We just celebrated another anniversary of D-Day, and rightly so. We also honor the role of General Dwight Eisenhower in leading the successful invasion.
But the way people use that term, “leader”, is often not quite right. They mean to say that Eisenhower played the key role in inspiring the men, and that his example was so inspiring they were bound to succeed. Or that Eisenhower had the courage to grab a brief and tenuous window of good weather when others hesitated or had doubts.
Let’s define what made Eisenhower a hero, and a leader. Eisenhower was not solely responsible for the success of Operation Overlord. Planning had been going on for a full year before he was given command of the invasion force. Thousands of Allied officers drilled and trained hundreds of thousands of soldiers for months before June 6, 1944. Weather forecasters were tasked with predicting when the notoriously stormy English Channel might be quiet enough to launch the myriad small boats carrying the soldiers. As commander of all Allied forces in Europe, Eisenhower was kept apprised of this preparation, but of course he did not personally carry it out, or even lead it in the sense of having those thousands of people report directly to him. The hundreds of thousands of people who carried out the D-Day invasion include heroic practitioners of leadership that we will never know about. They will never be famous. Their contributions have sunk to the seabed of history.
Instead, it is Eisenhower who was the visible “Leader” who gave the order to launch the assault, and the Great, Victorious Leader who announced the success of the operation. As commander, he could do so.
And, like any single person in a position of high authority, if the risky invasion had failed, Eisenhower could have passed the blame to any dozen of the high-ranking men just below him in the chain of command. He could have blamed the weather forecasters, the ship pilots, the equipment, the choice of landing site, etc.
Instead, Eisenhower, using every reserve of courage in the face of an operation that stood a very good chance of failure, wrote a remarkable message to be delivered in that event.
Our landings in the
Cherbourg – Havre area
have failed to gain a
satisfactory foot hold and
^I have withdrawn the troops
withdrawn. This particular
operationMy decision to
attack at this time and place
was based upon the best
information available and
The troops, the air and the
Navy did all that [crossed out]
Bravery and devotion to duty
could do. If any blame
or fault attaches to the attempt
it is mine alone.
When people transcribe this message, they usually leave out the words Eisenhower crossed out. But those are the most important words in the message. They remove passive-voice constructions that would have let Eisenhower quietly shift the blame for failure onto anyone that the world wanted to blame. Instead of writing that the landings has failed “and the troops have been withdrawn”, he writes “I have withdrawn the troops.” He reiterates his agency and his responsibility, changing “this particular action” to “My decision to attack”. It’s his action that has failed, his decision that was wrong, his responsibility to tell the world that he has left it in terrible peril.
Eisenhower deliberately states that the troops, pilots, and sailors did their utmost. “If any blame or fault attached to the attempt it is mine alone.” That’s how he ends the message. That’s the last thing he wants people around the world to remember.
Never were edits to a handwritten message so moving, or so revealing of a person’s character. Eisenhower understood that being a commander did not mean being above the fray, above the chaos of battle, but owning it. He allowed others to make decisions, to train, to analyze, to recommend. He knew he needed their expertise. But he also knew that, in the end, he had been made commander of Allied forces in Europe for the sole purpose of leading the D-Day invasion, and that “leading” meant inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to lay down their lives. Veterans of the invasion talk about how they were told they could only trust in God or luck to survive once they landed; no one was under any delusions that an overwhelming number of the men attacking would not die, most of them instantly.
The only way for Eisenhower to accept that kind of responsibility, and to honor that kind of bravery and sacrifice, was to give the forces all the credit if they were victorious, and himself all the blame if they were not. It was the least he could do, though of course the consequences of owning that failure would have been tremendous for him.
As we move on through the 21st century, let’s remember the lesson Eisenhower teaches us here, that leadership is about helping to make it possible for others to make change in the world, and that often the only way to do that is to understand yourself as successful only if they are, and not to blame others for letting you down. Eisenhower led the D-Day invasion because he took responsibility for actions he did not entirely control, for the efforts of hundreds of thousands of other people, in order to inspire those actions and efforts and to earn them. He was with the invasion force in every way.