[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.