Strange thing, leadership. Towards the end of the Second World War, John Wayne was flying his B-17 back from a raid when it was badly damaged by flak. As there was a danger that the fuel tanks would explode, Wayne ordered his aircrew to bail out – he thought they were safe over French territory.

Unfortunately, the crew were captured and most murdered by German villagers, part of a Nazi-coerced reprisal for the RAF firebombing of Pforzheim. Wayne managed to get the fires out on his Flying Fortress and limped back to Cambridgeshire, landing safely despite extensive damage, but content knowing that his friends were safe. It was only after the war ended that Wayne discovered their horrific fate.

Despite the name of our central character, this isn’t a Hollywood movie but just one incident in the life of Wing Commander John Wayne DFC, who died recently at the age of 97. Wayne’s distress and anger at discovering the fate of his comrades came while the German village of Huchenfeld near Pforzheim was itself struggling with feelings of deep remorse at murdering Wayne’s crew.

Overcoming his grief and putting any bitterness aside, Wayne helped to drive post-war reconciliation efforts with the village, resulting in lifelong friendships that now transcend Wayne’s passing. Huchenfeld’s churchyard contains a memorial to the RAF crew and carpets of crocuses (donated by Wayne along with an annual gift of daffodil wreaths) flower annually to mark the start of Spring. Huchenfeld’s village school proudly displays a rocking horse, commissioned and donated by Wayne, appropriately named Hoffnung (“Hope”).

Strange thing, leadership. Most people in positions of leadership would admit to having a few books about leadership on their shelves. On their covers are catchy titles suggesting shortcuts to leadership success: “The Book of Leadership: How to Get Yourself, Your Team and Your Organisation Further Than You Ever Thought”; “Leadership and the One Minute Manager”; even “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”. As with that last title, particularly popular are those that give a list of things to tick off. That’s it; read the book, ticked that off, now I’m a great leader.

Of course, the ostentatious signs of power that include yellowing certificates hung on walls, A-Z leadership books on shelves gathering dust and top-heavy hierarchical structures that dominate communication within organisations, all suggest a superficial exercise of power. In such organisations, emails help managers to avoid personal contacts and mainly serve to create an accountability record, while BCC is used widely. It’s a working environment where trust is low and people operate in strict silos. Few take chances, fearing a finger-pointing regime that discourages enterprise and innovation: “I’m the boss and that means I make the decisions – that’s what I’m paid for”.

Such workplaces are unfortunately all too common. Even when a new broom attempts to change the mindset, he or she often struggles to change attitudes and approaches that are far too embedded. So, they compromise and allow themselves to be side-tracked into something like a major rebranding exercise, avoiding the more challenging task of initiating systemic change based on an agreed set of values that serve to benchmark all actions and decisions throughout the company.

The understandable expectation upon John Wayne would have been continuing hatred for the German villagers that murdered his crew, but Wayne’s values went beyond that. He carried his career-defining bravery into his private life and did what he could to change feelings on all sides. But it shouldn’t take the horrors of war to make any leader move beyond the superficiality of leadership as commonly exercised. True leadership is doing what you know is right, after all, and filling the room with Hope for the future.

Author: Neil Roskilly