World War II buffs need no introduction to Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim. A hero of the war, he later became the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and a popular and greatly respected Governor-General of Australia.
He came to be known to the thousands he commanded in the legendary 14th Army against the Japanese in Burma simply as “Uncle Bill”. The Burma Star Association has an excellent account of Slim.
In 1942 the Japanese were very close to invading British india. They had earlier defeated the British conclusively in Burma. One of the most crucial battles was the battle of Kohima. It was here that the famous epitaph was put up which carries the poignant inscription:
“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
Bill Slim was given the task to make up for the earlier humilitating defeats. With more glamorous and “in the news” battles going on in Europe and Africa, Slim’s battles became relatively less significant when it came to assigning priority for material and equipment. He had to pretty much make do with what he had. The 14th Army thus came to be called The Forgotten Army. “Defeat into Victory” is his story of all these events.
This posts tries to capture what made Slim ( who was relatively unknown compared to many of his more “in the limelight” compatriots) such a charismatic and effective leader:
- Bill Slim was the genuine “soldier’s soldier”. His own background -when he had first enlisted as a Private in the Territorial Army -and the many battles he fought in both the World Wars made him always keep in mind the common soldier.
- He was humility personified. While other Generals flaunted their victories and badges of rank, Slim made his exploits talk of his mettle.
- He was the first to give credit to others. He did not believe in hogging the limelight – an accusation frequently made about his contemporary, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery.
- He was demanding yet gracious. Pugnacious yet benevolent. He learnt from his mistakes and had the grace to accept them.
- He foresaw what was required and trained his men to survive in the harshest conditions possible.
- His communication with the troops and his ability to move them to great heights was the biggest single factor that made them succeed against all odds.
- He developed a spirit of comradeship which spanned many nationalities and diverse backgrounds.
I rate Bill Slim to be one of the finest Generals to come out of the Second World War. His leadership provides us with many lessons -equally relevant now- many years after he first demonstrated them.
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This is the 131 st of the “A Step A Day” series : To provide perspective and provoke thought to facilitate self-development across a wide spectrum of issues- big and small- crucial for executive success