Profile: General Curtis LeMay

[May 3, 2021]  It is said that hard times create hard men.  World War II was a war that characterized hard times, and out of that trauma came Curtis LeMay, a hard man; the youngest and longest-serving general in modern American history.  He rose from obscurity, lacking social graces, old-boy connections, or lineage to become America’s most innovative and controversial military commander.1

LeMay’s career in the U.S. Air Force spanned a difficult time in history, especially in America.  He began flying bi-planes in the 1920s, commanded the most extensive air armada ever in world history, and ended his career in an age of intercontinental nuclear missiles.  During WWII, he turned the ineffective and costly European bombing campaign into a success.  He was also the architect of the firebombing of Tokyo and sixty-four other Japanese cities.

“I’ll tell you what war is about.  You’ve got to kill people, and when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.” – Air Force General Curtis LeMay

Military wartime Generals practice leadership on a level rarely understood.  The case of Curtis LeMay is an interesting one to profile because he is so unlike so many of the more successful profiled here.  Curtis LeMay’s leadership traits are:

  • A ruthless sense of reality
  • Brilliant strategic thinker
  • Innovativeness
  • Brutally honesty
  • Callous and abrupt
  • Strong commitment to service
  • Devoted to his men
  • Did not tolerate falsification of data
  • Leads from the front
  • Morally and Physically courageous

In 1945, LeMay was a hero.  He was celebrated in victory parades, on the cover of Time magazine, and met with the United States President.  Twenty years later, everything had changed.  He was vilified by Hollywood, labeled a “caveman in a jet bomber,” a brutish thug, and portrayed as demented.  Many men are all form with little substance.  Those who flew with him knew that he was all substance and no form.

Curtis LeMay was the type of leader that a country needs for war and when experiencing extreme danger.  We need a man like LeMay when our survival is at stake.  Much like Winston Churchill, once a nation is safe, these men are often rejected because they become a reminder of events most people would rather forget.  Now, after a generation from the Cold War, we find it hard to remember why.

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  1. Curtis LeMay: Strategist and Tactician by Warren Kozak, 2009: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lemay-warren-kozak/1100820366
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.

21 thoughts on “Profile: General Curtis LeMay

  1. E.T.

    Gen. LeMay was indeed a great hero. But today, as we look back in time we cannot understand the context of those times and the existential threat that Nazi Germany and Japanese Imperialism posed. Wiping out entire towns was the solution because nothing else would work. Period. If someone has a better idea, convince me!

    Reply
  2. Tony B. Custer

    Gen. Curtis LeMay a true hero! I knew his grandson and he and I went to school together. Good folks in the family.

    Reply
    1. Dern McCabe

      You were a lucky guy. I’m sure the family was wonderful.

      Reply
  3. Bryan Lee

    “Callous and abrupt” … I’ve known plenty of senior leaders who have these characteristics. They want the right information delivered to them on time and in the right format. They don’t tolerate lateness, stupidity, or excuses for failure. That is what makes them great leaders. In the old days, if you were lucky, you only had your hand chopped off if you failed a senior leader, death at the extreme. They are callous and abrupt for a reason.

    Reply
    1. Guns are Us

      Yep, loved the movie, but my wife hated it. Was it a spoof or was the movie about reality?

      Reply
  4. Silly Man

    Gen. Curtin LeMay was indeed a hero by any standard.

    Reply
  5. Frank Graham

    Funny how it works out if you are creative and smart. Having both those traits really do matter. And, if you have a tough skin and are willing to take much criticism, you will do well. Not like the snowflakes we read about in college. 👍

    Reply
    1. Pooch T.

      Yes Frank our weak, socialist, crybaby youth today are the epitome of ignorance bound up in a warm blanket of arrogance.

      Reply
      1. Darwin Lippe

        Ha Ha, so right! Pooch, you made my day with that comment. “bound up in a warm blanket of arrogance.” And, I will add, they believe they are superior morally to the rest of us. A very dangerous way to think.

        Reply
      2. Eric Coda

        Pooch T., well said. I will add that the problem I see here is not that these young folk are ignorant and arrogant today, but that they will eventually make it into the world and bring with them their weaknesses and their arrogance. There will be a new way of working in the world where the color of your skin determines how far you rise in society. This is their racism that is now only manifesting itself. Will they ever “see” themselves for the racists they are? Probably not.

        Reply
        1. Wendy Holmes

          Excellent point Eric and scary prediction. Most of us mature. We are forced to by those more mature around us. But colleges are full of adults who are children.

          Reply
          1. Pink Cloud

            The insane are running the insane asylum. 😊😊😊😊

  6. Greg Heyman

    Great man and true hero. He didn’t care what others thought of him personally (and many thought him rude and brash).

    Reply
  7. Max Foster

    Except for his brilliance, Gen. LeMay certainly is different than most of the other senior leaders profiled here. Well, maybe for his brutal honesty as well. It shows the importance of certain traits (intelligence, honesty) and not so much others (up bringing, networks). I plan to buy the book Gen. Satterfield has referenced and read it thoroughly. There are some important ideas here that proves, beyond the obvious, that you don’t have to have connections to do well in this world.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Right, Max. I think those who believe they are “oppressed” today are just spoiled children who didn’t get their way and are whining about it. Look at LeMay who came from nothing to a 4 star general. And made it during wartime when only the best rise up.

      Reply
  8. Janna Faulkner

    It is absolutely amazing that Gen. LeMay could get as far as he did with this personality that you listed. Or, as you say, leadership traits. Much are one in the same. Thank you Gen. Satterfield for giving us a great man to think about.

    Reply
    1. Lady Hawk

      He was a hero, esp. in the beginning but everyone turned against him in the end. Why? Gen. S. answers that question but we should know more about him and his faults as well.

      Reply
    2. Laughing Monkey

      Hero — yes! Bad guy — no! He took a failing bombing campaign in Europe and turned it into a strategic success. How? I would like to know. Those lessons could be applied to how we do business today.

      Reply
      1. Scotty Bush

        Good point, Laughing Monkey …. and great moniker, BTW.

        Reply
    3. Yusaf from Texas

      Janna, great point and one that Gen. Satterfield has also made. That is another reason I keep this blog on my favorites list and read it daily. It gives me a quick boost for the day and only takes a couple of minutes.

      Reply

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