Saturday, June 6, 2009

John Whitehead's Decisive D-Day Decision

Today marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy. John Whitehead was there that day. 

John, well-known for his leadership of Goldman Sachs and his service to many other public, private, government, and philanthropic entities, served for a stint as a member of the editorial advisory board of Directors & Boards. I learned about his D-Day experience when I read his 2005 memoir, A Life in Leadership [Perseus Books], in preparation for a cover-story excerpt we published to tie in with the book's release.

John, a Navy ensign, was put in charge of his own landing craft plus five other boats ferrying soldiers who would be in the first wave of assault troops hitting the beach. Here is just one brief snippet from the book of the action he saw on that fateful day:

 "By 6 a.m. we'd circled up at about 800 yards from the shore, before our final run to the beach. All five of the boats in my little squadron had stayed together and were ready to go. The light had brightened enough that I could actually see the hands on my wristwatch, and I could communicate with the other boats by hand signals. At about twenty past, I waved them in with a hard chop of my arm. Go!

"We roared ahead until about a hundred yards from shore, when a long string of heavy metal bars called Element C's or 'Czechs,' for the country where they were made, angled up menacingly toward us out of the water. We'd been warned to look out for them. Early reconnaissance that morning by a group of courageous Navy SEALS had not discovered them.

"Our orders were to crash straight through to the beach, but I gave the signal to hold up, and it's lucky I did. For the Element C would almost certainly have hung us up, capsizing us all in the surf and creating a log jam of incoming boats.

"I had all the [landing craft] in my group make a sharp left and run parallel to the beach in search of an opening. We finally found one about a hundred yards down, and we turned toward the beach again. This brought us well to the south of where we were supposed to be, but there was nothing to do about it. Actually, it proved to be a lucky break, for German mortar shells soon blasted the shoreline at the spot where we were supposed to have landed."

Much more action was ahead (you can see in the book jacket above a scene from the inside of the landing craft looking out onto the beach). But I'll fast-forward to John's concluding paragraph of his chapter on D-Day:

"I felt thankful that I had survived the worst part. I took a few deep breaths and suddenly felt elated, proud to have played a part in what was maybe the biggest battle in history. At that moment, soaked to the skin, seasick, dead tired, cold, still scared, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else."

Note that on-the-spot decision he made to veer slightly off course to find a better path to the targeted outcome. That's leadership thinking — the kind of leadership thinking that he brought to bear throughout his storied career. With leadership instincts like that, it's no wonder he achieved so much success and recognition for himself and his "shipmates" all through his life. 

And it's no wonder our nation has so much to be thankful for on this day as we honor the gallant fighters, like John Whitehead, who put their life on the line for duty, honor, country, and freedom.