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William (Bill) Slim LeadershipWilliam (Bill) Slim Leadership


William (Bill) Slim (1891-1970)


Leader of the British army in Burma (pictured right) and considered by many historians to be Britain’s best general in World War Two, even better than Bernard Montgomery.

He saved the army in a brilliant 1,100 mile retreat to India in 1942, revitalized it and defeated the Japanese, preventing them from capturing India.


Why was he a great leader?


1. Morale booster

His troops loved him because, as one of them put it, he had “the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier”.

He was extremely considerate and convinced them that he and his senior officers would do anything to get what they wanted.William (Bill) Slim Leadership

So they trusted him and believed everything he said.

Slim (pictured right in 1945):

  • spent a third of his time talking to and encouraging as many troops as possible.
  • gave them the best weapons and equipment and enough food, water and other supplies.

 His pioneering treatment of tropical diseases (like malaria) made his army the healthiest in the world.


2. Unity of purpose

He united everybody in his army by:

  • effectively communicating its aim of destroying the Japanese.
  • convincing his troops they were all equal partners.

So he always:William (Bill) Slim Leadership

  • shared any successes with them.
  • saw himself as ‘first among equals’.

His unification of his one million strong army was even more remarkable because of its many different nationalities including Indians (pictured right) and Gurkhas (Nepalese) as well as Britons (only 12% of the total)


3. Training and tactics

In battle he emphasized:

  • speed, surprise and attack (with co-ordinated support from the navy and air force).
  • deceiving the enemy.

He clearly communicated these principles to his men and trained them to carry them out.William (Bill) Slim Leadership

He believed that hard, realistic training was vital to remove their fear of the Japanese who had been considered invincible before he took over.

Gurkha troops and tanks are pictured right advancing at the crucial Battle of Imphal (1944) in North Eastern India.


4. Character and integrity

He was:


a) a man of great integrity

(“the quality which makes people trust you”, he said).


b) very humble

(helped by his relatively poor upbringing)

He was the only British general in World War Two who didn’t go to private school.


c) highly empathetic

(understanding his men and prepared to do anything for them).


d) calm under pressure 

(never cross or edgy).


e) courageous 

(a virtue he valued above all others).


f) mentally strong and tenacious

(he never gave up).


5. Communication

He wasn’t a great orator, but the power of his communication came from:

  • his integrity.
  • mutual trust and respect.

He talked to his men like a loving uncle, so they affectionately called him “Uncle Bill”.

He thought that you must believe in any communication as well as know about it.


6. Morality, professionalism and learning

He was a highly professional soldier, expert in:

  • military strategy.
  • getting the best from people.


  • did what he thought was right (even if this meant quietly ignoring orders).
  • never stopped learning.

He gained fighting experience in the First World War, and in 1940 his disastrous defeat by the Italians in the Sudan taught him the virtue of attack.

He always took full responsibility for his own and other people’s mistakes and learned from them.

 William (Bill) Slim Leadership

7. Recruitment, empowerment and involvement

He appointed great officers including Orde Wingate (pictured right), an expert in guerilla warfare,

Slim gave his troops

  • as much information as possible to improve their decision making and understand their problems (discussing in groups the best ways of solving them – see point 9).
  • the freedom and responsibility to carry out his orders in their own way.

This gave them the ability to respond quickly to changing circumstances or new information without reference to their superiors (including Slim).

His advice to them was:

  • stand up (face up to problems).
  • own up (take responsibility for results).
  • shut up (if successful, move on to the next problem and plan for future successes).



8. Ruthlessness and determination

Slim was:


a) tough when necessary William (Bill) Slim Leadership

(e.g. firing incompetent officers) 


b) incredibly determined

(particularly as he was under-valued by Winston Churchillpictured right in 1940).


9. Innovation

He was always prepared to challenge existing ideas and convention. He encouraged his men (individually and in teams) to do the same, so that innovative solutions were found (e.g. using jute for parachutes).


 William (Bill) Slim Leadership

10. Support

He got huge support from not only his men but also his beloved wife, Eileen, and his boss, Earl Mountbatten (pictured right in 1944).


Key quotes on leadership

Leadership is of the spirit...management is of the mind.

The qualities that distinguish a leader from other men are courage, will power, initiative and knowledge.

If you are any good, you know your men better than their mothers do and you love them just as much.


Key quotes on management

There are no bad soldiers, just bad officers.

The most important thing about a commander is his effect on morale.


Key quote on war

There is only one principle of war...Hit the other fellow, as quickly as you can, as hard as you can, where it hurts him most, when he ain’t lookin’.


Key quote on decision making

When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take, choose the bolder.

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