Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Lessons from WWII

The words of leadership below come from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His address was not given to military personnel, but as you read you’ll see it applies both to you and me, wherever we are or whatever kind of work we’re engaged in.

Some years ago, Stephen Ambrose wrote a book describing the experience of a company of paratroopers during World War II. (See Band of Brothers [1992].) The army was developing a new kind of warfare the world had not seen before. They were training men to parachute out of planes—often behind enemy lines and at immense personal peril—to attack, and to meet strategic objectives critical to the overall success of the war effort.

Easy Company of the 506th regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was one of those groups. Formed from volunteers, the 140 men began their training in 1942. They had been told that their training would be harder than any other in the military. In fact, it was so challenging that two out of three men couldn’t make it and either dropped out or were assigned to a regular army unit.

The night before D day, Easy Company parachuted behind enemy lines. Their assignment was to take out a battery of artillery guns. But in the chaos of the drop, only 12 of the 140 men were in position to carry out the mission. Nevertheless, they knew that if they didn’t take out those guns, the Allied soldiers storming Utah Beach would suffer heavy casualties from the artillery.

To make matters worse, the guns were manned and defended by more than 50 elite enemy paratroopers who had dug a series of trenches about the battery, heavily fortifying it against any kind of assault.

In one of the most well-executed and heroic operations of the war, 12 men of Easy Company assaulted the position, routed the enemy, and destroyed the artillery guns.

In later action, Easy Company took part in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, facing enemy forces in Holland and Belgium. Later they were among the forces that held Bastogne against encircling enemy panzer units during the Battle of the Bulge.

By the time the war ended, the highly decorated Easy Company had taken heavy, heavy casualties. Forty-eight of its members had died…

Average leaders used the carrot and the stick to motivate those around them. Great leaders communicate a vision that captures the imagination and fires the hearts and minds of those around them. Average leaders inspire people to punch a time clock. Great leaders inspire industry and passion.

You can get people to work by using threats or by promising rewards. But if you want to create a band of brothers, you must inspire those who work with you and encourage them to give their all in a great cause…

No great cause ever succeeded without great effort.

One of the reasons the men of Easy Company volunteered for hazardous duty was that when they went into combat, they wanted to be next to someone they could trust—someone who wouldn’t do something foolish that could get them killed. They didn’t want to be next to someone who was lazy or who hadn’t paid attention during training or who wasn’t physically capable of what was required. These men had worked to the limits of human capacity…

Work is the foundation of success and creation. It is the secret of every successful enterprise.
Even so, there are some who go to great lengths to avoid work. In fact, a few people I have known have worked exceptionally hard to get out of work… Some of the most fulfilling moments of our lives are when we establish worthwhile goals and work to achieve them…

Fear can make us run away from things—things like setting and achieving goals, developing relationships, or becoming the people we know we should become. Sometimes fear can even paralyze us to the point that we don’t even try.

Fear can be a thick fog that smothers our dreams. It can be a cage that restrains us from reaching our destiny. It can be a weight that restrains our every step.

Time after time, the men of Easy Company knew fear. A few days after D day, they were walking down a road toward a French village when an enemy machine gun opened fire on them. In spite of their training, the men ducked for cover and froze. The company commander, Lieutenant Dick Winters, knew if they stayed there, his men would be cut down. So he stood in the middle of the road, away from cover, bullets whistling all around him, and ordered his men to move out.

His men stared at him, not believing what they were seeing—but only for an instant. The courage of their commanding officer inspired them. Then they moved out. Because of Lieutenant Winters’s bravery, the men survived.

We may not be immune to being afraid, but we do not have to succumb to it… Move forward with faith, believing you will succeed! Don’t let fear of failure stop you from greatness. Let your example of courage inspire those around you…

Stephen Ambrose titled his history of Easy Company Band of Brothers because of the bond of fellowship these men felt for each other. This sort of brotherhood happens when people give their hearts, might, minds, and strength to a cause greater than themselves. When we work together in a bond of brotherhood, when we love each other and are loyal and faithful to the great cause to which we have been called, the impossible becomes possible.

It is our opportunity to foster this brotherhood. Teach those who serve with you that we are not competing with one another. The men of Easy Company weren’t great because they were trying to stand out as individuals. They were great because they worked together.

One of the men of Easy Company remembered a conversation he had with his grandson.
“Grandpa,” the little boy asked, “were you a hero in the war?”

The old soldier thought about the question for a moment and then replied, “No, but I served in a company of heroes.” (Band of Brothers, 316.)

Those who will work with you all have within them the potential to be heroes. As you inspire those who serve with you and give them a vision of the great cause, help them set their priorities, and encourage them to settle into the harness, overcome their fears, and press on in faith, you may create your own company of heroes.

1 comment:

Cindi Martineau said...

We've recently been listening to conference talks in our van (to and from school). I'm surprised at how the kids listen. Even better than the novels we listen to. Anyway, we heard a talk by Elder Wirthlin, who hasn't necessarily been a favorite of mine, until now. This one was from April 2007 and he talked about back when he played football and the lesson he learned by being honest. It was a great one for my son who is eleven. I love it when they are exposed to this and there are stories that "speak" to them!