By Tom Correll
George C. Marshall is well known in leadership and military history circles for his service as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and as one of the key architects of the Allied war effort in World War II. While his reputation is largely dominated by his later accomplishments, early actions were no less notable. Following duties in the Philippines, Marshall was assigned to the Allied Expeditionary Force in France during World War I, where he served with distinction in the 1st Infantry Division.
In the fall of 1920 Major Marshall, wrote to Brigadier General (Retired) John Mallory to document a previous conversation on “the advice I would give a young officer going to war, based on my observation of what had constituted the success of the outstanding figures in the American Expeditionary Forces.” (1-176 letter) Mallory was a competent professional of his own right, receiving two Silver Stars in the Philippines, and still found Marshall’s points compelling.
Marshall highlighted four main qualities: optimism, energy, loyalty, and determination. One hundred years later, this letter still resonates today.
“When conditions are difficult, the command is depressed and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic.”
A positive attitude is contagious, others will feed off of it. Being realistic is necessary, but outlook matters. Whether pessimism is coming from your boss, your peers, or your subordinates, set the example of an optimistic attitude.
“When evening comes and all are exhausted, hungry and possibly dispirited, particularly in unfavorable weather at the end of a march or in battle, you must put aside any thought of personal fatigue and display marked energy in looking after the comfort of your organization, inspecting your lines and preparing for tomorrow.”
Professional life is inherently demanding for anyone attempting to achieve anything worthwhile. In the military especially, physical deprivation is a critical component in training and an often-necessary facet of operational life. The moment a leader allows him or herself to be weighed down by weather, fatigue, or failure, their organization’s morale and performance will plummet. Instead, as a leader, you must display energy in everything you do. Your personal example in continuing to do things the right way is vital. This requires discipline and dedication to the mission, rather than allowing yourself to become a victim of the circumstances.
“Make a point of extreme loyalty, in thought and deed, to your chiefs personally; and in your efforts to carry out their plans or policies, the less you approve the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.”
Loyalty is not about blind obedience, but instead supporting those around you and being a good follower. Everyone has had a bad boss or been in a frustrating professional environment, but no one really wants to hear about it or be a part of your team dominated by that attitude. Instead, I argue, what are you doing to make the team you are responsible for better or to change the environment you are a part of? Carrying more than your share of the workload because of a struggling co-worker can be part of being loyal to the organization. Loyalty means allegiance to your team, to your organization, and to your greater vision and purpose. You are charged with upholding and building the reputation of your organization.
“The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude. Never ask for the relief of your unit and never hesitate to attack.”
No matter how daunting the circumstances or challenging the situation, a leader needs to exude a sense of determination and confidence. A leader must project the belief that their team will be successful in any task. This is not about arrogance, rather the self-assurance and poise of someone who believes that they will win, someone that others want to follow or work alongside.
“To be a highly successful leader in war four things are essential, assuming that you possess good common sense, have studied your profession and are physically strong.”
Marshall prefaced those four qualities with this statement. The traits he listed need to be built upon a foundation of character, professionalism, and common sense. While not all inclusive, these four are often overlooked and are critical for leaders in both the Army and nearly any industry. Organizations naturally take on the personalities and attitudes of leaders, especially good ones, and exhibiting these traits will only make your team better. In my personal experience, they often separate the good from the great. Instead of being a checklist of tasks to accomplish, they are how you should go about accomplishing all things.
Much of our professional military education focuses on what steps to take or things to think about in certain leadership positions. This is not to do say that those things are not important. I am arguing that instead of focusing on specific actions or things to do, focus on how you do things, qualities that will transcend position, rank, or situation. Often, the rest will take care of itself.
Tom Correll is an Infantry officer and currently a graduate student at Columbia University. Following earning his degree in Organizational Psychology & Leadership, he will serve as a Cadet company Tactical Officer at the United States Military Academy. Tom’s thoughts are his own and do not reflect that of the USMA, US Army, or Department of Defense. You cannot reach Tom on Twitter because he thinks it’s for chumps.
The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 189-190.
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