Leadership of the Graybeards

[June 7, 2018]  My subject today is not that kind of gray beard (shown in the thumbnail) but the kind you might find helping a military general work out a complex strategic problem.  Graybeards is a term of endearment applied to retired U.S. military Flag officers who have returned to lend assistance to current, active duty Flag officers.

The first time I heard of this “mysterious” term was as a Lieutenant Colonel.  I was a staff officer at the 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters in 2003 getting ready for combat.  The commander, a two-star U.S. Army General, was getting ready for the division’s first operational deployment since Desert Storm.

Several graybeards were assigned to help his unit prepare.  What I learned was that the graybeards provided a valuable addition to the unit; the experience they brought with them was honed through their senior-level experience and time in service.

A few years later, I was assigned a 3-star retired general who had held a position in South Korea.  He was helping me understand my role by providing guidance and expertise to me as the senior wartime Engineer on the peninsula.  I was able to ask any question I wanted on any subject.

My conversations with this graybeard were confidential and I very much appreciated his on-going assessment of the South Korean military, their political structure and culture, as well as how the U.S. military could best help in time of war.  Our conversations were not limited to open-source material; much of it classified at the Top Secret level.

The concept of graybeards is also applied downward in the rank structure.  For example, I’ve seen full Colonels fulfill those roles when they assist more junior officers.  While this was not common because of costs to the military, their value was always recognized.

Graybeards are not restricted to the U.S. military.  I meet and had long conversations with the equivalent in the South Korean, Australian, British, and Columbian armies.  I’m sure they also exist in other military services.  One of my favorite South Korean graybeards was Paik, Sun Yup (백선엽); a national hero.

The value added by having Graybeards can never be calculated but it is worth the investment whether they from the military or civilian sector.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

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

28 thoughts on “Leadership of the Graybeards

  1. Greg Heyman

    I heard of them long ago while helping out some folks at Fort Hood, Texas. These guys weren’t paid much but they added a tremendous amount of advice. They were always treated with the most respect and given considerable latitude to do their jobs.

  2. Dennis Mathes

    Another great article on those things that make leaders better.

    1. Jerome Smith

      I agree. Worth it to me to read this blog every day. I usually drink my coffee, open theleaadermaker.com on my iPad, and relax before running out the door to work.

  3. Tracey Brockman

    The idea that mentoring is a significant benefit to leaders has not always been agreed upon. Today, however, I see no way a leader can survive the complexities of modern leadership roles without one (or more).

  4. Watson Bell

    Others have said it well but I will add that “graybeards” are found in other organizations (usually large ones) but not like the US military does it. Well done here, Gen Satterfield. Thanks for bringing up such an important role to improve leader capabilities.

  5. Shawn C. Stolarz

    Mentoring is what Graybeards are all about. That is their sole function and those who are best at it are those that keep in touch with the current situation at any organization, stay up to date on technology and innovation, are well read, and have the passion to mentor others. They value cannot be overestimated.

  6. Albert Ayer

    Gen Paik is 97 years old, a great hero to the South Korean people, and an amazing man. I would have read his biography but it’s in Hangul (the Korean language).

  7. Yusaf from Texas

    A really good article today. Thank you Gen Satterfield.

  8. Sadako Red

    Graybeards is also the name of the Korean War Veterans Associaton magazine (which I read). The reason they are called graybeards is not that different from how it’s being used here in Gen. Satterfield’s blog post today. They are older (wiser!) and have the time to devote to teaching, coaching, and mentoring leaders younger than they are.

    1. Georgie M.

      Good to see you’re up on Gen Satterfield’s leadership blog. When is your next article here?

    2. Jonathan B.

      Yes, we are looking forward to it.

    3. Sadako Red

      Coming out soon, according to Gen Satterfield, himself.

    4. Scotty Bush

      I am a BIG FAN of yours. I can’t wait for your next article. Thank you Sadako Red.

  9. Joey Holmes

    Took me a while to figure out what you were talking about. Thank you. Cheers!

  10. Lynn Pitts

    I personally have had no dealings with graybeards but I did hear about them and the value the add is great. Thanks Gen Satterfield for keeping us in the loop.

  11. Max Foster

    Good post today on a topic that I had no idea existed. Makes perfect sense to me and why the U.S. military would invest in them.

  12. Drew Dill

    Never heard of them before but the graybeard concept seems to be logical to me. Some organizations have older, more experienced employees take on a greater mentorship role. I think this might be the same or similar thing.

  13. Army Captain

    Graybeards are a great source of mentoring and coaching. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of them.

    1. Edward Kennedy III

      They’ve have been around a long time and not always called graybeards. Recently the US Army has reduced their numbers due to costs. They may change however under Pres Trump.

    2. Doug Smith

      I hear that graybeards are highly valued in the military services.

    3. Army Captain

      Doug, you are correct. Usually on commanders or very senior staff get to have a graybeard assist them.

    4. Anita

      Appreciate your insider views. Thanks Army Captain.

Comments are closed.