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What Fighter Command and the Battle of Britain can teach us about managing change

Dr John Jupp OBE

Change is endemic in life and we sometimes think we have it hard these days.  But think of this, Fighter Command was created in July 1936.  Just over 3 years before the start of the War and under 4 years before it was put to the ultimate test in the Battle of Britain.  In that time, it expanded from a few hundred people to an organisation larger than the RAF had been in 1936.  It created the world’s first networked air defence system, introduced new, fast much more heavily armed fighters and integrated them with anti-aircraft artillery.  A whole new organisational structure was created to manage the system.

This was change on an almost unimaginable scale today.  Technological change, organisational change and personnel change.  Yet it was patently successful as Fighter Command won the Battle of Britain.  And it won because of the leadership shown from top to bottom of the organisation.  We can learn from this.

The first thing to note was that change was not just managed, it was led.  People working in Fighter Command wanted the change to succeed.  They made it succeed.  Sometimes against the odds, sometimes even against their leaders.  All because of good leadership.

The greatest tool that senior leaders (the Board) have in getting people to want to change is purpose.  In Fighter Command Hugh Dowding, its Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, had it easy in this respect.  A war of national survival concentrates minds and makes it easier to articulate purpose.  It does not guarantee agreement with ideas though.

Also, importantly, leadership was distributed throughout the system.  Every level knew its mission and the boundaries within which they were to operate yet they knew they could exceed them, if necessary, as long as they informed the right people as soon as they were able.  In the words of the time, ‘every man was to use their own good judgement’.  It was not just words, it happened, as in the defence of Kenley airfield on 18 August 1940.

Getting all leaders throughout the organisation to believe in the strategy and then lead the change at their level is what makes this so powerful.  When this happens, senior leaders must be careful they don’t stifle innovation.  People will try to achieve their missions, if senior leaders see unexpected things happening it is not because people are trying to sabotage the strategy, they are trying to achieve it in a different way or explore further possibilities.

Because the RAF won the Battle of Britain, it is often thought that all this change creating Fighter Command went smoothly.  It did not, and we can learn from the rough patches.  At one point during the build up and testing of the networked system, Keith Park, Dowding’s Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command HQ, considered that a filtered radar picture should be disseminated to the Groups and Sectors.  It would be a clearer picture of the Battle but risked omitting vital information.  For that reason, Dowding disagreed and told Park not to do it.

Park went ahead anyway and ran an exercise with the picture filtered.  It was a great success.  Dowding recognised this and the system was adapted to this better way forward.  The relationship between Park and Dowding was maintained.  Shortly afterwards, Park became Dowding’s most important Group Commander at 11 Group and bore the brunt of the German attacks.

As the war on the Continent unfolded in the first half of 1940.  The Fighter Command organisational structure underwent change again.  The 3 original Groups were split into 4 with 10 Group being created to cover the Southwest and keep 11 Group’s span of control manageable.  As each Group was the reserve for their neighbours, it was vital relations between them were good and things worked seamlessly between 10 and 11 Groups.  Which they did.

Park’s relationship with the Commander of 12 Group to his north were not so good.  Differing ideas of how the Battle should be fought and, probably, overweening ambition, played their part.  These differences were not resolved, despite the importance of the occasion.  Park’s requested support did not always arrive at the time and in the place he expected.  The poor relationship courted disaster.

Park was great at letting his squadrons experiment with tactics and then passing good practice on to others.  Famously, 111(F) Squadron, which I was lucky enough to command 60 years later, found head-on attacks were very effective.  Park ensured all knew this at one of his frequent conferences.  Over the Battle, RAF tactics improved markedly, while those of the Germans became worse.

These instances, and others, show how effective it is to get people to believe in the change and lead it at their level.  How powerful it is for them to be able to experiment within boundaries without the dead hand of bureaucracy smothering them and with leaders who will listen.  How important that boundaries can sometimes be crossed to great effect without sanction, as at Kenley.  They also demonstrate how important relationships between senior leaders are.  All this is leadership.  It is leadership of change that is so important and made Fighter Command the Victor.

Dr John Jupp OBE is a former fighter pilot, Squadron Commander and founder of the RAF Leadership Centre. His new book is Rise Above – Leadership lessons from the RAF

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