So much was at stake leading up to the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944. If the invasion succeeded, the Allies would secure a crucial foothold in Western Europe. It would be an important step toward ending a war that had raged on for five years already, with unimaginable costs.
But if the Allies failed at Normandy, it would take months to reorganize and plan a new invasion. And meanwhile, casualties would continue to mount, and morale would suffer.
In planning the Normandy landings, there were so many questions to consider. How would military leaders effectively coordinate more than 150,000 soldiers across miles of heavily fortified coastline? How would they unite different national forces under the broader Allied cause? And how would they deal with the unpredictable and constantly changing conditions on the battlefield?
Today, modern leaders can look to the D-Day landings for powerful lessons on managing change and bringing people together across silos.
“There are lots of organizational lessons and lessons you can learn about leadership and management in warfare. Because it’s the extreme of human behavior,” says Mike Peters, a military historian and retired British Army officer.
“If you understand what people do when things are really difficult, then you can glean a lot from that and develop lessons, and take them back to your workplace,” he says.
Ultimately, the decisions that leaders on both sides made at Normandy determined the outcome of the wider conflict. The D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, are often called the ‘beginning of the end’ of World War II. They launched the Battle of Normandy, which led to the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control.
As the battlefield historian for Experience to Lead’s Normandy Experience, Peters immerses modern leaders in key moments from the D-Day landings. He takes senior executives out of the boardroom and has them walk in the footsteps of people who made decisions on the beaches and battlefields of Normandy.
“You can be on a beach one moment. You can be in an open field the next,” he says. “Then you can be standing next to a headstone of an individual who did something quite remarkable during the D-Day operations … and actually think, what would I do in the same situation?”
Here, Peters outlines four powerful lessons that modern leaders can glean from that pivotal period in history. He walks us through fateful choices made by Allied leaders, and what these moments can teach us today about managing through change and chaos.
He also looks at how leaders at Normandy structured their teams and built partnerships across nationalities. Today, these moments offer valuable takeaways on building coalitions and breaking down silos.
Build an organizational structure that empowers people
The command structures of the German and the Allied forces couldn’t have been more different. Hitler’s dictatorial style meant that he wanted to be involved in every decision. People under his command were expected to do exactly as they were told, without question. He often withheld information from his own subordinates, and kept them operating in isolation.
“There was no dilution of command,” Peters said. “Everything was bound to him. Every single decision has to go back and forth with the chain to every level to him, to the Fuhrer, for him to say yes or no.”
Hitler didn’t empower his people to make quick decisions on the ground. His rigid leadership style, with all its bureaucratic layers, made the German forces less able to respond with agility to change and setbacks.
On the other hand, General Eisenhower felt it was important to enable his people to make their own informed decisions. He cultivated a more collaborative command structure based on openness and transparency.
“It’s a really, really stark contrast between the two styles,” Peters says. “Eisenhower and the Allies, one of the great things that helps them to win is that empowerment of people below … you give everyone all the information you’ve got. … And then if something does go wrong … they’ll just get on with it, and they’ll surprise you with their agility and their ingenuity. That’s just not going to happen on the German side.”
Today, we can glean lessons from these dramatically different leadership styles. Both styles—the one that worked and the one that ultimately failed—highlight the importance of empowering people at every level while navigating times of massive change and chaos.
Cultivate diverse teams to break down silos
We often refer to the Allies in World War II as if they were one, unified group. But of course, they were collection of various national forces from the U.S., Britain, Canada and other countries. Each force had its own leaders, culture, and operational strategy.
Eisenhower had to find a way to bring all these groups together under the wider Allied mission. Today, we’d call this working across silos.
He knew that cooperation between British and American forces in particular would be crucial for success at Normandy. So, prior to the invasion, he made a deliberate effort to build diversity into every layer of his organization.
“He insisted that every department at headquarters was multinational,” Peters said. “He took the headquarters apart and rebuilt it so he was sure that … if a leader of a department was British, his deputy must be American, and vice versa … All the way through his command structure, he made sure it was alternate, and that it was a coalition force from top to bottom.”
As Eisenhower put it, the goal of this blended staff was to “utilize the resources of two great nations . . . with the decisiveness of a single authority.”
Cultivating this cooperation across nationalities laid the groundwork for the Allies’ ultimate victory at Normandy.
“That attitude, that diversity, improved the resilience of the Allied command structure,” Peters says.
Today, ‘diversity’ can sound like a meaningless buzzword. But this anecdote about Eisenhower highlights the advantages of building a truly diverse team. If you take people from different groups and ask them to collaborate, you can avoid a silo mentality and improve your team’s sense of unity and shared purpose.
Trust your team — and your own judgment
On the night of June 5, 1944, Eisenhower faced a monumental decision: whether to order thousands of Allied troops to invade 50 miles of the Normandy coastline.
Time was running out. There were only three days in early June that an invasion would be feasible, thanks to factors like tide patterns and available daylight hours.
Eisenhower had already postponed the invasion the previous night due to bad weather, but a storm was raging this night, too. If he ordered the attack, the bad weather might put his troops at risk. But if he held off, they would lose their window of opportunity.
“It’s difficult to imagine as a leader or a manager that weight of responsibility on his shoulders that day,” Peters says.
Eisenhower went around the room asking his staff, “What would you do? What should we do?”
His chief meteorologist, Group Captain Stagg, told him there was a small window in which they could launch the attack, if they delayed 24 hours. But soon after, the bad weather would make an invasion impossible.
Eisenhower listened to Stagg’s advice, but “ultimately, he has to make the decision,” Peters says. “He trusts Stagg, he believes him. He has faith in him and says okay, we go.”
Ultimately, the decision came down to Eisenhower’s confidence in his own judgment. He had to trust himself to make the final call, even as the conditions around him were in flux. And his fateful choice would pave the way for a wider Allied victory.
Obviously, few modern leaders will face the global, life-or-death stakes that Eisenhower confronted on the eve of the D-Day landings. But Eisenhower’s decisiveness at this crucial moment is a powerful example of how today’s leaders can lead decisively through change and uncertain times.
Be willing to change the plan
The weather was still not cooperating on the morning of the D-Day landings. The U.S. 4th Infantry Division had planned to attack a well-fortified section of Utah Beach, and take control of the nearby coastal roads.
However, the bad weather threw these plans into chaos. Strong currents pushed the landing craft about 2,000 yards east of their intended landing zone. This could have been a disaster, but it became an advantage, thanks to the adaptive leadership of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Roosevelt personally scouted the beach and realized that it was actually a better landing spot, because it was less defended. He swiftly ordered future landings to be re-routed.
“We’ll start the war from here!” he famously said, and it turned out to be an excellent call. American forces ultimately took Utah Beach with fewer casualties than expected.
“People’s perception generally of the military is it’s very rigid, and there’s one way to do things, and that’s it. Actually, it’s the opposite,” Peters says. “You expect things to fail, and you are prepared for it, and you think ahead of the game, and as long as you achieve the aim, it doesn’t matter how you get there.”
Modern leaders can learn from Roosevelt’s ability to change his plans when faced with unexpected circumstances, Peters says. When you are open to updating your strategy, you become more agile and responsive when it comes to change management.
The fateful decisions leaders made at Normandy still resonate today. Modern executives can learn from the way Eisenhower and other Allied leaders organized their teams. They worked across silos, and made decisions during times of incredible change and chaos.
Mike Peters is the battlefield historian for the Normandy and Waterloo Experiences from Experience to Lead. He is a retired British Army Officer with more than 30 years of service in the Army Air Corps. Mike is also the Chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides. And, he has written two books on military history; Glider Pilots in Sicily and Glider Pilots at Arnhem.
The Normandy Experience immerses leaders in key moments and decisions made at Normandy. Those lessons are used as a metaphor for modern leadership challenges. Learn more about the Normandy Experience, and our experiential learning programs, here.