Business Lessons Found in One of History’s Biggest Battles | Compass Point Skip to main content


I love history and recently finished a great book about the D-Day invasion, D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose. When I read books like this, I look for lessons that can be applied to business. Here’s the first lesson from the Allied victory on D-Day that’s directly relevant to business in 2022.

Planning is essential because things rarely go as planned.

Sound like a day in your life as a business owner? Imagine this statement on the scale of the planning for D-Day.

The Allied liberation of Europe was the largest, most complex, and meticulously planned military operation ever attempted in human history. The enormity of the task required that the free world’s brightest minds and largest egos needed to work together in ways they never had – until necessity and survival made it essential. What emerged was an operational plan that was as sophisticated as it was bold. And when it was launched, all heck broke loose. Very few things went as planned.

Ships didn’t meet their landing schedules. The skies above France were so deadly and anarchic that paratroopers were being dropped anywhere that wasn’t ocean. Units that had trained together for months or years in England, suddenly found themselves regrouping in France with lost and scattered men from other units. Communications were unreliable or lost completely, leaving junior officers and inexperienced NCOs making critical decisions with limited information that would determine life, death, and the future of the world.

So, if much of the careful planning went out the window in the first few hours of battle, why was it essential and what’s the lesson for business leaders in an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain business landscape?

Here are a few more vital business lessons I took away…

First, planning builds your team. As organizational culture expert Pat Lencioni once said in his book, The Advantage, “Teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice – and a strategic one.” The time to build your team, learn to tempter egos and practice humility is before the battle, not in the midst of chaos. In the lead-up to D-Day, Allied leadership and grunts alike had learned to trust one another and value what each person and culture brought to the table.

Second, how you plan is just as important as the plan itself. Both the Axis and Allies alike knew that D-Day was coming and planned intensively for it. However, the Axis military culture was rigid and compliance-focused, while the Allied culture was creative and collaboration-focused. The sheer monumental anarchy of events on D-Day inevitably tipped the favor toward the team that was prepared to be more nimble and creative. While Axis commanders were absorbed in blaming and buck-passing, Allied leadership focused on what they could control, rallied, and drove on.

Third, luck is made not found. Jim Collins’ research in Good to Great demonstrated that what separates great leaders and companies from mediocre ones, is not that the great ones had more “luck”. So-called “luck” is evenly distributed in the universe. However, great leaders and teams know to recognize and capitalize on even the smallest opportunity. They don’t have more luck. They simply make the most of it. Strong teams that are trusting and collaborative will be able to recognize the opportunities that matter and act swiftly. The Axis forces became fixated on what was going wrong, while the Allied forces made the most of every little thing that went right. In the end, it was the difference between good and great, defeat and victory.

As business leaders, we are entering a period of uncertainty and complexity unlike any other in our careers. It’s not coming. It’s here. Financial instability, political turmoil, social upheaval, and supply chain chaos, to name only a few factors, are combining to create a business environment that is incredibly unpredictable and not likely to let up any time soon.

In yet another lesson from the Greatest Generation, now is the time to:
  • Invest in strategic planning – not because the world is going according to plan, but because it isn’t.
  • Ensure the process of planning is collaborative, creative, and builds trust among your team.
  • Build your team’s ability to nimbly capitalize on opportunities instead of wasting energy on what you can’t control.

These lessons and how to put them into an actionable battle plan is precisely what we’ll be covering in our Compass Point workshop for family business owners, How To Grow in Uncertain Times. Check out dates and locations around the Lehigh Valley and the greater Philadelphia area.

John Bailie profile picture
John Bailie

John’s career and body of work has centered on leadership, organizational culture, and strategy. He excels at helping senior executives learn how to lead through conflict that result in stronger relationships, a more dynamic company culture, and teams leveraging their collective strengths. 

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