Thursday, February 23, 2012

Picking Your Generals

A new book on World War 11 that is also a good management book.  Marshall and His Generals (2011) by Stephen R. Taaffe tells the story of WW II in the context of how General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, faced the daunting task not only overseeing two theaters of a global conflict but also of selecting the best generals to carry out American grand strategy.  The book covers 45 generals - - and how Marshall either selected them or influenced their selection.  The why question of selection was answered by Marshall in three areas - - selection of men with high character ("unselfish and devoted purpose"), the quality of their education (whether West Point, Fort Leavenworth, or the Army War College), and the balance between experience and relative youth in a war that required both wisdom and great physical stamina.

Taaffee writes the following about Eisenhower:

"Marshall may or may not have yet sensed it, but Eisenhower's greatest attribute, and the one that would most benefit the Allied cause, was his ability to get along with people and persuade them to work together for the common good.  He was a charming, popular, and immensely likable man without a trace of phoniness, and possessed a magnetic personality that attracted people to him.  One officer noted that within twenty minutes of Eisenhower's waking into a room full of strangers, a good many of them would be calling him by his nickname.  Fortunately, there was much more to him than mere affability.  He was ambitious without being cloying and underhanded, intelligent rather than scholarly, and eminently practical.  His directness, integrity, and modesty enabled him to give credit to others without resentment or jealousy, which went a long way toward winning their loyalty.  At the same time, though, Eisenhower was beneath the surface a tough and taut man who, like Marshall, possessed a towering temper he tried hard to control.  He chain-smoked constantly, worked hard, and put enormous pressure on himself.  Finally, Eisenhower saw and understood the big picture.  Some of his contemporaries later claimed that he was not much of a tactician or even a strategist, but this must be placed in context.  Because Marshall moved him up so quickly, he never had the opportunity to lead an army group, a field army, a corps, or even a division.  Consequently, he was unable to accrue the kind of nuts-and bolts military knowledge that his colleagues gained through rigorous combat experience.  In fact, Eisenhower became primarily a military manager and diplomat, not a battlefield commander.  He recognized more clearly than his more parochial subordinates the Anglo-American alliance was vital to Allied success.  To do so, he made compromises that were not always militarily sound, but they were necessary to preserve the interallied harmony upon which victory depended." 

I imagine Marshall observed all of this, or shades of it.  The intangibles must have been visible - - the personality, the work ethic, the energy level, the manager, and the ability to see the big picture.  Too often strategic planning is an extrapolation from the past.  Marshall saw WW II as not just an extension of WW I.  History is about remembering the past, but it is also about choosing to forget.  With Eisenhower, Marshall made a choice to forget past ideas and attitudes - - with a new type of general for a new type of global war.

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