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.