Honoring Innovation and Adaptive Leadership on the Battlefield – A Brief Reflection on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

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D-Day Normandy

The story of the “Culin Hedgerow Cutter” in Normandy

The following blog post is written by Strategy Execution CEO Christoffer Ellehuus:

If you took a look at my bookshelf at home you would probably (correctly) guess that I’m obsessed with the history of the Second World War. Not only have I always been fascinated by the geo-political implications and the difficult leadership decisions that had to be made. The Second World War also has a very personal dimension connected to my grandparents’ experience living through German occupation, offering resistance, and surviving the war in the Southern part of Denmark.

Hence, as we observe the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the historical Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, I’ve come to remember some of the stories that seem particularly relevant to some of the same challenges I see today through my work with organizations to help them execute on strategies and accomplish their missions. The story of the “Culin Hedgerow Cutter” is unique in that it highlights the ability of people who, in the face of extreme conflict and uncertainty, were able to collaborate, innovate, and iterate in order to come up with a sustainable solution to a new problem.

Adaptive leadership is something I’m speaking to many organizations about today to manage through a more dynamic and unpredictable competitive environment. And while it’s a big challenge to many organizations today, it’s not new. As illustrated by this recounting, I’ve found that evidence of it can be found throughout our history in extraordinary ways.

A Complex Environment

Operation Cobra was the codename of the offensive that followed the invasion of Normandy, as Allied troops – and in particular, the Americans – attempted to push beyond the beach shores into the French mainland.

They did not expect and were not prepared for what they encountered.

Beyond the beaches of Normandy, the terrain was mostly farmland consisting of irregular fields bordered by towering hedges – essentially overgrown bushes and trees that were difficult to see through, let alone navigate past.

Ideas and Iterations

Initially, as the Americans tried to drive their Army tanks over the hedges, the tanks’ guns would point upward while exposing their ill-armored undersides.[1] This vulnerability forced the soldiers to think quickly and test out different solutions.

Bombing the hedge walls proved effective temporarily, until the explosions attracted attention and exposed positions to the enemy. Further, some regular tanks were equipped with bulldozer blades, but they stood out in a way that made them primary targets for the Germans.[2]

The solution that ultimately proved successful – the invention of the “Rhino Tank” – is credited to Sergeant Curtis Grubb Culin III.[3] This never-before-fashioned device was created by repurposing scrap steel recovered from other bombed out tanks and attaching it to the front of a tank like a large set of prongs that could splice through the hedges.

rhino tank culin hedgerow cutter

 

No Bad Ideas

Notably, the inspiration for the Rhino Tank was said to be suggested by one of Culin’s fellow soldiers who said to “get some saw teeth and put them on the front of the tank.”[4] While most of the other soldiers reportedly laughed at the idea, Culin saw its potential and pushed the experiment and innovation forward.

Once General Omar Bradley, Commander-in-Chief of American ground forces during the Normandy invasion, saw Culin’s Rhino Tanks in action, he ordered a full-scale production of the innovation and soon a large majority of Army tanks were equipped with a “Culin Hedgerow Cutter.” Ultimately, the troops were able to navigate the unexpected terrain and push deep into German territory.

The culture and leadership that empowered the front-line soldiers the space to brainstorm freely, innovate, and design their own solutions was critical to the outcome of this operation. Equally important was the teamwork and collaboration displayed by the troops, which was said to have given them a necessary morale boost as they continued on.

Adaptive leadership has been on display – in areas far beyond business – for much longer than we’ve been talking about it. The American troops at Normandy proved that by considering all ideas, evaluating feedback, and testing new concepts, they were able to accomplish great things in a very complex environment. If you look closely, you’ll probably find similar behaviors on display in your own organizations today where teams succeed in achieving objectives through the fog and complexity of organizations and changing markets.

References

[1] World War II Today, http://ww2today.com/9-july-1944-the-culin-hedge-cutter-on-the-normandy-battlefield
[2] National Museum of the United States Army, http://thenmusa.org/rhino-tank-1.php
[3] Cranford Soldier Invented World War II “Tank Tusks”, by Cat Galioto, https://patch.com/new-jersey/cranford/cranford-soldier-invented-world-war-ii-tank-tusks, Sept. 18, 2010.
[4] Hastings, Max (1999) [1984]. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944. Pan Grand Strategy Series. London: Pan Books. p. 296. Accessed via Wikipedia.

Christoffer Ellehuus

Christoffer Ellehuus

Chief Executive Officer at Strategy Execution
Christoffer Ellehuus joined Strategy Execution in June 2018 and oversees the strategic direction and operations of the global enterprise.
Christoffer Ellehuus

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