George C. Marshall:  Leadership Lessons

By | August 3, 2020

[August 3, 2020]  In May of this year, I wrote that I would be dedicating space to discuss the leadership traits of George C. Marshall.1  This article is my second installment on that promise.  I’ve chosen Marshall to focus upon because of his proven planning and organizing skills during World War II and post-war.  Referred to as “the true organizer of Allied victory,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives us a hint at the abilities that are manifested in Marshall.

Based upon a massive four-volume biography of Marshall, titled “Education of a General, 1880-1939,” author Forrest Pogue provides a candid picture of the young Marshall from his childhood and leading up to the beginning of World War II.  Marshall was undoubtedly one of America’s finest Flag Officers.  Today, I’ll be giving three leadership lessons distilled from his lifetime of accomplishments.  Much of the following is condensed from a 2018 article by Michael J. Hennelly.2

Leadership Lesson 1: Speaking truth to power is one thing.  Disagreeing with the powerful is different and usually dangerous.  Strategic decisions are rarely clear-cut.  Reasonable people often disagree on the merits of a specific strategy.  For those experienced in the business of high-level decision making, we know that conformity is a safe place from which to continue one’s career.  Interestingly, George Marshall’s career was studded with risky and non-conformist moves that challenged people in positions of power.

Leadership Lesson 2:  Strategic leaders have to be good at interacting with followers but, more importantly, they have to be good at interacting with other leaders.  Working with other leaders is far different and, in some respects, much more complicated than working with followers.  Groups of leaders come from different teams and frequently have divergent goals, priorities, and world views.  During WWII, Marshall spent a great deal of time persuading, informing, arguing, and negotiating with other leaders.

Leadership Lesson 3:  Empowering others is not a modern concept.  Marshall made it clear that he didn’t want subordinates who simply identified problems for him to solve.  He wanted subordinates who identified problems, solved them, and then informed him of the results.  By doing so, Marshall generated an enormous amount of loyalty.  He also demonstrated that the exercise of empowerment is a complex mix of several different leadership qualities.  One of Marshall’s best-known attributes during his entire career was the time he took to remember people, evaluate their performance, and continuously re-evaluate their potential.

From these three leadership lessons, it is not too hard to see that “character” is what best explains Marshall’s success over the many years he spent in both uniform as a senior leader and as a senior civilian working in the U.S. government.

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  1. https://www.theleadermaker.com/the-organizer-of-victory/
  2. https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/01/11/leadership_lessons_from_general_george_c_marshall_112885.html
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “George C. Marshall:  Leadership Lessons

  1. Max Foster

    One of the greatest Soldiers whoever lived. He never led troops in combat was a genius organizer and administrator.

    1. Linux Man

      A biography on a man with amazing personal integrity but flawed judgement, his favoriting a cross-Chanel attack in 1942 : Operation Sledgehammer being the most egregious, thankfully Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke had a better strategic grasp.

  2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    A few days after Marshall resigned as chief of staff on November 21, 1945, Pres. Harry S. Truman persuaded him to attempt, as his special representative, to mediate the Chinese Civil War. Though his efforts were unsuccessful, in January 1947 he was appointed secretary of state.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Very interesting. I wonder why his mediation failed.

    2. Jerome Smith

      Great man, obviously and I’m also interested in the failure of him to stop the Chinese Civil War. Sadly his work didn’t pan out. Now we have communist China to deal with. Maybe we should have thrown our support more forcefully behind the independents. Hindsight is 20-20.

  3. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    Somewhat aloof in manner, he seemed to some acquaintances cold by nature, but he had a fierce temper held under careful control and a great affection and warmth for those close to him. Indeed, Marshall was a great man. We should go to the trouble of studying him more. ?

  4. Greg Heyman

    Another great article. Thanks Gen. Satterfield.

  5. Harry B. Donner

    I agree that she is an idiot and very very anti-American. In her world, we would all be lined up against the wall and shot for being a “traitor” to the revolution. Good thing she will soon be voted out of office. The good news for me is that every time she opens her stupid mouth, the mush that comes out again repels normal Americans. We get to see what a real Socialist useful idiot is like in real time.

    1. JT Patterson

      Too funny. Thanks but I don’t want anything to do with her and I’m from her NYC district. Yes, she should read more about Marshall and others that had real problems to deal with instead of her made up “inequality” theme.

  6. Tom Bushmaster

    Gen. Marshall was later U.S. secretary of state (1947–49) and of defense (1950–51). The European Recovery Program he proposed in 1947 became known as the Marshall Plan. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1953. Just a note.

  7. Yusaf from Texas

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is smart and pretty. But she doesn’t know a thing about how the real world works. Maybe she should begin reading about Gen. Marshall and learn about what it takes to really lead instead of showing her debased Socialist ideology (neo-Marxist).

  8. Willie Shrumburger

    As usually, I enjoyed and was entertained by your daily article. This one hit home because I’m always on the lookout for “senior leader” lessons. Reading about leadership restricts me, for the most part, about reading on junior leadership traits and skills. I would like to advance myself more. Fortunately, the US military teaches advanced leadership and is always culling out less-qualified officers from their senior leaders. Good for them. This is why our military is so good.

    1. Eric Coda

      I agree. Our Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy are the best in the world – hands down. Also our other services like the Coast Guard and Public Health Agency are doing good things for us every single day. They are all on the first lines of protecting our freedom and now protecting our health and safety.

      1. Stacey Borden

        Don’t forget the Police. The cancel culture attempt to discredit our policemen and women in uniform have only discredited themselves.

    2. Gil Johnson

      Political leaders like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. consistently fail us. She is making a bad name for women in politics. Everyone I know says “get her out” now. I wonder if sleepy New York will be able to get outside their un-intellectual echo chamber enough to do so.

  9. Watson Bell

    I like Number 2 that focuses on the idea that senior leaders must be able to work with and get along with other senior leaders. In this case it means getting along with other military leaders but also senior political leaders, community leaders, leaders from other nations and cultures. This is about leadership in the real world.

  10. Randy Goodman

    I agree with both you, Gen. Satterfield, and with Gen. Marshall that one’s character makes the difference. Excellent article with some very important senior leader lessons.

    1. Georgie B.

      Yep, Randy you got it straight. Both of these guys are worth reading. I wish I’d had their level of experience. Makes me regret not joining the US Marine Corps out of High School like I had originally intended. Thanks all.

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