The Generals (Book Review) and Leadership Strategies for Engineering Managers

January 11, 2014

If there is one place where you might expect leadership techniques to be researched and practiced like a science, it would likely be the United States Army. The Generals, by Tom Ricks, reviews the leadership practices of US Army leadership from World War Two through the present conflict in Afghanistan. By and large, high marks are given to the leadership practiced in the Second World War, while missteps in Korea and Vietnam eroded the trust between generals, their subordinates, and civilian overseers. Early tactical success in the First Gulf War may have led to overconfidence that eventually led to quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade later. Time will tell whether better leadership salvaged a strategic win from these most recent conflicts.

The Generals provides an eye-opening history of major US military conflicts from the point of view of the top brass. However, my favorite part was the profiling of the generals which served to highlight good and bad leadership practices. It seemed to me that many of these concepts were equally applicable to leadership in my engineering office. Three of the most compelling leadership concepts presented are:

1)    George Marshall‘s policy of quick relief and promotion based on battlefield performance

2)    Matthew Ridgeway‘s rescue of the Korean conflict by seeking first-hand knowledge and holding field commanders accountable

3)    Norman Schwarzkopf‘s tactical superiority but strategic loss

George Marshall, Image courtesy Wikipedia

George Marshall is presented as nothing less than the savior of the US Army during WWII. As a young officer in World War One, Marshall witnessed a poorly equipped, poorly trained force struggle to achieve battle readiness, and he stood up to his commanding officers to provide accurate appraisals of the units. Upon being appointed Secretary of the Army, Marshall began a campaign to both equip his forces and put in place the needed leadership.

Dwight Eisenhower was selected by Marshall from relative obscurity to be groomed for a special leadership task.Though Eisenhower’s tactical aptitude is sometimes debated by military historians, his ability to negotiate the complicated political challenges as supreme Allied Commander is generally celebrated. Marshall recognized the right man for the job, as Eisenhower would likewise recognize George Patton as the perfect tough-as-nails general to take the fight to the Germans over the European countryside. Getting to that point, however, required an exhaustive trial and error process of management selection.

Before the US entered the war, Marshall sacked many aging commanders in favor of aggressive young commanders with a better grasp of modern mechanized warfare. Scores of commanders were relieved throughout the war, but instead of being completely sidelined, they were reappointed to different tasks. Some commanders made it back to the front lines for a second chance at glory. Terry Allen was one such general, noted for field successes in Tunisia and Sicily but whose troops displayed a lack of discipline off the battlefield. After being relieved in Italy under questionable pretenses, Allen returned stateside to prepare another unit which he would then lead in 195 days of fighting across the French and German countryside in 1944. His relief and second chance both would have been highly unlikely in subsequent conflicts.

Meritocracy would seem to be a natural fit within American capitalism, but the kind of quick promotion and relief instituted within WWII is not typical of most companies. It has been said that the last recession provided the opportunity for some companies to clean house of ineffective leadership, but should effective management be continent on external economic crises? Especially in the age of rapidly advancing technology, room needs to be made for young emerging leaders. As a sensible first step my company has instituted a policy of mandatory divestment, so that each generation of leadership actually holds the company’s stock.

The Marshall and Eisenhower policy of rapid promotion and quick relief can also be applied at lower levels of leadership, particularly because it allows for second chances and relocation. Aspiring leaders need to learn through experience, but there is little upside to perpetually leaving someone in a position that is not conducive to team success. Eisenhower was particularly wary of leaders who disparaged higher leadership and sowed discontent. A few bad seeds could ruin the morale of an entire unit. In retrospect, I can see that some of the low points in my career can be traced to negative attitudes among superiors.

After the use of the atomic bomb to definitively conclude the war in the Pacific and the subsequent beginning of the Cold War, the role of infantry in future conflicts was debated. According to Ricks, the Army missed an opportunity to institutionalize the leadership strategies of Marshall and Eisenhower. Under the imperial leadership of Douglas MacArthur, the next conflict in Korea began poorly.

Ricks has little nice to say about MacArthur’s leadership. The long-time general and presidential aspirant is said to have been mostly concerned about enhancing his personal reputation, promoting cronies to leadership posts, awarding bogus medals for routine activity, and leading by edict from afar. MacArthur aggressively pressured Washington to broaden the Korean conflict into mainland China, though he personally rarely traveled from his headquarters in Japan. Early in the conflict, he ordered troops to march aggressively into hostile territory.

The battles at Chosin Reservoir were case-in-point for the bad generalship driven by hubris. After nearly 17 days of fighting, the UN forces (mostly American and Korean) reported that approximately 10,000 of the 30,000 men in action had been killed or injured. The Chinese estimated their losses as nearly double. One of the most harrowing stories recounted in The Generals follows the ultimately doomed convoy retreat of Colonel Allan Maclean and Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith. Only 385 soldiers of the original 2,500 in the special unit were deemed able-bodied after finally reaching safety.

Marine General Oliver P. Smith is credited with saving the operation from complete catastrophe. This after nearly being cited for insubordination because of his initially cautious advance which provided time to establish several supply depots and a lifesaving airfield. Upon encountering the enemy, he led an ordered retreat, inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese while rescuing the remnants of the Army corps.

Matthew Bunker Ridgway, Image courtesy Wikipedia

Success of the UN mission in Korea was in doubt after the setbacks at Chosin Reservoir. Matthew Ridgeway is credited with turning around the operations by establishing leadership credibility and restoring morale among the enlisted. Ridgeway served as a major general for the 82nd airborne division in WWII and jumped with his men during the Normandy invasion. He embodied the hands-on, no-nonsense leadership style. Upon receiving his command in Korea, Ridgeway arranged for a private aerial tour of important theaters on the Korean Peninsula, reviewed subordinates’ tactical plans, and instituted a leadership rotation to move out ineffective commanders.

Many businesses have implemented leadership strategies akin to Ridgeway’s. General Electric has a long established leadership training program that rotates aspiring leaders on a two-year interval through several business units. The managers may then select the area of the company that best suits their aptitude.

Staff are usually appreciative of leaders willing to roll up their sleeves. When we have a tight deadline, I often end up drafting details and adding annotations in CAD myself. Throughout a project, it’s also important to meet regularly with the team to review the project milestones and the tactics for achieving each of them. However, no one appreciates excessive oversight, and it’s important that attention to minutia does not distract a leader from addressing the larger strategic questions.

Ridgeway’s hand-on approach seemed to be the right leadership style for repairing the UN mission in Korea. However, once institutionalized, hands-on leadership led to micromanagement, rotations prevented leaders from gaining intimate command knowledge about their units, and tactical emphasis replaced long-term strategic thinking. The chapters about Vietnam are depressing, a cautionary tale about the worst outcomes from uninspired, self-serving leadership. The only silver lining in the retelling is that the Army did its due diligence in examining the failures of leadership and troop preparation. The best advice was not always taken, as would become evident in conflicts in the Middle East.

I was in elementary school during the first Gulf War, but I can remember the outpouring of patriotism and exuberance in apparently winning the war. The song “God Bless the USA” was played constantly on all the radio stations, and the elementary school library showed the 24 hr news feed of exploding tanks and surrendering Iraqis. By appearances, America had regained it’s swagger with an overwhelming victory through conventional warfare. The top commanders were recognized like celebrities. They even had trading cards – all of the kids wanted a Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf in their set.

Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., Image courtesy Wikipedia

In The Generals, Ricks gives credit to Schwarzkopf for leading a tactically sound operation. It had helped that years of Cold War investment and post-Vietnam retooling of the Army provided the general with a fighting force vastly superior than his foe. Ricks argues that Schwarzkopf failed to achieve the strategic goals of the war, because the general did not take full advantage of the tactical superiority and press more aggressively to cut off the Iraqi retreat back to Baghdad.

In keeping so much of their fighting force in tact, Iraqi generals did not feel they had lost the war. Saddam Hussein‘s belligerence in subsequent years was perhaps fueled by the notion that his armies had stood up to the mighty American military and survived. Ricks suggests that Schwarzkopf had no patience for the political strategy playing out above the battle field. This is emphasized in the retelling of the cease-fire talks negotiated by Schwarzkopf. Although negotiating from a very strong position, Schwarzkopf failed to enact the types of restrictions that would have crippled the Iraqi military. For example, the Iraqi’s were permitted to fly helicopters with armed troops through any regions not considered US airspace. This ability allowed Hussein to continue carrying out sectarian violence at ease.

The lesson for managers is to think strategically about the long-term. Though one may be able to efficiently deliver a technically sufficient work product, the means by which that is accomplished is consequential. These are the questions that I find myself fretting about more so than technical problems: Were the production staff trained on this project, so that they will be more productive next time? Was the client pleased with the process, so that they will want to work with the company again? Did I respect the needs of peers within my company so that they don’t undercut my future staffing needs?

At higher levels of management, strategic planning occupies a lot of brain power. My company runs a yearly cycle of strategic planning, setting goals, measuring outcomes, and assessing progress. The point is to keep the company looking forward to changing business trends. Since the time I started with the company nine years ago, we now have four or five new divisions that employ at least a third of the staff. Entering these markets has allowed us to survive the recession and grow.

Following the perceived success of Operation Desert Storm, the Army made few strategic changes in leadership policies. Ricks suggests that the failures of the later Afghanistan and Iraq wars were predictable in retrospect. Ineffective leaders were not quickly removed from their posts while conditions deteriorated. Few generals understood the nature of the insurgency. And the long-term strategic goals of the operations are still not well defined. Time will tell whether the improved leadership which allowed US trips to withdraw enabled a tenuous draw as in Korea or simply an orderly defeat similar to Vietnam.

The stories of the generals from WWII to present provide an interesting angle on the frequently told history of America’s wars. Many histories rightly focus on the trials of the enlisted man, but the decisions of generals drove the outcomes of the conflicts. Ricks provides interesting insight into the changes in how generals are evaluated, rewarded, and disciplined based on performance. The Generals will leave you furious about lives lost and opportunities squandered but grateful for the few men that positively changed the course of history. One can hope that books like Ricks’ are read and appreciated by Army generals and business leaders alike.


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