On January 22, 1879, the British army suffered its greatest defeat ever at the hands of an army equipped with primitive weapons. A British battalion, furnished with artillery and modern Martini-Henry rifles, was effectively wiped out by a Zulu force armed only with short stabbing spears, clubs and cowhide shields. The engagement came to be known as the Battle of Isandlwana.
On the morning of the 20th, two days before that fateful battle, the British arrived at Isandlwana and set up a forward camp. The British commander, Lord Chelmsford, decided that there was no need to entrench his forces or even take the rudimentary defensive step of circling the wagons.
Early on the 22nd the British dispatched a scouting party who stumbled on a Zulu force of about 20,000 sitting in total silence. The Zulus went immediately on the offensive. An officer arriving from another battalion gave the following account of the last stage of the battle from his safe vantage point atop a nearby hill:
“In a few seconds we distinctly saw the guns [artillery pieces] fired again, one after the other, sharp. This was done several times—a pause, and then a flash-flash! The sun was shining on the camp at the time, and then the camp looked dark, just as if a shadow was passing over it. The guns did not fire after that, and in a few minutes all the [British] tents had disappeared.” (F.E. Colenso, History of the Zulu War and its Origin, London, 1880.)
As the sun set that day, only 50 British soldiers out of 1,500 escaped with their lives.
How did an army equipped with artillery and rifles capable of firing ten rounds a minute lose to an army equipped with clubs and stabbing spears? Even if the British were appalling marksmen—which they were not—and their bullets found their targets only one time in ten, they had the firepower necessary to inflict over 1,000 casualties a minute.
On the surface, this British disaster was the result of two poor decisions. First, the British failed to establish an adequate initial defense. Second, as was typical for the British at the time, they chose to fight in a linear formation—a disastrous decision which made it easier for the Zulu warriors to utilize their speed and numerical superiority to outflank and overwhelm the British. (Ian Knight, Isandlwana 1879: The Great Zulu Victory, Osprey, 2002.)
The more fundamental reason, however, was the failure of the British officers to seek and heed the input of their local scouts. The scouts, British subjects of European descent, had lived on the South African frontier for most—or all—of their lives. They understood the Zulu military strategies and their strengths. They knew the battle tactics that earlier settlers had used to defeat Zulu armies that sometimes outnumbered them more than twenty to one. The British officers, on the other hand, grossly underestimated the discipline, motivation, speed, stealth and superb leadership of the Zulu army.
Unfortunately for the British, they saw the colonial scouts as ill-mannered, poorly-educated drunks. A sense of superiority rendered the British officers incapable of accepting feedback from these less refined, less educated subordinates.
It’s unlikely that you will ever have to risk your life in war. Nevertheless, the lessons of Isandlwana remain indispensable to your career and your business. How often, in organizations across the globe, do individuals and groups make disastrous mistakes because their egos prevent them from accepting feedback from those who are different from them, or from those who occupy positions of lower status or power? It is easy to learn from the criticism of people we hold in high esteem and from those who are skilled communicators. What takes real skill and wisdom is to profit from the counsel of those we don’t admire, the rough and tumble “scouts” in our own lives. As noted by Publilius Syrus, “Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.”