Badges of honour: continuing needs for old words

This time last month, the commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings were starting to be held.  I found them moving, poignant and dignified.  Most memorable were the remarks of those who had taken part, whose numbers, like the tides on the Normandy beaches, are ebbing away due to their age.  Yet what astonishing and remarkable men and women they were.  Never forgotten.

Unlike my 95-year old mother who was a WRN stationed in Weymouth during Operation Overlord, their memories have remained pin sharp and crystal clear.  The understated manner in which they spoke about their experiences of the ferocity and horror of battle was humbling.  There was no 21st century scream of “Me, me, me!”.  Instead, their laser-like compassionate focus was on their comrades, especially those who were killed or injured. 

During the last four weeks, I have re-read many articles written about the commemorations.  What struck me most powerfully was the vocabulary used to describe the behaviours, motives and values of the soldiers, sailors and pilots.  (Pleasingly, due recognition is now being paid to the countless women involved, many working covertly behind enemy lines or diligently in logistical activities, such as Mum.)  These words resonated strongly with me.  They bear repeating, so here in a random order is a selection:

These words resonated strongly with me:

  • Duty
  • Courage
  • Resilient (the Queen made a wry joke of her still being here for the 75th anniversary)
  • Respect
  • Service (yet not servile)
  • Humility
  • Fierce resolve
  • Honour
  • Bravery
  • Comradery
  • Collaboration (between nations, between services)
  • Selflessness
  • Resilient
  • Family
  • Fortitude
  • Purposeful
  • Belief (in each other’s capability and commitment, as well as the necessary purpose of the mission)
  • Abject fright and acute scare
  • Recognition of one’s own morbidity
  • Compassion
  • Indefatigable
  • Stoicism
  • Commitment
  • Non-acrimonious
  • Accepting
  • Endurance
  • Diligent
  • Thorough
  • Forgiving of the enemy (they were doing their duty)
  • Thoroughness of planning
  • Innovative
  • Sacrifice
  • Leadership (it went upwards, downwards and sideways)
  • Scale of ambition
  • Strategy, tactics and operations aligned unifyingly
  • Levity and humour lacing the darkness
  • Previously suppressed role of women now headlined, e.g. Bletchley Park, covert operations
  • Responsible
  • Stable
  • Truthful
  • Keeping secrets
  • Sensible
  • Level-headed
  • Pragmatic
  • Expertise
  • Diplomatic
  • Modest (not showmanship)
  • Civility
  • Courtesy
  • Self-deprecation
  • Deference

What is relevant today from 75 years’ ago?

In our work as leaders and coaches, how often do these words arise in our conversations?  Do they have a place today or are they analogue verbal units made redundant by our digital age?  Two descriptions are prominent in the current managerial lexicon, namely “Humility” and “Fierce Resolve”, which comprise Jim Collins’s concept of Level 5 Leadership, see https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/level-five-leadership.html .  It strongly occurs to me that humility is an all too scarce personal asset.  Do many of the listed words have their place in the growing attention being paid to well-being and mental health, e.g. resilience, fortitude, indefatigable?  I believe stoicism is also important, not in a “stiff British upper lip” manner, but in an ability to roll with the punches. 

What can each of us do to boost our clients’ and colleagues’ demonstration of humility?  It is not something to be allowed out to play by itself; it needs its companion of fierce resolve.  Are we encouraging people to recruit people more skilled and behaviourally competent than themselves, to listen more than they talk, to be assertive not aggressive, to extemporise rather than try to script everything down to the last syllable and punctuation mark? Are we supporting them to build a coherent “true north” that binds purpose, strategy, tactics and operations so everyone understands the whole as well as the intimacy of their personal responsibility?  Are we engendering a Dumas musketeer spirit of “One for all, and all for one”, or are we cultivating gulls from Finding Nemo squawking “Mine! Mine! Mine!”?

In talking with people about my thoughts concerning these commemorations, some said it was a different situation, which undoubtedly it was, and translation into today’s circumstance is a futile comparison of apples with fish.  Yet this list of words is not militaristic in its complexion; for me they far more convey the fundamental attributes of being a decent, honourable human being.  In that sense, they are not “out-of-place”, no longer relevant or invalid.  I intend to make far more use of them.  I hope you will too! 

Never forgotten

Two final points: one phrase stood out.  This was, “…never forgotten”.  Often this was uttered through tears as someone stood by the cemeteries managed by Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

As these veterans’ lives conclude, so they should not and must not be forgotten.  For all the shallowness of modern first-world life as it flows from the second to the third decade of the 21st century, no more excruciatingly visible than in reality TV shows such as Love Island or in inane web-sites like Snapchat and TikTok, that the veterans exercised these behavioural characteristics contributed massively to laying the foundation on which our modern society has developed.  Are we not duty-bound to remember and celebrate their sacrifice?

Another permits me to conclude on a lighter note, “Diplomatic”.  From BBC’s TV comedy series, “Yes, Prime Minister”, Sir Humphrey Appleby remarked, “Diplomacy is about surviving until next century, politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.”  Let’s have more of the former and far less of the latter in our organisations.  Perhaps that forms the kernel of what we as leaders and coaches must do; we develop the deft and dexterous skills and behaviours associated with diplomacy not the venal, personalised craving for political power.

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