Leadership lessons on a lonely hilltop

2008-04-25 00:00

We can learn much that is valuable from leaders who failed. One such was Major-General Sir George Colley, who led his British troops to a stunning defeat at the summit of Majuba Mountain, north of Newcastle, on Sunday, February 27, 1881.

Majuba has featured in my consciousness since early childhood. But it is only recently that the mountain took on a much deeper meaning for me because of that defeat. I resolved to climb it and experience the summit for myself.

This happened on a lovely summer’s day. Our small family party of climbers went up the relatively easy northern side used by the Boers, not the steep and difficult route taken by Colley’s troops on their night-time ascent. At the top we found a place heavy with the memory of the gunfire, the screams and the many British deaths that long-ago day, among them the general himself.

I stood at the little cairn of stones where Colley fell and wondered how several hundred soldiers, holding a mountain top overlooking their enemy’s position, could have suffered the massive defeat they did. Some 280 British soldiers were killed, captured or wounded, while just a single Boer fell and a mere five were wounded, according to Oliver Ransford.

A possible answer is hinted at in Ransford’s book The Battle of Majuba Hill. Referring to the British troops, he wrote that “their general’s own poor leadership had caused them … to lose that fierce refusal to recognise defeat which had become traditional to the British army”.

So it was that I began to think about Colley, arriving at last at the following picture of the leadership failure of a man who was brave, talented, extremely intelligent, the most brilliant graduate of his Staff College and, by 1881, a rising military star.

Firstly, for all his academic brilliance, it seems clear that Colley, new to the area, was a poor tactician but at the same time determined to do things his way. According to Ransford he had not properly studied Majuba itself and was unaware of the relatively easy way up to the summit from the north — which the Boers used to their great advantage.

Having taken his men heroically to the summit via the exhausting southern approach, the general seems not to have considered a Boer attack to be a serious possibility, for he did not order the men to entrench themselves or erect cover. Most surprising of all is that he took no artillery up and was thus not able to shell the Boer positions below, an action that might well have put them to flight and saved many of his men’s lives, and his own.

To my mind these are the actions of an overconfident, unwise man who failed to heed good advice from his own side and completely underestimated the quality of those opposed to him. What is this but a failure of respect for others and thus a significant ethical lapse on the part of a leader?

Colley cannot speak for himself and, as an amateur in the field of history, I venture my views about his leadership with some hesitation. But what is clear is that anybody new to leadership, entrusted with running an important new venture fraught with risks to many others, would do well to lead with genuine respect for colleagues and opponents. There are lessons here for all of us who lead in any way.

That said, my main feeling as I stood where Colley fell was of sorrow at the needless folly of the man who fell there and for the many men who paid with their lives and limbs for the failures exposed that Sunday.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent ethics consultant and author of Conscience: Ethical Intelligence for Global Wellbeing, published by the UKZN Press.

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