Lessons from Normandy - Strategy & leadership

Susan Eisenhower’s reflections on taking Gettysburg students to Normandy in culmination of the Eisenhower Institute’s SALTT program.

For my generation, World War II and D-Day were defining events, which shaped our post-war upbringings and the world of our day. When I was asked to consider taking a group of students to Normandy as part of my ongoing seminar “Strategy & Leadership in Transformational Times”(SALTT), I was skeptical. Even though the objective of the seminar is to “impart an appreciation and an excitement for developing lifelong insights into strategy, leadership, followership, their values, and their roles in contemporary geopolitics,” I was uncertain as to whether or not undergraduate students would be able to connect with long-ago events and gain something personally from the experience of visiting the Normandy beaches. I was very gratified by the outcome.

As I was to discover, the excitement of studying World War II and visiting the Normandy beaches went both ways. I was moved to see the terrain again—this time through the perspectives of a younger generation. The students’ questions were fresh ones—borne of a generation whose first political memories were formed in the shadow of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Their awe at the “can do” commitment of the Allied forces to fulfill their mission made my own commitment to them all the stronger. It was energizing to see how this historic chapter helped them develop a better understanding of the crucial role that strategy and leadership plays in ensuring successful outcomes. The students also gained a new appreciation of how badly we need people with these skills today, in business and in public life.

“It’s not until you go to Normandy and see the beaches and…the conditions these men were fighting under, that I think you fully can appreciate what they did there.”

—Nicole Giles ’15


Preparation made a difference

Over the academic year, 10 students and I analyzed the grand strategy of World War II and the considerations that went into choosing the French invasion site, as well as the organizational issues at stake. We also studied leadership at all echelons of the massive effort. (D-Day is still today the greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare.) During the year, students were focused on the entire scope of the invasion—from the overall strategy and politics of coalition warfare to the tactical successes and failures at each beachhead.

Before our departure, my SALTT group met with Lieutenant General David H. Huntoon Jr., former superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Colonel Leonard J. Fullenkamp, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, author, and former professor of Military History and Strategy at the United States Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. They provided penetrating overviews of what we were about to see and experience.

During our four-day visit, students walked the sands of each of the five beaches that comprised the Allied Invasion—British Sword and Gold beaches, Canadian Juno beach, and the American Utah and Omaha beaches. The group also visited several sites deemed pivotal to the Allied success, including the “Mulberry harbour” at Arromanches, the gun positions of Pointe du Hoc (where U.S. Army Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs under heavy machine gun fire), and the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. In this small village, we met with the mayor Jean Quétier and visited the Airborne Museum to learn about the perilous airborne component of the invasion. By visiting each beach, as well as the backcountry where Allied forces parachuted from aircraft into treacherous terrain, students began to fully appreciate the enormous scale of Operation Overlord. In doing so, it was clear to see how each component of the plan contributed to its overall success. The invasion of Normandy led to the liberation of France and the eventual victory over Nazi power.

“You’re standing there in the American cemetery and you’re in awe of the number of young individuals who gave their lives.”

—Nicholas Papoutsis ’17


“The sun reflects off the marble into your eyes. Everything is completely white.”

—Ryan Corrigan ’15

At the heart of the mission

Our trip culminated in a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. The pristinely manicured gravesites are the final resting place of 9,387 American military dead, the majority of whom were killed during the invasion of Normandy and subsequent operations throughout France. Two of our students, on behalf of Gettysburg College, laid a wreath at the foot of the famous bronze statue titled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.

Peter Barrett ’15 later observed that the trip to Normandy “forced us to confront a lot of things in a really tangible way. The age [of the young men] on the gravestones…really hit me,” he told our group.

And that is perhaps the point. Minimizing the loss of life and fulfilling the mission was at the heart of the invasion’s strategy, and it took leadership and adaptability to make that happen. However, on Omaha Beach, where American forces were tragically pinned down on the first day of the invasion, another truth became evident: everyone who disembarked from their landing craft were well trained. Nevertheless, thousands of young people lost their lives, not because they were irresponsible or inattentive, but because they were unlucky. The sheer randomness of the first minutes of the assault was difficult for us all to process. However, the internal strength that was summoned by the thousands of young soldiers, sailors, and airmen who survived—kids who did not, perhaps, choose to join the armed forces in the first place—is truly inspirational. They summoned a spirit so powerful that they were able to complete what seemed like an impossible feat. By drawing on their internal reserves, and giving their all to the challenge, they prevailed—and, in doing so, they changed the world.  

—Susan Eisenhower

Susan Eisenhower is the CEO and chairman of The Eisenhower Group, Inc. (EGI), a Washington, D.C.—based consulting company founded in 1986 to provide strategic counsel on business development, public affairs, and communications projects. Eisenhower has also had a distinguished career as a policy analyst and has done extensive work in executive training on strategic leadership. She is chairman emeritus at The Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College, where Eisenhower offers her undergraduate program, Strategy & Leadership in Transformational Times.


Engaged Learning
Provide high-impact learning opportunities within and beyond the classroom.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Fri, 4 Sep 2015

Share this story: