This year, the youngest draftees who invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944 are 90 years old. By now, our cultural understanding of D-Day focuses on the valor of those young men who fought and died on the beaches. The enduring image of the day is Robert F. Sargent’s photo “Into the Jaws of Death,” which shows American soldiers wading out of a landing craft toward forbidding, smoke-shrouded cliffs _ not fearlessly, but in spite of their terror. Yet while the courage and fortitude of the everyday soldiers is profoundly inspiring, D-Day also offers essential lessons on leadership.
On half a dozen other battlefields, the men were just as brave, but their lives were wasted by indecisive or inept commanders. D-Day could very well have been another disaster; the invasion would not have been successful without the extraordinary statesmanship and generalship of its leaders.
These lessons of leadership are keenly relevant today. The first skill is prudence; great leaders must understand the limits of what they can achieve, and have the discipline and humility to avoid rash action.
After Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, much of the public in America and Britain was eager take the fight to the enemy and liberate Europe. In the east, Joseph Stalin was urgently demanding that the Anglo-American armies open a second front in France during the autumn of 1942. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill knew that had they bowed to Soviet pressure in 1942, the cross-Channel invasion would have almost surely been crushed on the beaches. Even by 1943, the Allies were only beginning to hit their stride as a competent fighting force. And so, the two Western leaders played a delicate political game, stringing the Soviets along with just enough activity — invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy — to keep the alliance from collapsing, while resisting the temptation to launch the Great Crusade in France too hastily. By doing so, they ensured that when the invasion went forward in the spring of 1944, the men on the beaches would have the experience, resources and support to complement their bravery.
Yet even as prudent leaders recognize their own limitations, they do not let that knowledge paralyze their organizations. Great leaders accept calculated risks and encourage subordinates to do the same. This delegation fosters trust and gives individuals the freedom to bring their ingenuity to bear on difficult problems.
The D-Day invasion was the most complex military operation ever conceived, and the largest amphibious landing in history. Every uniformed service participated in some way, each with its own culture and its own professional jealousies. There were a frightening number of ways that it could all go wrong — from communications failures to bad weather. Because a timely German counterattack could doom the whole operation, the true place and time of the landings would have to be concealed until the last possible moment.
No single general could control all those risks. The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, knew that despite his formidable organizational talents, he could not micromanage the operation to victory. Instead, he focused on ensuring that every key role was filled by the right man for the job. By D-Day, Marshall had fostered a climate that rewarded generals for initiative and discouraged the dithering that had cost so many lives earlier in the war. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded the invasion, later reflected: “His ability to delegate authority not only expedited work but impelled every subordinate to perform beyond his suspected capacity.”
Finally, great leaders hold themselves accountable. On the blustery night before D-Day, with the outcome deeply uncertain, Eisenhower wrote a statement to be read in case the invasion failed. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available,” he wrote. “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.”
In a time when leaders always seem to be the last to learn about wrongdoing in their organizations, and every failure blamed on underlings, Eisenhower’s leadership should inspire us to demand better.
John-Clark Levin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recent graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an author on security, politics and technology. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.