In the spring of 1943, a B-17 bomber departed its base in England on a mission to bomb the German City of Kassel. Just weeks earlier, the Allied forces had learned that this particular location was one of the Nazi’s primary ammunition producers. As the crew of this particular aircraft, The Tondelayo, neared their target, they found themselves barraged by heavy flak from antiaircraft guns. This was not particularly unusual for a daylight bombing mission over enemy territory, but on this occasion an enemy round hit one of the plane’s internal fuel tanks. Miraculously, the twenty-millimeter incendiary shell failed to explode. Dumbfounded, Captain Bohn Fawkes and his crew were quietly thankful for this unexpected miracle.
Upon landing, the crew assessed their heavily scarred aircraft, marveling at the workmanship that enabled this flying machine to withstand such an incredible amount of damage while still maintaining its ability to fly. Summoning his crew chief, the man who would be leading the repair efforts, Captain Fawkes asked for the unexploded shell that had hit the aircraft. The captain wanted to keep it as a souvenir of the crew’s unbelievable luck.
The crew chief agreed, offering to bring it to the crew’s debriefing room at their squadron’s headquarters as soon as possible.
A little more than an hour later, the chief arrived at the briefing room, an unexploded shell in hand and a strange look on his face. Stammering at first, seemingly unsure how to start or what to say, he finally simply blurted out that he’d discovered not just one shell in the fuel tank, but eleven—eleven unexploded shells with enough potential explosive power to destroy several aircraft.
Bohn and his crew were awestruck, unsure of how something like this could occur. Something that seemingly defied all odds…until he heard the next words out of the crew chief’s mouth. “Sir, the shells that hit your aircraft had no explosive charges. They were clean as a whistle and completely harmless. Empty.
“All but one, that is.”
As it turns out, one of the eleven shells contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it, scrawled in Czech, were the words: “This is all I can do for you now.”
Somewhere, in an armament factory behind enemy lines, someone had chosen to render the shells inert and unable to bring about the pain and destruction they were designed to deliver. The unexpected actions of this unknown brave man or woman teach us a valuable lesson about leadership. Namely, that leading is not primarily a matter of title, rank or role but rather, of choosing to accept responsibility for doing what we can, when we can, where we can to build value into our surroundings—one opportunity at a time.
I love this story because it so clearly dispenses so many myths about leadership. Myths such as:
- Leadership is something reserved for a special few; those anointed or appointed to lead;
- Leadership is complicated; it demands we possess a certain IQ or attain a minimum level of education;
- Leadership is about being connected; it demands we have influential friends in the right places; and,
- Leadership is about what we can get or gather for ourselves; it’s about being served by others.
Succeeding in today’s fast-paced, dynamic world, means we have to dispense the myths surrounding leadership. In these times of dynamic change, everyone needs to innovate, inspire and take responsibility for results. Everyone needs to be committed to giving their best to leading wherever they are planted.
Leadership expert Robin Sharma once remarked “Each of us is born into genius. Sadly, most of us die amid mediocrity.” What Robin is speaking of is the reality that, although there are many times in life in which we know we are capable of doing so much more, we settle for living far below our potential. Leaving the work of trying to improve conditions around us to someone else.
Why not follow the inspiring example of the unknown armament factory worker in World War II and choose to lead…right where you are today