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July 21, 2017

What was Gen. George Marshall’s secret?

 

 

“There are no bad soldiers only bad generals” – Napoleon 

 

The book The Generals by Thomas Ricks struck such a chord with me on the topic of leadership and team building, that I feel compelled to share the key points of the book. With the global political crisis looming in September of 1939, General George C. Marshall received a clear directive from FDR. His mission was to build a world class army, and fast.  He inherited a feeble ill-equipped army of 190,000 troops. Many of the officers were hold over veterans from WWI waiting to retire. What was the first step he took knowing he had to build a giant Army 40x its current size? He fired 600 officers, keeping only 11 of 43 Generals. He created a preferred leader profile and objectively removed those leaders who were risk averse, plodding, or lacking the energy, passion and skills needed to perform at the top most level.

What was the outcome of this risky leadership move? From 1939 to 1944 the Army grew from 190,000 troops to over 8,000,000. It was an army that made mistakes, but learned and adapted from those mistakes at a pace that left British leaders astonished. The initial firings created opportunity, attracting the best young, flexible and eager to learn leaders who were engaged in growing their military careers.  In 1941, Eisenhower was a Colonel, rising to become a 3 Star General and Commander in Chief of the Allied forces in the following year; that is 3 promotional levels in 1 year.


General Marshall’s secret was respecting the strategy of relieving officers as being part of the process of individual development and growth, and is essential to protecting the desired organizational culture.  Accountability becomes the energy behind adaptability, when leaders delay terminations, they also diminish the rigor of the organization’s culture. The risk of getting fired is the price leaders pay for having a high level of autonomy and the freedom to be self-directed. General Marshall said, “When a general complains of the morale of his troops, the time has come to look at his own.”

What is the greatest factor in determining the outcome of wars: strategy, tactics, logistics, technology or personnel policy? 

The American forces in the Korean War suffered from poor leadership under the egomaniacal General MacArthur who was removed by Truman for cause. He was replaced by General Ridgeway, who was capable and effective, but the military leaders struggled to recruit officers to serve in Korea for fear it might blemish their career paths.  Unfortunately, the US Army continued its rapid decline through the 1960s and ’70s. Ricks makes a compelling case that the devastation of the Army’s culture was a result of their policy of 13-month tours for soldiers, and 6-month rotations for officers, combined with little to no enforcement of performance standards. The My Lai disaster and the lack of repercussions for the officers and top leaders conducting the cover up was the defining peak of “Good Ol’ Boys” policy among the Army’s generals.  My Lai was so embarrassing, the Army decommissioned the entire Americal Division. You can read of the blind ego of LBJ, and the incurious and foolish General Westmorland, but modern generals agree, the personnel policy of new young soldiers with no experience being led by officers with no experience on 6-month rotations was the prevailing failure. Protecting Officers’ careers became the primary goal, not protecting soldiers, ethics or winning the war.


Does your company suffer from Institutional Mediocrity?

Fast forward to modern times, rarely is a general relieved. The few times it does happen it’s for personal foibles, not for performance in command, and it is done by civilian leaders, not within the ranks of Military leadership. In the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle receives a heavier penalty than a general with weak command who loses the battle, or even the war. General Mattis is the one of a few Army leaders to relieve a general in the past 20 years. General Mattis was quoted as saying, “Even Jesus Christ had 1 out of 13 not make the cut.” His vision of accountability driving adaptive growth is a glimmer of light.

What is the result of this culture in our time? Brigadier General Mark Arnold commented that when 94% of all Colonels receive a promotion in the same year, “that rings loudly of institutionalizing mediocrity”. The personnel equivalent of Gresham’s Law is that bad leaders drive out good ones. A study in 2010 by the Army Research Institute concluded “that the main reason talented people leave is not the lure of a lucrative civilian career, but because mediocre people stay in and get promoted.”


Thomas Ricks does his homework as Pulitzer Prize winning authors should, referencing personal letters, diaries and testimonials delivering a nuanced perspective of every general since WWII, in a quite candid style. It’s a leadership themed book with much to be mined. Many stories of great generals, Bradley, Abrams, Ridgeway, DePuy can be added to the list alongside Marshall and Eisenhower as models for us to strive towards. Reading how tactical focus not only undermines the ability to think strategically, but seems to erode desire to do so was insightful. However, by far the most shocking revelation are the seemingly endless examples of the power of personnel policy.

What does this mean to the leaders in the Building Products Industry?

For 20 years I have had the privilege of watching and working with many owners, leaders and companies across the US as a national recruiter.  Here is what I have learned:

  • We can accurately predict which companies will gain market share by the strength of the owner and the top leader of the company.
  • We actively list the best owners and leaders to target as our clients.
  • We are as diligent listing the weak and incapable owners and leaders whose egos make them helpless, as we know it will be easy to recruit away their best talent.
  • Both lists are equally important.

Rigorous 360 reviews and re-assigning or firing poor leaders are essential tools in building great companies. Your people deserve the best leaders providing the best chance of winning in this competitive world today.

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