July 2012

The Normandy Leadership Experience: Critical Lessons for Today's Executive Leaders

June 6, 1944 By the time Brigadier General Norm Cota came ashore on Omaha Beach, the American attack was faltering. Initial assault waves had suffered hundreds of casualties. Those still alive were seasick from hours in the landing craft, and many had lost their weapons in the churning water. Dead and wounded lay everywhere, amid piles of burning equipment. GI's were packed so tightly on the sand that German defenders on the bluffs above could hardly miss.

Cota faced the ultimate test of a combat leader: get terrified men moving through the killing field to attack an entrenched and determined enemy. The story of how Norm Cota—and countless other D-Day leaders—accomplished this mission is a story about leadership, and it holds important lessons for business leaders today.

The Normandy Leadership Experience brings participants to the site of one of the world's great military operations—the 1944 Allied liberation of France—to learn timeless lessons on leadership.

Walking this ground teaches things one cannot learn in a conference room because the experience, like leadership, is emotional as well as intellectual. Over two days, we use stories to bring critical leadership lessons to life in vivid detail. Participants in the Normandy Leadership Experience become fully invested in thinking about leadership under the most difficult circumstances.

Modeled on a technique used to train U. S. Army officers in leadership and decision-making, the experience lets participants see and feel, as no history book or mere lecture can, the challenges that faced commanders in World War Two's pivotal battle in the West. We provide the historical background and facilitate in-depth discussion to reach a deep understanding of "leadership in action." Executives leave excited about their opportunities to be better leaders and armed with battle-tested tools they can use immediately.

Executives gain new insights and new ideas on how to

A Few of the Key Points of Discussion

The Map Is Not the Territory

An expression used in the military tells us, "The map is not the territory." This means junior leaders cannot sit in an office or a headquarters—far removed from the action—and make the best decisions. They have to get out and walk the ground, see what's in store for their troops, and plan for the world as it exists, not as they think it exists.

This adage has obvious application in business leadership. It is also the reason we study battlefield leadership on the battlefield.

The Normandy Leadership Experience is not just a visit to France to read historical markers. Executives learn the stories in context, with an eye to how the lessons from history can serve today's leaders in the corporate world.

Dwight Eisenhower

We'll discuss the peculiar responsibilities of the Supreme Commander in this vast coalition. Ike's story shows us how a leader gets subordinates—even those not disposed to work well together—to create the best plan and work hard to see it carried out.

Ike's behavior in those final hours before the assault is a testimony to the importance of the leader's character, both on the battlefield and in corporate America.

Pegasus Bridge

The British needed control of the bridges on their extreme left flank in order to block German counterattacks. Glider-borne troops stormed the bridges in the first ground combat action on D-Day, seizing them intact and holding them until reinforcements arrived from the invasion beaches, which were miles away. The assault was beyond daring—it could easily be described as foolhardy—but it succeeded.

Victory in this hard-fought small unit action depended on leadership, exceptional preparation, flexibility in execution and sheer determination on the part of the assault troops.

Finally, the story of Pegasus Bridge is about the inspirational leadership of Major John Howard, who led the assault force. His story shows us how exceptional leaders motivate subordinates so that every individual takes responsibility for the success of organization.

Gold, Juno and the German batteries at Arromanches

We will discuss the tensions inherent in a leader's decision-making process. At what point does flexible become fickle? When do goals go from being a stretch to being unrealistic and even counter-productive?

The observation point at Arromanches offers an unobstructed view of thirty miles of the landing coast. We'll discuss the amazing complexity of amphibious landings and discuss how Allied planners overcame the difficulties they faced.

La Fiere Bridge & Ste. Mere Eglise

US paratroopers were to seize the causeways and road networks behind Utah Beach to stop expected German counterattacks and to hold the door open for US forces coming off the beach. Badly scattered on the drop, the troopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions patched together ad hoc units, located what weapons and equipment (also scattered in the drop) they could, and set out to accomplish their missions.

In fighting around the important crossroads town of Ste. Mere Eglise, the paratroopers were creative, flexible and determined. In that, they were a reflection of their leaders and their unique training; and they showed the critical role played by culture in an organization's performance.

The story of La Fiere Bridge, where a few score men held their ground against multiple attacks by German armor, shows us the importance of a leader's presence and actions in a crisis.

Omaha Beach

The initial assault waves at Omaha were met by unimaginable violence that destroyed entire units and left thousands of wounded men struggling through the surf. All of the military might of the United States was powerless to move things along. Success came through the actions of a few junior leaders, most of whom were very young. They took charge of their little sectors of the war and by personal example—and sometimes at the cost of their lives—got their soldiers moving inland.

We will discuss the technical aspects of the assault: what were the key elements of the plan and why did it fail? We will also learn about the human dimension: what was it that kept some men moving forward? How do leaders create a culture that rewards action, initiative and imagination? What makes some people keep going in the face of setbacks and disappointment, and what actions can a leader take to develop that drive?

Ed Ruggero is the co-author of The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation For Success. He is also the creator of the Gettysburg Leadership Experience.