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Memorial Day

| May 29, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Yesterday was Memorial Day, our holiday for remembering all those – some 1.4 million from the American Revolution until now – who gave their lives in conflicts while serving in our nation’s armed forces. 
The idea of having a time to commemorate those who have died in the line of duty while serving their country goes back into our history.  Some see a parallel between our country’s celebration and the European Catholic tradition of entire towns marching to church yards to honor dead family members and friends.  In the U.S., there is also a history of annual “decoration days” where people gathered together, tended cemeteries, placed flowers on graves, spent time with family and other friends.  This represents a similar tradition.
Immediately following the Civil War, people from the North and the South saw a need for a national celebration to honor those who had died and also to rebuild unity and good will.  You can understand these parallel needs when you realize that some 750,000 people died in the Civil War out of a total national population of 31.5 million.1  This number of deaths represents about 2.4% of the total population or about 7.8% of the males over age 14 (those who would have done most of the fighting).  Everyone living at that time would have had a close relationship – immediate or extended family member, neighbor, friend – with someone who did not come home from the war.
These numbers are huge.  More Americans died in the Civil War than in all the armed conflicts this country has engaged in since then.  If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as in the Civil War, there would be over four million names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial instead of about 58,000.2
Over the years Memorial Day and its celebration have taken various forms.  It first became a national holiday in 1868, celebrated on May 30 each year.  Within a decade, you could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of this spring event.  Today, the holiday is celebrated on the last Monday each May by families and communities.  In Boston, for example, each Memorial Day “the Massachusetts Military Fund plants a garden of 37,000 flags in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Boston Common to commemorate each of the Massachusetts service members who have given their lives to defend the United States and our freedom since the Revolutionary War.”3
So, what might be the leadership lessons that we can draw from the history surrounding Memorial Day?  I think immediately of two, sacrifice and gratitude.
With regard to sacrifice, we may never be called upon to sacrifice our lives as some 1.4 million of our fellow citizens have since the Revolutionary War began in 1776.  Yet, we are called daily to sacrifice something we value for others.  I think of my grandfather who drilled into me as a young boy, you never ask others to do what you are unwilling to do.  Or, said differently by Professor Harley Myler, Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Lamar University:  “Second lieutenants eat last.”  Parents will choose to miss a meal so that their children may have something to eat.  A leader will spend the time necessary with a staff member to address his or her very real needs even if it causes the leader to change his or her plans.  As I look at the sacrifices others have made for me, it compels me to make sacrifices for those I encounter.
The Tuesday Reading has focused previously on gratitude.4  In this guest essay, Bill Hogue, executive coach in the MOR Leadership Programs and senior clinical professor of information science and executive consultant for enterprise initiatives at the University of South Carolina where he previously served as the University of South Carolina’s first Vice President for Information Technology and CIO, recalled a statement by Robert Emmons, author and Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis, about gratitude.  Emmons said:  “Feeling gratitude starts with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them (emphasis added).” 5
So, sacrifice and gratitude are inexplicably linked.  As you go about your activities this week, take note of the opportunities you have to step it up and make a difference for others by doing more than you might have in the past. And, also be more diligent in looking for those opportunities where you need to recognize what others have done for you.  Making the effort to do both of these will change you.  It has changed me.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Guy Gugliotta, New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll, NY Times, April 2012.
  2. David W. Blight, Forgetting Why We Remember, NY Times Opinion, May 2011.
  3.  Memorial Day Activities for Boston Visitors – 2018, Boston Discover Guide.
  4. Bill Hogue, Gratitude, Tuesday Reading, January 2018.
  5. Clare Ansberry, Beyond Thankful:  Cultivating a Life of Gratitude, Turning Points, Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2017.