Simple Leadership Lessons from George Marshall

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George Catlett Marshall served the United States in many
ways. As Chief of Staff of the Army he prepared a quite unprepared army for the
Second World War. During the war he was also the chief military advisor to
President Roosevelt. After the war he served as Secretary of Defense and
Secretary of State. He created the Marshall Plan, which President Truman
insisted bear Marshall’s name, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace

It’s always tempting to draw grand lessons from a life and career like
Marshall’s and, if you want to become President those can be helpful. I prefer
the simpler leadership lessons that we can learn from the way Marshall did his
job and that any boss can apply.

Deliver excellent performance. Recollections of those who
served with Marshall paint the picture of a tireless worker who always delivered
excellent results. But there is another example of his performance that is
simply amazing. Army fitness reports ask the standard question: “Would you want
this person to serve under your command in the future?” Two different commanding
officers answered that question about Marshal with, “Yes, but I would prefer to
serve under his command.”

Encourage and develop good people. Early in his career,
Marshall began keeping records of excellent officers that he met. When he was in
a position to do so he encouraged those officers and helped them develop. Most
notable among the bunch was Dwight Eisenhower.

Remove those who can’t do the job and promote those who can.
Marshall’s policy was simple. Those who proved they couldn’t do the job were
given other assignments.  Then he filled the position with the best person
available, even if that person was considered vital elsewhere.

Communicate effectively. President Roosevelt was a sailor
and had served as Secretary of the Navy. When Marshall briefed Roosevelt, he
always used nautical language familiar to the President. Once he even created a
cardboard ship model and used it to illustrate the organization of the Army.

Do the kind and the gracious thing. Stories abound about
Marshall’s kindness and concern for others without regard to rank or position.

When he was Deputy Commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning during
the Depression he discovered that married junior enlisted men had a difficult
living on their pay of $21 a month. Marshall’s made it possible (despite
regulations to the contrary) for those families to purchase a pail of food from
the mess hall at minimum cost.

When he was Chief of Staff, his own mentor, John Pershing came to visit
Marshall in the office. Marshall knew that Pershing hated public displays and
being stared at. He also knew that the people on his staff really wanted to see
the legendary Pershing up close. Marshall’s solution was to chat with Pershing
in his private office, but find an excuse to bring every member of the staff
into the office on some errand or other, at which time they could be introduced
to General Pershing.

Surround yourself with excellent people. After Dwight
Eisenhower was elected President, Marshall wrote a gracious congratulatory
letter, in which he said the following.

“I pray especially for you in the choice of those near you. That choice, more
than anything else, will determine the problems of the years and the record of
history. Make them measure up to your standards.”

Boss’s Bottom Line

Pay attention to the people.

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