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Define the Mission, Dammit!

Midweek Motivator

100_100_timby Tim Moore


There’s an account of a British Royal Air Corps General E.J. Tillet lecturing an American Naval observer during the late summer of 1940 where history records Germany’s Herman Goring believed his Luftwaffe would be a walkover to defeat the undermanned English. Two months later, having lost hundreds of airplanes and no closer to paving the way for a cross-channel German invasion, Tillet stood beside the American observer giving him a history lesson that included the everyday invoked saying, “For want of a nail.” But few actually know where that phrase originated.

“Goring’s just starting to make sense going for our air factories and landing fields. He’s wasted a whole summer bombing bloody coastal towns and pottering about convoys. He’s only got ’till the equinox, the damned fool-the Channel’s impassable after September the fifteenth. His mission is mastery of the air, not blockade! Define your mission and stick to it!” he snapped at his American observer.

He then cited the Battle of Waterloo, lost for a handful of nails and a dozen hammers because a good general forgot his mission! In fact Tillet was right. Napoleon’s General Marshal Ney’s cavalry charge against Wellington’s center surprised and overran the British batteries, gaining a golden chance to “spike” the British guns with wood nailed to the barrels. But nobody thought to bring along the hammers and nails! “Had they spiked those guns,” snarled the red-faced Tillet puffing on his pipe and gesturing wildly, “had Marshal Ney remembered what the hell his mission was all about, had one Frenchman among those five thousand remembered the hammers and nails, we’d be living in a different world. With our artillery silenced their next cavalry charge would have broken Wellington’s British lines and we’d have had a French-dominated Europe for the next hundred and fifty years, instead of a vacuum into which the Germans came boiling up! We fought World War I and we’re fighting again right now starting the next world war because that fool Ney forgot the hammers and nails and forgot his mission at Waterloo-if he ever knew it!”

General Tillet’s pyrotechnic colloquy may slightly exaggerate the account, but not by much. His assertion that had the French won at Waterloo, history would have been altered is factual. Everyday someone forgets the mission. What we believe are small acts of detail hardly worth sweating-over can roll-up and become major set-backs. The forgotten phone call only to find a talented candidate is offended and drifts away just when he or she appeared a sure ‘get.’ A client left without an answer to a simple billing question, or a new sales-recruit stood up, anticipating a joint infield training call. Today’s “small stuff” can suddenly rise up and become tomorrow’s catastrophe. In a performance business where the very best people practice what we call “the crisis to perform,” forgetting the hammers and nails can cost us an irretrievable reversal.

What if we start every project, every promotional campaign and every tactical attack against a competitor asking this simple question: have we defined the mission?

“For want of a nail” altered the course of European history to this day, leaving us to remember General Tillet’s admonition: “define the mission, damn it!”


Tim Moore

Managing Partner

Audience Development Group