The Levels of Leaders on the Ground

One night in the early spring I received a call at home. It was not long after supper, my wife Kelly and daughter Haley and me were cleaning up the table, washing dishes, getting ready for the rest of what we knew would be a nice evening at home. The call was unexpected and the voice on the other end was even more so. For me, and hopefully for the person to whom the voice belonged, it was an important call.

It was the CEO of a hospital. The organization was a client of mine and earlier that day I had sent out my customary private, confidential emails. Because he had participated in my most recent session for his hospital (a session on Washington, Lincoln, and communication in leadership), the CEO had received a mentoring email as had all of his executive team and middle managers. The mentoring email I had sent to him was what prompted the call to my home.

The CEO was open, candid, freely expressive of the difficulties that lay before both he and the hospital. He was in the midst of trying to convince his executive team and their respective departmental heads to be bolder and to use more initiative in tackling the issues that plagued the organization. His efforts were having mixed success and in the state of things, mixed wasn’t good enough.

Ten or so minutes into the phone call, we hit the key point of the conversation and the purpose of this essay. It became clear that what most frustrated the CEO was his inability to affect the type of change necessary for the hospital to survive. This change pertained not to what he did but to what his second-level and third-level members of his team did. In other words, change had to be implemented by broader executive team and layers of middle managers.

It occurred to me that the CEO’s situation resembled that of Allied General Dwight Eisenhower in the Allied invasion of France in summer 1944 (D-Day and Operation Overlord). Eisenhower was responsible for the plans to invade France, open a second or western front against Hitler’s Nazi forces, and strike at Germany from the Atlantic at the same time the Allies’ Soviet forces attacked from the east. Though he didn’t dot every I and cross every T in the planning process, it was Eisenhower who had ultimate responsibility for approving the Overlord plan.

The problem for Eisenhower was that his carefully crafted plan began to fall apart almost the minute after execution began. Nearly every aspect of the plan had to be altered, adjusted, or scrapped in entirety. Many assumptions that went into planning proved erroneous and endangered success of the operation. Thousands of American, British, and Canadian lives were at stake, to say nothing about those of French civilians in cities, towns, and villages.

What saved Overlord and Eisenhower was the work of the hundreds of lieutenants, sergeants, and corporals. They were the ones who did the adjusting, who retrieved the plan from disaster and transformed defeat into victory. These ground-level leaders gathered scattered soldiers and formed impromptu units, chose new targets and goals to achieve their mission, and infused courage, nerve, and inspiration into their followers. Pinned down under murderous fire on the Normandy beaches, these ground-level leaders began the long ordeal that carried the Allies to Berlin and the surrender of Germany.

Who were they and how could they do it? Research by Stephen Ambrose and other historians has revealed that most of the ground-level leaders were what we might call “ordinary Americans.” They weren’t necessarily long-term professional soldiers grizzled from years of war and military service. No, they were youngish men, often in their early twenties, who just a few years before had been enjoying a life of peace and, as the Great Depression began to fade, a measure of prosperity. They excelled against a ruthless and tyrannical enemy and rescued Eisenhower’s plan from failure because of good training as company-grade leaders and their common background of freedom and liberty.

If you are in a similar situation of seeking to push for change beyond your immediate reach as leader, I want you to think about three things. First, who are the ground-level leaders in your organization? They are the ones who will determine how well your perfect plan will do in the imperfect world of implementation. By the way, they may not necessarily be the group closest to you—they may be another level or two “down” the organization. Second, what is the quality of training that they receive? It should prepare them to operate successfully when they are completely out of contact with you. Just as important, this training should help them make their own plans when yours prove faulty. Third, what are the principles that animate and motivate them in times of struggle? These principles will likely precede the training, which should also reinforce them.

Don’t get discouraged when your plans go awry and the change you seek appear as unattainable as before. Remember Eisenhower and the “greatest generation” of ground-level leaders that dismantled the Third Reich on the western front of 1944-1945.