How to improve morale and confidence: lessons from General Bill Slim

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Posted by Matthew Stibbe

As a boss, one of the biggest challenges is to build morale and the confidence of your team. It’s not easy. But it is important.

“It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs,” said Kenneth Clark at the end of his classic TV series Civilisation.

Painting General William Slim author of Defeat into Victoria

I was struck by this when I watched the series years ago and it rattles around in my brain quite often.

In countries, companies and, yes, individual lives the importance of confidence, of morale is critical to success but often overlooked.

Defeat into Victory

Just today, I came across William Slim‘s book Defeat into Victory on my bookshelf. He stands alongside Montgomery as one of the outstanding British generals of World War II. But since he was self-effacing by nature and fought the ‘forgotten war’ in the Far East, he had less fame than Monty. He deserved more.

It fell open at a well-marked page which I think captures the point better than I ever could. He is writing about a time in the war when the British were on the back foot in Burma and things, generally, were very bleak.

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Morale is a state of mind

Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves. … I remember sitting in my office and tabulating these foundations of morale something like this:

1. Spritual

(a) There must be a great and noble object.

(b) Its achievement must be vital.

(c) The method of achievement must be active, aggressive.

(d) The man must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly towards the attainment of the object.

2. Intellectual

(a) He must be convinced that the object can be attained; that it is not out of reach

(b) He must see, too, that the organization to which he belongs and which is striving to attain the object is an efficient one.

(c) He must have confidence in his leaders and know that whatever dangers and hardships he is called upon to suffer, his life will not be lightly flung away.

3. Material

(a) The man must feel that he will get a fair deal from his commanders and from the army generally.

(b) He must, as far as humanly posssible, be given the best weapons and equipment for his task.

(c) His living and working conditions must be made as good as they can be.

Morale and confidence

I wrote about 11 quick wins you can do today to improve employee engagement and you can read about what we do at Articulate to promote a happy culture. But I think Slim’s words still resonate.

Substitute ‘company’ for ‘army’ and ‘career’ for ‘life’ and change ‘he’ to ‘he or she’ and I think you have a pretty good recipe for creating an extraordinary company.

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