D-Day Provides Lessons For MBAs

UVA photos

UVA photos

It isn’t only historians and future military officers who study D-Day, the largest amphibious military assault in history. The invasion of Normandy by Allied troops during World War II also provides lessons in leadership and strategy at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

The Normandy program is one of Darden’s many Global Business Experiences, where students enroll in themed courses that involve one to two weeks of international travel. Since 2014, many Darden students have traveled to northern France to learn how leadership and decision-making fueled the success of D-Day, whose 72nd anniversary is June 6.

This year, in May, 24 students made the trip, led by Professor Gordon Rudd of strategic studies at the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting; Professor Edward Lengel, director of the Papers of George Washington Collection at UVA; and Darden alumnus Bill Utt.


Utt has been a trustee of the Darden School Foundation since 2012. In 2014 he retired from his position as CEO of KBR, a Fortune 500 engineering and construction company in Houston.

“Bob Bruner, who was the dean then, thought it would be interesting for me to participate in the program with the students,” Utt says, “to share my business experience and perhaps help the students bridge the military discussions and business analogies.”

Before making the trip, Utt was no expert on Normandy or military history. But in reading the coursework assigned to students, he found many leadership and business parallels that he hoped would be instructive.


Utt quickly learned that Normandy is a good study of leadership effectiveness.

“Hitler motivated people by fear,” he says. “He didn’t share information and he didn’t delegate. There’s debate over whether his generals did or didn’t do things because of this lack of information.”

Eisenhower was more transparent, Utt says, and his style produced better results. “When U.S. troops landed on Omaha Beach, after being separated from their team, they were able to take initiative and fulfill the intent of the objective, rather than the specific objective spelled out in their briefing,” Utt says.

This was one of the biggest lessons Stanley (Jay) Kraska, a student in the program, says he took away from the trip. “Hitler wanted almost complete control of large-scale troop movements in the Western front,” Kraska says, “to the point where a large portion of his army was unable to respond on D-Day because he was asleep.”

The ideal approach? To build a strong group of trusted leaders around you, Kraska says, and give them the autonomy to act on smaller things without your approval. “Of course delegation doesn’t remove responsibility,” he says, “but it allows operations to run more efficiently.”


Utt found another parallel between sacrifice and investment. There’s a finite number of lives that any commander will invest in a military operation, he says, and it’s the same in business, only with capital.

To explain this concept to students, Utt uses the WWII example of Pegasus Bridge. An advance party of soldiers captured the bridge to stall German reinforcements. Commanders made the decision to put soldiers’ lives at risk in a move that proved critical to the success of D-Day.

“The military takes a bridge, and the currency is life,” Utt says. “In the business world, you build a factory and the cost is money.”

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