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During WWII, 45,000 American fighting men had to be taken off the front lines of the European Theater of Operations in the winter of 1944-1945. The equivalent of 10 to 15 battle harden battalions; these casualties of experienced, trained veterans were not due to enemy action but to something much simpler, indeed preventable: trench foot.

Trench foot is caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions and if left untreated can results in gangrene, which in turn can lead to the need for amputation. The solution is simple: wash and dry your feet, put on dry socks and shoes.

Simple perhaps but if you are serving on the Western Front in the dead of winter (the winter of ’44-’45 was the coldest in 50 years), hadn’t had a shower in weeks and were dead tired from being on the move all day long, not so easy. It meant finding dry wood for a fire, heating water (perhaps even snow) in their helmets, carefully washing their feet in the cold (sleeping accommodations were generally fox holes or deserted, unheated  buildings without power or light) and hanging their socks out to dry overnight.

Warren Bennis, the well-known American writer on leadership, got his 1st leadership experience as a 19 year old lieutenant on the Western Front during the winter of ’44-’45. Determined that none of his men would fall victim to trench foot or frost bite, Bennis would personally and nightly “go from squad to squad, making sure each man took off his boots, washed his feet, dried them carefully, and put on dry socks before he put his boots back on.”

The key points here are “personally” and “nightly”; in Bennis’ words “This wasn’t the kind of campaign you could wage by fiat.”

Some things, some initiatives, setting or maintaining some norms or standards simply require that managers and leaders get out of their offices (or tents) and get personally involved (i.e. walk the factory floor). You cannot lead exclusively from behind your desk. Leaders must get out and visit the front line, see for yourself, ask questions, look deeply, listen to learn.