One of the last things Steve Ambrose told me before his death in 2003 was, “From now on, Winters, if you are going to talk about anything, talk about leadership.” Leadership is an interesting concept and somewhat difficult to define. General George Patton once said, “Leadership is the thing that wins battles. I have it, but I’ll be damned if I can define it.” Like Patton, I have been fascinated with leadership. It is something that you have within you that gets the job done.

Was I a successful leader? They tell me I was and modesty prevents me from disagreeing with them. I am not so naïve that I don’t realize that the wide appeal of Dick Winters today is based on leadership in combat. I may not have been the best combat commander, but I always strove to be. My men depended on me to carefully analyze every tactical situation, to maximize the resources that I had at my disposal, to think under pressure, and then to lead them by personal example. I always felt that my position was where the critical decision had to be made. Nor am I ashamed to admit that fear was a principal factor that contributed to my success as a leader. I was always afraid of letting my men down and I was always afraid of dying. It was a combination of these fears that drove me to learn everything I could about my profession so I could bring as many of my men home from war as possible.

Having said that, I am not sure there is such a thing as a natural-born leader. Some leaders are born with special aptitudes or talents, but any success I might have had was the product of good upbringing, intense study and preparation, and physical conditioning that set me apart from many of my peers. I was also surrounded by a group of men who were disciplined and highly trained to accomplish any mission. Add luck to the equation and you can understand that the secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to survive another day.

In recent years, I have been asked to address an increasing number of civic groups, corporate seminars, and governmental agencies on the subject of leadership. Most are looking for cookie-cutter solutions as to what constitutes a successful leader. What is the recipe for success? In truth there are no simple solutions, just as there is no average day in combat. Each situation is different and each requires a leader to be flexible in adapting his or her particular leadership style to the specific circumstances required to accomplish any mission. It’s a matter of adjusting to the individual, and you do this every day. You don’t have just one way of treating people. You adjust yourself to whom you are talking.

If I were to give advice to a young leader going to war, based on my observation of what had constituted the success of the outstanding leaders who comprised the American parachute infantry regiments of World War II, I would offer a series of principles that I am certain would result in great success, regardless of which field of endeavor the individual was participating.

First and foremost, a leader should strive to be an individual of flawless character, technical competence, and moral courage. In Anton Myrer’s bestselling novel Once an Eagle (which is on the required reading list of many senior military officers), the protagonist Sam Damon says, “You can’t help where you were born and you may not have much to say about where you die, but you can and you should try to pass the days in between as a good man.” How do you become a good man? You start with a cornerstone—honesty—and from there you build character. If you have character, that means the guy you are dealing with can trust you. When you get into combat, and you get in a situation such as we were in along the dike in Holland, when I gave the orders, “Ready, aim, fire,” nobody else was thinking about anything except what he had been told to do. The men trust in you, have faith in you, and they obey, no questions asked. That’s character in a nutshell.

Character provides a leader with a moral compass that focuses his efforts on the values we cherish: courage, honesty, selflessness, and respect for our fellow man. Character also allows you to make decisions quickly and correctly. Some may question my decision to disobey a direct order from my commanding officer at Haguenau and to “fake” another patrol as a violation of the very principle that I am advocating. In my heart, however, I could not send men to risk their lives for no apparent reason, when clearly nothing would have been gained that we had not already achieved. Such a course takes a degree of moral courage, which I have found is far rarer than physical courage. Was I correct? In my estimation, I thought so and I have never regretted my decision.

The same holds true for developing leaders of competency. Those entrusted to lead must study their profession to become totally proficient in tactics and technology. Prior to the invasion, I read every tactical manual I could lay my hands on to improve my tactical knowledge and professional competence while the other soldiers were out carousing in the pubs. While they were enjoying the social life of the neighboring towns, I was reading and educating myself, getting ready to lead the men in combat. While I was staying with the Barneses for the nine months that they hosted me, I was studying, developing my own personality, my own personal perspective on command. The intense study paid huge dividends in Normandy. Before the final attack at Noville, I studied the Infantry Manual for the Attack. I must have read that manual hundreds of times, but if I could glean one additional insight with another reading, perhaps I might save one more life. The bottom line is that leaders have entrusted to them the most precious commodity this country possesses: the lives of America’s sons and daughters. Consequently, they must have a thorough understanding of their profession.

Second, don’t waste time attempting to define leadership. No need to go to the dictionary. The Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, has defined leadership in just two words via its motto: “Follow Me!” Never ask your team to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. When I hit the ground outside Ste. Mere-Eglise armed only with a trench knife, there was no time to conduct a lengthy estimate of the situation or to find my leg bag. I grabbed the first trooper I could find, and said, “Follow me!” Off we went until other paratroopers joined us as we proceeded to our D-Day objective. At Brecourt Manor, Carentan, and at the crossroads on the dike in Holland on October 5, I made a quick, but thorough reconnaissance then developed a plan, and personally led the attack. You cannot make sound decisions unless you are at the point of attack Leaders should always position themselves where the critical decisions must be made. Precisely where that location should be is a judgment call, but in my experience leaders should be as far forward as possible. Successful leaders must be highly visible, if for no other reason than to share the hardships of their men. I am thinking of General George Patton, who made a habit of always visiting the front lines in his jeep or tank. When he returned to his field headquarters, he normally altered his mode of transportation to an airplane to avoid having his men see him moving back.

Physical fitness is another prerequisite for success. I freely admit that I was blessed with a sound physical constitution, but whenever possible, I took opportunity to improve my physical stamina. Because I was in such good physical shape, I easily survived Toccoa. While men washed out on a daily basis, the contingent from Easy Company that completed the training and earned their wings at Fort Benning, were tough as nails. Not surprisingly, I felt that I was in the best physical shape in my life as Easy Company prepared for the invasion at Aldbourne. This did not happen by accident. Following a rigorous day of training, I would take a run every evening following tea with the Barneses. As they were on their way to bed, I would say, “Well, I’m going to take a walk.” I would go out and run for several miles even though blackout conditions were in effect. Then I’d come home and go to bed. Because I was in such good shape, my fatigue level never reached the point of physical exhaustion that contributes to mental exhaustion and, ultimately, to combat fatigue. We all experienced sleep deprivation at times—that is the nature of stress—but a physically exhausted leader routinely makes poor decisions in times of crisis.

A fourth key to Easy Company’s success, as well as 2d Battalion’s, centered on the development and the nourishment of teamwork. Captain Sobel began the process at Toccoa. He undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for developing such a cohesive team, but the teamwork didn’t end there. The noncommissioned officers kept their squads and platoons physically hardened and combat ready. Until casualties removed so many Toccoa men from the ranks, Easy Company was just about the finest rifle company in the European Theater. Because each knew the other’s strengths and weaknesses, we could assign the right men to the proper jobs. Burr Smith, who had been a soldier of one kind or another most of his adult life, knew only a handful of great soldiers. One was Bill Guarnere, platoon sergeant of 2d Platoon. The loss of Guarnere, Joe Toye, and Buck Compton absolutely devastated Easy Company at Bastogne, but others immediately stepped into the breach. In this case, 1st Sergeant Carwood Lipton ensured that the company did not disintegrate.

I have always felt that my principal contribution to the success of both Easy Company and 2d Battalion was based on my knowledge of knowing what to expect from each man. It was hardly accidental that I selected Easy’s “killers” for the assault on the battery at Brecourt. Nor was it coincidental that I positioned Floyd Talbert on my flank as we destroyed two enemy companies on the dike in Holland. At Haguenau, I knew that Sergeant Ken Mercier would get the job done. Having selected the right men for the right job, I then delegated the authority to my subordinates and allowed them to use their initiative to execute the mission. There is no need to tell someone how to do his job if you have properly trained your team. This is precisely why I respected Brigadier General Tony McAuliffe more than General Maxwell Taylor. Steve Ambrose thought I was unfair to Taylor, but I disagree. McAuliffe allowed us the flexibility and the latitude to do what needed to be done. The same holds true with respect to Colonels Sink and Strayer, who rarely interfered in small unit actions. The only time I can think that I purposely interfered with a mission was when I deliberately imposed safety limits on Harry Welsh for a combat patrol across the Rhine when 2d Battalion was holding the line in order to seal the Ruhr Pocket.

I have also discovered that careful preparation and anticipation of potential problems eliminate many of the obstacles that one encounters on the battlefield. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind as to what course of action you intend to follow. The reconnaissance that I conducted at Brecourt on June 6 and on the dike on October 5 paid huge dividends when Easy Company swung into action. Before Sergeant Mercier led his combat patrol across the Moder River to capture some live prisoners, virtually every possible contingency had been thoroughly anticipated and planned. So, too, was the case of the attack on Foy, where I personally directed the fire support plan. The only thing that I had not anticipated was the mental breakdown of the company commander in the midst of the attack. Fortunately Lieutenant Speirs was on hand to take corrective action and direct the remainder of the assault. Good preparation is always vital to the success of any operation, but leaders must remain flexible once the action commences. Steve Ambrose likes to quote General Eisenhower, who claimed, “Before the battle is joined, plans are everything. Once the battle is joined, however, the plans go out the window.”

I would also urge leaders to remain humble. If you don’t worry about who gets the credit, you get a lot more done. I was only moderately successful in ensuring my men received the credit for their actions at Brecourt and on the Island. I recommended every man for a battlefield citation for the assault on the German battery on D-Day. Regrettably, many of the citations were downgraded by higher headquarters, but each trooper received some recognition. When I wrote the afteraction report for the defense of the Island, I purposely wrote it in the third person. Never once did I use the word I, nor was there any reason to do so. Leaders should assume blame when the operation fails; when it succeeds, credit the men and women in your team. They do the lion’s share of the work.

Since the release of the HBO mini-series, many of us have been flooded with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of letters from adoring fans across the nation. A surprisingly high number have also originated from Europe, Canada, East Asia, and Australia. In a span of six months, I received one hundred and fifty letters from England alone. It is easy to get one’s head “lost in the clouds.” The attention is certainly flattering and greatly appreciated, but it remains better to remember Eisenhower’s address at Guildhall Hall on June 12, 1945. To an ecstatic British public, which showered the Supreme Commander with a tumultuous parade through the streets of London, Ike reminded them, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”

Next, I would encourage leaders to take a moment of self-reflection before rushing into an important decision. Many leaders don’t take the time to consider carefully their decisions or the implications of their actions. In battle I periodically detached myself mentally from the noises and chaos of battle. I found it useful to separate myself momentarily and to carefully think through what actions I needed to take to accomplish the mission. The opportunity for self-analysis allows you to find your own self-consciousness, which in turn tells you if you are getting off track. Nobody will have to tell you that the course of action that you are contemplating is incorrect or ineffective. If you take advantage of opportunities for personal reflection, and if you honestly examine yourself, you will be a more effective leader. After the squad destroyed the German machine gun position on the dike on October 5, for example, I went off to be alone for a few minutes to think while the remainder of the platoon came forward. In the interim from when I summoned them forward and when they arrived, I determined that the proper course of action was to conduct a bayonet assault. At Bastogne, the ability to sit back and reflect on the next day’s action ensured our battalion’s success on the attacks on Foy and Noville.

Lastly, “Hang Tough!” Never, ever, give up regardless of the adversity. If you are a leader, a fellow who other fellows look to, you have got to keep going.

How will you know if you have succeeded? True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. The key to successful leadership is to earn respect—not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character. In the military, the president of the United States may nominate you as a commissioned officer, but he cannot command for you the loyalty and confidence of your soldiers. Those you must earn by giving loyalty to your soldiers and providing for their welfare. Properly led and treated right, your lowest-ranking soldier is capable of extraordinary acts of valor. Ribbons, medals, and accolades, then, are poor substitutes to the ability to look yourself in the mirror every night and know that you did your best. You can see the look of respect in the eyes of the men who have worked for you. A year before he died, “Burr” Smith wrote me a letter, in which he said, “Dick, you were blessed (some would say rewarded) with the uniform respect and admiration of 120 wartime soldiers, essentially civilians in uniform, who would have followed you to certain death. How many men in all of human history have that knowledge to carry to their grave . . . certainly no more than a few . . . and you have it. Looking back from this perspective you may well feel that you didn’t deserve it, but at the time we thought you did, and that’s all that counted.” Burr was right about one thing—I was extremely blessed to have been the commander of Easy Company. No single individual “deserved” the privilege of leading such a remarkable group of warriors into battle. And to this day, I am humbled by that experience.

The shadows are lengthening for those of us who fought World War II. In the twilight of our lives, our thoughts return to happier days, when we struggled together not as individuals, but as a team—a team that willingly sacrificed itself to protect its members. Sixty years after our final victory, these men remain different. Not one man walks around wearing his wings or medals on his chest to stand out. It is what each man carries in his chest that makes him different. It is the confidence, pride, and character that make the World War II generation stand out in any crowd. I’m proud to have been a small part of it. I certainly harbor no regrets. And not a day goes by that I don’t think of the men I served with who never had the opportunity to enjoy a world of peace. Their collective legacy is best summarized in Henry W. Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” In describing songs of hope and courage, Longfellow writes:

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

I wish to convey a final thought—and I hope that it doesn’t sound out of place—but I would like to share something as I look back on the war. War brings out the worst and the best in people. Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men. War is romantic only to those who are far away from the sounds and turmoil of battle. For those of us who served in Easy Company and for those who served their country in other theaters, we came back as better men and women as a result of being in combat, and most would do it again if called upon. But each of us hoped that if we had learned anything from the experience, it is that war is unreal and we earnestly hoped that it would never happen again.

Leadership at the Point of the Bayonet

Ten Principles for Success

1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.

2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.

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

4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.

5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their jobs. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination or your creativity.

6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.

7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.

8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.

9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. The key to a successful leader is to earn respect—not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.

10. Hang Tough!—Never, ever, give up.





If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!