Lessons In Life and Leadership: Major Richard Winters (Part One)

July 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve watched HBO’s Band of Brothers five years ago, and have been left with a deep impression. Back when I watched it, I was impressed by the film making, and grew a healthy amount of respect I had for those who fought in the war for freedom.

As I mentioned in previous posts, the additional time I have now is the perfect time for self reflection and the pursuit of interests. While doing a decluttering of my desk and drawers, this set of videos came to see the light of day again. I put them through the DVD player again, and watching Band of Brothers again after five years became a completely new experience.

In particular, the series made me drawn to one of its core characters, Major Richard Winters. He was the commander of Company E of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during World War II.

I was impressed with Major Dick Winter’s ability to deal with extremely stressful situations as well as overcoming impossible odds. These attributes contributed to his amazing ability to lead. I wondered then, what makes a great man like Dick Winters who he is?

I began perusing through his war memoirs, published as Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters hoping to glean something from the lifestyle and thoughts of a man who would serve as an inspiration to those who wish “to find your personal peace and solitude in a turbulent world.”

Why should a war veteran’s memories be relevant to us? One letter written by a young father, to Major Richard Winters, 91, sums it up nicely:

“Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Montgomery, President Roosevelt, and Prime minister Churchill were giants on a world stage. You and your men were different to me, though. You came from the cities, backgrounds, and places that I came from. You had the same problems and situations. Your triumph was one of character more than ability and talent. I do not mean to imply that you or your men lacked talent and ability, but I could identify with your talents and abilities. I will never be able to speak like Churchill or have the ambition of Patton, but I can have the quiet determination of Easy Company. I can be a leader; I can be loyal; I can be a good comrade. These are qualities that you and your men demonstrated under the harshest of conditions. Surely I can do the same in my normal life.”

Here are excerpts from the book, as well as lessons I picked up about life and leadership.

1. Take responsibility for your own life

Major Richard Winters grew up from an environment and culture where there was a strong work ethic. After receiving a “wake up call” from a former military man about doing his best, he became determined to do his best everyday and not to become a slacker. The men of Major Richard Winter’s generation loved the idea of responsibility and personal accountability. He was confident of his own abilities and knowledge such that his attention was often turned to the responsibility he had to his men instead. He asked himself often “Will I be able to lead my men in combat and bring them home safely? ”

2. Start with personal leadership – Character building

Many have considered the men of Major Richard Winter’s generation as “The Greatest Generation”. While this statement is bold, it underlies the tough times that forged these tough men. Born out of the Great Depression, facing poverty, men like Major Winters did the best with whatever was available. These men grew up in conditions where their next meal was not guaranteed. He considered his mother ‘the perfect Company commander”, for she made sure that “honesty and discipline were driven into (his) head from day one”.

This isn’t a generation that bought Porsches or Ferrari’s to boost their self-worth, or equating success in life to having a million-dollar condo or having multiple credit cards to their name.

Major Richard Winter’s advice to young men of my age will be something worth remembering:

In your life, be sure you are honest, fair and consistent in all your dealings whether in personal life or business, honesty is the most important.”
– Richard Winters

3. Stay in top physical shape- physical stamina is the root of mental toughness

“Physical fitness is another prerequisite for success. I freely admit that I was blessed with a sound physical constitution but whenever possible, I took the opportunity to improve my physical stamina.”
– Richard Winters

Part of Major Winter’s incredible ability to lead in combat is his ability to think and take action even under pressure. As he mentions, physical stamina is the root of mental toughness. Whether it is another day at the office, piled up with paperwork, or if you’re rushing to complete your client’s next marketing campaign, taking an all-nighter to finish revision for the final exams, your physical condition can be a telling factor of your ability to think under such stressful conditions. Stay fighting fit!

Stay tuned for Part 2!


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