I’ve been reading a lot about World War II recently. The most surprising thing, for me, is how different the Allied experience was from the pop culture fairy tale.
As Americans, we grow up learning about Normandy, the Bulge, and the decline and fall of Germany. But we rarely learn about the war in North Africa and the invasion of Italy, and all the brutal mistakes and hardship America went through as we learned how to wage effective war against a brutal enemy.
In the Battle of Kasserine Pass, Eisenhower was so thoroughly routed by Rommel that America faced the real possibility of being pushed out of Tunisia altogether. A year later, the Allied invasion of Italy almost failed under German counterattack. Between these moments, the Allies made many other mistakes and suffered many minor defeats. Such is life in war.
And yet, history is written by the victors. Years later, having won the war, these setbacks are a footnote, rarely spoken of and never taught. Eisenhower was an American hero in 1945, but in 1943 that outcome was far from certain.
Running a business is nothing like going to war. But there is a parallel, I think, in how we write our history books, and how we evaluate our leaders. Facing adversity, we seek the fairy tale — gallant leaders, faultless, leading companies to infinite victory in weeks' time against any odds. We forget that struggle is part of the narrative.
I have had the great fortune to work for a handful of leaders who charge willingly into the most challenging situations, who inspire in the face of doubt and keep their teams grounded and humble about success. These leaders expect hurdles on the path to victory, and accept the criticism and vilification they receive from spectators on the sidelines.
I lost one of those leaders today, and I hope he will be remembered for the progress he made toward victory, not the inevitable challenges along the way.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.