Front-line Leadership, Part I

How do the exploits of a small group of soldiers scratching their way from the beaches of France to the German Alps relate to what we do every day? It’s in the attitudes and sense of duty where we can relate.

The term front-line leadership is one it seems we’ve been hearing rather frequently of late (as well as its close semantic cousin leading from the front) but whose definition is somewhat elusive.  That elusiveness may have to do with both terms tendency to create different representations to different users, and in the context of different leadership circumstances.  Both terms have been used frequently in the realms of politics, business, and public service, and I’m sure they conjure different images in each. 

In the trainings we do, especially Police Morale For Supervisors: It IS Your Problem!, and occasionally our writing, we’ve used both terms somewhat interchangeably and while referencing various illustrations in a way we think makes sense to our audience.  It occurred to us, though, that the term might still be a little ambiguous, or that what we mean when we talk about it might not translate in the mind of someone listening to or reading our words.  We thought it might be interesting to try and define the term as we understand and intend it, and then propose how “leading from the front” in that context offers powerful benefits to law enforcement.

“There’s fire along that hedgerow there.  Take care of it” 

First Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters was 26 years old on June 6, 1944 and, despite having served nearly three years in the Army while World War II raged, had yet to lay eyes on the enemy or fire a shot in anger.  His combat debut was about to make history.

He started the day and made his jump at Normandy as the Executive Officer of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.  He found himself thrust into command when the C-47 transport plane carrying the unit’s Commanding Officer, Thomas Meehan III, was torn from the sky by German anti-aircraft fire, killing all aboard.  After locating and linking up with his unit, Winters was ordered to the front where he was tersely given his first assignment:  “There’s fire along that hedgerow there.  Take care of it.”

And that was the extent of his orders and information!

About three miles south of Utah Beach lay Brécourt Manor, where four 105 mm German Howitzers were placed, connected by a series of trenches, and defended by approximately 60 German infantry troops.  The guns had been disrupting landing operations on Utah Beach by firing onto a causeway leading away from the landing zone; in order to clear the beach and safely make their way inland, Allied troops needed the guns neutralized.  Several other Allied units had come across the artillery that morning but their efforts to attack it were rebuffed by its defenders.

After a brief recon of his objective, Winters gathered 26 soldiers, 13 from his own Easy Co and 10 from Dog Co, and with virtually no information about their target or what else they might encounter on the other side of the distant hedgerow it lay behind, they set off to destroy it.  Reaching the artillery battery, Winters made his plan.

After setting up two .30 caliber machine guns to provide cover fire, he dispatched a small team of soldiers to flank and destroy one of the machine gun positions defending the heavy artillery and then set up additional cover fire from their new position.  Winters then led his team into the German’s own trenches, figuring them to provide additional cover they wouldn’t have otherwise had attacking exposed over the surface, and attacked each of the heavy artillery in turn, destroying each by first killing or driving off the Germans manning and defending them and then shoving TNT down their barrels and detonating it with captured German grenades.  The fourth Howitzer was taken out by a contingent commanded by Dog Company’s 2nd Lt Ronald Speirs, who led his men in a daring open field attack to get to and destroy the gun.

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