Late on June 5, 1944, on the eve of the Allied invasion of Normandy, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a lot to ponder.
He had given the order for nine divisions of American and British troops to cross the English Channel and land on the beaches of Normandy. It was the largest invasion ever attempted, and obviously a huge risk. Succeed, and the Allies would have a foothold in Europe and could march to Berlin. Fail, and the Germans would have a secure western front for years and could turn their attention on holding back the Russians.
We like to think of our heroes as decisive and single-minded in their pursuit of success. We like to portray generals and business leaders alike as people who believe failure is never an option.
Failure, though, is always an option. Rather than ignore it, you must respect it, think about it, obsess over it. You have to be comfortable living with the idea that you can fail.
Ike did. That night, he wrote a letter. It was just a few words:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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 upon 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."
Few relics say more about Eisenhower's leadership than this letter. Clearly, it was a nervous night for him. In fact, he even put the wrong date on the note, saying it was July 5 instead of June 5. Yet, amid all the preparation and understandable anxiety, Eisenhower took the time to acknowledge that his plan might not work. He might have sent thousands of young men to their death for nothing. He wanted to own that.
He could have blamed the weather, which was a source of anxiety for all the soldiers and sailors involved in the invasion. He could have blamed the generals tasked with carrying out the plan. He could have blamed the lack of coordination among the British and American forces. He could have blamed bad intelligence.
Instead he blamed himself. Beforehand. And completely.
"If any blame or fault attached to the attempt it is mine alone."
He actually went a step further. He originally wrote "the troops have been withdrawn." But he scratched out that passive phrasing and re-wrote "I have withdrawn the troops." Eisenhower's responsibility for his decisions needed to be clear in every phrase of that short note.
It is an important lesson to remember in these days when some CEOs take to social media to blame everyone else for their own professional and personal failings. And when we want to hide our mistakes from the public, rather than learn from them.
But leadership is about accountability. You task the people below you with certain duties, but ultimately the responsibility rests with you. If employees fail, we don't often think about how it might have been a failure of our strategy, or a lack of clear expectations, or a breakdown in our processes that is ultimately to blame. In most cases, when things don't work out, we bear more responsibility than we think.
Eisenhower never shared his doubts with the people around him that night. In fact, he projected nothing but confidence. In his message to the troops as D-Day began, he was upbeat and encouraging:
"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!"
Full victory did come eventually. D-Day succeeded. Eisenhower forgot he had even written the letter, finding it in his pocket a month later.
Interestingly, Eisenhower, while willing to accept the blame in defeat, never sought the laurels he deserved in that victory. Yes, he eventually was elected president, and, yes, we credit his leadership today, but he was always quick to credit the soldier for any personal successes he had in war.
A decade after D-Day, he admitted his strength came from the soldiers below him:
"The old tactical textbooks say that the commander always visits his troops to inspire them to fight. I for one soon discovered that one of the reasons for my visiting the front lines was to get inspiration from the young American soldier. I went back to my job ashamed of my own occasional resentments or discouragements, which I probably -- at least I hope I concealed them."