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Kenneth W. Keller: Business lessons from the Battle of the Bulge

Brain Food For Business People

Posted: February 2, 2010 7:19 p.m.
Updated: February 3, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Last December marked the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the last significant engagement of ground forces in Europe in World War II.

What is most remembered about this specific battle was General McAuliffe's message to the German commander who had demanded an honorable surrender to the troops defending Bastogne. McAuliffe responded with, "Nuts!"

According to Stephen Ambrose, author of "Band of Brothers," the Battle of the Bulge was the biggest single battle on the Western front, involving 600,000 American soldiers. Of those, almost 20,000 were killed, another 20,000 were captured and 40,000 more were wounded.

One of the units sent into the battle was Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army.

At full strength, Easy Company consisted of 140 men, none of them older than 30.

Easy Company formed in June 1942, dropped behind Utah Beach as D-Day began, fought in Normandy, parachuted into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden and was resting, recovering and refitting close to Paris when word came the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes Forest.

In Europe, the Allies were outnumbered by German ground and armored forces.

To counter this, the American, British and other Allied forces were always on the attack. It was only by keeping the Germans on the defensive that the Allies could win the war.

The Allies had two competitive advantages. The first was overwhelming air superiority which was negated by bad weather; the second was the caliber of the men under arms.

The men in Easy Company did not volunteer to become paratroopers for the extra $50 a month it provided. They did so out of pride; they would be in combat and they wanted to be flanked in battle by those they could trust. They were proud, thought of themselves as the best and wanted to be recognized as such.

The initial training was so arduous it took 500 volunteers to produce the 148 officers who started with the regiment and 5,300 enlisted men to get 1,800 qualified parachutists.

Heading into their fourth significant battle in less than six months, Easy Company was down to 98 men. They were short on ammunition, food, medical supplies and did not have winter gear or clothing. The weather was cold and snowy and they were up against some of the most battle hardened troops in the German army.

That as many men had survived to this point and lived through the Battle of the Bulge was a credit to their commanding officer. The company was led by Capt. Paul Winters, who had been with the unit from the start. He had been promoted up through the ranks by virtue of his leadership skills. His men trusted him; they knew he would do his best to get them back home alive and uninjured.

What made Capt. Winters different? The first was his attitude: "Leaders go first."

He didn't mean going to the front of the chow line; he meant that leaders were to go first into battle, to show the way for their men. Officers were not to stay back and tell people what to do, but were to show them what to do.

That leads to the second point of difference: Winters set the right tone. He knew what was essential and what wasn't; he did not order his men to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself.

He treated the men with respect and dignity. Winters looked out for their health and well-being, being extra alert to the mens' extended time in combat. According to interviews for the book "Band of Brothers," the men he commanded said Winters never once raised his voice as commander.

The third was that Winters was a teacher. Before the jump in Normandy, almost none of the men had combat experience. As fresh, untested replacements arrived to replace the veterans who had been killed or wounded, Winters took what time he had to teach the new men what they needed to know to survive and to support one another in combat.

Why is this important? The last few years have been very tough for most organizations.

There can be absolutely no comparison to what the men in Easy Company went through versus the current Great Recession, but the need for on-the-ground, out-in-front leadership in organizations of every size is needed now just as it was back in those dark, cold days of December 1944.

Are your providing the leadership your organization needs?

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Brain Food for Business People" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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