“Life is divided into three periods: past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”— Seneca, 49
When we look back upon major events in history, we see them as turning points.
Caesar crossing the Rubicon. America taking on the greatest army in the world in 1776. The largest military maritime landing in history in 1944.
As we look at them now, they’re certainties. But Caesar didn’t know his gambit would pay off. Many Americans were in doubt about the revolution and were still loyal to the crown. And the Allies didn’t know if they would successfully land 150,000 troops to storm the beach at Normandy.
Seneca’s observation above is an important one: nothing in the future—nothing—is certain. Leaders need to have contingency plans and to adapt to the changing market forces, on the fly if necessary.
Every leader needs a plan. But they also need backup plans.
Great leaders know it’s not enough to have a plan. They’ve seen things go sideways before. And like any self-aware person, they know that it could happen to them.
Take General Dwight Eisenhower for example.
He prepared his troops as best he could for Operation Overlord (aka the D-Day invasion). He prepared these marks, delivered over the radio and in writing:
“You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. We will accept nothing less than victory! Good luck!”
That wasn’t enough, though. He knew that they needed to know he was counting on more than luck — he was counting on their bravery and resilience, and in doing so he built their confidence:
“This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”
But Ike knew that there were variables that were out of his control: the number of enemy troops awaiting them, the complete secrecy of the plans, and the weather.
During the planning for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, meteorologists informed General Eisenhower that there were a series of storms heading across the Atlantic that would delay the operation, which was originally scheduled for June 5.
Conditions had to be just right: calm seas and clear skies.
If the operation went ahead as planned, it would have been a failure; if the Allies waited for the next cycle of tides and improved weather, they would have lost the element of surprise.
However, an updated weather report came through showing a high-pressure system that would intersect with Normandy on June 6th. It left a very tight window.
The Germans saw the same forecasts, but didn't think the brief moment of calm would allow the Allies to advance. Field Marshal Rommel was convinced of this and left for a few days in Paris.
Later, asked why D-Day had been a success, Eisenhower said, “Because we had better meteorologists than the Germans.”
While this makes sense from a pithy storytelling standpoint, it’s actually not true. The meteorologists on both sides of the war saw the same data.
But German leadership failed to take into account just how much the Allies wanted to win the war.
General Eisenhower inspired a sense of loyalty, confidence, courage, and desire to succeed among his men.
Those attributes were invisible, unable to be seen by the naked eye or monitored by meteorologists. And thus were not part of the calculations made by the Germans.
Another thing that was unseen: the uncertainty that Eisenhower had in the plan.
Looking back now, we marvel at the accomplishment of D-Day and of the bravery of the men who fought and were wounded or killed there.
But on June 5, it was far from certain. Ike prepared a note (which he misprinted as July 5) in the event of a catastrophic loss that day:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
It was the largest military landing in history, and here was one man — one extraordinary leader — who was willing to take the blame if it failed. Without reservation.
The “blame or fault…is mine alone.”
Considering the tens of thousands of military personnel who helped plan and execute the D-Day invasion, and all of the elements that were out of his control, General Eisenhower was still willing to take accountability for the outcome.
Decent leaders know how to be accountable.
And being accountable speaks volumes about character.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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