A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of being a guest at the National Australia Bank’s “Night of Nights”, where its best performers across all groups and levels in Southeastern Australia were celebrated for their stellar achievements.
The master of ceremonies Head of Small Business South, Craig Swinburne, amidst a pretty funny monologue lampooning the states’ leadership teams, moved me with an elegant observation.
“Night of Nights” acknowledges NAB’s top 1% of performers. That night, 330 people were rewarded for contributions to their much larger organisational family.
So Swinburne posed a rhetorical question: How can a business culture where “team” always comes first, so overtly recognise individual achievements too?
Then he explained it. To win, recipients needed to display a series of qualities in their own roles that were invaluable to the bank as a whole:
Passion, discipline, selflessness, courage, resilience
Translated they mean: love for what you do, commitment to doing it well, readiness to lead by example, hunger to give it try, and inner-strength to get up when things push you down.
And I was immediately drawn to an historical event that the world will be recalling very soon.
December 16, 2014, will mark the 70th anniversary of a campaign in World War 2 known as the “Battle of the Bulge”.
It’s a weird name when you think about it, but it derives purely from a description depicting its physical outcome overlaid on a map.
For the benefit of those of us not history buffs I’ll try to paint a picture.
On June 6, 1944 the Allies for the most part comprising the USA, Great Britain, and Canada stormed the beaches of Normandy in France in an effort to rid the continent from Nazi occupation and throw the Germans back in unconditional surrender.
The invasion’s success was anything but guaranteed. What should have taken a couple of weeks, played out into August when the Germans finally abandoned the bulk of France to all points north and east.
Led by the Americans, tens of thousands of trucks and half-tracks began moving hundreds of thousands of troops in pursuit. Paris was freed. Then a great airborne armada of American and British paratroopers made a valiant drop across Holland in the hope of leapfrogging the retreating enemy. But it was an operation that ultimately failed.
By November, the Allies were exhausted. Logistics—the lifeblood of every army—gave out. Finally, the Belgian port of Antwerp was taken but it came too late: the fleeing Germans left it in ruins. With that, the Allies called a halt to regroup and winter was approaching.
In an area of Western Europe around the environs of Belgium and Luxembourg lay a huge forest called the Ardennes. It straddled the German border. Its claustrophobic environment of trees, rivers and streams made it seem impregnable. So there, the Americans placed a handful of infantry and mechanised divisions requiring desperate rest and training.
But Hitler had other ideas. Almost miraculously, he’d secretly managed to rebuild Germany’s finest armored units. Seeing the gap in the Allied lines, he ordered an all out push through the Ardennes and on to Antwerp. It would be his last offensive in the West.
Initially taken by surprise, the Allies dug in, and after horrific losses pieced together a strategic reply.
Picture a straight line—say of thread. Now hold the ends and push at its centre; you’ll begin to see a curve form. That’s exactly what happened in the Ardennes as the German struggled westward and the Allies applied pressure at the flanks.
The resultant bend looked like a bulge on the operational maps. And that’s how the campaign’s name came to be.
Historians call it America’s “greatest battle”. In size of forces involved, it certainly was. Interestingly, it was a campaign in which Australian aircrew gave their lives too.
But how exactly, was it that the Allies managed to stop Germany’s crack forces in a wilderness protected by so few tired and untried troops?
And there lay the connection with Night of Nights.
In the first days of the campaign, small bands of Allied units at vital bridges and crossroads were pitted against hordes of German tanks, infantry, and artillery.
Think of the thickest snow you’ve ever seen, now pour it over the densest woodlands you can imagine, on terrain cut by the steepest river banks and you’ll see why roads and bridges were so crucial to Germany’s success.
Now place those few US troops displaying the very virtues that NAB celebrated at just the right spots. It explains how the Germans were initially thwarted.
“Spirit” is the right word. An individual spirit lit like a beacon for a battered whole. And with this, began the Allied victory.
Indeed, the campaign was much more complex than that, but take for example, the actions of Private First Class, William Soderman, of the US 2nd Infantry Division who on December 17, 1944, near the twin border towns at Rocherath-Krinkelt, stood facing five monstrous German Panther tanks with a bazooka balanced on his shoulder.
The bazooka was a two-person, shoulder-fired, anti-tank rocket launcher. But Soderman’s partner—his loader—had just been hit by enemy artillery fire.
Utterly exposed, Soderman triggered his bazooka and destroyed the lead tank. Unable to reload on his own, he dove as the other vehicles passed him by.
Remaining hidden that night through ferocious mortar bombardments, Soderman waited. Early next morning, five more German tanks appeared. Rushing along a ditch, he once again leapt into full view crippling the lead vehicle with a bazooka round. This time the accompanying tanks couldn’t squeeze by and pulled back.
As the day wore on, Soderman’s platoon came under intense fire. It was ordered to retreat. But Soderman lingered to cover his unit’s back.
Sure enough more German tanks probed and seeing his team in the open Soderman relinquished his own protection to engage. A third tank was disabled but this time its machine guns hit him. Severely wounded and no longer having a weapon, he dragged himself away until rescue eventually came.
For his feats, Soderman won America’s ultimate award for bravery: the “Medal of Honor”. It was an award for individual passion, discipline, selflessness, courage and resilience; though few ever received it alive.
Through his own initiative, Soderman helped ensure that the Germans spent days forcing a road junction that would otherwise have taken hours to capture. And the rest as they say is history.
With these thoughts, a remarkable celebration at NAB coalesced in my mind with an equally remarkable anniversary in world affairs. It was sobering that on both occasions, individuals and small groups came to define global success.
“Night of Nights” inspired me. That after all, was its goal. This is why we trumpet the best because rarely do leaders focus on selfish ends.
There’s always been an “I” in “team” when you think about it long and hard. And that of course is the individual—you.
Through his unfaltering courage against overwhelming odds, Pfc. Soderman contributed in great measure to the defense of Rocherath, exhibiting to a superlative degree the intrepidity and heroism with which American soldiers met and smashed the savage power of the last great German offensive.
Medal of Honor citation.
© 2014 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Main picture: Destroyed German Panther tanks outside Rocherath-Krinkelt, overlaid with today’s Medal of Honor flag. Background photo from Pallud, J. “Battle of the Bulge Then and Now”. London: Battle of Britain Prints, 1986. Author’s collection.