Have you ever had those moments of panic when you second guess yourself, sincerely hoping that you’ve prepared for a school test, worrying about the project you’re overseeing at work, or wondering if your kids are ready to face the challenges of life? I do. Just last week there was a half-day of intense panic, “I’m trying to write a book! What on earth do I think I’m doing? Where am I gonna find a publisher. I’m nervous…” Now that I’ve revealed a minor fear perhaps you can think of a few that you’re facing?
Well, I’ve got some great news for you this week. One of the best military leaders in the world faced a couple hours of second-guessing his plans. It’s time to learn a lesson about leadership and life directly from the planning headquarters of the June 6, 1944, Normandy Invasion.
He was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater of World War II. He’d been a soldier all his life, from his first training at West Point, through training exercises, and military war games. He was a practical man, a kind man who loved his family, a man who knew how to think, a man with vision, a man with a warrior’s spirit. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
For many long months Eisenhower and a team of brilliant commanders had been planning Operation Overlord, going over every detail to ensure the success of the attack to the best of their ability. Attacks from the air – paratroopers and gliders – would begin the assault with the purpose of capturing important bridges to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements. The navies would bombard the German defenses, followed by the infantry land assault. Militarily, the plan was daring, but sound.
Then on May 30, 1944, while waiting to determine the day of attack, Eisenhower’s headquarters telephone rang. It was Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, an expert in aviation warfare. He expressed his doubts about the success of the paratrooper and glider attacks, predicting heavy casualties without any benefit to the other attackers. Later, Eisenhower wrote about this moment: “It would be difficult to conceive a more soul-racking problem…” (Eisenhower, p. 246).
He asked Leigh-Mallory to put his concerns in writing and then “…went to my tent alone and sat down to think. Over and over I reviewed each step…thoroughly and exhaustively. …[There] was the possibility that if he were right the effect of the disaster would be far more than local: it would be likely to spread to the entire force” (Eisenhower, p. 246). After considering all information from every angle, Eisenhower decided that the airborne attacks must go on if the Utah beach landing was to be successful and that Utah was a crucial point that could not be cancelled.
“I telephoned him that the attack would go as planned…” (Eisenhower, p. 247). The decision was made. Eisenhower had made all the preparations that he could to ensure the success of the invasion, now, ultimately it depended on the men. Most of the high ranking Allied commanders visited the troops in the weeks leading up to the assault. On June 5 – after making the final decision to go ahead with the attack despite the questionable weather report – Eisenhower had one last duty to perform.
“I spent the time visiting the troops that would participate in the assault. A late evening trip on the fifth took me to the camp of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division [paratroopers], one of the units whose participation had been so severely questioned by the air commander [Leigh-Mallory]. I found the men in fine [spirits], many of them joshingly admonishing me that I had no cause for worry, since the 101st was on the job and everything would be taken care of in fine shape. I stayed with them until the last of them were in the air, somewhere about midnight. After a two-hour trip back to my own camp, I had only a short time to wait until the first news should come in…” (Eisenhower, p. 251-252).
Success. Paratroopers and glider crews seized the bridges and prevented German reinforcements from arriving quickly and Utah Beach was in Allied possession. And Leigh-Mallory – the good commander who felt it was his duty to express his concerns – was among the first to call Eisenhower to congratulate him on the positive outcome.
Now, it’s a good, true story…but what can we learn?
General Eisenhower was in the middle of a ginormous task and suddenly someone raised valid doubts, causing the monster called “second-guess” to reign for a few hours. What did Eisenhower do? Reviewed his preparations and then went forward with the action. Valuable lesson.
Okay, so most likely you’re not a five star general planning the liberation of Europe with the eyes of the world watching you. But remember that difficulty of yours – that “oh, my goodness what am I doing, I’m totally second guessing the wisdom of this” situation? Learn from one of the best leaders in history how to turn doubt into success.
#1. Stop. Take a deep breath.
#2. Preparation – review everything you know about the situation, every possible outcome. (If you can’t do this, you need more information). Next, weigh the cost and benefit, keeping in mind moral and ethical standards.
#3. Decide. If you’re sure you’re right, go ahead. But if you’ve considered the options and determined this is not a good plan, decide and be ready to stick to your conclusion.
#4. Action. Sometimes this falls on us, but sometimes it falls on others. If you’re the person to carry out the plan, do it! If you’re like the general, make sure your followers are prepared to do their best and encourage them along the way.
Well, I’m feeling better and more prepared for the challenges I’m facing after a little lesson at Allied headquarters. Remember that book I’m writing and the panic of publishing? I’ve taken a deep breath and discovered I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Library research books are on the way and hopefully in a few weeks or months, I’ll be able to finish #3 (Decide) and boldly move on to #4 (Action).
Thanks General Eisenhower for writing about your hard decisions and showing us how a successful leader combats doubts with preparation and action.
Plans are established by council; by wise council wage war. Proverbs 20:18, NKJV
Eisenhower, D.D. (1948). Crusade in Europe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.