Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Extraordinary Leader

"War is Hell" of that there can be no doubt.  But out of that Hell emerges extraordinary leadership, sometimes from unlikely sources.

Richard "Dick" Winters was a smart, mild-mannered, college-educated man from Pennsylvania who, at the age of 23, three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, enlisted in the Army. He underwent basic training, then was selected for Officer Candidate School.  He joined the paratroop infantry and was assigned to Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division. The first active combat he saw was on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day. That day the Company Commander was killed when his plane was shot down and Winters became the acting commanding officer.

Winters led his troops during the Normandy Invasion and on his first day of command led an assault that destroyed a battery of German 105 mm howitzers which were firing onto the causeways that served as the principal exits from Utah Beach, an attack that became known as the BrĂ©court Manor Assault. The attack is still taught at West Point as an example of a textbook assault on a fixed position.

He went on to lead his troops through several of the major campaigns in Europe in 1944 and 1945, including Bastogne. Many, many years later Winters' heroism, as well as that of most of those with whom he served, was depicted in Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and a television mini-series of the same name.

The real Dick Winters, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Dick Winters passed away last week at the age of 92. Consistent with his self-effacing manner, he had requested that news of his death not be made public until after his memorial service, which was held last Saturday. As I read of his death, and reminded myself again of his extraordinary life, I reflected on the words of his comrades and Major Winters himself on what made him such a great leader.

And it's really pretty simple. Most importantly of all, Winters cared about his men and made sure that they understood both what he expected of them and how proud he was of them. One of the men who served under him summed up Winters and his leadership to the Associated Press this way: "He was a wonderful officer, a wonderful leader. He had what you needed, guts and brains. He took care of his men, that's very important."

Winters himself wrote of his view of leadership this way in an article in American History Magazine: "If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down."

Most of us, as coaches, managers, human resource directors, or lawyers are fortunate to not find ourselves tested on the field of battle. But the rules of engagement with those working under us are largely the same, just not a matter of life and death. We don't need to be Dick Winters to be at least good leaders. Caring for those we work with, and letting them know that, is the hallmark of a good, if not great, leader.

Nor must we be Henry V of England, or William Shakespeare, who wrote the St. Crispin's Day Speech, delivered by the character of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt, from which Band of Brothers borrowed its title. That speech is a fitting epitaph to Winters and that Greatest Generation who are leaving us day-by-day:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother