“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe 1943 – 1945, 34th President of the United States of America
On 5 June 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the final go-ahead for launching D-Day the next morning. Over 5,000 ships and other landing craft and more than 150,000 troops would be deployed to five beaches in Normandy France. At stake: the fate of the free world.
“Operation Overlord” was massive in every respect, and one might expect that the words to authorize it would have been perfectly crafted and memorialized. And yet there is no historical agreement on exactly what the General said that set the invasion in motion. Some recalled, “Well, we’ll go.” Others suggested, “OK boys, we will go.”
Documentation from the National Archives states that “There is no memorable quote…because of Eisenhower’s good old-fashioned Kansas modesty. He did not have the kind of ego that spawns lofty sentiments for the press or posterity.”
The order had been given. To Eisenhower, the words themselves were unimportant. It was what the words conveyed that mattered. In this case they conveyed the hopes of the world to be set free from fascism and the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler.
Those in positions of great power often craft two messages: one if the mission fails, and one if it succeeds. Eisenhower only crafted one message: a message to be read in the event of failure. Why? From my perspective, there are two reasons:
First, the General knew that when victory came – if victory came – there would be plenty of time to write a speech, and the words themselves would not be all that important. What would matter would be the liberation of millions living under tyrannical rule, and that result would speak most powerfully.
Second, Eisenhower wanted to make sure that his commanders and his troops were in no way blamed for his decision. He was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. This was his decision. In the event of failure, the General wanted everyone – especially his troops – to know that he held himself 100 percent responsible. Here is the note he wrote immediately after giving his approval for Operation Overlord to proceed:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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.”
Allow me to repeat that last line:
“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Every leader can learn from Eisenhower’s example.
- He had a vision – the liberation of the Europe – and he had a plan to accomplish it.
- He conveyed that vision effectively to those under his command.
- He let them know, from the highest ranking officer to the lowest ranking soldier, that all of them would play an integral part in achieving victory.
Forming the foundation upon which that vision was built were these three things:
- Integrity above all.
- 100 percent responsibility.
- Genuine humility.
In all times, but especially in these times of a global pandemic, we need leaders to rise up and lead with integrity, responsibility, and humility, and we need those who are incapable of doing so to get out of the way.