I was privileged to spend last Monday and Tuesday with 55 young men and women from 11 different private Christian schools. The event we were attending is the Presidential Leadership Institute, held annually at York College in York, NE. PLI is a collaboration led by Strata Leadership, York College, People to People International and the National Christian School Association. The students spend a whole week involved in group projects, listening to speakers, taking trips to the state capital and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, and being immersed in examples of leadership.
We were all blessed to be able to hear from and spend time with Mary Eisenhower, the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower. She told us stories about growing up with a five-star general and president as a granddad. She shared her personal experiences with a man most of us only know from textbooks and movies. It was a very cool experience. Tuesday before I left, Mary invited me back to spend more time at the Library and Museum and offered to cook me dinner! I was completely overwhelmed by her generosity and humility.
There is a famous picture of Eisenhower (the one at the top of this post) that is often captioned, “Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, “Full victory – nothing else,” to paratroopers in England, just before they boarded their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion on June 6, 1944.” However, Mary told us a completely different story about this picture and the man she knew as granddad.
The decision to send tens of thousands of men to the beaches of Normandy was one of the most difficult Eisenhower would face in his career. Rommel had been tasked with finishing the Atlantic Wall, a 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers, landmines and beach and water obstacles. So, the area the Allies were heading into was heavily defended. Eisenhower knew that thousands of young men would die in the landing and attempt to take the beachhead. He also knew that if a significant turn of the tide didn’t occur, Hitler could very well seize control of all of Europe.
So, he ordered Operation Overlord to proceed on June 6 after a weather delay caused them to wait 24 hrs. Eisenhower spent the night before the invasion with the men. He talked with them, encouraged them, and listened to them. He knew he was sending many of them to their death. It would have been much easier not to put faces and names to those who would suffer the ultimate loss because of his decision, but that was not in his character.
The morning of the invasion he was talking with troops who would be parachuting behind enemy lines in a few hours when the picture in question was taken. While he appears stern and seems to be giving final advice or commands, he was in fact talking about fishing. The man with “23” on his chest was a fly fisherman and so was Eisenhower. They had fished some of the same places and they were sharing a story or two. Eisenhower’s hand, with thumb pointed skyward, is making a rod casting motion as he speaks with the young paratrooper before sending him into the fray.
What an amazing example of true leadership. Eisenhower was capable of making a life and death decision (over 4000 dead on June 6th alone) and then treating the people affected by that decision as equally valuable to himself. He gave the most important gift any of us can give another person, his time, attention, and the communication of respect. This is an example we can all learn from and follow.
As leaders we will be faced with difficult decisions that impact real people. The resolution is not to avoid these decisions or seek to eliminate all harm at any cost. There are times when doing the right thing will result in some people being harmed. Our natural tendency when we have made one of these very difficult decisions is to avoid contact with the affected people. To be a true leader is to act in ways that demonstrate the intrinsic and equal value of all people. Our people deserve to have access to us and hear from our lips the decisions we make and the things that are at stake. They deserve to be listened too and connected with. They deserve to be honored and respected,
Eisenhower was not a perfect man, but he was a great leader. He was not sure the Allies would be victorious. He even wrote a note taking responsibility for defeat and tucked it in his wallet. His decision to attack at that place and time was based on the best information available. So, he committed the troops to the task and told them, “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”
I was fortunate to spend a couple days with men and women who will be the leaders of the future. They are persons of character and courage. They believe in their ability to make a difference in the world around them and they are committed to serving others. They have passion and energy and are excited to engage. Being with them challenged me and humbled me. I think the future is in very good hands.
They will not be perfect leaders, and neither are we. However, we can learn from great leaders like Eisenhower how to make the best decisions we can and then treat the men and women we serve with dignity, honor and respect. That is true leadership. That is the Kimray Way.