The date is March 24, 1944. The location, wartime Germany, Stalag prisoner of war (POW) camp. It’s the early hours before dawn. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell is leading 200 fellow inmates through an arduous and nerve-racking mission.
The stakes are freedom, indefinite imprisonment or death. This was to become the plot for the Great Escape: a real-life, World War 2 mission led by a visionary commonwealth officer to escape from and elude recapture by a formidable German war apparatus.
How? Through digging, forging, stitching and charting their way across a war-torn continent towards ultimate freedom.
At WWC, we love great leadership stories that underpin the value of a powerful vision. For modern captains of industry, the story of the Great Escape is a masterclass in what can be achieved through visionary leadership. Not only was Squadron Leader Bushell able to rally hundreds of weary men to attempt the impossible, but he also managed to organise, structure and upskill each one of them to execute the necessary tasks that would facilitate their daring feat.
Seeing Opportunity Where Others See Obstacles
In one of many moments of despair, Bushell addressed his Escape Committee with an impassioned, Churchill-Esque plea. He told them that they could choose to be bystanders in the fight for world peace, or remain active participants that could still make a real impact in its outcome. He set a clear vision about what their escape could mean for other POW’s, how it could impact the efforts of the Allied Forces and the hope it could give other families of POWs.
“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights, we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun…” ~ Squadron Leader Roger Bushell
This picture of potential gave the prisoners the determination and tenacity to not only construct three separate and complex underground escape tunnels but to also learn necessary skills like forging IDs, tailoring civilian clothes from old bedsheets and charting complex maps of their terrain on any scrap of paper they could find. They did all this while systematically dispensing massive amounts of soil that resulted from digging their way to freedom.
Now, keep in mind that this is 1944, Nazi Germany. These men had the most incredible odds stacked against them, had very sparse resources at their disposal and were working under unimaginable pressures. The daily stresses the average, modern, emancipated CEO grapples with simply doesn’t stack up against what this brave team of innovators were subjected to.
Investing in Your Most Valuable Resource: People
The mission undoubtedly required a massive amount of planning, delegating, upskilling and other efforts on the part of all involved. Yet, all tasks were completed with ingenious synchronicity to evade their captor’s attention while making continued, albeit painfully slow, progress.
Think about that for a second and ask yourself, “What does it take to muster the patience, commitment and belief that you can evade the most sophisticated, and arguably the most innovative, war machine in human history? What kind of leadership does it take to execute such a mammoth undertaking, all while keeping up the morale of a few hundred starving, weakened, war-torn men?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~ Winston Churchill
It takes a kind of leadership that can instil a shared vision in what is possible when people refuse to accept some predetermined fate. Leaders who can see opportunities where others see obstacles are the ones who escape the quagmire of fatalistic thinking to come up with the most daring ideas. It is this kind of “moxie” that distinguishes the innovators from the followers and the influencers from the “sheeple”.
A Timeless Lesson in Leadership
For many business leaders, uncontrollable market disruptions along with a tide swell in the competition are causing the walls to close in on them. Feeling like your hopes for your business are being held captive in a light-starved room with little to no chance of escape can make prospects look dim, to say the least. Beyond the outside world, low internal morale and a lack of innovation within the business can make it seem as if everyone is marching to orders with no real vision for change.
Yet, it might help to take a lesson from the events that unfolded at the Stalag POW Camp. In the end, 76 men crawled their way to freedom on the night of March 24. Jack Lyon, the Great Escape’s last living survivor turned 100 in September of 2017. The real-life story of how one man was able to galvanise, inspire and motivate his comrades to accomplish one of the most daring feats in modern history is simply a masterclass in leadership we each can draw from for inspiration as we navigate uncertain times ahead.