Dunkirk – the stories we’re told

Dunkirk – the stories we’re told

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Last weekend I watched the 2017 Dunkirk movie on DVD. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the story though.  My grandad was one of the many brave souls who was rescued from the beach at Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. I have his medals though. My grandad was adamant that you didn’t wear the Dunkirk Medal on the same line as his other medals (there were numerous). The reason he gave was that ‘we were in retreat’. I have always accepted this story. I have even handed it on to others.

The official record claims that just under 340,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk.  That’s a lot of people. And a lot of rescuers – nearly a 1000 boats. How scary must it have been to be hemmed in by people who following their orders wanted to kill or capture you? Beyond many people’s full comprehension (mine included).

So, what leadership lessons can we take from my Grandad’s version of why you don’t wear the medal alongside others? As I understand more about Dunkirk three come through strongly for me:

  1. Don’t always believe what people tell you.
  2. Define success based on reality, not just the ultimate objective.
  3. Time gives perspective


Don’t always believe what people tell you

My Grandad had been told that you don’t wear the Dunkirk Medal on the same line as other medals. Suggesting that it was in some way a lesser medal (or at least that’s how it came across to me). His justification was that we were in retreat. That’s only part of the story. The Dunkirk Medal was never formally recognised by the Crown. As I dig deeper into what happened the reality of events feels at odds with the suggestion that the medal needs to be worn on a different line or that it shouldn’t be recognised formally. Medals are awarded for achievement and bravery, not just victory. I will forever more argue that the Dunkirk Medal should be worn on the same line as victories.

Define success based on reality, not just the ultimate objective

The connection with victory and the symbol of a medal doesn’t do what those brave folks went through to make it ‘home’ justice.  My Grandad and people just like him went on to view this courageous event as something that was a failure (we were in retreat).  Let’s look at an alternative version of events.  340,000 massacred as they attempted to flee Dunkirk.  Puts things into perspective as we go about our ‘busy’ lives. Make sure we define success based on the reality of the situation – not just the ultimate objective, e.g. in this case the war is won.

Time brings perspective

Perhaps when the suggestion of wearing the medal on a different line was first generated it made sense. Time, however, allows us to view events in a more significant context. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that without the Dunkirk evacuation the course of the Second World War would have changed – perhaps dramatically. We can only see that with the benefit of hindsight.

As you go into the next week, think what story you believe in that might benefit from a refresh. There are always different versions of the same situation. We typically chose which one we want to believe based on a whole range of factors. Some conscious and many more unconscious.  Keep an open mind and see what alternatives you can come up with.  As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.



How about sharing:

Outstanding. Not only is this true for Dunkirk and other battlies, like mine in VN, but in the daily leadership of any organization. This year alone, I have experienced the use of all three of your points. High Praise to your Grand Father. He was indeed a hero.

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