The 1963 movie “The Great Escape” is an epic war tale based on actual life events, yet significantly modified to appeal to the American audience and embellish the characters in the movie. The big-screen blockbuster adapted Australian writer Paul Brickhill’s firsthand experience documented in his book of the same name about a 1944 mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp.
In the movie, the “Cooler King,” U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Virgil Hilts, played by the iconic actor Steve McQueen, stole the show! He was a serial, solo escapist, always captured and returned to the stalag, and always sent to the “cooler,” otherwise known as isolation. The most memorable part of the movie is when Hilts escapes during the great prison break, steals a German soldier’s motorcycle, and makes a beeline to the border. He’s chased by his imprisoners while racing through the Bavarian hills, jumping over barb-wire barriers until he finally spins out of control and entangles himself in the wire. His antagonists seize him, return to camp, and of course, send him to the cooler. McQueen’s portrayal of Hilts smacked with determination, so much so, there was never a doubt in the audience’s mind that Hilts would attempt another escape.
In my Army days, I worked with a fellow instructor, Maj. Stanley Newall, while we were both assigned to the countering terrorism department at the U.S. Army Military Police School. Stan was a former and one of the longest-held prisoners of war, seized by the Viet Cong. He was a private first class when taken and endured imprisonment for almost six unbelievable years. Stan didn’t dwell on his years in captivity. However, he shared his determination to return to his high school sweetheart and home, which kept him enduring day by day.
I was also fortunate to meet and work with the late Sen. John McCain and his staff on one of my legislative assignments in the Army. McCain, of course, one of our country’s most famous prisoners of war, was held in captivity like Stan for five and a half years. Every time I was with or around McCain, I walked away understanding what determination in a leader looks and feels like. Just like McQueen’s portrayal of Hilts, McCain exuded determination, and everyone in his presence sensed it.
Determination is an attribute the best leaders possess. It manifests itself in the leader’s resoluteness to achieve a goal or succeed at a mission. Like a magnet, a leader’s determination attracts and stimulates you to get on board and collectively perform beyond your singular capabilities; it amplifies three of your five senses, seeing, hearing, touching, and inspires you to act. Determination comes in all flavors, too. I’ve observed fresh off-the-street Army recruits achieve unbelievable deeds because they were determined to succeed. Their determination inspired their teammates to follow suit. I’ve also worked for bigger-than-life generals like Dave Petraeus, determined to solve the most challenging problems perplexing our nation’s security, inspiring an Army to perform under the most austere and hostile conditions.
Determination is an attribute that falls into the leadership skill toolbox instead of the management skill toolbox. It can be taught and then mirrored, replicated and perpetuated. It’s wholly dependent upon your volition. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The best leaders understand that with purpose, vision, direction and clarity, determination is what gets you across the finish line and in the winner’s circle. Always. However, without purpose, determination is nonexistent. Without vision, determination descends. Without direction, determination stumbles. Without clarity, determination succumbs. Without determination, equivocation, uncertainty and chaos ensue, and failure is around the corner.
Over the next 12 months, CEOs and business owners will face several challenges in the post-pandemic environment. The way we conducted business pre-pandemic is never to return. And a novel business environment is months, if not a year away. We’re in another transition, and best we refine our purpose, restate our vision, articulate the direction and clarify our milestones, then with determination and resoluteness, achieve them. Followers will mirror, replicate and perpetuate your determination.
Mimic the likes of Capt. Virgil Hilts’ fictional character in “The Great Escape,” or real-life heroes Major Stanley Newall and Sen. John McCain. Their determination got them across the finish line and in the winner’s circle. That’s how you lead, think, plan and act. Now let’s get after it!
Retired Col. Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions. Paul and Lisa mentor and coach business owners on leadership and management principles in achieving and sustaining their business growth and profitability goals. He can be reached at [email protected]