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Are You Booing or Cheering for Your CEO?

June 10, 2013
Updated September 15, 2015

Churchill Dateline: Summer 1941.

The troops weren’t happy with the country’s leadership.

A lot of hyperbole had been generated during the previous two years about the Nazi threat to the United States. Because of America’s general isolationist attitude, a consequence of post-World War One, there had been significant resistance to assisting Great Britain, despite Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s valiant efforts to secure the country’s commitment. President Roosevelt, although understanding the situation in Europe, waffled.

By mid-1941 morale among U.S. troops had reached a new low. Soldiers spoke of going absent without leave (AWOL) or even mutinying against the leadership. When soldiers watched newsreels where President Roosevelt and General George Marshall appeared they actually booed. Such was the frustration among enlisted soldiers, many of whom had been drafted.

Back in their home towns, their friends were earning six to seven times as much working in factories producing material for the war effort. Meanwhile, soldiers were kept busy peeling potatoes, digging latrines and doing endless drills, with the ostensible goal of preparing for war.

Public opinion polls revealed that Americans were conflicted on whether their country should enter the war. One Gallup survey found that about three quarters of the respondents said they favored going to war if it meant defeating the Axis (Germany, Japan and Italy), and 80% stated they believed that the U.S. would eventually go to war. However, the same percentage replied no when asked if the country should enter war now.

And then there was the hot-button topic of conscription, whose legislation was passed by Congress in September 1940. Although draftees were limited to a 12 month tour of duty, the imminent loss of 70% of 1.4 million soldiers by fall 1941 prompted the use of an escape clause allowing tours to be extended in the case of national interest.

Conscription Life magazine’s research found that in late summer 1941 that around half of enlisted soldiers considered deserting if they weren’t discharged at the end of their 12 month tour. The very poor morale among the troops produced a great deal of outrage across the U.S., both from those who wanted the problem corrected and from others who believed that Life was overstating the situation.

While recounting this story may want to make some of you yawn, please don’t.

At least not yet if you care about those who serve your country and, in a non-military context, how leadership is practiced regardless of situation.

At the core of this issue is one simple word: PURPOSE.

It’s what drives the human condition, what motivates us to get up in the morning and what, in certain circumstances, propels some individuals to risk their lives for others.

Looking back at the young men in 1941, they clearly lacked a sense of purpose. America at the time was torn between two opposing philosophies: isolationism (strongly advocated by America First) versus actively supporting Great Britain to confront the Nazi threat.

Bring this into a modern globalization, non-military context (putting aside ongoing geo-political tensions) and you have a recipe for frustrated and confused employees who are desperately trying to decipher what is going on in their organizations. Or if you work in a public service or not-for-profit organization, you’re equally trying to read the tea leaves to figure out what’s going on. Some questions you may have include:

• Where is my organization going?
• What are its priorities?
• What are its core values?
• Where do I fit in?
• What is my role?
• How do I add value?

History is an exceptionally good teacher. Yet human beings have a propensity to keep repeating the same mistakes, time and time again.

The young men and women who valiantly served their countries–America, Canada, Great Britain, Australia–now almost seven decades ago offer poignant leadership lessons. We shouldn’t have to reinvent them.

It’s about clarity of purpose, contribution and how to bring out the best from each individual.

Take some reflection time to ponder this.

Read a history book.


Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

– Winston Churchill


Intergen ebook cover with TextClick here to download my new complimentary e-book Leadership and the Inter-Generational Divide, 2nd Edition.


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