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Good Read: The Great Siege: Malta 1565

Traveling often provides you with opportunities to read, but rarely does it offer good guidance on what to read. A marvelous exception jumped out with my January trip to Malta. As the three of us on the trip stole a little time one afternoon to explore the sites and enjoy an exceptional meal, we each posted some pictures to our social network streams. Matt, the Solutions Architect on the trip, heard back from one of his friends within minutes of his post…

“Best fortress architecture anywhere. Try to get hold of a copy of Ernle Bradford’s ‘The Great Siege: Malta 1565’, to read whilst you’re there. Difficult to put down, and it’ll completely change how you see the place. (And make you wonder why nobody has made the story into a movie yet!)”

Malta was captivating enough without the back-story, but the book recommendation intrigued me. Had to get it, so used the Kindle app on my tablet to grab the book, and began reading as we traveled back from this very unique collection of islands. So glad that I did. The book is very much about war…a siege of Malta that had the out-numbered occupying Knights of St. John defending against an onslaught from the Turks. It is unusual in that much of the story and dialog, as “movie-like” and entertaining (if war can be entertaining) as it is, is actually taken from historical records from the time. This resulted in a captivating read that highlighted some interesting strategic undertones for me in the successes and failures on both sides. I thought some of the lessons that resonated with me were worth articulating to explain why I liked this book so much. Consistency and commitment are the core of good leadership. Under siege, La Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, was faced with significant losses as he waited for help from Europe in vain. Despite the staggering difficulties and wavering confidence of his men, he maintained a steady and consistent message…a belief that helped steel his men, and prepared them to willingly make the ultimate sacrifice to hold the enemy at bay. Leaders have it rough. No, really, they do. Success or failure is often attributed directly to leadership decisions, so folks in those roles are under constant pressure. Some of this pressure is external, but the majority of it comes from their own lesser angels. Business isn’t war; no one (usually) dies as a result of a bad course of actions, and because of this, it is very easy to set a strategy, put folks in motion to attempt to achieve it, and then, through a series of team failures, begin to doubt that strategy. Contrary to popular belief, good strategy is seldom set in stone…it does change as you learn from the field…but making frequent and dramatic changes in strategy usually signifies a failure to commit. In business, when your credibility as a leader is on the line, it is easy to find yourself staggering off message, and begin searching for a strategy through whatever limited success you can grasp. The problem with this for a leader is that your people will follow, leading everyone into a vicious cycle of execution failure. Most would agree that some of the greatest leaders…Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Jeff Bezos…just to name some off the top of my head (there are many other good examples I’m simply too lazy to name here), have all stuck firmly to a strategy they “knew” was right in the face of struggles. In fact, most working with them thought they were a bit cracked…Kennedy with his vision for going to the moon, Jobs and his vision for personal computing, and Bezos and his ideas on just about anything.  The very fact that they maintained consistency in message, and stayed committed in ways you read about only in undergrad Psychology text books, turned out to be the watermark of their successes. La Valette was a good example of this as well; a man that could have easily been dismissed as a religious zealot, a man ready to die for his faith, is remarkable by virtue of his perceived certitude. This unwavering commitment is what resulted in consistently surprising results rebuffing the attacks of the Turks. No matter what is promised, you must set your strategy assuming you have all the resources you are going to get. La Valette was promised assistance to defend Malta from the Turks by Don Garcia de Toledo, the Viceroy of Sicily. Similarly, pleas were made for the Knights of St. John that had made their way home to Europe following The Crusades to join in the defense Malta. While some help eventually came, it did not come in the time and force expected or promised. La Valette had to marshal the resources he already had on the island to defend the fortresses for an extended period of time. When you set a strategy, it is often tempting to build it with an eye toward growing your team to accomplish it. While this can work out, it is more often the case that you must execute with the resources you have. A strategy set without a realistic understanding of how you intend to execute…with what (and who) you presently have available…is a losing proposition. Often this means leaders must inspire, pulling people to meet levels of accomplishment they had no idea they could achieve…but even more often, it means accepting limitations, and having to focus on achieving the goals that are most important. This doesn’t mean you must shrink from ambitious plans, but it does mean you have to know what you are willing to give-up to execute, and accept your situation with some pragmatism. Milestones in your strategy can help focus this, and create measures of success you can campaign on moving forward. You’ll probably note that I said, “…pulling people…”. This was with intent. Leaders lead from the front…they don’t push their people, they pull them along. The leaders I have respected most, sometimes in retrospect, have been those that have made me a better professional simply by virtue of my having followed them. La Valette was prepared to make the same sacrifices he demanded from his men, and despite the insistence of his advisers that he keep himself safe and protected, he was a visible force at critical points of the fight; leading by example. A clear chain of command is critical, especially “under-fire”. When Soleyman, Sultan of the Turks, set out upon the siege of Malta, he put two people, Mustapha and Piali, in command…shared command. To this he added a consultant, Dragut, with orders to the two commanders to give to him “respect in all things and to accept his suggestions and advice”. While the intent of Soleyman was to allow the strengths of each man to complement the other under the forging guidance of a subject matter expert, the lack of a clear chain of command on-the-ground resulted in confusion, errors, and ultimately loss. Leadership by committee is difficult, if not impossible. While building consensus and empowering decision-making throughout the ranks is critical for growing leaders, and improving efficiency, someone has to have ultimate responsibility for taking the inputs, and pulling the trigger…making the final and binding decision. Dissent in shared leadership situations, especially when controversial decisions must be made, will paralyze an organization, and result in less agile responses to fast moving changes. The choices made by Mustapha and Piali were a clear case of two leaders vying for ultimate control…a game of one-upmanship that was ultimately disastrous. Dragut, while well schooled in warfare, was resigned to watch this mismanagement, and had to deal with the bad situations set in motion by the poor decision-making of the Sultan’s two designated leaders. An enemy that forces you to fight on multiple fronts will divide your focus, and hinder your ability to succeed. On August 23, 1565, La Valette was counseled by his advisers to abandon Birgu, and consolidate all forces in St. Angelo, the strongest of all defenses. La Valette considered the advice, but respectfully conveyed that he would not take it. The infrastructure of St. Angelo could not support the entire population, he had no intention of abandoning the Maltese people, and knew that, in forcing the Turks to divert their energies and fire-power to fight on multiple fronts, they were extending their survival. While his men accepted his decision, to insure there could be no question of retreat from Birgu, La Valette burnt the boats and blew-up the drawbridge…committing them all to his decided course of action. As Bradford conveys,

“The Grand Master’s view, that only by keeping Mustapha’s army and the gunners divided between two positions could Malta be held, was as correct in theory as it proved in fact. Defense in depth was something that was little understood in the military of that time. La Valette’s genius in the hard trade of war is proved by his ability to make a correct assessment and act upon it without hesitation.”

If you think about an occupying force as an incumbent in a market, and a new entrant as the siege force  (leaving alone that in the specific case of Malta, the siege force was larger and in many ways more powerful than the Order of St. John’s occupying force), if the incumbent can force the attacker to fight on multiple fronts, they can very often exhaust the power of the attack, and end up victorious. As I turned this over in my mind, I thought about successes and failures of which I’ve been part. In almost every case of success, a focused effort where the incumbent was weakest won the day. Every case of being forced to spread resources and energy to fight on multiple fronts resulted in slow failure. La Valette, either by experience or instinct, recognized this fact. Coupled with the other factors…commitment and consistency in message, efficient use of resources, and the enemy’s lack of an effective chain of command…La Valette was able to use a divide-and-conquer strategy to high effect. I enjoy books that can surprise me in some way. This very enjoyable historical perspective on Malta was thought-provoking in a way I could not have anticipated when I received the recommendation to read it. As with most good books, I was able to take away from it more than what was simply put down on the page by the author. I recommend the book (if you had any doubt), and would welcome hearing what you take away from it should you decide to read it. ISBN-10: 075929934X ISBN-13: 978-0759299344

Chip View All

2 thoughts on “Good Read: The Great Siege: Malta 1565 Leave a comment

  1. Great post Chip, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on that and it has reminded me that I must read the book myself soon. Stuart who made the recommendation gives this feedback:

    I’m so glad he enjoyed the story, and was able to divine such a wealth of lessons applicable to life & commerce. I got a copy on the 2nd day of a 2 week holiday there back when I was 14, and as Malta ran an ‘any journey 2 cents’ bus service, was able to slope off on my own; with book, map, compass (and some imagination-driven mental photoshop filters) to follow the story across the island. The Maltese Tourism Board (or such) should give every visitor a copy when they get off the plane!


  2. Hi Chip,
    Got a link to this from Matt A. Glad to hear you enjoyed my book recommendation, and gleaned so much from a story so richly furnished with triumphs, failings, and the blind luck of the battlefield; to apply its lessons to leadership in commerce. There are many fascinating incidents to choose from, but I remember reading of Marshal de Coupier’s brilliant poker-playing share-price-bumping subterfuge in the defence of the isolated, weakly fortified, under-manned and under-armed city of Mdina. As their likelihood of success receded toward the end of the siege, the Turkish leadership decided that a quick ‘hostile takeover’ of this (according to their intelligence) vulnerable but technically important outpost would be a face-saving scalp to present to Istanbul, and moved their tired army across the island to assault it. The tiny garrison shifted every cannon and firearm to the walls facing the Turkish approach, and lined them with civilians dressed to resemble soldiers, complete with polished cooking-pot helmets and kitchen-knife-on-a-broomhandle pikes glittering in the sun. Even though still way out of range, the walls thundered with canon shot and crackled with musketry (using most of their available gunpowder in the process) as the defenders roared and brandished their ‘weapons’. To the Turks, exhausted by months of butchery in futile assaults around Grand Harbour, the place looked like a potent fortification, manned by a large, confident, motivated and eager garrison lavishly supplied with weapons & ammunition. The morale of the Turkish troops collapsed in an instant, and their advance ground to a halt. ‘It is another impregnable fortress like those down by the water’ they cried. Facing what could easily turn into a full-scale mutiny, and unwilling to risk the perceived costly investment required to take it, their leadership baulked and withdrew. Full of such tales, it’s a great read and pretty much a ready-made screenplay. Shame Hollywood prefers pointless remakes!


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