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What 21st-century masters of the universe can learn from George C. Marshall.

Sixty years ago this month, in a Harvard University commencement speech, then Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a program of U.S. economic assistance for the reconstruction of Europe in the aftermath of World War II. “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” he said. The so-called Marshall Plan became the bedrock upon which the postwar Atlantic alliance was built and the crowning legacy for an old warrior who served as the U.S. Army chief of staff during the war. Both in war and peace Marshall was a model public servant who contemporary military and civilian leaders would do well to emulate, argues Stewart W. Husted, a professor of business and economics at Virginia Military Institute, who is the author of George C. Marshall— Rubrics of Leadership (Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2007, $23.95). He spoke with World War II about Marshall’s remarkable leadership skills.

What made Marshall a great leader?

He exemplified selfless service. Probably the most famous example is when a decision was being made on who would lead the invasion of Normandy. President Roosevelt pressed Marshall about what he should do, but Marshall stood back and said, “Mr. President, it’s your choice.” Roosevelt chose Dwight Eisenhower, and Marshall, clearly disappointed, stayed in Washington to do his duty. After the war, when Marshall stepped down as Army chief of staff and was preparing for retirement, he received a phone call in which he agreed to be special ambassador to China. He continued to accept President Truman’s call for leadership in government as secretary of state, then president of the Red Cross, then secretary of defense. He always stepped up to the plate and did what he felt to be his duty.

How did such a selfless man rise so fast and so high during his career?

Marshall constantly got assignments he didn’t want, but that helped make him a better soldier. In World War I he wanted to be in the field desperately. He even went to the front lines one night and broke his ankle when his horse fell. He was told, “We need you as a staff officer, not a field officer, because you are such a master of detail.” He commanded Civilian Conservation Corps units and served as the senior Illinois National Guard instructor, both of which were considered deadend jobs. Marshall never gave up seeking higher position, but every place that he went, he set the example. Particularly he looked out for his people. He had a reputation for maintaining high troop morale.

How did Marshall manage his time?

He would get to work relatively early, around 7 to 7:30, and was so organized that he typically closed up shop in the afternoon around 4:30 and went home. Today, people have pagers, cell phones and e-mail, and when they go home or they take a vacation, they constantly are glued to what’s going on in the office. I think that’s probably not necessarily the best thing. You don’t get away and get recharged, you carry things over.

How was Marshall able to get his work done with such efficiency?

He managed process. Any staff memos requiring a decision had to be two pages or less. The file might be thick, but the material calling for a decision had to be no more than two pages. He wanted to know what was going on, but just the most important stuff. He said to his staff: “You work out the details.” A lot of business leaders today seem to micromanage but don’t have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on.

What made him such a good planner?

His skill at planning started when he was regimental commander at the Virginia Military Institute, responsible for every cadet there. At a military school your time is restricted. Every minute, every second is important, so you have to plan—and that’s what Marshall did. Later he found himself on a ship going to the battlefield of World War I with units that weren’t supposed to be on the ship and equipment that wasn’t for those units. Somehow by coordinating, planning, thinking ahead, he was able to put together a master plan to move huge numbers of troops and convoys over tiny dirt roads in France. He used that skill throughout his life.

How did Marshall command deference and respect from staffers and at the same time encourage them to be independent and innovative?

One way he managed that balancing act was by never really getting close to his subordinates. He always seemed to have this formal persona with them. Subordinates have to understand that the ultimate decision rests with the guy in charge. Marshall was both a good leader and a good follower. With the secretary of war and the president, his role was to give input, not to make policy decisions. That’s something young men and women learn at our service academies and colleges—how to be followers first. It’s hard to be a good leader if you don’t understand what your followers are going through.

What lessons can military leaders learn from Marshall about how to be assertive without violating the principle of civilian control of the military?

If you are the chief of staff of the Army, as Marshall was, your job is to advocate for that branch of the service. You’re there to represent the troops and provide the best information that you can to the civilian leaders. It’s an integrity issue. You should always stand up for what you feel is right. In reading about how decisions were made at the beginning of the Iraq war, some military leaders were very forthcoming with their opinions to policymakers early on. To sit back and think about career versus what you believe is best for the military certainly would not be a thing that one would look back and think was a great moment of integrity. Nobody wants a yes man serving as a leader in the military. We know based on our Constitution that civilian leaders have the final word. Marshall didn’t mind at any point expressing his views. He felt honor-bound to express what he felt to be the truth and the best solution to a problem. That’s why he was so popular with Congress. They knew that when he spoke, he spoke the truth and didn’t try to spin it. Congress trusted Marshall.

Marshall was convinced that colossal wastefulness in the U.S. military resulted from a failure of people in charge to properly study history. How did this affect his leadership style?

Every chance he had, he visited historic battlefields. Every chance he had he was reading some classical book on war, trying to learn lessons from history. Marshall was not known in his early life to be an intellectual. His grades were mediocre. At the Virginia Military Institute he was a middle-of-the-pack kind of person. But he started his lifelong reading habit there. His roommate’s father was editor of a New Orleans newspaper and sent along review copies of books for the boys to read.

What attributes best sum up Marshall’s leadership?

Without a doubt, the most important thing was his strength of character. People had the ultimate trust in his decision-making. Marshall also was always the master of the situation. He studied a problem and he was extremely organized and detailed. Early in his career he learned to lead and manage people. That is what made that man stand out—character, and the ability to organize and plan.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here