What’s In A Day?
The origins of Memorial Day as a federal holiday date back to the end of the Civil War and the spontaneous events and memorials that sprang up in the aftermath of such a cataclysmic event that cost the young nation almost a million souls. Over the next century, the occasion of marking remembrance to the nation’s war dead gradually took hold and solidified to the time period we all now know comes in the last weekend in May.
The celebration is specific in its nature. Memorial Day is a time to honor those men and women who gave their lives while serving in the Armed Forces of their country. The figure as of this date is well over a million to which this nation owes the debt of the ultimate sacrifice. In addition, some 40,000 remain missing and unaccounted for.
The intersection of sacrifice, especially the ultimate sacrifice, and the practice of leadership, and duty, is unmistakable in its effect and result. One merely needs to stand mute on a non-descript beach in France before an overgrown steep cliff of choked weeds and concrete and gaze upwards in the early morning with imagination, to understand what the results of leadership, and to some the potential cost, is all about. To then ascend that cliff, difficult even alone in perfect weather and health, and unimpeded in the slightest, in the heavy early moisture of a June morning, is to arrive at the top and behold row after row of bleached white crosses laid in perfect symmetrical shape. The eyes are then witness to those whom we memorialize once per year, and the journey just completed is why.
It is a 12-hour drive, over approximately 800 miles, from this spot of courage, and commitment, to a small insignificant signboard in urban Berlin, Germany that marked the ultimate goal of the “mighty endeavor” as their Commander in Chief described what lay before them. The friends, and shipmates, and buddies of those who lie still in that perfect French field took 10 months to make the trip. Along the way, they left almost 200,000 of their number. In many ways, they represent the way the world used to be before they left home to save it. Young, mostly high school graduates, few having traveled more than a hundred miles from home in their lifetimes before their grand adventure began. Most would have struggled if given pen and paper and asked to define “leadership”.
Instead, they showed it. Their demonstration, and that of their brothers in arms a half a world away in an equally alien environment, their grandfathers and uncles before them, and their children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren now after them give us things to consider while the leadership choices and challenges are put before us every day. The life lessons they handed down to us in the aftermath of that great conflict sometimes came with a sting, a sharp word, or a tone of exasperation. Given their answer when called to duty, and the losses they suffered, and the hard memories they earned, it is a wonder they had much patience for the next generations at all. But, they did. And Memorial Day for them was always difficult, since they were here to appreciate it, and their friends were not.
The men and women we have lost in the service of our country in many ways represent the highest expression of personal leadership. If the stories might seem old to you, or painful, or make you feel uncomfortable, or simply feel alien to you, allow me to offer a few parallels to consider while I urge you to explore this world.
Leadership begins with courage. Courage to say the right thing, do the right thing, to bear what may be incoming with grace, and resolution. Courage means accepting that sometimes the right thing hurts, or leaves a mark that does not quickly fade. Courage means accepting that a course of action may be correct but could cost you. Courage is not always safe. Courage means being afraid but doing what needs to be done because it has to be done.
Leadership is about trust. Trust means knowing in your heart that your team will not fail you and that you will not fail them. Trust means allowing people to learn the right way, even if it is easier to do it yourself and spare them some pain. Trust means accepting that you cannot be everywhere, do everything, and be everyone that you think is needed. Trust means building a team, or being a part of one in which you accept that the failure of any member is as much yours as it is theirs.
Leadership is about integrity. Integrity means that you do not lie to your people. Ever. Integrity requires consistent actions and thoughts that are oriented on outcomes. To act in such a way as to serve one’s self before the team or the goal, is a failure, regardless of how it turns out. There are many ways to lie and not all of them require the spoken word. Your character matters. Do not for one second think that the ends justify the means in this world. They do not. Comprising your integrity is not something that can be repeated. Once done, it can never be undone.
If courage, trust, and integrity hold some place for you, or you recognize their connection to the practice of leadership, then I encourage you to consider a reflection on Monday about source material for these qualities. The books that speak to leadership in the here and now are many. They are glossy, slick, colored, and full of parables and moments in time that are there to inspire today’s leader to find success in business, government, personal endeavors, or even family. However, those that speak with any authenticity of purpose have but a fairly finite and specific source of inspiration for their material.
Find any one of a thousand books on our foreign wars and you will see courage, trust, and integrity. They are likely not to be colored, or glossy. They are old in some cases, with simple covers. They will be in used book stores, or libraries. Better yet, make a stop at a local VFW, or a VA medical center, and speak to those who congregate there. They may be able to point you in the right direction. The sacrifices that we cherish and honor once per year come with too high a price to disdain the lessons that were paid for, at the highest price.
And, imagine that beach in France, the wet sand at low tide, and a tall bluff studded with concrete and high grass….