This past January 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 country side, the fine cuisine, and seeing first (at left-my daughter on Omaha Beach) hand famous beach heads of this infamous assault by the Allies. 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 beach heads 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 take 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-to land at high tide or low tide? To land by day or by night? Every choice had a sure consequence. Deception was part of the strategy as the Allies planted fake trucks, canons, 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 beach head 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 peoples 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 a lesser cause, surely must include these same four elements. To not thoughtfully prepare is to insure 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.