In the award-winning HBO series, “Band of Brothers,” we are introduced to the men of Easy Company as they begin their training as airborne infantry soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Herbert Sobel at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Sobel’s goal for his command in the newly formed 506th Infantry Regiment, is to make his company the absolute best company in the entire 2nd Battalion. In pursuit of this, he determines to drive his men hard, breaking them if necessary, in order that they bend to his will and follow his commands without hesitation.
On one hand, he sees his tactics as a way to protect his men when they go into combat. On the other, his men see them as self-serving, only providing the appearance of a company that performs as a well-oiled machine when in actuality, it was able to do so at all because of the leadership of their junior officers, 2nd Lt. Dick Winters and 2nd Lt. Lewis Nixon. Sobel’s inability to demonstrate empathy for his men resulted in a lack of trust in his leadership. To them, they were a stepping stone Sobel was using to bring attention to himself in order that he may be elevated in command. Matters were only complicated when it became clearly evident that, despite his knowledge of drills and training, he lacked the ability to practically apply that knowledge in the field while attempting to lead others.
There is a scene in the first episode of the series in which Sobel seeks to send a message to the men of the company by singling out for punishment a private named Gordon. He commands the young man to accomplish a grueling task alone: in less than fifteen minutes he must run three miles up, then three miles back down, a nearby mountain named Currahee...in full uniform. Sobel delivers this punishment in full view of the others in the company.
As the scene ends and cuts to Gordon struggling to run alone up the mountain, we soon see other members of Easy Company joining in to run along his side. These men weren’t being punished as well; they were willingly choosing to accept the same difficult task as their buddy in order to demonstrate their solidarity with him. What Sobel hoped would produce respect for him from his men only resulted in solidifying their selfless support of each other.
The name of the mountain, “Currahee” is a Cherokee word that translates to “We stand alone together.” In this case, the men of Easy were living out that meaning; and they would do so throughout the entire war. Their concern for each other outweighed the approval or permission of others.
Eventually, Lt. Sobel was promoted to Captain, a goal he whole-heartedly sought. Yet in the process, he was relieved of his command of Easy Company when it became apparent that his men had no confidence in him to lead them into battle.
Later in the war, after months and months of grueling fighting, the men of Easy reflect on their time at Toccoa and their experiences under Sobel. It was the difficult, sobering training under him that laid the groundwork for them to become one of the most decorated companies of World War 2. Had Sobel been able to recognize his weaknesses as a leader, learned from those weaknesses, and sought to adapt his methods to better support those he led, perhaps he would have remained in command. However, as he could not, Easy was led by others, such as Lieutenant (later Major) Winters who inspired by example and always sought to support the needs of the men, or the mission, over himself.
As leaders of our homes, businesses, schools, churches, governments, clubs or other organizations, we must constantly check the motives of our hearts and the measure of our actions. Are the methods I’m employing to help others actually hurting them instead? Are my actions inspiring them to follow or must I rely on my authority to exact unquestioned allegiance? Do I admit my shortcomings and lean on the knowledge, experience, and insight of others who may know more than myself instead of seeing them as a threat to my position or power?
The men of Easy Company learned early on that they could not trust their leader. The only thing that held them together at that time was their trust in each other. Later they experienced another type of leadership; the selfless type that inspired greatness and would ultimately lead them to a hard-fought victory.
What type of leader are you? Would those in your charge consider you to be leading in isolation, or would they include you among themselves as they stand alone together against whatever challenge they face?