Learning from Blunt Leaders

By | June 11, 2015

[June 11, 2015]  One of the lessons people everywhere have learned is that a leader will make occasionally make blunt statements about important issues. When senior leaders – national leaders, corporate CEOs, military generals – use blunt language, it gets our attention and that is often their purpose. I once had a two-star general from the country of Iraq tell me his superior officer was acting like a donkey-brained1 preschooler.

Apparently someone had taught him some of our American humor when referring to leaders who make mistakes. He was talking about how his superior officer had made a number of crucial errors in deployment of troops during a battle with insurgents in northeast Baghdad; many of his men were killed. Military officers from most nations can be tactful but also possess the ability to be blunt and, in that straightforward manner, they are also being very clear in what they think. This can be a good thing for it helps us understand the thinking of a successful leader.

For example, the opinions of General MacArthur are very enlightening today and since he was known to be exceptionally blunt, we get to see into the mind of a famous military hero. MacArthur was very self-assured and his views frequently recorded by his staff and the national press, thus giving us a good snapshot of his innermost thoughts. This gives us some perspective when learning from the failures of others and MacArthur managed to openly critical for any failure that occurred.

As a participant in World War I, MacArthur was in several major battles. His belief was that the British, French, and German generals had betrayed their men again and again by sending them forward in hopeless charges against the very heart of enemy machine gun and artillery emplacements. It was a war of lion-hearted soldiers, it was always believed, commanded by donkey-brained generals.2 MacArthur said that when the WWI set piece battles were over and the casualties were assessed, it was almost impossible to tell who had been the victor and who the loser.

General MacArthur was also blunt in his characterization of those who did not do as he wished. By the time we MacArthur was involved in WWII, he had been a general since WWI … some say he was a general too long and thus would not listened to others. He was critical of any military or political effort that did not fit into his plan. By the time of the Korean War, he would bluntly and emotionally express his opinion about anyone, to include the U.S. President.

Leaders who express themselves the way MacArthur did are putting their positions at risk (MacArthur was eventually relieved of duty by the U.S. President).3 However, we can learn from those senior leaders who are blunt because they rarely hide their thoughts.

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[1] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Donkey-brained

[2] The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, David Halberstam, 2007.

[3] It should be noted that MacArthur was extremely intelligent and he knew it. He learned lessons from the mistakes of others and would not repeat them during WWII and Korea. He was far more flexible and conservative in the use of troops. In WWII he employed an island-hopping technique in the Pacific that avoided major Japanese troop concentrations and left many enemy troops isolated and stranded. During the Korean War he used the Allied Navies and Air Forces to move his troops about (the Inchon Landing is a classic example) and not just as attacking forces.



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.