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Reflections from D-Day: camaraderie and selflessness

June 9, 2014

Friday saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 1944, when Allied Forces launched a combined naval, air and land assault
 on Nazi-occupied France. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation. I also wonder whether it was the pivotal day of the C21st. It was certainly the greatest team effort of that century.

Just after midnight, the Allied assault began. The operation caught the German military command unaware. Low tides and bad weather – combined with Allied deception plans – had convinced the Germans that an attack was unlikely at that time. As more than 1,000 British bombers began to pummel Normandy’s coastal defences, Rommel, commanding German defences in France, was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday.

The initial Allied assault was made by airborne infantry, who secured key bridges and crossroads on the flanks of the landing zone. Some of their most important and celebrated achievements included the capture of Pegasus Bridge and the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Commandos also attacked key targets ahead of the main landings. One remarkable feat was the attack by US Rangers on Pointe-Du-Hoc, a headland which housed a coastal battery that threatened the landing beaches. The successful assault involved scaling a 30m cliff face under German fire.

At 6.30am, US soldiers went ashore by landing craft at Utah and Omaha beaches. An hour later, the British and Canadians arrived at the beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword. When British and Canadian troops landed, the tide was high, leaving fewer metres of beach to traverse. Although mines sunk a number of boats, soldiers succeeded in silencing German machine guns within half an hour.

At the day’s end, although they had not yet taken their objective of Caen, the soldiers had penetrated six kilometres inland, and their foothold in Normandy was secure and could begin their advance into France. At 6pm, when Churchill addressed the House of Commons, it was to announce the astounding success of an operation, which would go down in military legend.

Enemy gunfire has never sounded in my ears, the anxiety of an unseen enemy has never entered my body, the life and death sacrifice of fighting for my country has never been a choice for me to consider. These realities are a result of the freedoms I have, and I am grateful for all who have accepted the work to defend my country.

Despite my intellectual understanding of the realities of war, I spent most of last Friday with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat watching and listening to the poignant stories and pictures of frail, yet spirited men, most in their 90s, distil their recollections of that momentous day. Age had finally wearied them. They marched proudly on Sword Beach with stiff legs, bent backs and, in some cases, tears in their eyes.

As D-Day passes over the horizon of living memory, nowhere do you feel the power of teamwork, shared purpose and ultimately shared sacrifice more than in a military cemetery. Looking across the thousand upon thousand of white stone graves at the Normandy Cemeteries, gazing out across the English Channel, it takes your breath away. It is almost beyond imagination to realise the bravery of these men, who put aside their personal freedom, their individuality and paid the ultimate price.

I was struck by a number of thoughts from the D-Day commemoration around teamwork, notably how a small team of motivated individuals can beat a much larger, well-provisioned adversary. But overriding this, it was camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood of a team. It is what fuels results, and it was that emotion which filled my senses on Friday from the veterans.

Without it, fractured relationships slow down a team, the team is more readily blindsided by surprises and may not withstand the impact. Without camaraderie individuals fight for recognition tearing apart that palpable connection. The sense of the D-Day veterans was that they were part of a team, and that camaraderie was what made the coastal invasion a success.

However, there were a number of other factors contributing to the D-Day victory, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.

Vision is important Without vision an organisation will lack direction, focus and purpose. Vision takes individual concerns and focuses the team, giving them confidence. This fosters teamwork on a number of levels. While seemingly attainable, a true vision lies just beyond achievable. When the team accomplishes things it didn’t at first believe possible during its journey to achieve the vision, everyone’s confidence is boosted and team development is furthered. The D-Day landings showed the unifying power and purpose of a vision under extreme circumstances.

Planning Strategising in a chaotic environment is essential, many unforeseen factors affect the outcome of a plan – the weather was the biggest issue on D-Day. Planning for contingencies is imperative in business too, the externalities we face can create a chaotic environment in which planning becomes even more critical. I am a big believer in a one-page business strategy and a plan that keeps things simple, focuses on top priorities, key actions and leaves flexibility to change as conditions evolve. It’s the planning not the plan, which is vital.

Inspiration Having a big, meaningful goal is a tremendous force for motivation, and cohesion. The D-Day mission was not some vague, abstract adventure, rather it was tangible, concrete, easy to understand and internalise for all involved. While each veteran I saw interviewed had his own particular story, everyone had a common and powerful pride in what they had accomplished and in the people around them. It was frankly overwhelming and astounding. Even in the best organisations I have worked with, in my experience, such a core consistency of inspiration to achieve an outcome and pride in its achievement is extremely rare. Of course, most organisations don’t have a mission as inspirational as the British forces did that day.

Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another and, in turn, developing real relationships will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives. Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.

Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings on D-Day. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking leader makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.

Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers are carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, or to a proper burial. Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other was a clear message from the veterans. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success is what Henry Ford said: Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.

It’s not about you We all have a propensity to think we live in a bubble. You don’t. As a business leader, this truth carries more importance, as whatever your ambitions or challenges, fostering teamwork demands equality. Each person or role has its place, and they are self-defined based on the team dynamic, creating balance, and respect for them. Respect isn’t just an altruistic ethic, it’s a necessity. It was there in bundles in the hearts, minds and voices of the veterans. Whilst most companies are well integrated when it comes to race and creed (less so gender), when it comes to respect among individuals, most organisations have a lot to learn.

100% performance From moment to moment, the D-Day landings exposed the Allied men to an extraordinary degree of danger. But they made it look simple and got on with it, despite their fear. The key is training, training, training, and total focus and dedication when you are on the line. The activity on the beaches from videos of the day looks a little random and pretty informal – no tight formations, but in the end, you realise you’ve watched an amazingly choreographed event, with an underlying intelligence and efficiency that comes from a lot of people working together to optimise the total performance of the organisation. But it wasn’t about the organisation, it was about the individuals, giving 100%.

Function as a team Teamwork is critical in military context, as it is in business. In the D-Day landings, the separation between the officers and the troops was very limited. They dressed alike, got their fill of sand and sea water alike, and while there was equality, there was also clarity of function, such that every team member knew their role and became their best.

Many of the veterans referred to their Captains, often the first to die on the charge up the beaches. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this. We’re only as strong as our weakest soldier is the reality, and in military situations, one weak soldier can cost not only his own life but also the life of the whole team. Therefore, everyone has to pull together to make sure the team functions well and survives. At the same time, weaker players get the team’s support to bring them on par with the rest. The mutual commitment to success is strong.

Team debrief Allowing your team to have a real voice and offer transparent feedback is one of the things that really builds camaraderie in a team. Again the veterans recounted the after action debriefs, a review of the tough lessons learned from each event, to constantly improve tactics. In the same way, successful business leaders learn as much from their failures as their successes, but as long as you collect the right intelligence and properly apply what you have learned to the next situation, you can ensure more successes than failures down the road.  Building a culture around transparency is a key tool to building effective, high performing teams.

Team training Always be learning and always be training, the D-Day campaign saw rehearsals of every single stage prior to execution.  As mentioned above, once a mission is completed, one of the most important elements in the debrief is the discussion of lessons learned. What are we going to take away from this operation to help us improve as a team and always develop as an organisation?  The most successful companies are often the most innovative.  So how do they become innovative? They do so by encouraging and supporting growth, providing resources for constant learning, and rewarding creativity.  People succeed when they are inspired and excited to come to work, and given the skills for growth.

The success of any military unit, sports team or business doesn’t just come from great leadership and management, it comes from the alliance, connectivity and contribution of the individual team members, working in a collaborative environment. The D-Day landings showed this in circumstances that most of us are unlikely to experience.

For me it was the camaraderie and sheer selflessness in the veterans that gave me a new definition of teamwork: selfless acts towards a common goal. Selflessness is perhaps the most important element for an individual in a team.  Once individuals act selflessly, the goals of the team are within reach. Not bad principles for a business.

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