“Do not go where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was a preposterous plea from the most unlikely of would-be leaders; a young peasant woman in a male-dominated, feudal society.
These were perilous times, after all. France was a country weary from over ninety years of war, occupied by its archenemy the English,weakened from internal strife and isolated from foreign trade by England’s economic strangulation. With a population still in recovery from the Black Death, the nation was in a desperate search for leadership whether it realized it or not.
Born in the peasant village of Dom Remy in the French province of Lorraine in 1412, Joan of Arc grew up during the height of the Hundred Years’ War. As young as 12 years of age, she began to hear what she believed to be a divine call to leadership. It was a call that compelled her to choose to do something to aid her beloved country.
Boldly setting out to persuade the uncrowned royal French court that she should be given charge of the French military, Joan was convinced she could defeat the English Army. But the arrogant French aristocracy could not bring themselves to embrace the prospect that a woman – and one from a poor common family, no less – could do what France’s greatest generals couldn’t.
All this began to change however, in October 1428, when the English began their siege of the city of Orleans, the final obstacle in their quest to conquer France. Four months after this latest assault, and following yet another string of humiliating defeats that left both the military and civil leadership of France increasingly demoralized and desperate, Joan was finally granted her unlikely wish and assumed her place at the head of the nation’s military.
She wasted no time springing into action.
Immediately setting out for the city of Orleans where the senior military leaders of France were convened, Joan knew she was inheriting a failing strategy and would encounter an all-male war council reluctant to accept her as their appointed leader. Undeterred by the host of obstacles before her, Joan proceeded to do what every great leader does. She got busy rallying the troops to the offensive, leading the army to an astounding series of victories that ultimately reversed the tide of the war.
In July of 1429, only seven months after she took control of the army, Joan of Arc delivered on her promise to lead France’s military to victory. It was a victory that enabled Charles to finally receive his rightful crown.
Shortly after becoming king, however, the insecure new monarch began to increasingly fear Joan’s tremendous popularity, resenting the deep love and respect the French people showered upon her. As a result, he set out to negotiate with his enemies instead of trying to defeat them. And as an act of good faith, chose to disband France’s army, despite the fact that much of the country remained under hostile occupation.
Undaunted, Joan did not give up her cause to free her beloved country and its people from tyranny. Instead, she chose to become the captain of a small band of mercenaries who continued to fight for the cause of freedom. Given her unwavering commitment, it should be no surprise that shortly thereafter, finding herself and her fellow soldiers completely surrounded by enemy forces on a fateful May afternoon in 1430, she chose to stay behind with the rear guard so the majority of her forces could safely retreat. And all, in fact, did escape – except for one person – Joan.
She was captured and soon thereafter convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.
She was only nineteen when she gave her life fighting for her country.
Though many of us are undoubtedly familiar with the legend of Joan of Arc, few understand the full extent of her leadership legacy. You see, Joan’s commitment to giving her best in fighting for a cause larger than herself was the catalyst to set into motion the beginning of the end of feudalism. Her efforts lit a spark of hope in those who, for generations, had come to believe there was nothing they could do to create conditions for a better life. And history confirms that single spark turned into a burning flame that ultimately ignited a revolution of the people, for the people–transforming the entire trajectory of a nation in the process.
As far back as biblical times, human beings have grappled with the reality of choice. Since we have to live with the positive and negative effects of our choices, it is sometimes difficult to decide if taking action is really worth it. And although it’s true we may, at times, make decisions we later regret, it doesn’t change the fact that we all possess the gift of influencing outcomes in our spheres of influence-for good or bad.
Sadly, many people today seem to take for granted that the freedom to choose is one of mankind’s greatest treasures. Often, we fail to realize how it is free choice that ignites a sense of true power within us. As leadership expert Max DePree affirms, it is primarily through the choices we make that we distinguish ourselves from the masses and establish the foundation for a better future. In his book, Leading Without Power he writes, “Of what is hope composed? Certainly part of the answer is the ability to make choices. To be without choices is a great tragedy, a tragedy leading to hopelessness and cynicism…Our choices after all set us apart and shape our legacy.”
Those of us who serve our nation in uniform certainly understand the power of choice. After all, we choose to serve our nation as members of the military, we choose to raise our right hand and swear an oath to support and defend the constitution. We also choose to do as Joan of Arc did – willfully giving the best of ourselves in service to a cause larger than ourselves. And although we certainly have no intention of meeting the same fate as this brave warrior, we too strive to do our part every day to light a spark of hope in the lives of citizens hungry for freedom. Building a meaningful legacy along the way.