The air was thin and inhospitable some 31,000 feet above the surface of the city that had been, thus far, spared from Allied focus. But inside the pressurized cabin of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, America’s premier bomber of the war, the 11 man crew was held safely from the elements and in relative comfort as they rumbled towards their objective… towards history. Just before 8:15am on August 6, 1945 the Enola Gay’s bombardier, Major Thomas Ferebee, was beginning to set in motion a sequence of events that would change the face of warfare forever as it simultaneously erased just over 4 square miles of Hiroshima’s infrastructure and citizens from the face of the planet. When the Norden bombsight indicated that the bridge Major Ferebee had selected was now in range, a mechanism inside the aircraft’s belly released the 9,000lb scientific crown jewel born from the Manhattan Project and shortly thereafter the Little Boy atomic bomb began its stabilized plummet to earth. It took 43 seconds for the doomsday device to reach a predetermined altitude and trigger a detonation that was responsible for the death of at least 70,000 people, a conservative estimate by all accounts – most immediately with several thousands more succumbing to their wounds over time. During the return flight Thomas Ferebee, an otherwise normal man born in a quiet farming town just outside Winston-Salem, slept peacefully in spite of the unimaginable carnage that his actions only moments ago had created for the people of the enemy nation. He wasn’t tormented with guilt by the consequences, although he had been briefed about the horrific effect the weapon would have. He didn’t question the necessity of the weapon’s use, although he was not privy to any of the meetings that led to their mission and sealed the fate of so many fellow human beings. He was, instead, consumed by the conviction of an idea so unwavering that it wrapped around every element of his soul like the arms of a loving parent and gave him the fortitude to do the unspeakable. He had been sent on the belief that the actions of everyone in the chain of creation and custody of that bomb had been, for lack of a better term, justified.
Truman’s official public release stated that the device had been used to “shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” The Major believed his President, and that was good enough for him.
To avoid confusion, I want to be perfectly clear before we go any further. This is not a discussion of morality, it is an exploration into dedication… the lengths to which the truly devoted will go in support of an idea they hold dear. For the Major, and the other considerably longer list of contributors who assisted in the building and use of atomic weapons during World War II, the idea was simple but powerful: the Allied cause was righteous and the war must be ended before any more coalition lives were squandered. They all had a concept of freedom and of the dangers posed by the Axis. This notion compelled them to act in a manner that would have otherwise been inconceivable… to engineer and employ a weapon of mass destruction on an assembly of military targets and unarmed civilians that would have a lasting effect for decades. If you find yourself asking how this look into world history relates to leadership – the connection is simple.
Ideas drive our behavior. Ideas shape the way we view the world around us. And most importantly, our ideas provide us with an ability to become immeasurably committed to them.
The leader that understands the ideas and motivations of their workforce and that can inspire performance along those lines has access to a limitless source of commitment that will enable brilliant achievements. Similarly, the leader that can connect with the ideas their bosses believe in will be better prepared to help guide their team while potentially shaping the outlook of their superiors. Some common ideas that encourage our efforts include:
1) The Sense of Belonging to a Worthwhile Team or Organization
2) The Feeling of Contributing to a Valuable Cause or Body of Work
3) The Desire to Achieve a Personal Goal or Reach Self-Fulfillment
4) The Pursuit of Respect, Fame, Influence, Status, and Power
5) The Accumulation of Financial Wealth
There’s tremendous potential in knowing what your people believe in. How much would you give to truly understand the motivations of each member of your team? Well, learning about them is as straightforward as taking the time to sincerely invest in getting to know them as individuals rather than a faceless collection of cogs. While you’re at it, why not spend a little time defining the ideas that you believe in? A word of caution to the unwise – if we ever find ourselves attempting to manipulate or contort the ideas of our workforce for our benefit we are positioning ourselves for catastrophic failure. The same strength that indulges commitment can quickly turn against a leader whose integrity is called into question. When we lose faith in an idea, for example the idea of our leadership or mission, our commitment will undoubtedly falter.
Fortunately for most leaders, we will never be required to ask our people to act as Major Ferebee and the rest of the flight crew did that day in August all those decades ago. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to understand what ideas are driving our teammates when we have to ask them to stay late on a Friday night.