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Baron Clifford loses control

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

Baron Clifford knows what his mission is, but his men do not behave well and his campaign ends in ignominy. What did he do wrong? Why did his men not follow him?

A sorry return

Baron Clifford returned to Penza with his tail between his legs. He had been leading a small force on a campaign near the boundary with Salvania. There had not been any fighting, just one small band of cattle rustlers. But his men had misbehaved, in one small town they got out of hand in the taverns and started brawling with the locals. Three men had been killed.

They also had not covered themselves with military glory. Clifford had seen the Salvanian brigands riding across the valley. There was a river behind them, with one bridge. He hid most of his men and sent a small force around the back to hold the bridge, so the Salvanian robbers would be trapped. But the force got lost and made so much noise that the Salvanians had been alerted and had plenty of time to escape.

He came back into Penza with his force depleted by illness and desertions. It was his first ever campaign, and he felt the shame bitterly.

That evening Baron Hardman sought him out in the Great Hall and sat next to him, bearing a large flagon of wine. Clifford’s discomfort at being in the presence of such a great general was acute.

“So, what happened?” asked Hardman, filling Clifford’s glass.

What went wrong?

Clifford hesitated, and it then poured out. “All started to go wrong after a week. I’d heard that a Salvanian force had crossed the border, so I pushed forward. The rain was torrential; the wagons with all the food and tents got stuck in the mud. But there was a chance to surprise the enemy, so I pushed on. When we arrived at the town the men had not had any proper food or sleep for 48 hours and everything was soaked through. Then we then found out there been no Salvanian troops, and the men just refused to obey orders and created havoc.”

“From then on everything went wrong. It took us twice as long to cross the pass north of the hill than it should. Groups of men just got lost. When we did see the bandits, the force I sent to encircle them made enough noise to wake the dead and then got lost in the woods.”


Hardman sighed, “It must have been tough for you. But you broke the first rule of being a general. Tell me, what do your men expect of you?”

Clifford looks surprised, he clearly not thought of this question. “They want battles, they want victories?”

“Wrong. Your men expect you to make sure they have food and shelter. They need to know that you will look after them as far as you can. They need each other and they need to know that their wives and sweethearts are safe. That is the basics. And only when they have that will they be interested in the victories, in the honour, in promotions and medals.”

“They are not stupid, they know that there will be times when they are hungry, cold, wet or in danger. But once they trust you, they will follow you anywhere.”

Clifford protested, “I thought they wanted to see the Salvanians defeated and our borders safe, that is what I told them we were fighting for.”

Hardman laughed, refilled Clifford’s glass and stood up to leave. “Next time, tell them that when they have a full stomach!”


Leaders often assume that their followers share the same objectives as they do. They forget that people have their own needs and will seek to get them met first. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there are 5 classes of need. The first three are ‘deficiency needs’ – they are necessary for healthy living. The most basic is the physiological need for food, drink, sex, shelter. The next is safety (which can be physical, economic, emotional and health). The third is the social need for belonging, for friendships and family. Next in the hierarchy is the need for self-esteem; status and respect, while the fifth level is the need for self-actualisation, the ability to realise one’s own potential.

Baron Clifford forgot to look after the basic needs of his soldiers. He presumably gave them long speeches about winning victories and earning glory, but that would have fallen on deaf ears. The soldiers were looking after their needs. How often do leaders assume that their followers are motivated by a strategic mission statement when the basic needs are not met? Workers in a company may be unlikely to be walking cold and hungry for 48 hours in the rain, but they still have basic needs such as safety and belonging that have to be met.

The Lonely King

Other posts in the Lonely King series available here

Andrew George

An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.

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Twitter: @ProfAGeorge

© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved

Published 30 September, 2019


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