American Generalship

American Generalship is a trunk non-fiction book exploring leadership through the lens of U.S. military leadership in the last century.


  • Only a limited number of people combine the necessary qualities of character, integrity, intelligence, and a willingness to work, which leads to a knowledge of their profession, to become our successful leaders. There are God-given talents we inherit from our forebears.
  • Selflessness: the willingness to accept the responsibility to be involved in decision making; possessing and developing the quality of “feel” and sixth sense in decision making; an aversion to “yes men;” officers who grew and developed through a life of reading; having careers that developed through mentors, particularly being close to men making decisions; understanding the importance of consideration and concern for troops; and realizing that the ability to delegate determines how far one will go in the American military. The greatest of all is character, which is everything in leadership

1. Selflessness

  • “Character is what you are. Reputation is what others think you are.” - Lucian K. Truscott, a corps and army commander in World War II.
  • To some, success is the only common denominator applicable to eminent commanders because success signifies leadership and creates conscience. But George Washington lost many battles before the final victory, and the majority of his men did not lose confidence in him. Lee was a commander on the losing side, but his name is synonymous with leadership. Why? Both were men of character
  • Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.
  • Once again, Washington had saved the country from tyranny. First, he rescued America from the tyranny of the British crown. Next, by refusing the crown himself, he spared the country from enduring another monarchy. Finally, through his “spectacle speech,” he protected the young republic from a military insurrection. In all three instances, his character, specifically his selfless disregard for personal power, salvaged his country from peril.37
  • Marshall’s conduct of the press conference was masterful. He won the day with the press for the rest of World War II because of his honest and frank statements. He took the press into his confidence and won the doubters to support him. The rumbling comments of dissatisfaction with his ability ceased entirely
  • There is a moral to the events described with the defense of Billy Mitchell by Arnold and Spaatz: They selflessly put their careers on the line.
  • When President Carter decided against the continued development of the B-1, many people told General Jones that he should resign in protest. But he didn’t, like Arnold and Spaatz; he stayed in and fought within the system—and ultimately won

2. Decision: The Essence of Leadership

  • What happens if you’re working for a terrible leader?” He said: “That’s a wonderful opportunity because while you can obviously learn from good leaders, you also learn from bad leaders
  • What conclusions, then, does one draw from the foregoing reflections and comments from generals in the performance of their leadership responsibilities? In the military, making decisions involves life and death. It is lonely and particularly requires toughness when there is opposition to a leader’s conclusion from competent people whose opinions are respected. There is the anxious period of waiting for things to start and then for the expectation of the outcome. President Truman was astute enough, as are most top leaders, to seek advice from able people as he went through the decision-making process. The methodology used by Marshall, as outlined by General Collins, is as appropriate today as it was in the 1940s. Although one must obtain all the information possible in formulating the decision, often there is too little time. Experience and knowledge are obviously important, but intuition is a factor. MacArthur, Grant, Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower, and others possessed it. But as Acheson commented
  • Making decisions is of the essence in leadership. —General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Now this is the kind of leadership that’s often concealed from the public.… But making decisions is of the essence in leadership—that is, handling large problems whether or not you are at war or at peace
  • competent people he knows: dedicated and strong professionals. One cannot take the advice of such people lightly. When they are all opposed to a top general’s conclusion, the decision-making process becomes far more difficult
  • never realized before the loneliness and isolation of a Commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone. He sat there quietly, not getting up to pace with quick strides as he often does.
  • As chief of staff of the army from 1939 to 1945, Marshall had to make more key decisions than any other single individual. What process did he follow in making decisions? Was there a methodology to his decision making? Yes, and there is no better model.
  • Marshall relied upon a group of talented officers to assist him with the many decisions he was required to make. He established a body he named “the Secretariat” to assist him in his decision making.
  • Studies calling for decision by the Chief or one of the deputies were prepared in the appropriate divisions of the General Staff,” commented then Maj. J. Lawton Collins. Collins was a member of the Secretariat and went on to become chief of staff of the army from 1949 to 1953
  • Action papers based on these studies were routed through the office of Colonel Ward, who allocated them to one of his assistants for presentation to one of the deputies, or directly to the Chief. Each of us on the Secretariat was assigned from five to ten papers every day. While I was there we had no special assignments of subjects. We reviewed our papers, checked them for obvious errors, and any loose ends or unclear points, which we believed would raise questions by the Chief, or Deputy. We then ‘briefed’ a deputy, or the Chief, on each of the completed papers
  • cover aspects of the subject requiring more detailed background, discussion, or explanation. The file on a very involved subject might be an inch or more thick, but the material calling for a decision had to be reduced to not more than two pages. This forced careful analysis by the staff, and led to definitive recommendations
  • General Marshall required that all staff papers, no matter how complicated the subject, be reduced to two pages or less,” Collins wrote. “The format was fairly rigid: first, a statement of the problem; next, factors bearing on the problem, pro and con; a brief discussion, if necessary; conclusions; and finally, and most importantly, recommended action.
  • Marshall insisted that his staff make decisions even though they were in conflict with him. They had to be able to support their positions, however. Thus, Marshall created an atmosphere for independent thinking.
  • Arnold was very impatient and short-tempered. His impatience helped him to get things done quickly, and, fortunately, he could not remember four hours later what had made him angry
  • Through all this, I am learning many things: (1) that waiting for other people to produce is one of the hardest things a commander has to do; (2) that in the higher positions of modern army, navy, and air force, rich organizational experience and an orderly, logical mind are absolutely essential to success. The flashy, publicity-seeking type of adventurer can grab the headlines and be a hero in the eyes of the public, but he simply can’t deliver the goods in high command. On the other hand, the slow, methodical, ritualistic person is absolutely valueless in a key position. There must be a fine balance—that is [one in] such a position must have an inexhaustible fund of nervous energy. He is called upon day and night to absorb the disappointments, the discouragement, and doubts of his subordinates and to force them on to accomplishments, which they regard as impossible
  • response to the question of how one develops as a decision maker, Gen. David C. Jones, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflected: “I had, and still do have, an insatiable appetite—indeed, a great thirst—for information through reading, watching, listening. For example, when I took over Second Air Force, there were the beginnings of racial problems. I concentrated on the issue. I probably read eight books on it, read everything I could get my hands on the subject. I also talked and discussed extensively with black airmen.… The most important thing in leadership is decision making, and one of the most important aspects of that is deciding what people you put in what jobs. It’s important that you observe people in their jobs and get a good feel for how well they do.
  • But when you get no decision at all, then the whole organization just kind of sits there
  • have always felt that one of my strengths was a willingness to make the decision and then pursue that.
  • sixth sense,” his response was, “I think I had that. On many occasions I made decisions based upon intuition. But it is an intuition that is tempered by experience and judgment. It is not a guess. I just intuitively know what the right thing to do is, and it comes from years of training, from years of experience
  • When we were debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.
  • The worst thing was for subordinates to labor in ignorance in order to conceal their confusion and wind up doing the wrong thing.
  • I can think to whatever level I have to, strategically or otherwise, but leadership is fundamentally solving problems, at a strategic or personal level.”
  • Put simply, it is to dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts. We all have a certain intuition, and the older we get, the more we trust it. When I am faced with a decision—picking somebody for a post, or choosing a course of action—I dredge up every scrap of knowledge I can. I call in people, I phone them. I read whatever I can get my hands on. I use my intellect to inform my instinct. I then use my instinct to test all this data. “Hey, instinct, does this sound right? Does it smell right, feel right, fit right?”
  • . I have a timing formula, P-40 to 70, in which P stands for probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired. I don’t act if I have only enough information to give me less than a 40 percent chance of being right. And I don’t wait until I have enough facts to be 100 percent sure of being right, because by then it is almost always too late. I go with my gut feeling when I have acquired information somewhere in the range of 40 to 70 percent.46
  • Zumwalt himself was the first I ever saw who achieved high rank and also managed to preserve a highly idiosyncratic cast of mind. In every military organization, some mavericks do survive, but their numbers are extremely small. The great problem is to structure the organization so those people get promoted. Zumwalt tried to attack the problem institutionally

3. “Feel” or “Sixth Sense” in Decision Making

  • His jeep had a loudspeaker that he would use with groups of soldiers. He generally emphasized their importance in the war by saying, “You are the men who will win this war.” He told them it was a privilege to be their commander. “A commander,” he would say, “meets to talk to his men to inspire them. With me it’s the other way around. I get inspired by you.”
  • He believed that if men were aware that they could talk to the “brass,” they would not be afraid to talk with their lieutenant. He hoped his example would encourage the junior officers to seek information from his men.
  • Soldiers like to see the men who are directing operations. They properly resent any indication of neglect or indifference to them on the part of their commanders and invariably interpret a visit, even a brief one, as evidence of the commander’s concern for them.
  • Is this feel or sixth sense a quality a man is born with? Patton, who called this sense “military reaction,” wrote to his son at West Point on June 6, 1944: “What success I have had results from the fact that I have always been certain that my military reactions were correct. Many people do not agree with me; they are wrong. The unerring jury of history, written long after both of us are dead, will prove me correct
  • My theory,” General Bradley said regarding his feel in decision making, “is that you collect information, little bits of it, and it goes into your brain like feeding information into a 1401 IBM calculator. It’s stored in there, but you are not conscious of it. You hear some of it over the phone, you see some of it on the map, in what you read, in briefings. It is all stored in your mind, then suddenly you are faced with a decision. You don’t go back and pick up each one of the pieces of information, but you run over the main items that are involved and the answer comes out like when you push the button on an IBM machine. You have stored up this knowledge as it comes in and when you are suddenly faced in battle with a situation needing a decision, you can give it. When people would call me on the phone and give me a situation I would push a button, and I would have an answer right then. You can’t go back and pore over the maps for two or three days.”16
  • It is clear from my interviews that commanders’ visits to the troops are vital to the “feel” in decision making
  • Showmanship is one of the techniques that often permits you to reach the lowest level of your command. General Patton wrote to his cadet son at West Point
  • One cold, rainy afternoon during the war, Patton came upon a group of men at work repairing a tank that had been hit by enemy fire. The tank, because of the heavy movement of traffic forward toward the line of battle, had pulled about ten yards off the road. Seeing this, Patton ordered his driver to stop. He jumped out of his jeep, went over to the disabled tank, and crawled underneath it. The two mechanics, busy working on the necessary repairs, were awestruck to see the shiny silver stars of a general in the mud. Patton, according to the assistant division commander whose area he was touring at the time, remained under the tank for twenty-five minutes. When he returned to his jeep, he was covered with mud and grease. His aide asked, “Sir, what was wrong?” Patton replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure that the word will spread throughout the division that I was on my belly in the mud repairing the tank.”41

4. Aversion to “Yes Men”: Having the Character to Challenge

  • who will.’ “I would very cheerfully put up with the somewhat less than genius level of intellect of judgment if I thought the guy was honest with himself and with me and tried his damnedest to do what I wanted to do after the decision was made, but who still would tell me if he disagreed. I would rather have somebody like that than a supergenius who had some kind of a thwarted ego that usually comes out of being a superhigh intelligence level. I just don’t like them. I would prefer to have some guy who is well balanced in his attitudes. If you find them, well, boy, you’ve got a gold mine
  • You could talk to him as if you were discussing someone in the next country. He never held it against you for an instant. I never saw another commander I could do that with.… It was one of his great strengths that he could listen to things.”3
  • Douglas, I don’t bring these questions up for your advice but for your reactions. To me, you are the symbol of the conscience of the American people.’ ”13
  • This was all true. But it wasn’t what I should have said. What I was doing was pointing out to my superior that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I should have merely said, instead of what I did say, General Eisenhower, you are quite right. The first things that we must have are the airfields, and after that, with all possible expedition, get in the supplies to accomplish this.”
  • I do not believe in being a ‘yes man.’ I do believe in using tact in getting ideas over
  • Well, I guess what you might say I was looking for was somebody who had a combination of experience and intellectual integrity. By intellectual integrity I mean someone who will disagree with me when they really disagree in substance but who will immediately agree with me if he does agree with me rather than think, Well, I have got to make an appearance of disagreeing whether I do or not, or be a devil’s advocate. There are a few of those around
  • because one of the qualities of a good leader is that he is always training someone to follow him, so it begins to snowball.
  • My philosophy was one of wanting everybody to say what he thinks, because none of us is smart enough to think about everything.
  • It was the right thing to do—a commander sticks up for his subordinates when they’re right—yet it required tremendous moral courage.”31

5. Books: The Importance of Reading

  • was told that my ideas were not only wrong, but dangerous, and that henceforth I would keep them to myself. Particularly, I was not to publish anything incompatible with solid infantry doctrine. If I did, I would be hauled before a court-martial.
  • For example, professionals fought better in protracted operations, in campaigns where supply was difficult, and in wars where discipline was more important than emotional inspiration
  • Now this man came from a noble German family and yet his regard for his men is due the greatest credit to any company commander of that day. He advised that the unit commander should learn the background of the recruit’s family (well-to-do, shoemaker, butcher, whatever he might be) …, should learn the man’s problems at home if he had any. Just wonderful insights. Now this is just absolutely contrary to what you would have thought to be the normal behavior of the higher ranking Prussian-type officer - He said, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts - For those who aspire to future positions of challenge and responsibility, reading biographies is essential. Life is short, and in life we learn and grow from personal experiences. But because life is short, people are limited to their own experiences. With biographies, we learn and grow more rapidly by benefiting from the experiences of others, people who have made a mark.

6. Mentorship: Guidance, Counseling, Advice, Teaching, and Door Opening

  • you have to define what the components of mentorship are. One component is in the area of guidance, counseling, advice, and teaching. How did you learn from that individual? Why did that individual take time to teach you? What guidance, counseling, and advice did you receive? That’s one facet of mentorship. The second facet is door opening; it’s providing opportunity for an individual. The more I’ve thought about mentoring in practical terms, the more I realize I believe it involves teaching and door opening. And that’s different from your normal relationship with your boss or your commander. Your boss or your commander can handle you as a competent, capable individual and tell you what to do but without taking the time to teach, advise, or counsel. Also he can do it without feeling the obligation to open doors for you.”1
  • Eisenhower’s career illustrates that having the ability to lead is not enough; there must be an opportunity to demonstrate that ability to an influential superior. A
  • That mentoring system in TAC actually had three parts: selection, mentoring, and grooming
  • On rare occasions a turnaround occurs.… Often there is a single person who becomes identified with the change of direction.
  • It had the three parts I described to you earlier: selection, mentoring, and grooming. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the selection process—as did the numbered air force commanders—studying the records and interviewing those who aspired to lead our wings and our air divisions. The more time I spent on that, I found, the less time I spent cleaning up after field mistakes.
  • Our mentoring involved all of those who were incumbents in or were logical aspirants for wing commander or higher jobs. We met four times a year in three-day special interactive sessions that I conducted personally. We didn’t talk in those sessions about recent happenings. We talked about leadership and how best to go about it in the various areas that required top leadership involvement and teaching.
  • The first duty of a leader is to create more leaders,
  • learned that from all the times in which bosses I had worked for went away to commanders’ conferences and came back with nary a word about what had gone on there. They
  • we had separate one-week training sessions for those same individuals that taught them the things they didn’t know
  • A centralized system, which had been the air force practice for years, provides a very narrow education in its functional silos
  • But, also, there was further grooming required for those who were especially talented and especially well suited for the highest ranks—as that judgment had emerged from seeing them in action with bullet-biting responsibilities.
  • Those at the rank of colonel and above whom we saw as having the potential for the most senior air force positions were groomed by moving them from job to job and by making those jobs as diverse as possible
  • Those who are can take diverse jobs with which they are unfamiliar and soon make positive contributions

7. Consideration

  • In every position of command your subordinates will want to know how much you care for them, far more than they will ever care how much you know.
  • Throughout World War II, Marshall contacted the wife, mother, or nearest relative of every senior officer he met on overseas inspection trips and commented on how they were. That it was greatly appreciated can be measured by the Marshall papers, which have many responses from the wives, daughters, and parents expressing their appreciation for his call.
  • But I think one of the important things is to submerge your own ego. Your success depends upon the fulfillment of the activities of your men. You by yourself are rather helpless really. I think I realized that my success was the result of the efforts of a large number of people under me and I tried to show my respect to them for what they had done for the teams’ effort and for their unit and, of course, it built me up.
  • asked General Ryan how he got extra effort out of people. “By communicating with them. I talked to them, not down to them, because I was interested in what they were doing. And I learned from the questions that I asked them.
  • cannot overstate the importance of character and of caring. I think that people respond best to leaders that are confident because they know what they’re doing, because they are men of character, and because it shows that they deeply care for those they lead. I am convinced that the best leaders truly love those they lead. You’ve asked me why people follow leaders in peacetime. This is different from wartime, because in peacetime soldiers have more time to think things through

8. Delegation

  • I don’t want these details. I know what the issues are. You remember the details and I’ll remember you and where to find you, and I’ll call you if I need the background.’ ”37 While serving as commander of Systems
  • If your subordinates cannot do [the work] for you, you haven’t organized them properly
  • When very important persons came to visit him, Marshall instructed him to refrain from arguing or debating with them and to “merely listen politely, ‘yes’ them if necessary; but, above all [don’t waste your] brain power.”2
  • Staff officers are free to see the chief or the commander at any moment to bring to their attention such matters as necessary or desirable. They are free to solve their own problems wherever possible and not to get into the habit of passing the buck up.”5
  • As Gen. George C. Kenney, his air chief, put it, “It is by avoiding doing too much that General MacArthur gets so much done
  • You never feel that he has given you a direct order to do something, but at the same time his positive way of expressing himself never leaves you in doubt
  • , “Keep the commander informed of the state of the command at all times, but you must avoid passing up to the commander petty decisions and a mess of infinitesimal detail.”
  • “I divide my officers into four classes as follows: The clever, the industrious, the lazy, and the stupid. Each officer always possesses two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the general staff. The man who is clever and lazy is destined for high command because he has the nerve to deal with all situations. Use can, under certain circumstances, be made of those who are stupid and lazy. But, whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of at once
  • The general didn’t mean lazy in the true sense. He meant, without a doubt, the ability to distinguish between the really vital and the less consequential; he meant the attribute of being able to grasp the essentials and to refuse to be cluttered up with the nonessentials
  • Once the man with such attributes has charted his course based on vital essentials, he delegates the rest to subordinates—subordinates whom he has selected, whom he trusts and in whom he can repose confidence. These men do the ‘work’ so the high commander can perform the major tasks. Then this clever and so-termed ‘lazy’ commander accepts full responsibility for his actions. The major decisions are his alone and he accepts the consequences as worked out in detail by competent subordinates. That’s what von Hammerstein meant by the ‘nerve’ to deal with all situations.
  • ‘Don’t be a one-man band. Don’t try to run the wing by yourself. But you pick those issues that you need to immerse yourself in to become the action officer
  • As an officer develops in his or her career, he or she should have had appropriate experience at making appropriate decisions at appropriate levels. Decision makers at every level must become aware that they are required to make those decisions. Nothing focuses the attention like having the responsibility for making decisions, and this focused attention in and of itself sharpens people’s decision-making skills.
  • As a junior officer, I loved his staff meetings—simply because he insisted they be conducted at a level that everyone could understand. He always got down to the basics. If a member of the staff couldn’t do that, he simply
  • Brown told me that his most meaningful learning experience as exec to General White was White’s emphasis that one had to be able to distinguish the really vital from the less consequential, to be able to grasp the essentials and to refuse to be cluttered up with the nonessentials, and to delegate the rest to subordinates. Subordinates do the work so the commander can direct the major tasks
  • Don’t surprise me. If you have problems you can’t handle, bring them to me and I’ll help you solve them, but don’t surprise me, because that I can’t stand
  • The concept of delegation has been incorporated into army doctrine and is one of the key elements of a combat operations order. “The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of the operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.”43
  • There is a caveat given by General Eisenhower, who told me: “When you delegate something to a subordinate … it is absolutely your responsibility, and he must understand this. You as a leader must take complete responsibility for what that subordinate does.” This leads into the next chapter, which emphasizes that you must fix the problem, not the blame

9 Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

  • In an interview with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, he told me, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” He personally lived by that credo.
  • We are in a hell of a mess, and it is my fault. I wanted to get going and therefore I had my staff issue orders without taking time to work out necessary schedules, and the result is this mess. Now we shall just sit tight until the staff can work out schedules and restore order.


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