An Assessment of Leadership

By Brown, John S. | Army, January 2013 | Go to article overview

An Assessment of Leadership

Brown, John S., Army

An Assessment of Leadership The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Thomas E. Ricks. The Penguin Press. 558 pages; index; notes; black-andwhite photographs; $32.95. Publisher's website:

Thomas E. Ricks thinks we should fire more generals. In this theory he joins Douglas Macgregor, Paul Yingling, about every Fort Leavenworth Command and General Staff College class we have surveyed in the last hundred years, and others. Unfortunately for our professional self-esteem, we cannot dismiss Ricks as a brainy crank who will not be read much outside the Army, or as a promising apprentice who has not yet walked in the shoes of his elders.

Ricks is a seasoned Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist with ample experience with our boots on the ground overseas. His newly published The Generals: American Military Command from World War U to Today is engaging, well-written, sensibly documented and interestingly organized. People are going to read and enjoy this book. This suggests that, as military professionals, we should figure out what we think about it. While I embrace a number of Ricks' ultimate recommendations, the book as a whole falls short on several counts. Ricks is too unforgiving of our corporate culture, has too rosy a view of Generals George C. Marshall and Matthew Ridgway, has too grim a view of our senior leadership since, conflates a mass of ill-fitting material into his forced paradigm, simplifies cause and effect in Iraq and Afghanistan to the point of caricature, and ends up comparing apples and oranges.

A recurrent theme in The Generals is that we as a profession have become organization men, acting more like "keepers of a closed guild" than like stewards accountable to the public. We would better serve our country and enforce accountability, Ricks believes, if we speedily fired colleagues encountering difficulties - visibly and publicly. The practice of quietly moving square pegs out of round holes does not appeal to him; shared catharsis improves the disciplinary tone of the entire organization. Much the same was said about public flogging in its day.

We probably should confess to consciously inculcating a "band of brothers" mentality into our young. The downside of encouraging colleagues to watch each other's backs in the face of danger is their tendency to be overprotective of each other should they err. This has parallels in the "blue wall of silence" too often erected by policemen, or the reluctance of firefighters to critique their comrades' tactical decisions to outsiders. Highly individuated professions with little emphasis on teamwork tend to acquire a different stereotype, that of stabbing each other in the back to gain personal advantage. From what I've gathered from "Law & Order" reruns and other popular programs, this stereotype particularly pertains to politicians, lawyers, academics and journalists. We need not apologize for being protective of our colleagues and their reputations. We do need to ensure that this protectiveness does not extend to the point of endangering the lives of our soldiers or the missions they are called upon to accomplish.

Ricks particularly admires the mass firings promulgated by GEN Marshall in World War II. In this he reflects a somewhat gauzy memory of the great man. Before he was deified, Marshall was viewed as capable of making mistakes amid otherwise generally sensible decisions. Ricks purports a "Marshall system" for generals, sternly but fairly enforcing meritocracy by advancing the capable and removing the ineffective. Marshall's peers held a more nuanced view, believing that his hundreds of reliefs did considerable harm as well as good. Some reliefs were almost Stalinist, removing experienced men who might have advanced contrary points of view. More reflected a prejudice against (modest) age, removing men because of their years alone rather than because those years had adversely affected their performance. …

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