Into the Valley of Death: Communicating Your Global Change Initiative


“Forward, the Light Brigade! Was there a man dismay’d? Not tho’ the soldier knew Someone blunder’d: Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, their but to do and die: Into the valley of death Rode the 600.”

-“The Charge of the Light Brigade” Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1854

Does the following scenario sound familiar? Two senior leaders that do not like each other are forced to work together. A vaguely relayed strategic directive is passed through a messenger that does a poor job of communicating. The leader in charge of the initiative drives good people towards the wrong target and the initiative fails, causing a costly set back. The leader has a champagne dinner on a yacht in the harbor and the whole thing is immortalized in a famous poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

Ok. Maybe we had you until the last part about the champagne dinner and the poem.

This is the story of the famous “Charge of Light Brigade” and it could be the story of your future global change initiative. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” refers to the charge of 600 British light cavalrymen against an entrenched Russian force during the Crimean War. The charge was led by the colorful English Lord James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan.

Earl Cardigan hated George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, who just happened to be his brother-in-law and superior officer the day of the charge. Earl Lucan received an order to send Cardigan’s light cavalry to the edge of entrenched valley to stop some Russian cannon movement. The order was not clear. When Lucan asked for clarification about which guns to attack, the messenger responded with a “wide sweep of the arm” towards the valley. Lucan interpreted the messenger’s sweep to mean that they were to attack the entrenched Russian guns at the end of the valley, about a mile away. The order, as interpreted, was madness. It meant a cavalry charge of lightly armed men would have to ride over a mile of open field where the British would be sitting ducks.

Lucan ordered Cardigan to charge. Cardigan’s intense dislike for Lucan prevented him even speaking to Lucan, much less questioning the suicidal attack. Cardigan angrily led his 600 men up the valley only to have them cut down in the process. When it was obvious that the charge was lost, Cardigan retreated alone and did not bother to make sure his men were led to safety. That evening, Cardigan rowed out to his luxury yacht anchored in the Balaclava harbor and had a champagne dinner leaving his injured soldiers to camp in the cold. Lucan, Cardigan and many others spent the rest of their lives pointing fingers at each other over the cause of the calamitous charge.

The “Charge of the Light Brigade” is a case study in poor communication between leaders in the midst of an intensely changing environment. It parallels the risk of poor communication in a global organization in the midst of a change initiative. Time, distance and cultural interpretation can be fuzzy in a normal environment and change adds an extra level of murkiness to the mix. A strategy that looks very clear at the top of the organization can easily turn into something akin to a “wide sweep of the arm” in carrying out an initiative across cultures. But there is hope. Leaders can learn several things from the “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Pick the Right Messenger

Be aware that things are different in other cultures. Even with adjustment, your message may be interpreted differently based on the different cultures in your organization. Instead of trying to appeal to every culture, ask the leaders in that culture to help you make your case.

What does “culture” mean? Culture is not always defined by geography. Business unit cultures evolve within organizations and can trump traditional notions about the geographic culture. Learn about both the geographic culture and the business culture and then do your best to adjust your message before you communicate to the leaders. Make sure the leaders within the different cultures understand the “why” in the strategic change and let them help you communicate it appropriately.

Be Clear about the Objective

I once had a leader in a previous organization direct my team to “go punish the competition” and “price it to buy the business, but don’t do anything stupid.”

This directive produced frustrated sales people stumbling around in the dark for months trying to price deals. It is one thing to know what you want. It is another thing altogether to know what you don’t want. Be clear about the objective. Even if it seems obvious, define the hills you do and don’t want to attack. Whether you drive on the left of the road or the right, people need boundaries and clearly defined outcomes to stay in the lane. If measures are clear and objective enough, people from anywhere in the world and in any culture can understand what is expected.

Bad Leadership Is the Same in Any Culture

The Charge of the Light Brigade may not have happened if Cardigan and Lucan had a good reporting relationship. If leader/follower relationships are strained and abrasive, the end result is insecure, beat-up followers. These followers will not be confident enough to stop and ask the clarifying questions needed to make sure the direction is understood. Insecure followers will charge up the wrong hill knowing that it is madness. And they will it out of quiet spite just to prove that the leader is wrong.

There are many important lessons a leader can learn from the Light Brigade. Most importantly, prevent your employees from suffering collateral damage due to poor communication and selfish leadership. Your team deserves clear objectives and a leader they can be proud to follow.

About the Author

Colby Cardin brings 15 years of financial services experience to his role as a Corporate Trainer/Consultant at TSYS. His mission within the organization is to create learning experiences that help individuals and teams to perform more effectively. He is the author of Leadership in Action, a bi-weekly internal leadership blog. Colby holds a B.A in History from The University of Georgia and is a graduate of the Stonier Graduate School of Banking from The University of Pennsylvania.