My wife and I recently went with friends to Europe for a two-week vacation, and we went to Normandy. I want to take some of the lessons I learned there and apply them to a historical leadership context for you.
The person I focused very much on was General Dwight Eisenhower, and I want to talk about some of the leadership lessons and characteristics that made Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, successful.
1. Being a Likeable Leader
Eisenhower loved and cared for his troops. He understood that when you go into a battle, it’s your teamwork, your love for one another, that’s going to pull you through.
“Morale is born of loyalty, patriotism, discipline and efficiency, all of which breed confidence in self and in comrades…. Morale is at one and the same time the strongest and the most delicate of growths. It withstands shocks, even disasters of the battlefield, but can be destroyed utterly by favoritism, neglect or injustice.”
2. Practicing Optimism
Eisenhower knew that in order to have positive, confident troops, he would have to lead by example.
“Optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction.”
3. Controlling Your Ego
Eisenhower managed the egos of others, pulling them together for a common cause. The reason he was effective was because he could subjugate his own ego, and he really saw himself as a normal GI.
“Always take your job seriously, but never yourself.”
4. Knowing Your Purpose
Eisenhower sold his people on the mission and got his men engaged in the larger cause—he was always able to make sure the team understood the “why” behind the “what.”
“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, you’re about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven all these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
5. Taking Responsibility
Too often leaders want the credit, but when things don’t go well, they don’t want the blame. Eisenhower was different. Here was a man at the greatest moment of his life, who knew his attempts might not succeed, so he wrote a letter—“In Case of Failure”—because he was willing to take the blame.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold, and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Real leadership takes guts, it takes commitment, it takes toughness—and Eisenhower used his skills to free Western civilization. Most of us will never be called on to do anything that great, but we need to go out every day and put principles to work and be the best leader we can be.