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As we began the New Year, America lost one of its important heroes, a great leader from a generation filled with remarkable leaders, known and unknown.

Richard "Dick" Winters was an intensely private and humble man who had asked that the news of his death not be announced until after his funeral.  Mr. Winters died in Central Pennsylvania after a battle with Parkinson's Disease, the Associated Press reported. He was 92. 

Why is Mr. Winters worthy of note?  He became the leader of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne after the death of his company commander during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.  He was not the only battlefield promotion that important day in the history of the world.  We might not have ever known of Mr. Winters — his courage and his skills as  the leader of Easy Company — had it not been for Richard Ambrose's best-selling book and the HBO miniseries of the same name: Band of Brothers.

What made Winters such a good leader?

"When he said, 'Let's go,' he was right in front," said William Guarnere, 88, who was called "Wild Bill" by his comrades. "He was never in the back.  A leader personified."

"He was one hell of a guy, one of the greatest soldiers I was ever under," said Edward Heffron, 87, whose company nickname was "Babe."  Heffron said that thinking about Winters brought a tear to his eye. "He was a wonderful officer, a wonderful leader.  He had what you needed, guts and brains.  He took care of his men.  That's very important."

Another Easy Company veteran said of Winters, “I would follow him to hell and back.”

During the invasion, Winters led his 12 men who had survived the landing in destroying an enemy battery and obtained a detailed map of German defenses along Utah Beach.  When ordered to take out the German cannons that threatened death and destruction on other units landing on the beach, Winters never told the officer that he only had 12 men.  More significantly, before attacking the battery, Winters went first — alone — to scout the German defenses. In September of 1944, he led 20 men in the successful attack of 200 German soldiers.  In the Battle of the Bulge, Winters and his men held their position until reinforcements broke through enemy lines.  Shortly afterward, Winters was promoted to Major.  

He was beloved and respected by his men. 

As I work with the leaders of today, I sometimes think back to this Greatest Generation, the enormous sacrifices that they made, and the valuable lessons they learned in the heat of combat.  Every day another great leader, another hero from this time in American history, dies. As their numbers dwindle, they still have lessons to teach us about great leadership if we will only look. That is their legacy.

As I read about Major Winters, as I thought about Mr. Ambrose's compelling book and the powerful miniseries that captured our attention, I am reminded of a definition of leadership:

"A great leader is a work of art.  A bad leader is a tragedy."

© 2011 John Gregory Self

Quote Source:  Associated Press

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