Leadership When It’s Life or Death

Yesterday, we remembered the astonishing June 6th, 1944 invasion of the Normandy beaches by 150,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers. Many of those soldiers would never make it over the sandy beaches, dying in the initial moments of what Winston Churchill called, “The most difficult and complicated operation ever to take place.”

As we honor the memory of the fallen, and celebrate the victory won at Normandy , it’s a good idea to look at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership on D-Day. He did two things that mark him as a great leader, and a great man. The first thing was that he made tough decisions. Every single decision Ike made leading up to the launching of the gigantic invasion would be measured in human life. Success would be achieved if military goals were accomplished, but Eisenhower was aware that even the loss of one life was devastating to the family back home.

As the father of young boy who died, Ike knew personally the private catastrophe of a death in a family. As Stephen Ambrose wrote in Eisenhower: Soldier and President: “It made him heartsick to think about ‘how many youngsters are gone forever,’ . . . he could ‘never escape a recognition of fact that back home the news brings anguish and suffering to families all over the country.’”

But someone had to make the decisions that would cause all that pain, and when it came to D-Day, that someone was Ike. He had to balance dozens of factors in the decision whether or not to launch Operation Overlord (as the invasion was code-named) in the wee hours of June 5. The weather was awful: rainy and windy. Ike’s meteorologist predicted a break in the weather, but if he was wrong and the weather was too rough, soldiers could arrive on the beaches so seasick they couldn’t fight. If it was too cloudy, there would be no air support, also endangering the troops on the beaches. But postponing the invasion would give the Germans more time to discover that Overlord was coming and prepare a lethal welcome for the troops.

And there was one even more frightening factor to weigh in the go-no go decision: What if Ike had made the wrong decisions in creating Overlord? What if the operation was fundamentally flawed and was destined to fail? In that event, every single life that was lost would be wasted.

Ike felt he had to gamble on the weather and made the decision, quietly saying “Okay, let’s go.” And, as we know today, Overlord was a magnificent success. Eisenhower had made the tough decisions, and made them correctly.

But in the hours before the Allied forces hit Normandy, the results were still unknown. And that’s when Ike did the second thing that proved his greatness: He took responsibility.

He wrote the following “just in case” press release before the troops had landed, before the results were known: “Our landings . . . have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. . . . 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.”

On June 5th, with thousands of lives hanging in the balance and millions waiting and hoping to be freed from Nazi tyranny, Eisenhower stared into the abyss of complete catastrophe and did not blink. He made the toughest decisions imaginable and then took complete responsibility for the results, no matter what the outcome.

“It is mine alone.” That’s leadership.

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