The Invasion of Normandy & Leadership

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While we lived in Italy, my family and I made a five day trip to the Normandy area of France.  We wanted to experience this unique location of European history related to WWII.  We had an incredible time taking in the French countryside, the fine cuisine, and seeing first-hand famous beachheads of this infamous assault by the Allies (above, my daughter on Omaha Beach).  We visited the Caen Museum, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Sainte Mere Eglise, Pointe du Hoc, the Normandy American Cemetery, and Longues Battery.It was a surreal visit. It was awe inspiring and yet left you with a sense of foreboding. It humbled you and left you feeling truly grateful for the bloody sacrifice thousands made in the name of freedom.As I have reflected back on that trip and the invasion itself, there are certainly leadership principles to be observed and learned. I offer these four for reflection. These four stood out and seem foundational for any leadership endeavor.
 
1. Preparation The preparations for the June 6, 1944 invasion began in early 1943.  Several beachheads were considered. Wind and currents were evaluated. The distance from England’s coastline, German fortifications, and ease of moving a large army inland were all taken into account.  Reconnaissance photos were a necessity to determine the placement and strength of every enemy position. The best minds at the Allies disposal were consulted. Preparation and planning were critical elements to this historic effort.

2. Strategy Five landing beaches were chosen for the invasion: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The air had to be controlled by Allied bombers before a landing could take place. Naval bombardment was an absolute necessity to soften the beach head (at left, my son at the German Longues Battery). Paratroopers had to be sent the night before to hopefully cut off the Germans from behind. Decisions had to be made. Do you make your landing at high tide or low tide?  Do you make your landing by day or by night?  Every choice had a sure consequence. Deception was part of the strategy as the Allies planted fake trucks, cannons, and tanks on the English coastline to lure the enemy into thinking there was another objective. Matching each Allied army’s strengths to the enemy’s armament was crucial. To actually walk on Omaha Beach was to realize that this piece of land was perfect for an invasion–and perfect for a slaughter.

3. Timing It is well known that weather became a significant factor in determining when to actually commence the invasion. June 5th was the original invasion date, but it had to be postponed for 24 hours due to weather. In the early morning hours of June 6th 7,000 sea vessels were launched, 11,000 aircraft took off, and 160,000 men in 20,000 vehicles moved forward across the channel toward Normandy. The investment  of this formidable force relied on sure timing. Too early and the weather would become the biggest foe. Too late and the Germans would certainly know what was about to hit them.

4. A Clear Objective The goal was to invade the European continent and begin to push the German army back towards Berlin. To do this, a beachhead had to be established.  The German lines had to be broken and their will had to be subjugated to the will of the invaders. It was called “The Great Crusade”. It was dubbed “Operation Overlord”. General Eisenhower summed up the vision best in his address to the troops before the invasion: “The eyes of the world are upon you. You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” The objective was grand and it was clear. It would call for total sacrifice.

Leadership today, whether spiritual in nature or for another cause, surely must include these same four elements. To not thoughtfully prepare is to ensure failure. To not think through appropriate strategies is to risk precious resources based on luck (at left, the American Cemetery at Normandy). To not understand timing is to misunderstand maximum impact. And to not have a clear objective with inspiring vision is to engage without direction and without needed courage to sustain the effort to the end.

Lead well!

4 replies
  1. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Great thoughts, Gary! One of my favorite things to see in Normandy were the hedgerows. It became the family joke at how many hedgerow pictures I took! But, the lesson for me was that the hedgerows were the huge, unforeseen barriers that all of the reconaissance and resistance failed to register. So there right on the battlefield, a few creative tank officers, using only what they had available, invented and retrofitted those Sherman tanks with equipment to penetrate those hedgerows. Great picture for me of moving ahead even when adversity is encountered. By far, the most moving place I’ve ever visited!

    Reply
  2. Steven Hays
    Steven Hays says:

    Gary,

    Thank you for your thoughts regarding the valuable leadership lessons from such a defining moment in our nation’s history. A couple of additional leadership lessons that I think we can take away from the Eisenhower’s leadership on June 6, 1944 include the fact that leaders must display optimism yet stay grounded in reality, constantly reinforce the team message, and be willing to take the BIG risk.

    How do leaders react when faced with adversity or potential setbacks? Eisenhower faced the delays due to weather calmly and with the belief that the troops and airmen under his command would succeed despite the forces that lay before them. This belief was reinforced by Eisenhower’s knowledge that the challenges that lay before them could only be overcome through a unified effort, which he clearly and succinctly communicated to all who were about to put their lives on the line. In addition, Eisenhower was willing to take the BIG risk because the risk was justified and was absolutely necessary.

    Thanks again for your insights.

    Reply

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