Withdrawal is Not Running Away

One of the actions that armies take that is least understood (outside) is that of the strategic withdrawal. Rather than the (very appealing) notion that it’s all knights with coconuts turning around and yelling “run away!”, a correctly conducted withdrawal is far more organised than a rout. We must be honest – if you’re withdrawing then it’s because you cannot hold the ground that you are on but, by conducting a strategic and controlled movement to move into a better position, you are in a better place to fight again another day. If you just fall apart and run around like headless chickens, then your forces are lost and you can be picked off. Make it back to a place that you can defend, with enough of your forces left, you are much harder to beat.

Right now, Australia is going through a period of academic restructuring: cuts and changes being made to reduce headcount, to shrink budgets and to keep things running. We are, effectively, in withdrawal. If we were looking to shut schools and Universities down, then this should have been our first action. If we are trimming, it is because we are trying to move to a place where we can hold our ground, in theory. The problem I have is that, from my observations, we look more as if we are in rout. The Australian Army has sets of principles and considerations for every possible phase of war, including the Withdrawal. I shall list them here, with some explanation. (I am not discussing the rightness or necessity of the restructurings themselves at the moment, that is a post for another day.)

Key Principles

  • Co-operation – everything has to work together effectively. Teamwork is crucial. You share the dangers, risks, burdens and the opportunities.
  • Security – people must be able to be free enough to act, if people aren’t doing their jobs because they’re trying to keep themselves safe the whole thing can fail.
  • Offensive Action – there is a surprisingly large amount of trying to stay in control of the situation. You want to seize the initiative, be in control and keep things going your way. Yes, you’re going the other way but under your terms and heading towards a definite objective.
  • Surprise – the enemy should be the last to know when you are moving and should be stunned when they overrun your old position and fund you gone.
  • Maintenance of Morale – everyone has to think that this is a survivable situation. Group cohesion must be high and everyone should feel valuable and believe in what is going on.

Basic Considerations

  • Timings – you need to have a really good idea of how long everything takes so that you can plan. How long will it take to get to the new position? Who has to move first? How long is it before you can go back onto the offensive?
  • Reconnaissance – you need to go and look at the pathways that you’re taking to work out if it will work. You don’t want to be surprised by someone else on the way back. Your recon elements will tell you what is going on and help you to plan.
  • Sequence of withdrawal – you need to have a clear, well-defined and clearly disseminated sequence of withdrawal. Everyone knows who moves next and when their turn is. This is essential to the maintenance of morale.
  • Clean break – at some point, you need to get away from the people who are chasing you. While your elements are in position and dealing with the enemy, they cannot move. When you have broken free, you can move faster and further. If you’ve staged it properly, your final elements will move into the new, defensible position and everyone will have some small time before the next wave hits your new position.
  • Firm Bases – you need well-defined points along the way so that you can regroup and regain your control. This is vital to keeping things moving and under clear command, as well as giving a place where you can cause problems for your enemy.

Of course, the army has it easy in some respects, because they are moving to a new physical location while maintaining their headcount, not moving to a new mode of operation and trying to shed jobs along the way. But, looking at those lists, is it any wonder that there are concerns in those Universities as to how and where the cuts are coming?

How can you stress co-operation and maintenance of morale when you are sending the message that some staff are now surplus to requirement? Do we feel secure enough in our areas to be able to work to our fullest? (I don’t think that surprise quite works in this context, unless you make your school such a powerhouse of success that your administrators are surprised into leaving you alone!) Our ‘offensive action’ is our learning and teaching, and research. Will we be doing the best work if we’re worried about a divided and judging environment? How do we work with other people if we know that the least successful may become targets?

Who, in this case, is actually the enemy?

I suspect that people going through this process would really like to know how long they’ll be going through this process and what the rest points are along the way. How would you feel if someone said “Well, we’ve got to do something over the next three years.” Can you even sensibly think in that kind of time frame? Where are the steps along the way? What happens first? What happens next? How long for?

How long will it be before everything gets back to normal? When will be firm and ready to go forward again?

As I said, I’m not seeing much in the way of systematic and bold planning across most of the Universities I’ve looked at. I’ve seen ‘encouragement’ schemes and offers of redundancy – that sweaty, across the table staring contest between management and worker. How can you build the semi-random loss of staff that will occur under this approach into your scheme of withdrawal, your timings to recovery, unless you talk about it openly and honestly?

The difference between a withdrawal and a rout is that, at the end of a withdrawal, you are in a sound position, ready to fight again. At the end of a rout, you are not. You are a splintered group of individuals who can be easily overrun and defeated.

I realise that we are talking about people’s careers, their lives, their families, and that the chances of a free and frank exchange of views is unlikely, but that makes it even more important for us to be clear on what is intended so that we can make decisions based on an overall vision and a sound plan that takes all of the characteristics into account.

No doubt, with a new Vice Chancellor and a new Executive Dean, our time is not far away to at least consider what we will do in this space. I await the outcome with interest.

And not a little trepidation.

2 Comments on “Withdrawal is Not Running Away”

  1. lizphillips says:

    Upheaval in education, at least in my case, has been upsetting mostly because I am driven to focus on the quality of instruction and constructive learning for my hundred students each year. For the past two years, legislators and angry taxpayers have followed a governor who is a fearless leader. The routing of public education has become a blood sport.

    Last year, I had to look up from work I am passionate about because after a few years of withdrawal to the outpost I created in my classroom, there are what I would identify as three different groups looking in. First, there are the ones who went into full retreat and became their own militant militia. (You know, the ones that cause political and social drama in the building where you work.) Then there are the ones that withdrew in an orderly fashion who are now panicking because of chatter in the ranks and in the media. (You know these because they still wear the uniform and do their work as they withdraw–hoping for strong leadership and sensible orders so they can stop winging it.) Finally, there they are! The ones who called for the withdrawal and held it together as best they could. (You know, they look at you because they are amazed that you managed to follow the original order, set up an outpost, and keep it running efficiently with the cooperation of those who followed you–without any further orders from the highest command.)

    When you are ordered to create an outpost and left to it, you have to rely on everyone who helps build said outpost. It cannot be built on command. Nor can it prosper. It takes teamwork and confidence that the job can be accomplished to a degree higher than the expectation. When things get so crazy that the highest command ceases to give orders, the healthy outpost does not collapse, but keeps going.

    When the militia comes by and doesn’t want to become part of the order and recognizes a formidably strong cohesion, it will feed on easier prey. I suppose that would be the running around with heads cut off sorts that have been waiting for some monster to devour them. Self-fulfilling prophecy is awfully sad, especially if there have been opportunities for alliance, order, and help have all been rejected! The militia, sated, moves on thinking themselves invincible.

    When the beaten down group that still has an orderly withdrawal plan comes past, they appreciate reprieve. Your outpost offers rest and sustenance and news from the old front and its high command. Like you, they have held it together, but they have relied on orders before acting. When the assault on the high command is at its peak, orders don’t trickle down because it is all command can do to stave off the rout that is inevitable. When people on the outside of the conflict–non-political, highly sensible people who pay taxes but saw the whole conflict as a battle instead of the “educ-cide” war that it truly is, questions get raised. The rout wanes long enough for the command to withdraw and take up higher ground that can be defended.

    And so, this summer has been the gasp. I’ve been thinking about that this week, and here is your post! As my commanders come past and see what I have done with not much, they have to think about things. Why does my education model work. Are they willing to set up command near my little outpost to show the routing mob what most educators do day in and day out? (That would be get the job done no matter what–working by oneself, collaborating in small groups, delegating responsibility AND support to groups so that the education community stays strong, and modeling best practices and inventing when what you need is not there.) I’ve been in this outpost mode for eight years. Reconnaissance has been at my door observing since April 2011. There has been chatter and deliberation. My outpost used to be in the far outreaches of conflict and education warfare, but now it is a key position in the defense. Or is it going to be a different kind of outpost? If the high command decides to move on, that leaves me to those who lead the routing. I suppose I have looked at the upcoming teacher evaluation system as a threat to my existence. I know I’ve been angry about how much of my supposedly free summer has been eaten up with planning for the assault on my expertise. I have been preoccupied with what the assault will do to the quality of instruction and discovery next week’s students will receive. I’ve done this while people I work with have done one of three things–thrown up their hands and quit/retired, made a cursory review of chinks in their armour and done some patching up without address the root of their corrosion, or done absolutely nothing. Such external locus has always bothered me. I used to be like that, but I learned to control what influences my life, at least enough to claim a sense of internal locus.

    The ability to adapt to what comes at you in wise and deliberate ways, is key to survival. I don’t know why I cannot convince my external locus teaching partners that they can take at least partial control of inevitable outcomes. I want to keep holding them up, keep saving them from the things they fear most. But as the routing generals near my outpost, what do I do?

    This is where I am right now. This is where most highly motivated, successful educators are. I could just hang a sign above my door. “Welcome to Outpost 210. If you cannot contribute to the positive continuum or adapt, please move on.” But then that makes me no better than the militia, certainly no better than the routing general who started the all-out attack on educators. The very people our elders educated are attacking us. Tough lesson. Tough times. Outpost 210 will have no sign above its entryway. Enter all who dare to do so. If the routing general himself comes through the portal, no doubt, my students will hand him a “Hello, my name is” badge, a Sharpie, and tell him to take a seat with the group. You see, everybody who comes in must do their share of the work. There is no parallel play. There are no spectators. And what’s cool about all that, Nick? You have an outpost for students and co-workers that is sustaining if they will only come through the portal you leave open.


    • nickfalkner says:

      It’s a good question – what happens to those of us who have planned when rout threatens to overrun? But I think you’ve nailed the most important issue, which is ‘no spectators’. We’re all here to do something – or we should be!


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