I am often struck by the challenges that our current generation of knowledge workers view as insurmountable. Admittedly, the stress of business goals can be intense. But to help put this in perspective, I’d like to take a page from the greatest generation. Those that survived the great depression and fought successfully for our liberty in World War II.
It has been said that the biggest advantage that Allied troops had was their ability to improvise and not rely on orders from a central command to make decisions. Doesn’t this sound like qualities that we are looking for in self-directed teams?
This article takes us to the shore of northwestern France. It looks rather peaceful in the picture at the top of this article (taken recently). But on June 6, 1944 it was anything but peaceful. To troops landing on the beach, the view looked like this.
Without taking you through the full chronology of the battle, the success of the American landing lay on the ability to take a high point known as Pointe du Hoc. The Army Rangers were tasked with taking this point. Upon landing, they were pinned down on a narrow strip of beach under the cliff.
The first general to land on the beach, General Norman Cota, saw the rangers huddled on the beach. They were exhibiting the worst possible behavior, they were frozen – not taking any action. Just as in business, waiting and avoiding action is the worst state possible. It is my belief that it is better to do something that is latter found to be wrong (and learn from it) than to remain stuck.
So General Cota, in a display of leadership, challenged the rangers to fulfill their mission. He asked them if they were rangers, and if so, rangers are supposed to “Lead the way!”. So he challenged the team to meet the goal, enforced its importance, and let them implement.
Ronald Reagan, in a June 1984 memorial address, described their actions as:
“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. “
Ronald Reagan’s quote seems to describe the epitome of agility. It is my hope that self-directed development teams can display this same level of leadership and agility. They may need to be issued a challenge to meet the goal, but like rangers, they can respond and lead the way.
My apologies to the international readers. This article is clearly written from a purely American perspective. I am sure there are many examples of military leadership from all countries of the world.