One of my heroes passed away recently, just two months shy of his 99th birthday. Ed Sayre (above in 2003) grew up on a Depression-squeezed farm in West Texas and managed a semester at the University of Nebraska before the money ran out. He joined the Texas Army National Guard to earn a few extra dollars, and found that he liked being a soldier. When the US entered the war in December 1941 the Texas Guard went into Federal service, and Ed went looking for further adventure. The rapidly expanding Army was so desperate for junior officers that they minted new lieutenants based solely on a written test, with the promise that the requisite months of training would follow. Somehow Ed’s file slipped through the cracks and he never got that additional schooling. On paper, he wasn’t even “qualified” to be an officer, yet in July 1943 he commanded a one hundred and forty–man company of paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The paratroopers were scattered over the island, with few groups landing near their objectives. Sayre managed to collect only eighty of his men before heading for a heavily defended road junction, an objective so important that it had been assigned to Sayre’s parent unit of two thousand. Sayre quickly determined that a frontal assault by his small group would be suicide. With no other resources available, Sayre conceived of a ruse, an enormous bluff, a threat that he could not back up. But it worked. The enemy garrison surrendered, and—without firing a shot—Ed Sayre accomplished a mission assigned to a much bigger unit.
When I tell this story as part of a keynote, I point out that Sayre was not some military superman. Eighteen months before Sicily he’d been a sergeant in the Texas National Guard. But Sayre’s commanders saw potential in him and gave him positions of increasing responsibility. He rose to the challenges, and even when he failed, he learned, got coaching, and moved on to the next level.
I’ve always contended that there are Ed Sayres in every organization. A key responsibility of the leader is to find and nurture that talent. We’d all like to have a high-functioning team simply handed to us; we’d all like to have someone with the exact talents we need drop out of the sky (pun intended). But how often does that happen?
We’d like to have fully-formed leaders simply appear because coaching and nurturing and investing in the people we already have on board can be challenging and time-consuming. Which reminds me of a story.
An executive asks the CEO, “What if we invest in our leaders and they leave the company?
To which the CEO replies, “What if we don’t invest in them and they stay?”