Every year on June 6, I feel a shiver run down my spine. As a retired U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Beret”) officer and combat veteran, I can’t help but remember with awe the tens of thousands of soldiers that executed a simultaneous amphibious and air invasion of Europe. On the night of June 5, paratroopers and glider infantry, followed at dawn by a sweeping amphibious assault, began the invasion of Europe – a military feat that remains without equal in history. That day in 1944 remains the singular feat that ended World War II and the Nazi regime.
The story of the D-Day Invasion holds many lessons for success in business and in life, lessons most people today do not recognize.
The first lesson — to identify what success is — remains far more important that planning how to achieve success. In the preparation for the invasion, the parachute and glider forces trained relentlessly how to achieve their mission objectives of securing bridges, cross roads, and other key terrain following their midnight parachute assault.
However, once the invasion started the airborne infiltration was a disaster. Different airborne forces were mis-dropped and scattered throughout the French countryside. It appeared the invasion might be a disaster.
What saved the day was a military concept called “Commander’s Intent,” in which the military commander identifies what success is so that when a plan has to be adapted, everyone acts with initiative and determination to achieve the mission objectives. That is precisely what happened during the early morning of June 6, 1944, in Normandy. Different airborne units joined together, determined their location, and successfully accomplished their mission. The business lesson from this is that we need to let employees know what we want them to achieve, and why. In that way, the enterprise can adapt quickly to plan changes as well as to a dynamic competitor, and still achieve the business objectives.
The second lesson is that leadership at all levels matter, and matter a lot. We may read accounts of D-Day that the architects of victory were the generals and admirals responsible for planning and executing the invasion. True, but for successful combat operations, like business, success happens on the front lines.