I want to share an excerpt from an article I was asked to write for T + D Magazine’s Leadership Executive Briefing section. There is also a link to the complete article if you’d like to read more. Hope you enjoy it.
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I was recently on a panel where the moderator asked, “What are the three most important things every leader needs today?”
It is an intriguing question–one that reminded me of the Mel Brooks movie where Moses comes down from the mountaintop with three tablets, each with five commandments. With a wry smile, he says to the throng that has gathered, “I bring you …” and then, as he drops one of the tablets, without missing a beat, he says, “The 10 Commandments.”
What are the three, or the 10, most important things leaders need today? What has changed? And what remains fundamental? Is there a new formula for leadership? Or, is it just doing more of what history has taught us through the ages? Perhaps it is a little of both.
The Balancing Act
One of the most important things leaders need today is the ability to retain two seemingly contradictory thoughts, feelings, or ideas at the same time. Some of those thoughts and feelings have to do with the constant mixed signals we are bombarded with every hour of every day. The job market is improving, but not for everyone. For every sign of hope, there is a tugging concern.
Can we be optimistic without missing warning signs? Can we be skeptical while maintaining a positive outlook? Can we hold two conflicting ideas in our mind at the same time, see the wisdom of each, and make a decision that is better than a compromise?
The answer lies in a story about General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of the invasion of Normandy. As he reviewed his troops, he knew that the mission was fraught with peril. Operation Overlord, as it was known, would almost certainly determine the outcome of World War II. The key to defeating the Nazis hinged on liberating German-occupied France. The invasion of Normandy was planned for June 1944, and the size, scope, and complexity of the assault were unprecedented.
As historian Stephen Ambrose explained, “In one night and day, 175,000 fighting men and their equipment―including 50,000 vehicles of all types―were transported across 60 to 100 miles of open water onto a hostile shore against intense opposition. They were either carried, or supported, by 5,333 ships and craft of all types and almost 11,000 airplanes.”
On June 6th, Eisenhower released the order, which was read aloud to the Allied forces before they stormed the beaches of Normandy. “You are about to embark upon a great crusade. … The eyes of the world are upon you. … Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. … But the tide has turned. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than victory. Good luck. Let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God, upon this great and noble undertaking.”
After the operation was successful―though not without many loss of life―Paris was liberated.
What is not known about this attack is that Eisenhower tucked a statement in his wallet the day of the invasion and then forgot about it. When he found it later, he threw it in the trash, but an aide salvaged it. Here’s what it said: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. 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.”
Eisenhower knew, inherently, that two of the most important qualities needed by a leader are to have enough doubt to question yourself and to have enough confidence to forge ahead. It is an amazing balancing act―to be confident and humble simultaneously.