6 Things to Learn From “Band of Brothers” and a Week at the Beach
I have a stack of business books that I’ve either started reading or plan to start reading soon. I’m looking forward to getting into them, and I took three of them with me for a vacation last week on the beach in North Carolina.
As it turns out, I didn’t read any of my business books. Instead, I read Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book, “Band of Brothers.” The book, for those of you who don’t know, follows the World War II journey of Easy Company, a unit of the 101st Airborne Division, which parachuted into France on D-Day. The elite unit then fought its way out of Normandy, went to Holland for the disastrous Operation Market Garden, fought at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally was the first unit to get to Hitler’s mountain lair at the end of the war.
I felt a little guilty at first for not having gotten through my business books, but the story of these World War II soldiers was very compelling. The book refers in a few places to the “heroes” of that war and that unit, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality or glorify the mass killing of other human beings.
Someone I once knew referred to business as “war without death.” He was completely serious. So with that as the connecting thread between “Band of Brothers” and PR and business, I did gain some great insights and takeaways from the book. Here are a few.
• Endurance. When you think you just can’t take it (whatever “it” is) anymore, you realize you can. When Easy Company was at Bastogne, under constant barrage from German artillery, in foxholes dug into deep snow with inadequate clothing and no heat or fire to fend off the single-digit temperatures, one man related how he had an important revelation that helped him carry on, even with trench foot and nonstop shivering. He thought his body could not take anymore, but then days (and weeks) later, he was still there, still alive, and he had learned something important about himself.
• Take good from the bad. Sometimes, the bad boss whom you (legitimately) dislike can have a very positive long-term impact. Easy Company started training in Georgia under Captain Herbert Sobel, who was universally disliked because of his pettiness and mean-spirited ways. But most of the men who survived the war would say, decades later, that Sobel’s hard-driving, relentless focus on training and fitness forged a true team of capable professionals.
• Leadership. Several times the company’s leader, Richard Winters, saved the platoon—and changed the course of a given battle—because of his counter-intuitive boldness. At Normandy, he led 15 men in an attack on a reinforced German artillery position that was blocking a causeway. He succeeded. During Operation Market Garden, he and 30 men were trapped out on a patrol after they ran into a much larger German force. Winters evaluated the situation. He concluded he could not pull back and could not stay where he was. He attacked the surprised Germans, and routed them, just when they were threatening the larger operation.
• Don’t take the easy way out. There’s a story of a patrol at Bastogne that was intended to scout German positions when it suddenly came under artillery fire, causing the men to scatter. One soldier ran past a foxhole where his comrades encouraged him to dive in. Seeing it was full, he kept going and somehow made it to his own. Later he went back to the first full foxhole and found it had taken a direct hit, leaving no survivors.
• Leaders fail often, so be prepared to take initiative. Woven through the book are accounts of junior officers and non-commissioned officers who were not suited for their roles, leading them to make terrible decisions in combat. Luckily, the defining characteristic of U.S. soldiers in that war, Stephen Ambrose wrote, was that they had the confidence and the sense of initiative to make independent decisions and avert disaster.
Resting and recharging are a good thing. Sure, I read a non-business book on my vacation, but I came back to work focused and relaxed. So enjoy your time off, and don’t do work out of a sense of obligation. You’ll be better off for it.