOSS OF MV ATLANTIC CONVEYOR:  On 25 May MV Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by two Exocet Anti-Ship missiles fired from an Argentine aircraft.  

The ensuing fire ravaged the vessel destroying ten support helicopters and the entirety of the ammunition stores.

3.  REACTION:    Unlike the Ever Given, the acuity of the situation facing Atlantic Conveyor and life is impossible to understate, but I propose there are four factors worthy of examination:  

  • Leadership, Leadership, Leadership:  Captain North of MV Atlantic Conveyor displayed outstanding leadership, first to his people and then to his ship in trying to save them.  Leaders step forward into a crisis, while others may step away.  Leaders like Captain North don’t distance themselves from the issue.  They make the issue their business.  For his efforts in Atlantic Conveyor Captain North was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, sadly posthumously.  Captain North gave his life for the Leadership challenge he was given.  

Reflecting on the Ever Green/Suez crisis I was struck by the absence of any organisation or individual rising to the issue.  Rather, the primary emphasis seemed to be on finding a party to blame and shift focus.  As if to make the point further, at the time of writing Ever Given remains legally classed as stuck in Suez Canal as Egyptian authorities, the ships owners, and insurers wrangle in the courts.  

  • Acknowledge the Problem & Work the Solution:  At the time of the Atlantic Conveyor’s sinking British troops from the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines were already ashore.  The loss of the support helicopter capacity rendered the original plans for offensive aviation operations unplausible.  Military Commanders are always encouraged to ask, “has the situation changed and what does it mean to me?”  I suggest this is a question civilian leader could ask themselves more often.  

British Commanders had the option of withdrawing – that was not considered further.  

Rather, and at pace, commanders focused on the mission (to retake the Falkland Islands) and build a new plan. Once the immediacy of the crisis on Atlantic Conveyor was managed the main effort became finding the solution. 

The Ever Given situation seemed to stall, a solution to the immediate issue of grounding was not forthcoming.  Whilst the canal remained blocked shipping traffic grew at either end of the canal.  Simply put, it appeared like the situation was not being acknowledged and solutions developed.  In the absence of either several weeks of impact were felt across supply chains with as many as 500 vessels stranded at either end of the canal.  

  • Intent Based Empowerment:  I’m constantly amazed with how creative teams can be when faced with seemingly insurmountable of problems.  In the military, commanders issue an intent; this is a clear to understand instruction which, in the face of all other eventualities, acts a unifying purpose behind which everyone can rally.  I don’t know what the intent given to the Falklands task Force was, but if I was writing them it would be something like; 

“Through means of a Joint Task Force, retake and reassert British Sovereignty over The Falkland Islands”

This is the context around which all actions take place and solutions can be build.  A simple and eloquent intent is the cornerstone to any effective communications plan.  There can be little doubt where the focus needed to lie; “we’ve lost the helicopters – but we still need to find a way of retaking the Falklands and supporting the troops doing the fighting.”

When faced with a crisis and the need to think or act resiliently I wonder how many businesses have a similar way of empowering meaningful action?  

  • Resilience Doesn’t Happen By Chance:  The term “military efficiency” if often bounded around – I can tell you from experience that business leaders would be physically sick at the sight of what the military counts as efficiency!  Rather, it is adept at massing force at a given time and place; overcoming problems at pace whilst being engaged in numerous actions, all in the face of danger and uncertainty.  How does the military pull this off?  Rehearsal. 

Militaries the world over invest in their resilience through tireless exercise and rehearsal.  The stakes of life and death tend to focus the mind in a way the circa US$1bn costs of the Ever Given issue cannot.  But what civilian organisations can do is help their teams rehearse.  This goes beyond having a folder on the Shared Drive with a set of instructions.  Resilience is what happens when an individual or organisation is faced with a situation for which there is no set of instructions.

I can’t believe that the crew of the Ever Given, the Suez authorities, or the global shipping industry haven’t considered the canal being blocked – even then was the response as good as it could have been?  What could rehearsal, exercising and war-gaming have done to improve this?  

  • Identify & Protect Key Assets:  This may sound obvious but it’s worth checking.  MV Atlantic Conveyor set sail alongside Frigates, Aircraft Carriers and Destroyers.  These were far more obvious to list as key assets.  A humble cargo vessel, despite it’s cargo, did not make the list for those vessels to be equipped with enhanced defences or armament. 

Key assets my not be a large capital asset; it may be intellectual property or an organisation’s people.  These key assets are almost certainly not what initially come to mind.  The failure to appropriately resource and protect MV Atlantic Conveyor was one of the main findings from the inquiry into her loss.  

So, whilst the military has a lot to learn, and can learn a lot from business I do think there are a few instances of how leadership when a ship was lost 40-years ago can be learned from today.  If the last 18-months have taught us anything it is to prepare for the unexpected….. 

David McNeill has 21-years of experience of leadership and management in roles spanning international sport, the military, commercial and non-profit sectors.  He is now the Founder of Third Perspective Consulting, serving clients globally on strategy, operations, leadership, and change.  Outside of Europe, David has a specific interest in the areas of Arabian Gulf, West, Central and Eastern Africa.  He also holds an Institute for Leadership and Management qualification in Coaching and Mentoring.