What Are Generals Made of?

By | July 26, 2020

[July 26, 2020]  Yesterday afternoon, after taking my wife around to three estate sales, my newest book order finally arrived.  For days, I’d looked forward to reading it, and while I have yet to read it all, I wanted to get something out to my readers.  The book is What Are Generals Made Of? (1987) First Edition by Maj. Gen. Aubrey “Red” Newman, U.S. Army (Retired).  This article is not a book review or recommendation; so much as it’s a look inside the thinking of a General.

It is hard to believe, but I never heard of this book.  A civilian friend mentioned it to me last year.  That says something about the book itself, and maybe senior leaders didn’t like the content (because it was too accurate for them) or because they didn’t think it said anything of value (which it does). Or both.  The book got good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, so I’m a little surprised those who mentored so many of us somehow overlooked the book.

Who gets the stars of a General, why and how?  One answer comes from respected military analyst and Pulitzer Prize winner, Hanson W. Baldwin.  He said, “The shaping of a general … is a process that defies definition or consistent pattern … it can be examined but never analyzed.”   Baldwin believes – and so it appears, so does Newman – that leaders, like great writers, poets, or artists, are born, not made.’

This thought is controversial but quickly explained.  In the 1970s and before, there had not been many studies on the idea of personality.  Recently, psychologists looked at the Big Five personality types and how they influence our choices in jobs, spouses, friends, and how we perceive the world.  People are born with these, and that is what Gen. Newman is discussing.

To answer the question of what generals are made of, Newman takes us on a journey to generalship.  It is like having your grandmother talk to you about sex; it’s something that you want to know about but not from her.  And he tells us of the stereotypes about generals.  Like so many oversimplifications, they are based in the truth, but he sifts out the falsehoods.

There are no established specifications for general officers.  However, Newman gives us something more substantial in Chapter 54 “What are Generals Made Of?”   Looking at the West Point cadets from his time there, he looks back upon those that eventually made the rank of General:

  • Knowing which cadets would later become generals is not easy, but there were distinctions. They were well-liked cadets, respected, and got along with others.  They all seemed to have an intangible aloofness about them, quiet self-control in manner and bearing.
  • Another quality, a vital requirement, was that these cadets stood on their own feet and were not easily pushed around, mentally, or physically.

Stress situations where an officer is tested gives us a look inside the makeup of the best officers.  Through years of service, an officer’s judgment, human understanding, courage, wisdom, and moderation are developed.  This is what we would call character.  An officer measures up and grows, or fades, depending on what he is as a person, not on his IQ, athletic ability, what school he went to, where he came from, or other such suggestions we often hear.

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.

15 thoughts on “What Are Generals Made of?

    1. Georgie B.

      Yes they will and it is always interesting and a subject of learning when we look at how young leaders performed and which of them made it to the top of their organizations. Some of it might be luck, but privilege will never be part of it. I like to think intelligence, good character, hard work and focus are the main efforts. Thanks all. Good luck this week as we continue to fight both the pandemic and wrong-headed governors.

  1. Janna Faulkner

    Gen. Newman is an engaging writer and a master Soldier. His insights into generalship are invaluable for scholars as well as citizen readers interested in this important group of leaders who make hard decisions about people’s lives and national security.

    1. The Kid 1945

      Well said. I will buy this book. I’ve yet to be disappointed in the books reviewed by Gen. Satterfield.

      1. Billy Kenningston

        Don’t we all. Whenever I get the chance to look inside the thinking of a successful leader, I will always jump at that opportunity. That is what makes some of us better leaders — as well as content of our character.

      2. Tracey Brockman

        Yes, buy the book and learn. There might be many better books but this one can certainly augment our understanding. Also, you can find a lot of Gen. Newman’s writings free on the Internet. Just search his name.

  2. Tracey Brockman

    Gen. Newman has successfully analyzed what sifts the competent colonels to make them starred generals. His selections of anecdotes are relevant and bring out qualities, which all of us who have worn uniform will realize are essential in producing the caliber of military leadership required at the highest ranks.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Yes, spot on comment Tracey. The attributes which stand out, amongst others, are an elevated sense of duty, professionalism of a high order, moral character and humility.

  3. Doc Blackshear

    Good suggestion and look into an interesting book. Maybe I will get my own copy. Worth investing a few dollars.

  4. Randy Goodman

    Ha Ha… – very interestinggggg! I’ll buy a copy for myself. Despite the book being a bit old, but not too old, it may be helpful.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      Yes, I wonder what it has to say about junior officers (junior leaders in the overall) as well.

    2. Army Captain

      It is mostly about the journey from pre-leader (he calls them cadets) to generalship. This is indeed a journey but more. I think it’s a test of character. At least that is how the military looks at it.

      1. JT Patterson

        Could very well be but it also applies to ALL leaders as they develop.


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