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Lessons from a Leader of Leaders

Leading under urgent pressure is the acid test of leadership, not just when it's smooth sailing

Li #240 Lessons from a Leader of Leaders
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“ANYONE CAN HOLD the helm when the sea is calm.” Thus wrote Publius Syrus, a wise Roman writer of the first century B.C. I would say the same about the art of leadership in general.

      Business leaders are facing challenges unimagined just a few years ago. The Covid epidemic and shutdowns resulted in drastic changes in both consumers’ behavior and business models. If I had asked a manager in 2019, “Can you picture letting your employees work from home?” I would have received the answer, “No way! How would I know they are working?” Now remote working is the norm, and their expectation.

      For instructive lessons on leading through massive change, we can consider how the leaders of our military acted at the beginning of the Second World War.


Eisenhower and Marshall


      One week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then-Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in Washington, and went immediately to present himself to his new superior, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. Marshall’s fame seems to have receded through the years, but his impact was huge.

      As Secretary of State after the war, he devised the European Recovery Program to help the continent rebuild from the devastation. President Truman insisted it be called “The Marshall Plan” in his honor. It was amazingly successful, and as a result, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

      Reading an excellent biography of Eisenhower by Stephen Ambrose, I was struck to learn of the impact Marshall had on him. One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is the selection of other leaders. At this Marshall excelled. Some lessons for us:

Responsibility and Initiative


      In the first days after Pearl Harbor, there was an immediate demand for strategy and a huge build up. Marshall needed capable officers quickly. That day he tested Eisenhower thoroughly with questions to learn whether he was capable of sound analysis and strategizing. Marshall decided he was and put Ike in charge of the Philippines and Far Eastern Section of the War Plans Division. He then closed their first day with this charge:


“Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”


      What label would you put on that desired description? Two words that come to my mind are responsibility and initiative.

  • Responsibility


     Marshall did not want good analyzers who refused to own responsibility. Critics and Monday Morning Quarterbacks ─ those who confidently tell you what you “should have done” after the fact ─ are a dime a dozen and worthless. The person who will step up, own a problem, take action and bear responsibility for the results is a leader.

  • Initiative

      Defined, initiative is “the action of taking the first step or move; responsibility for beginning or originating; the ability to think and act without being urged.” The last thing Marshall needed at that critical hour was dependent subordinates. There was too much to be done, and it had to be done now. He needed resourceful leaders who could think and act on their own. They had to be confident and courageous enough to bring their reports and bear valid criticism of their decisions.

      Marshall found these exact qualities in Eisenhower, and the two built an effective and close working relationship.

      As an application, consider what you want to see in key subordinates. By “key” I mean those who can potentially take on greater responsibility and share the burden of leading. One of the greatest pitfalls a leader can fall into is the desire to keep subordinates dependent upon them. For a team or organization to approach its potential, you need people who are growing in self-sufficiency, responsibility, and initiative.


Qualifiers and disqualifiers


      Marshall had to grow the military to over 8,000,000 soldiers by 1942, a fortyfold increase from three years earlier. Ambrose writes (emphasis mine),


"Marshall needed a stupendous organization. To do so effectively he needed assistants he could trust. In picking them, he took professional competence for granted and concentrated on personality traits."


      Too often, competence alone is considered when people are given leadership positions. It is assumed that someone who is a good doer because of their great work ethic will also be successful as a leader. It doesn’t follow.

      Marshall didn’t make that mistake. He looked not only for competence in a person’s work. He looked for the particular traits that would make them successful in leadership.

      Marshall also watched for negative traits that served as disqualifiers. He believed the following traits made a person unsuitable for command (quotes from Ambrose):

1.   “Foremost among these were those who were self-seeking in the matter of promotion.”

      The “foremost” disqualifying trait was looking out for Number One instead of commitment to the success of the mission. Individuals like this are identified quickly by peers and subordinates. They lose their credibility, the currency of leadership.

2.   “Next came those who always tried to ‘pass the buck.’”


     I’ve seen it and you have, too: The person who is never responsible for anything that goes wrong. They don’t carry their weight and any remaining credibility drains rapidly away.

3.   “Officers who tried to do everything themselves and consequently got bogged down in detail were equally unsatisfactory.”

      This will probably surprise the dedicated doers among us. It is vital to remember that as a leader, your effectiveness is not determined by how much you do, but by how much gets done because of what you do. No organization can afford to be bogged down by leaders who want to do everything themselves.

4.   “Men who shouted or pounded on the desk were as unacceptable to Marshall as men who had too great a love of limelight.”

      This comment cuts against the military stereotype: A superior officer dressing down a subordinate in the loudest possible volume with language laced with four-letter words. Marshall believed that such behavior marks the person as egocentric. Out-of-control behavior by a leader is a way of proclaiming, “It’s all about me!” Effective leaders remember that it’s all about the mission.

5.   “Nor could he abide the pessimist.”

      Regular readers of Leading Insights or my book BETTER: The Fundamentals of Leadership will know my response to this. I believe it is truly impossible to be a successful leader if you tend to think pessimistically. A leader’s attitude must always be an optimistic one, keeping in mind my definition of optimism: “Realism with confidence.” It is emphatically not ignoring or denying problems. It is facing and attacking them.




      Ambrose concludes with these comments:


"He [Marshall] surrounded himself with men who were offensive-minded and who concentrated on the possibilities rather than the difficulties.

"In every respect, Eisenhower was exactly the sort of officer Marshall was looking for. Eisenhower himself, as Supreme Commander and later as President, used Marshall’s criteria in picking his subordinates."


      When we look to role models, we sometimes only consider what they have become and forget to ask how they got that way. No one emerges from birth as a great leader of people. Yes, we have varying natural gifts, but mostly leaders are molded by the choices that built their character … and by the influence of other leaders.

      Marshall’s criteria for selecting leaders are excellent points we can use both for self-examination and for identifying others who have leadership potential, which can only be learned by observation. That’s why one of my most important principles is this: You don’t “pick” leaders; you identify them.

      The changes we have experienced present a serious leadership challenge … and a leadership opportunity. Consider how lessons drawn from the example of General Marshall might shape your decisions and actions in this unprecedented time. Li


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