General Dwight David Eisenhower, or also known as “Ike,” is one of the most underrated leaders the free world has ever seen. Two weekends ago, our country celebrated Memorial Day. Tucked in behind Memorial Day, unfortunately a lesser celebrated event, is the anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944 allied forces under the leadership of General Eisenhower executed one of the largest coordinated military operations in world history, code named Operation Overlord.
My grandfather, known to us as Paw Paw, instilled in me a great love of history, specifically World War II. A couple of years ago, I read the book by Stephen Ambrose called The Supreme Commander. Ambrose has written several books on the topic of D-Day. He does an amazing job of walking the reader through the awesome responsibility that the General had in the planning and execution of Operation Overload. Ike was tasked with being the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.
There are not enough words or space in this blog post to accurately depict how awesome that responsibility was. Here is the reality of the magnitude of decisions he faced. There were decisions he had to make where some units he sent into battle projected seventy plus percent casualties. Paint the picture for his level of responsibility?
Today we explore the seven leadership lessons we can take away from Ike’s leadership during this critical juncture in world history through two letters he wrote prior to the invasion. The one he sent the Allied Expeditionary Force, and the one he never had to.
This is how he started letter one:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!”
Understand this. Ike was not just responsible for the American Forces in the planning, preparation, and execution of Overlord, but other countries’ as well. This was the Allied Expeditionary Force he references. According to the National D-Day Memorial Website, there were twelve allied countries involved in this particular operation.
Not only was he responsible for leading those countries’ forces, but he was responsible for working with all their heads of states, most notably American President Franklin Roosevelt and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill. These were two of the most powerful leaders in the world.
Ike not only led those below him, but he had to lead up. Could you imagine having to get two leaders from different countries, different belief systems, and strongly different personalities on the same page? He managed to do it and do it well. He was able to lead in all directions.
Plan, Prepare, and Adjust
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.”
If you want to lead well, it requires planning, preparing, and the ability to adjust. Ike was responsible for the planning and preparation of an operation scope most of us cannot event fathom. In fact, most world leaders today cannot even fathom. In this part of the letter, he stresses their efforts.
By no means was the plan executed perfectly, but the plan prepared the forces the best they could with the intelligence they had available and they made the necessary adjustments on the ground to execute the mission. We all plan and prepare, but how well do we adjust when things do not go according to that plan?
Leaders Face Intense Pressure
“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”
Ike lets the forces know what is on the line with these two sentences. Not just your family’s, your country’s, but the WORLD’s eyes are upon you. Every SINGLE person in the world. Can you imagine shouldering that burden?
Be Assured Tyrants Will Fall
“In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and the security for ourselves in a free world.”
Adolf Hitler used his influence to carry out unthinkable atrocities. He was a tyrant. Tyrants feel as though rules and laws do not apply to them. They feel untouchable. They lead by intimidation, manipulation, control, and divisiveness. Ike and the Allied Forces were not going to stand for this on D-Day. It was the beginning of the end for this tyrant.
Paint a Picture of Reality
“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.”
He left nothing unsaid here. It is clear to those who received this message that the mission would not be easy. He did not sugar coat it and painted a clear picture of the reality they would face. The forces would not arrive on those beaches thinking the German forces would just lay down and not fight. It was the reality of what they would face.
“But this is the year 1944! Much as happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Have you ever had that coach you would run through a wall for without asking any questions? This portion of the first letter gives me goose bumps. Despite the fears the forces may have had, the ending of this letter had to of inspired them. It gave them the hope, inspiration, and the complete confidence they needed to achieve victory.
“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.”
This is the brief second letter that Ike wrote prior to D-Day that never had to be sent. If he ended up having to send this letter, there is no doubt in my mind the world would look a lot different today.
There are two special things about this letter. One, he hand wrote this one. The first one was typed. Handwritten notes truly represent your heart. Two, he did not attempt to blame failed intelligence, he did not throw the forces under the bus, he was willing to shoulder one hundred percent of the responsibility, “mine alone.” That is leadership folks.
I want to reinforce, there are no amount of words or stats that could have been included in this blog to adequately paint the picture of his leadership. Just grateful to be able to tell a little bit of the story and the lessons that I took away from my studies of him through the years.
Writing or reading something like this can make you feel inadequate. I have never led a military operation or have made decisions that have impacted the future of the world. As a local leader, you have a world, it just is not as big as the one General Eisenhower was responsible for. Your world is the classroom, sports field, council chamber, storefront, church, board room, or wherever else you serve.
Community leadership is the ability and willingness to better others and the world you live in. Take these lessons we learned from Ike and lead your people to accomplish the mission. Make a difference in your world!
Ordinary to Extraordinary Intersection
Do you ever lead up? Do you adequately plan and prepare? How do you adjust when things do not go as planned? How do you deal with pressure? Do you paint a realistic picture for your team? Are you inspiring your people? Do you take responsibility for your organization’s failures?