Leadership In The Military
There is surely no more talent nor more hope for the future than right here in this room. I envy you and I wish I could trade places with you, but at the same time, looking at all of you I am supremely confident that here among you sit the future great captains of our military and that we can all be very confident about tomorrow. And I am convinced that if he were alive today, Gen. Marshall would be right here, for there is nothing that that great soldier loved more than to talk about service and to talk about leadership.
As he himself once said on a similar occasion, looking across a room full of future leaders, “You’re young,” he said, “and you’re vigorous, and your service will be the foundation for peace and prosperity throughout the world. ” Certainly as I look at you the same is true this morning. Truly you here in this room are our future.
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And it is most fitting for us to come together right here in these very halls where George Marshall once walked to honor him and to reflect on his great contributions and to share some thoughts on leadership.
If you were to think back over this century, you would realize very quickly that our Army has produced some truly remarkable military leaders. I am confident that if I were to ask all of you to take pen to paper and to write down the names of the great Army leaders of this century, you would be at it for a very long time, and when you were done, the lists that you produced would be very long. Just to name the most famous, there was, of course, Black Jack Pershing, Omar Bradley, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Lightning Joe Collins and most recently two of my former bosses, Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell.
Each of these officers was remarkably gifted. But if you study them closely, you realize that each was very different, that the fame they acquired had very different roots. Omar Bradley — simple, unadorned, humble, but of them all he was the soldier’s soldier — loved by his subordinates and considered by Eisenhower to be the boldest and most dogged of his Army group commanders. Or there was Eisenhower himself, a leader of incalculable depth, intricacy and complexity.
Some say his outward appearance and reputation were those of an officer who compromised easily, and who others thought was only thinly grounded in the knowledge of war fighting, but one with a keen sense for what it took to maintain cohesion within our W[orld] W[ar] II coalition. But if you were to look closer, you would discover that these were the traits Eisenhower wanted others to believe, for he was surrounded by huge egos, both among the talented commanders in his theater and among the nations that comprised our alliance.
Quite contrary to these assertions, he held deep convictions, and he never ceded or compromised any point that he felt important. Our campaign to seize Europe from the Nazis was the very campaign he visualized at the start of the war back in 1942, a plan for which at first there was only lukewarm support among American leaders and nearly total opposition from our British allies.
Yet when it was done, it was Eisenhower’s approach we executed, and it was militarily brilliant. And any study of our great generals must include that incredible warrior, George Patton, a tenacious and hard-bitten fighter who felt the pulse and flow of the battlefield in his veins, who had an innate knack for inspiring soldiers to fight beyond all limits of their endurance, but also a soldier with a renowned appetite for fame and approval.
And we could talk about so many others, for our Army has produced such a rich abundance of talented leaders. But there is one giant who stands above them all. That officer was, of course, George Catlett Marshall. More than any soldier of this century, I’m convinced Marshall epitomized the qualities that we want in our leaders. He had MacArthur’s brilliance and courtliness. He had Patton’s tenacity and drive. He had Bradley’s personal magnetism, the ability to inspire confidence and deep affection from any who came into his presence.
But more than that, Marshall had the organizational skills that in a few short years converted an Army of only several hundred thousand, with only a handful of modern weapons and no modern battlefield experience, into an Army of over 8 million — the best equipped, the best fighting army in the world, an army that defeated the two most powerful empires of its time.
More than that, he had a rare intuition, a nearly flawless inner sense for other men’s strengths that allowed him to see the spark of leadership in others, and when he saw that spark, to place such men into key assignments and then to fully support their efforts. He did that time and again, hundreds of times, with remarkable accuracy. And as we learned after the war, he was as well perhaps the greatest statesman and visionary of his age.
All of us should remember that the occupations of Germany and Japan were commanded by military officers, but we should also remember that the architect of these occupations was Marshall. But even beyond this, in 1948, with a few words uttered in a speech at Harvard, Marshall put in motion the plan that would rebuild Western Europe, that would recover its people from enormous poverty, that would reweave the entire tapestry of nations from the conflict-addicted patterns of the past to what we see today: a Western Europe poised on the edge of becoming a cohesive union of nations.
What an accomplishment! It is staggering to think of what this one officer accomplished in his career of service to his nation. But most humbling is to realize that to his death Marshall remained an entirely selfless man, a man who returned to service even from a well-deserved and long-sought retirement because a president requested him to do so, a man who never, ever exploited his reputation for any personal gain. If we were to ask a sculptor to produce a bust of a great leader and described to that sculptor all of the traits and qualities that that bust should reflect, I have absolutely no doubt that that bust would look exactly like Gen. George C. Marshall.
And so for those of us like you and I, who make soldiering our way of life, it is always instructive to take the time to reflect on Gen. Marshall’s career, for by so doing we are reminded of much that we should try to emulate. But you are here for a different reason. You are here because I think you worry about these next steps for you, which will lead to a gold bar of a second lieutenant.
I doubt very much that you are searching for answers about how to mobilize for war, how to free an enslaved Europe or how to rebuild a destroyed nation, although some day your country may ask just that from you. If you are like I was when I waited to pin on my lieutenant’s bars, your thoughts are more about the challenges of a platoon leader than those of a general. The other week while a guest on Larry King’s show, Larry asked me when I first thought of becoming a general and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The answer was very simple.
I told him that when I was a private my ambition was to become a good one so someday I could become a good corporal. And when 36 years ago, in 1959, the year that Gen. Marshall died, I was commissioned a second lieutenant and shipped off to Fairbanks, Alaska, and became a platoon leader in the mortar battery of the 1st Battle Group of the 9th Infantry, my thoughts were certainly not on becoming a general or colonel or major or even a captain!
My thoughts were on becoming a good platoon leader, about being up to the challenge of leading my soldiers, about not making a fool of myself in front of Sgt.1st Class Grice, the platoon sergeant of that first platoon of mine. And I was right to concentrate on the job at hand, for the job of a lieutenant is a tough one — in many ways, perhaps, the toughest one — but it is without a doubt also the most important, and if you take to it, also the most rewarding. I was very fortunate, because I had Sergeant Grice to guide me and to teach me. And teach and guide me he did, without ever making me feel inadequate and without ever permitting me to be ill-prepared, because he was the best!
And if there is one thing I wish for each and every one of you, it is a Sergeant Grice to teach you about soldiers, about leaders, and the responsibilities and joys of soldiering together. Not everyone is as blessed as I was; not everyone finds his Sergeant Grice, and many don’t not because he isn’t there, but because unknowingly and foolishly they push him away. Don’t do that. Look for your Sergeant Grice; NCOs have so very much to teach us. Well, what did I learn from Sergeant Grice?
Certainly more than I have time to tell you here, and also because many helpful hints have probably by now faded from my memory. But what I learned then and what has been reinforced in the 36 years since is that good leadership, whether in the world of a lieutenant or in the world of a general, is based essentially on three pillars. These three pillars he taught me are character, love and care for soldiers, and professional competence. Oh, Sergeant Grice didn’t exactly use these terms, but what he believed and what he taught me fit very neatly into these three pillars.
He used to say that if the platoon ever sensed that I wasn’t up front with them, if they ever believed I did something so I would look good at their expense, I would very quickly lose them. How right he was. Often he would say, “Look down. Worry about what your soldiers think. Don’t worry about looking up, about what the captain thinks of you. ” He never said it, that’s not the kind of relationship that he and I had, but I knew that if I ever said something to the platoon or to him that wasn’t the absolute truth, he would never trust me again and I would be finished as a platoon leader.
I would be finished as a leader. Someone once said that men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied men of power are feared but only men of character are trusted. Without trust you cannot lead. I have never seen a good unit where the leaders weren’t trusted. It’s just that simple. And it isn’t enough that you say the right things. What counts in a platoon is not so much what you say, but what they see you do. Gen. Powell, speaking here a few years ago, put it this way: “If you want them to work hard and endure hardship,” he observed, “you must work even harder and endure even greater hardship.”
“They must see you sacrifice for them,” he said. They must see you do the hard things, they must see you giving credit to the platoon for something good you did, and they must see you take the blame for something they hadn’t gotten just right. But Sergeant Grice also understood that hand in hand with character, with this inner strength that soldiers will want to see, they will also want to know and see that you really care for them, that you will sacrifice for them, that you simply enjoy being with them. Words won’t get you through there, either.
If you don’t feel it in your heart, if you don’t love your soldiers in your heart, they will know it. How often Sergeant Grice would prod me to spend the extra time to get to know the members of the platoon better, to know who needed extra training and coaching so he could fire expert on the rifle range the next time around; to talk to Pvt. Taylor, who just received a “Dear John” letter; to visit Cpl. Vencler and his wife, who had a sick child. Every day you will have soldiers who will need your care, your concern and your help.
They expect and, I tell you, they have the right to expect, 150 percent of your time and best effort. And how well I remember those evenings in the field when Sergeant Grice and I would stand in the cold, with a cup of coffee in our hands trying to warm our frozen fingers, watching the platoon go through the chow line. Grice taught me that simple but long-standing tradition that officers go to the very end of the chow line, that the officer is the last one to eat, that the officer will take his or her first bite only after the last soldier has had a chance to eat.
This tradition, as you so well know, is founded in the understanding that leaders place the welfare of their people above their own, that the officer is responsible for the welfare of the troops; that if mismanagement results in a shortage of food to feed the entire unit, that the officer will go without; that if the food gets cold while the unit is being served, that the officer will get the chilliest portion. It is a tradition that surprises many officers from other nations, but it goes to the core of the kind of leadership we provide our soldiers. But caring for our soldiers does not stop at the chow line.
Nor, for that matter, does it stop with the soldiers themselves, for you know that our units are families, and a soldier must have the trust that you will take care of his family, particularly when he’s away from home. But caring for soldiers actually starts with making them the best possible soldiers they can be. Their satisfaction with themselves, their confidence in themselves and in the end, their lives will depend upon how well you do that part. And that perhaps is your greatest challenge as a lieutenant. It is hard work, and make no mistake about it, there are no shortcuts.
But what a joy it is to watch or to talk to young men and women in uniform, who know that they are the best because a Sergeant Grice and his or her lieutenant cared to teach them and to work with them and to make them reach for the highest standards. Which brings me to the third pillar I spoke of, and that is your professional competence. As we look back on Marshall and on Patton and on MacArthur and all of the others, we realize that the skills and qualities and knowledge that made them great generals took decades of training, of experience and of evolution.
For all of the differences between these leaders there is one thing that they had in common. Their careers were marked by a progression of difficult assignments and intense study. Always they were a snapshot of a masterpiece still in progress, still in motion. From the beginning of their careers to the end, each of them was continually applying new brushstrokes to their knowledge and to their skills. And Grice understood that very well, although he had different words for it.
He knew that if our platoon was going to be good at occupying a position and firing our mortars, at hastily leaving our position should enemy artillery have found our location, at the countless things that would make us a finely honed war-fighting machine, then he had to show me, he had to teach me and to practice with me, so that when I walked that gun line the soldiers would know that I knew more than they; that if I asked them how to cut a mortar fuse, there was no doubt that I would know the answer, just as I would know if there was too much play in the sight mount on that mortar.
And I had to feel confident that knew before they would feel confident with me. In every good leader I have met in my years of service there always was the evidence of these three qualities: character, love for soldiers and professional competence. And because they possessed these qualities, they managed to inspire their soldiers to have confidence in them. And you know, the truly great ones like George C. Marshall did not only inspire soldiers to have confidence in their leaders, but they also inspired their soldiers to have confidence in themselves.
With that, let me close. As I told you in the beginning, I am deeply envious of each of you. Since the days when I first put on my uniform, I fell in love with soldiering and with soldiers, and it has been for me, by any measure, a great passion. If I could start all over today, I would not hesitate for a single second. I would go out and I would find old Sergeant Grice and we would be ready tomorrow morning! Good luck to you all. I envy you.