Vince Lombardi wisely quipped, “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” Success does not happen by accident…and neither does becoming a leader. The road to meaningful influence is marked by deliberate steps to acquire knowledge, gain experience, and engage in ways that specifically relate to leadership. Followers can do this on their own, but leaders have a tacit responsibility to grow other leaders and must find ways to further the leadership development of those around them.
If you were a fly on the wall of my high school 20 years ago, you’d see me walking to class with a copy of Colin Powell’s My American Journey. And why Powell’s 600 page autobiography and not, for instance, a car magazine or the latest Pearl Jam album? Because I’m a leadership nerd, that’s why…and still am.
I already had my sights on a career in the military, but this book seized my attention. Powell recounts his memorable career from Vietnam Captain to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and in plain language delivers poignant leadership lessons relevant for every profession. It’s not an overstatement to say that it became a foundational resource for my leader development…my leadership bible.
Although I underlined text on nearly every page of My American Journey, here are the quotes that have had a lasting effect on my career and have shaped my own leadership journey.
Take a look at your unit calendar. Scan the clutter of appointments, meetings, formations, training events, ceremonies, and administrative commitments. Do you see any events dedicated to improving the quality of your people’s leadership? If not…if leadership development isn’t a separate line of effort…then how are you developing leaders?
When I read this leadership quote a few weeks ago, I kicked myself for not having found it sooner. (It’s the type of advice I’d put in my signature block…and I’m not even a “signature block philosophy” kind of emailer.) It is attributed to the immutably inspirational leader of the Allied coalition in World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This insight is powerful because it captures the fundamental nature, the heart, of what it means to be a leader. And Eisenhower uses only 26 words to do it.
[Seated L-R: Gens. William Simpson, George Patton, Carl Spaatz, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Courtney Hodges, & Leonard Gerow
Standing L-R: Gens. Ralph Stearley, Hoyt Vandenberg, Walter Bedell Smith, Otto Weyland, & Richard Nugent.]
I observed early on in my career that quotes have an cornerstone place in our military’s professional development. (Perhaps it was the hours of reciting them in the hallways of a Colorado Springs campus that gave me this notion.)
The best quotes deliver rich insight with the fewest words. They elevate mediocre discourse and inspire fresh perspective on today’s challenges. They also cover the topics that we don’t typically weave into daily conversation…courage, service, inspiration, perseverance, honor, duty, sacrifice. But it seems that unless we structure quotes into our lives, it’s easy to forget about the long history of advice available to us.
To help, I invite you to visit The Military Leader Quote Page. I just added a bunch of new quotes like the ones below and will continue to build the list. And be sure to add your favorite quotes to the comment section on the page and share the ones that inspire you.
“When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”
– General Bruce D. Clark
“The good general is simply the good company commander in his post-graduate course. The idea that more godlike qualities are required of him and that he above others can achieve miracles through the working of his will is dismissed as idle superstition.”
– S.L.A. Marshall in “Men Against Fire”
“Success is peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
– Coach John Wooden
“There are three kinds of people: Those who are immovable, those who are moveable, and those who move them.”
– Li Hung
“In a fight between a bear and an alligator,
it is the terrain which determines who wins.”
– Jim Barksdale
The importance of terrain is so incredibly simple that leaders often overlook its decisiveness. Once we progress out of the Platoon Leader days of land navigation, we think we have the terrain thing figured out.
Yet, history proves time and again that there is no other factor of war that can so quickly and destructively turn the tide of battle. As such, when reading this quote (again and again), leaders would do well to keep in mind the following:
You’ll need to read this General George C. Marshall quote several times to absorb all the lessons hidden within it.
When you are commanding, leading [soldiers] under conditions where physical exhaustion and privations must be ignored, where the lives of [soldiers] may be sacrificed, then, the efficiency of your leadership will depend only to a minor degree on your tactical ability. It will primarily be determined by your character, your reputation, not much for courage—which will be accepted as a matter of course—but by the previous reputation you have established for fairness, for that high-minded patriotic purpose, that quality of unswerving determination to carry through any military task assigned to you.
General George C. Marshall, Speaking to officer candidates in September 1941
Here are a few of the takeaways:
- The “starting line” for leadership in combat is that one must accept, ignore, and discard the physical hardship that accompanies it. Exhaustion is the innate price of participation. Thus, leaders should maintain a physical fitness level that allows them to fulfill their command duties despite fatigue.
- Tactical ability in combat is not as important as character. This is a tough concept to grasp, but it helps to ask, “Which is more dangerous in combat – a lack of tactical ability? or a lack of character?” Marshall seems to indicate that inexperienced commanders can still succeed in combat by making common sense, informed decisions – and that an organization can absorb a leader’s lack of tactical ability. However, a commander lacking character will have more destructive and permanent effects on an organization.
- Courage is the default for a combat leader. Similar to endurance under privation, Marshall says that courage in combat is a given, and expected by Soldiers. Is this concept in line with our view of courage in combat today?
- What does create success for a commander in combat? Marshall says plainly that character is decisive above all else. Character accompanied with perseverance under any conditions, fairness in decision making, and a clear attitude of service to the Nation.
Questions for Leaders
- Does your organization know what traits are assumed and expected of them?
- How prepared is your team to face the physically and mentally exhaustive realities of combat? Have you replicated them in training?
- How does a leader measure/assess the qualities of perseverance, courage, and character that are necessary in combat?
Great leaders always seem to embody two seemingly disparate qualities. They are both highly visionary and highly practical. Their vision enables them to see beyond the immediate. They can envision what’s coming and what must be done. Leaders possess and understanding of how:
- Mission provides purpose – answering the question, Why?
- Vision provides a picture – answering the question, What?
- Strategy provides a plan – answering the question, How?
– John C. Maxwell in the The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership