What’s Your Word?

That’s the question – what’s your word? I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I love history. I haven’t always loved history, but I started falling in love with it about 20 years ago as I started reading and understanding it better. I don’t particularly love historical facts and figures (or even the strategies when it comes to military history), but I love the personal elements and stories—what people endured and overcame. I also love the leadership (and leadership lessons) that I can find within the context of history.

In 2001, I got hooked by a HBO mini-series called Band of Brothers, the story of Easy Company (506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne), which was the subject of Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same title. When I watched Band of Brothers, I was immediately drawn to the main character – Easy Company’s leader – Dick Winters. I felt a deep connection to and with Dick Winters, and I studied Easy Company (via other books), Winters and his leadership. When he passed away in January of 2011, I cried as if I had lost someone in my family, even though I had never met Dick Winters.

This past weekend I was in Normandy, France, to explore various historical sights related to D-Day, and I took a tour called Band of Brothers which included several traditional D-Day sights and other events specifically related to the stories shown in Band of Brothers. At one point during the afternoon our guide was discussing the actions of Dick Winters in a particular battle, and he asked us this question: “What’s one word that describes Dick Winters?” My answer came immediately: “Leader.” The guide congratulated me and said, “That’s just the word that describes Dick Winters.”

We then went on to discuss some of the key leadership traits of Dick Winters, including being humble, being committed, being clear, being focused on the mission, and knowing his men—not just knowing what they can do, but who they are and what they care about. Critically, Dick Winters cared about his men, and despite the dangerous situation, his actions showed his men that he cared. Dick Winters was a man of action more than words. One word – leader.

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to hear two of Dick Winters’ men speak at a book signing (Bill Guarnere and Babe Heffron had written a book about their Easy Company experience – Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends [2008]). Bill and Babe were asked many questions, usually finding a way to make a joke or to laugh, and then I asked them to comment on Dick Winters. I’ll always remember how serious and respectful Bill Guarnere became when he said, “Dick Winters is not only the finest officer and leader I’ve ever known, but he’s the finest man I’ve ever known. Everyone in Easy Company has the utmost respect for Dick and none of us would be here today but for Dick Winters.” One word – leader.

Our tour guide last weekend then showed us the Dick Winters memorial, something that was only erected after Dick passed away because he would not have wanted that singular recognition. In fact, Dick Winters was nominated for the Medal of Honor but never received it, and when others pushed for him to receive this nation’s highest combat honor, Dick refused to support the request. He said that if he was awarded the Medal of Honor he would accept it, but he would not seek it. The Dick Winters memorial in Normandy actually honors all of those who fought as part of D-Day, but it does bear his name and picture. Notably, there’s a word engraved on the back side of this memorial – one word: Leadership.

Clearly, Dick Winters’ one word was and is leader, and I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t use that word for himself. The one word that embodies each of us almost always comes from the assessments and perspectives of others, of the people around us, and the people that we serve (or fail to serve) every day in our personal and professional lives.

So, what is your word today, and what will be your legacy word, both personally and professionally? It’s an important question to ponder, not because you can fully assure that it will be the word you choose, but because your thoughts, perspectives and actions can be purposefully and intentionally designed towards that word. In the end, you don’t get to pick your word, but you do get to decide it. Think about it—what is your one word?

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