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Ken Keller: Empowering or imprisoning your employees?

Brain Food for Business Owners

Posted: May 20, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 20, 2012 1:55 a.m.

It has been nearly 68 years since American, British, Canadian, Free French and Polish troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in the Great Crusade to free Europe from the Nazi grasp.

It was a gamble, and as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke to the paratroops on the afternoon before they would land in France, he had in his back pocket an announcement that "the landings had failed." Fortunately, he never had to issue the statement. By midnight of June 6, 1944, there were 156,115 Allied soldiers in France.

There were two reasons why the Allied landing forever known as D-Day were successful. The first was that what was deemed one of the greatest German assets turned out to be a liability. The second was of the know-how and can-do attitude of the noncommissioned and junior officers of the Allies.

The so-called German asset was the "unquestioning obedience of orders" given by the high command. There was so much fear instilled in the officer corps that initiative was nil. Orders were given from far away, and no latitude was allowed by anyone in the chain of command. According to Stephan Ambrose, author of many fine books, including "Band of Brothers," except for a very rare officer, not one German officer was up to the challenge of the fluid battle situation they found themselves in on D-Day.

By comparison, the Americans pinned down on bloody Omaha Beach were led forward by junior officers. These men survived the long trip in the landing crafts, waded through the cold ocean facing murderous mortar, artillery and machine gun fire, across many yards of open beach only to be trapped; they could only go forward if they had any hope of survival.

The opening battle scenes of the movie "Saving Private Ryan" give some idea as to what it was like on that June morning.

As chronicled in Ambrose's book "The Victors," about a week after D-Day, one captain was criticized by his superior officer for what he believed to be unnecessarily exposed to enemy fire. The captain responded by saying "you tell me how you lead men from behind."

On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Pont du Hoc about the sight of a large, powerful German gun battery on a cliff overlooking the Normandy beaches. Those guns were capable of throwing shells 25,000 meters, able to hit the 5,000 ships in the landing force and the beaches where men were landing. Of the 200 men who climbed the 100-foot cliffs that morning with the goal of taking out the guns, only 50 were capable of fighting just two days later. Many died, and many were captured.

When the men got to the top of the cliff, they found that the guns had been moved. Two men took it upon themselves to follow the heavy tracks to where the guns were located alongside considerable ammunition. They rendered the guns useless and blew up the ammo.

This isn't a column about conflicts between nations; it is a column about initiative and the difference it made in a single battle that determined the outcome of a war.

The German high command literally handcuffed their officers when those men most needed to take and use initiative. The Allies turned their officers lose before the battle to accomplish their objectives.

Either you want people working for you with initiative or you do not.

People without initiative are readily available in any economy. You'll be doing a lot of micromanaging.

If you hire people with initiative and you fail to let them use it for the benefit of your company, you will have an unhappy employee.

It's your choice: imprison or empower.



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