The unchanging nature of leadership in the midst of change

There is a paradox about leadership. On one hand, it is always in flux. Jennifer Morgan, President of SAP North America captured the new reality recently when she noted that “change has never moved this fast and it will never be as slow again.” Not only is change ever present, it’s picking up steam. On the other hand, that does not change the fact that there are fundamental truths about leadership that are unlikely to ever change.

I was reminded of that fact yesterday. It was Memorial Day here in the USA–the day we honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to our liberty. I thought it was about time to introduce my fourteen-year-old daughter to the real reason we honor the day. I could think of no better way than to sit down with her and watch Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

In the movie, General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, learns that a Minnesota mother will receive three telegrams on the same day informing her that three of her four son’s have all died in battle. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s letter to a mother who, during the Civil War, lost all five of her sons, Marshal orders Miller’s squad to somehow locate the private and return him home. Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is charged with leading a diverse team of soldiers on a mission to find and return the movie’s namesake safely to the states.

His men immediately begin to question the mission they’ve been given. It makes no sense, they reason, to risk several lives to find one man. What is the worth of one sole life in the midst of the chaos of war? It’s here that Miller represents the best qualities of leadership.

Miller refuses to play the role of the authoritative leader. He does not try to control or even discourage his men as they question their mission. He resists the temptation to join them in their complaining. Instead he uses humor to keep the men moving forward. His presence is mature and grounded and his response, exhibiting what we today would refer to as deep emotional intelligence, is genuine and respectful of their voice. His actions are markedly unlike the more intellectual but laughable attempts of the naive Corporal Upham whose attempts to forge unity are met with derision and contempt.

Leading in moments of doubt

Two men’s lives are lost as their trek into Europe continues and the squad has already lost more men on their mission than the one life they are to save. The second death is a particularly painful and moving scene. In the aftermath, a German prisoner is captured. Rather than assassinate him or take him with them, Captain Miller releases the POW in hopes that following Allied troops will find him. His men are disgusted by his actions and Private Reiben decides to abandon the mission.

Captain Miller’s second in command, Sgt. Horvath, orders the private to stand down. In the end, the sergeant even aims his cocked pistol at the private ordering him to return to the mission. But Reiben refuses and challenges the sergeant to act on his threat.

Miller intercedes, not with orders or demands. Instead, he responds honestly and authentically. He makes himself vulnerable to the men by sharing some of his private life that he’d previously kept secret.

The Captain confesses that he does not know the meaning of the war or even the worthiness of the private they seek. He acknowledges that Ryan may not even be alive. He closes his speech with an offer to officially release Reiben from the mission. The soldier is clearly moved by the candid sincerity of his captain and, acknowledging the futility that binds them together, rejoins the mission.

True leadership

For those reading this who may not have seen the movie, even after twenty years, I’ll not be be accused of spoiling the ending. Suffice it to say that Capt. Miller is no Captain America. He is thoroughly human and flawed. Neither is he perfect in his decision making. He is honest and mature, emotionally intelligent and authentic—a study in the very character and characteristics that make great leaders.

In his powerful book, In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It, West Point professor, Colonel Thomas Kolditz, argues that business leaders can learn from examples of leadership “as it is practiced at a peak of intensity: by watching leaders in circumstances where lives can be lost.” He points to leadership qualities such as being inherently motivated, continuously learning, sharing risks with followers, and inspiring trust and loyalty. He perfectly describes Captain Miller.

Unlike the loyal Sgt. Horvath, who leads with force when circumstances get dire, Miller leads by example. He is communicative, honest and persuasive. Unlike the naive and cowardly Corporal Upham, Miller is courageous and wise. And unlike his spirited men, Miller makes sound decisions and always stays focused on their greater purpose, defeating Hitler, their immediate mission, Saving Private Ryan, and his own personal mission, returning home to his wife.

As always, these are fundamental characteristics of great leaders. And to all these great leaders who, though the heartbeat of history have advanced the cause of liberty, and to the men and women they have led, especially those who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice, thank you.


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