Patton’s Advice Has a Serious Flaw

When I was in high school and the service academy, I did what many aspiring military leaders do. I studied famous generals from history and extracted the lessons that I wanted to live and lead by. I compiled quotes from Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon…Washington, Marshall, and Powell.

And of course, Patton. I had pages of Patton quotes. There was the “pint of sweat and gallon of blood” quote, the “good plan executed now” dictum, and “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” But here’s the quote that stuck with me the most:

“You are always on parade.”

I referenced it almost daily as a clear reminder that example is everything in leadership. [I even wrote about it in You Are Being Watched.] But now, 20 years later, I think Patton’s analogy has a serious flaw.

patton

George Patton, c. 1919.

The Infallible Leader

Embedded in Patton’s quote is the idea that followers maintain a vigil of scrutiny, intolerant of mistakes and ready to discredit their leaders at the slightest slip. It feeds the belief that leaders must maintain a persona of infallibility, possessing total intellect and 100% confidence stemming from perfect experience. Vulnerability is not an option.

You may have experienced this in your career, thinking you have to get it all right or your followers will see right through you. Military units experience this often, as new commanders rotate in every two years and must do their very best to remain competitive.

But there are several downsides to a mentality of infallibility:

  • Without failure, leaders will never achieve meaningful growth.
  • Followers may observe the leader’s perfect standard and adopt the belief that they are in a zero-defect culture. Or worse, the leader directly applies his standard of perfection to the unit.
  • Leaders who don’t want to hear when they’re wrong end up with followers who have no motivation to tell them when they are.
  • Infallible leaders stifle creativity because they are not willing to present unrefined ideas for collaboration.
  • Leaders with all the answers inhibit the intellectual capacity of the organization, creating followers who won’t speak their minds.
  • Infallible leaders dilute the quality of their own ideas, discarding the good in hopes of the perfect.

The problem with comparing leadership to a parade is that parades are supposed to be perfect, but leaders can never be.

Embrace Vulnerability

Leaders who lead like they’re on parade are afraid to be wrong because they feel vulnerable. In doing so, they miss an opportunity to showcase the most important aspect of leading…that we are human. All leaders will inevitably make mistakes, no matter how perfectly they think they must perform. So what’s the point in keeping up a façade of perfection?

Instead, try this:

  • Acknowledge that it’s healthier and more effective to create a culture that is open to making mistakes but is committed to making them quickly and moving on.
  • Ask for input, ideas, and dissent…you’ll create an atmosphere of inclusion that encourages followers to speak up when it really matters.
  • Be transparent when you screw up…you’ll show your people you don’t expect perfection and teach them lessons they can avoid themselves.
  • Be vulnerable…it just might inspire someone to find courage in an area they needed to grow.

So, is Patton’s quote irrelevant? Should we scratch it from the archives? No, it still sends a strong reminder that example overrides everything in leadership. Leaders just need to make sure their example includes the missteps along the way.

Questions for Leaders

  • What effect could you have if you cared more about growing your followers than about protecting your reputation?
  • Has your team learned how to endure failure by watching your example?
  • In what ways could you use your faults as teaching points and help others to do the same?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Chris

    I can’t agree more with the article — I can’t recall how many times when I had a leader in the infantry where they made such a climate that shook the confidence of their subordinate leaders, thus making them hesitant to make decisions.

    There are many articles supporting this argument
    Example from a case study on Google: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

    Harvard Business School research article on Psychological Safety: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/02-062_0b5726a8-443d-4629-9e75-736679b870fc.pdf

    It just so happened that we’re covering this topic for a course I’m taking for a graduate degree — thank you for publishing this post — this adds another perspective.

  • Chris Boze

    I would like to know if there was any context to the quote itself. My takeaway is this: like a Soldier on parade, you (and your actions) are always being scrutinized. From something as simple as being in “the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform, doing the right thing” to more significant as leading a group of men in combat, your actions are always being watched. Its been a long time since I read books on Patton, but I don’t remember him being one of the Zero defects mentality…maybe he was, I can’t remember…and of course we know he wasn’t i.e. The Slap Heard Round the World! I’m more in the “Do the right thing” camp than the “Make no mistakes” one…my two cents

    • Hey Chris,
      Thanks for commenting. There is definitely context to be had. A commenter on LinkedIn mentioned that reading the full letter might help. I have not read it yet, but will check it out.

      I replied to him that my warning is not that Patton had it wrong, but that young leaders (like myself years ago) could interpret his words to mean that leaders must be perfect.

      • John-Alan Mackay

        I think you are right it is often our perception of the quote, but also the purpose of your Parade.
        In my last appointment I was the RSM of a recruit training establishment. You may remember parades being a big thing there (certainly in the UK). The biggest Parade for any intake is of course the Pass Off Parade. The Recruit Steps on to the square with their course for the final time,and steps off the square for the first time as a trained soldier with the first group with whom they have a shared soldier experience. They do this in front of Family, friends and new Unit Reps.
        After countless hours of work on footdrill and practice of moving around in formation are these parades perfect?
        Rarely –
        recruits pass out because “I coudn’t eat this morning Sir”,
        the best shot loses the ability to perform a soldierly salute (as they come face to face with a Senior Officer for the first time).
        Your Best Platoon Sergeant has a personal crisis and you must make do with lesser experience leading the young soldiers (and guiding the young Officers) on the square.
        Who sees this? Everyone observing the parade!

        I told every course this parade is not about this Unit, it is not about me the CO or your Instructors, it is not even about the Unit reps out there. This parade is for you to thank your friends and family for their support whilst you have been here and to ask for their continuing support in your Armed Forces Career. It matters not what you get right or wrong out there, the people you are on Parade for already know you have flaws, they knew you before you did. Now, today, this moment is your moment to show them that flaws and all you serve them and will do always your best for them.

        “You are always on parade” OK sir! But those followers who know you best know you are not perfect and occasionally you make mistakes – they forgive the mistakes because they love (admire) You.
        Those who seek mistakes in you will always find them – they are critical people who tend to spend so much time trying to bring others down….they forget they were once on the same level…but the Leader rose above them.

        • I like your perspective, there are definitely times when the team must hit a home run. We train hard for those moments and in the things that we can train with reflexive competency, we should expect the highest standard. I feel, however, that it’s easy to apply that standard to all activity in the unit and the “perfect standard” becomes the leader’s exact way of doing it. There’s risk in forcing the perfection standard and it’s less effective because it can prevent the talent in the organization from rising to the surface.
          Thanks again for your comments above – I think they provide a very useful addendum to the post.

  • John Mannarino

    Share this with the President.