Leadership Lessons from an ‘Undersung’ Hero

By Heather Baldwin

Amidst the rash of today’s corporate and political scandals, it’s easy to lose sight of the ideals to which sales leaders should be striving. This is why it would be well worth your time to pick up the latest book on General George C. Marshall, a man who epitomized leadership. The book, Soldier Statesman Peacemaker: Leadership Lessons from George C. Marshall (AMACOM, 2005) is by Jack Uldrich, a writer, speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies. In exploring the principles by which Marshall lived, Uldrich offers business leaders some important lessons in effective leadership. Here are some of those principles:

Integrity: Do the right thing “frankly and without evasion.” As Army Chief of Staff, Marshall went to extraordinary lengths to prevent himself from falling prey to the allure of power. He refused to vote in order to remain above politics. He declined invitations to drop by the White House to have drinks with the President. “He did not want to become intoxicated by the perks of power,” says Uldrich. Marshall’s extraordinary and unwavering integrity helped him get the most out of his people.

Action: Master the situation by acting swiftly and decisively. Marshall lived by the principle that taking an imperfect action immediately was better than taking a perfect action later. He once told a group of officers, “Passive inactivity, because you have not been given specific instructions to do this or that, is a serious deficiency.” And when the President of the United States complained to Marshall about a subordinate who had burst into the President’s dental appointment to get a signature, Marshall replied, “When I find people who get things done, I won’t fire them.”

Candor: Speak your mind and leave nothing “between the lines.” In late 1938, Marshall, who had recently been appointed Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, was called to attend his first meeting with President Roosevelt. He went, acutely aware that he was finally within reach of his lifelong goal to become Chief of Staff, and that Roosevelt held the key to that selection. It would have been natural for Marshall to want to make a favorable impression on the President.

Roosevelt wanted feedback on his plan to request funding from Congress to build 10,000 planes, with no money allocated for maintenance or training. Every advisor in the room offered his unqualified support for the plan – except Marshall. When Roosevelt asked what he thought, Marshall said, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with you at all.” While his other advisors later bid him farewell for not supporting the President, Roosevelt later promoted Marshall to Chief of Staff, pleased he had found someone who would provide him with honest advice rather than tell him what he wanted to hear.

Learning: The principle of teaching and sharing knowledge. Marshall believed that the best way to direct men was by trying to help them see the way to go. He once asked a young officer, “What do you think my decision should be?” He was constantly teaching, guiding and preparing the next generation of leaders. Similarly, business leaders should understand that if they are to sustain growth, they should always be training the next generation of leaders.

Fairness: Choose the right people and see that they are rewarded, rather than compromising or settling for mediocrity. Marshall, when congratulated for his victory in North Africa, responded that it was quite easy: “Just pick the right man for the job and back him up with every resource at our disposal.” Marshall had a knack for spotting talent, hiring them, then stepping out of the way and trusting them to do the job. Your reps will perform if you do the same.

Caring: Consider the interests of your constituents “first, last and all the time.” Marshall understood that it was not him or his generals who won wars, but the soldiers on the battlefield. Therefore, he made it his absolute priority to take care of his troops. Similarly, the CEO of PVS Chemicals personally teaches classes on safety and rewards behavior that improves safety; a managing director at another company purchased a plane ticket for a subordinate who couldn’t afford to fly home for a family emergency. These acts of caring inspire intense loyalty and respect from people who are used to hearing the phrase “employees are our greatest asset” as an empty cliché.