Refusing to Fail

In the long history of the American military there have been few more heroic moments than the monthlong siege of Bastogne. Because of its crossroads, the town was the key to the Battle of the Bulge. The Americans held Bastogne; the Germans had to have the town. General Dwight Eisenhower released the 101st Airborne Division from its reserve status, and General Omar Bradley immediately sent it to Bastogne to join with elements of the 10th Armored Division. The Americans arrived in Bastogne before the Germans did and were promptly surrounded. Even though the Germans controlled the roads by surrounding the entire town, they had no connections from road-to-road without controlling the crossroads inside the town. Control of Bastogne itself was an absolute necessity.

The weather prevented almost all supply drops from the air to the Americans, the temperature hovered around zero, and the ground was blanketed with snow at least ankle-deep. The conditions gave the phrase “a cold day in hell” an entirely new and real meaning.

The Americans were badly outnumbered and heavily underarmored compared to their competition. The one-plus division of Americans faced fifteen German divisions, four of them armored, and heavy artillery. German bombardment was frequent and devastating. Casualties mounted quickly, and the majority had to go untreated because the Germans had captured the medical supplies and doctors. The situation couldn’t get any worse.

But the Americans refused to give in. As Stephen E. Ambrose related in Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany:

A wounded corporal was brought to an aid station and wondered at the large number of wounded men. “Aren’t we evacuating anybody?” he asked a medic.

The medic replied, “Haven’t you heard?”

“I haven’t heard a damn thing.”

“They’ve got us surrounded—the poor bastards.”

The difference in urgency between battle and business competition is huge. Fortunately, no one in Corporate America deals with anything so desperately important as the life-and-death struggle of combat. And it’s almost impossible to imagine any business operating under conditions as extreme as those faced by the U.S. Army at Bastogne. But I’m not suggesting that leaders look to this astounding American victory for operational tips or a guide to success.

The lesson to be learned from Bastogne is simple: commitment.

As we slowly emerge from the Great Recession, the difference between the business winners and losers will be the commitment of their people to new success. That kind of commitment is developed only by treating your employees extremely well. A friend of mine who is the CEO of a small manufacturer in New England told me that he furloughed his entire work force for a few weeks at Christmas so that he didn’t have to fire anyone. He demonstrated his commitment to them by keeping them all — and set up the company to expand its business as the recovery takes hold.

As Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, said, “If you’re going to run a high service organization, you have to get the commitment of the people working for that organization right at the start. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to deliver at the levels of expectations of the customer. You can’t make people do what’s right. You can lead them, and you can empower them to make the right decision, but if you don’t produce a culture that allows them to do that, then all the rest is just bumping your gums as one of my old business partners used to say.”

Like my New England friend, Eisenhower and his Allied commanders talked the talk and walked the walk on this issue. Enlisted men (frontline employees) got the same benefits in terms of leave, recreational travel, and seized goods (wine!) as officers (middle management) did. Ike never made a decision without weighing the cost in the lives of his men. Whenever possible, he visited with the front line troops, talked them face-to-face and asked them where they were from “back home.”

If you want the kind of commitment from your people that Ike received from his — a refusal to fail commitment, you have to treat them right. Restore salary cuts and bonuses as fast as you can. Promote anyone who’s gone the extra mile for you during the recession. Look your people in the eye and tell them how much it means to you that they’ve stuck with you.

While there’s no measurable benchmark of morale success equivalent to dollars of profit earned, it’s hard to argue with “They’ve got us surrounded—the poor bastards.”


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