Have you ever wondered what it's like to make a monumental decision that will determine not only whether men live or die, but also alter the historical course of a nation and the world?
Kansan Dwight Eisenhower made such a "soul racking" decision when he determined Allied forces would invade on D-Day. His decision came with the calculated risk that 90% of U.S. paratroopers might be killed, but he justified that potential sacrifice because preserving the free world was the responsibility he was burdened with.
We Kansans often look to that example as we envision a heroic Eisenhower leading on D-Day, but Eisenhower conveyed a much different perspective of leadership in his book At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends. There, Eisenhower examined another American general's difficult decision at Gettysburg, but also considered the individual and collective impact of every soldier on the battlefield.
General George Meade had been given command of the Union forces just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg began. He had little time to prepare his force of nearly 105,000 men, and after the first day of fighting thousands of them had been killed or captured. He faced the reality of the Union Army being beaten back by a force of about 75,000 confederates. If they failed to stop them, the confederates would be in striking distance of Washington D.C.
On the morning of the second day, Meade assessed the situation with a difficult decision to make. Eisenhower called this Meade's "moment of truth":
. . . all within him, particularly his moral courage, had to bear tough and strong on the problem ahead. No council of war could be called. No delay for leisurely study would be permitted by Lee. The decision had to be made. And the decision was solely Meade's responsibility. As he turned his horse, he is quoted as saying, almost to himself: 'We may fight it out here just as well as anywhere else.' Then he quietly rode away to issue the orders that would make his decision operative. In all this, there is neither visible drama nor glamour; only the loneliness of one man on whose mind weighed the fate of ninety thousand comrades and of the Republic they served. (pp. 45-46)
Few persons can relate to the emotions Meade must have felt then, but Eisenhower could. He too had known the "loneliness of one man" and the burden of deciding the fate of thousands when he issued orders to invade Normandy. Yet, while Eisenhower and Meade (as individuals in command of an army) made crucial decisions that shaped American success, those ultimate successes would not have happened without individual actions of soldiers and the collective impact of the entire army. Eisenhower noted that "major decisions were the responsibility of a few, But their execution depended on the initiative, the fidelity, the strength of many thousands of individuals" (p. 44).
During his early career, Eisenhower had been stationed near Gettysburg, and later purchased a farm there. That proximity gave him the opportunity to closely consider the historical details of the battle:
As I sit here at my desk overlooking the road where thousands of retreating and pursuing troops poured through on a July afternoon in 1863, all about me are physical reminders that the history made here was an accumulation of little incidents, small contributions, minor braveries, and forgotten heroisms. (pp. 43-44)
Eisenhower admitted he had been more interested in the actions of the great commanders in his youth, but those "little incidents, small contributions, minor braveries, and forgotten heroisms," became more interesting to him later in life:
. . . as a youngster I was concerned almost exclusively with the peaks and promontories – the dramatic features – of the historical terrain. Today, I am interested too in the great valleys within which people, by their work, their zeal, and their persistence, have transformed a savage and crude environment into and industrial complex so that in the 1960s one man in the field can provide the food and fiber for twenty others. (p. 42)
Having been supreme allied commander and the president of the United States, Eisenhower certainly possessed the perspective of an individual who had been at the top of a powerful organizational hierarchy. Yet practicing leadership doesn't require superior rank. It's more important that we have leadership capacity and motivation.
Eisenhower realized that all of us, as individuals, shape the world around us and can influence the outcome of significant events. "History is not made merely by big names or by startling actions," said Eisenhower (p. 41), "but also by the slow progress of millions and millions of people. They contribute to the creation of reputations and to the moments of history itself."
This view and practice of leadership requires individuals (us) to take responsibility for the condition of the world around us. There is no single great leader who will bring about change. Each of us shapes history in a small way. And according to David Chrislip and Carl Larson's book Collaborative Leadership our small contributions become even more powerful when we act together to achieve a shared goal. And Margaret Wheatley, in her book Leadership and the New Science, notes the importance of individual ownership of organizational goals.
At Gettysburg that shared goal was success on the battlefield, and victory as a nation. That alignment of purpose allowed thousands of soldiers to make individual leadership decisions that resulted in collective success. In his book Social Physics, Alex Pentland notes that "synchronization and uniformity of idea flow within a group is critical" (p. 64).
Practicing synchronization doesn't diminish the importance of individual contributions. In Transforming Leadership, James MacGregor Burns insisted that organizations are not "giant machines lumbering across the countryside but collections of people" (p. 216). Organized systems of individuals need to empower individuals with adaptive spaces to overcome the rigidity and limitations of hierarchy.
For Eisenhower, that adaptivity was "the courage or the daring or the high-spirited initiative of a multitude" (p 48). When members of an organization are given the freedom to accomplish shared goals, great things can happen.
Certainly, Meade had to take ownership of his decisions at Gettysburg. The collective army didn't make the decision to fight at Cemetery Hill, it was George Meade. Likewise, Eisenhower was responsible for his decision at Normandy.
We also have the example of lower ranking soldiers like Frank Haskell who rode fiercely to rally his superior officers and fellow troops to plug a gap in the Union lines. Eisenhower points out, that "had he not been there, the Confederate tide could hardly have failed to make a serious breakthrough. But he was there. And, in fifteen minutes, he shaped history" (p. 47-48).
So, don't be afraid to make decisions that make history. Even though the magnitude of our decisions may not approach those of Eisenhower or Meade, we, like Frank Haskell, can take decisive leadership action. And if we collaborate with others to achieve shared goals, we might even change the world.