10 Leadership Lessons from an Army General

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Effective leadership is tough.

But you can learn.

You don’t have to be a born leader.

Leadership skills transcend professions. It doesn’t matter that the following leadership lessons were against a military background. These lessons would do the practitioner good no matter what profession or field.

General Schwartzkopf was in a league of his own as a leader. The fact that Desert Storm lasted only 100 hours was not a foregone conclusion when the Commander of Central Command (Schwartzkopf) and his staff were planning the operation.

The successful outcome of this short war was due, in large part, to General H. Norman Schwartzkopf and the leadership skills he developed over the course of his military career. Here are some of the skills he used to great effect during his career.

10 Leadership Lesson You Can Apply at all Levels of Leadership.

1. It’s all about relationships.

General Schwartzkopf understood the importance of relationships and it’s application across all levels of leadership. When he assumed Command of the newly-formed Central Command (CENTCOM), he attended a Regional Course at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. His instructor’s words had a profound effect on his approach to the job: “In the Arab world, your position gets you through the door, but your personal relationships get you commitments from the Arabs.” He had the difficult task of getting coalition partners on board for Desert Shield (and eventually, Desert Storm). Leaders can apply this lesson in any area of life. We cannot accomplish anything of value at the highest levels without having first established relationships with all affected parties.

2. Competent and Incompetent Leaders can be equally instructive.

The former shows you what to do to be effective. The latter, what not to do. It all really boils down to how you package the information for yourself- an after action review. We can learn from competent leaders all day by just observing them interact with people. We can also learn from watching incompetent leaders perform, but it requires more analysis. The hope is that when we rise to their rank and position, we can change the environment to one that is more efficient and productive. Incompetent leaders can frustrate their subordinates. And when they do, subordinates have two options: they can quit or they can suck it up and change things when they rise in rank and position. Quitting is an easy win for the bad leaders, but it does nothing for those who are counting on you to make changes. It has a domino effect on the organization and soon enough the organization ceases to be effective.

3. Character trumps competence.

General Schwartzkopf talks about a super competent radioman in Vietnam- probably the most competent radioman he’s experienced up that point in his career. But this Soldier lacked character. He was selfish and brought troop morale down. The General had a choice- forgive his flaws and keep a stellar radioman or remove him, deal with the risk of having a less competent radioman, and increase troop morale. He chose to get rid of him. Troop morale increased and someone else stepped up to the plate. Character is largely unteachable. You either have it or you don’t. Leaders can help shape it, but there’s a point at which the individual must take over (you can only lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink). Be a good evaluator of character. Then screen your team for character. Nurture an environment that promotes character.

4. The best leaders know how to carry out bad orders without ruining morale.

Sometimes an order can meet the screening requirements (legal and within moral and ethical boundaries), but still be bad. Leaders, in that situation, have two choices in that case: 1.) tell the troops that it’s coming down from higher headquarters and that we must do it; or 2.) take responsibility and ownership of the order and communicate, in language the troops can understand, the reason of the order. Lastly, the leader must be present if feasible. Leadership presence shows genuine care for troop welfare. At the very least, leaders must be present during the toughest parts of the operation. During war, leaders must be present with the main effort. Outside war, leaders should be present when troops are working through a tough task. “Experiencing the suck” alongside troops speaks volumes of a leader’s character.

5. Success is a byproduct of doing what you love to do.

General Schwartzkopf wanted to lead troops throughout his career. It was what he loved to do and he was good at it. But he also couldn’t help but get sucked into the “careerist” mindset after seeing all of his peers do the same. When he saw his peers promoting faster than he was, he attributed it to some broadening staff assignments in the Pentagon. So, against his intuition, he decided to follow. He decided to “punch his ticket” and work the staff jobs he didn’t care for. His peers were still surpassing him. Finally, he got an opportunity to lead troops again. This time, as a deputy brigade commander in Alaska. He jumped on the opportunity quickly and packed his bags. He was leading troops again. He would jump between key staff jobs and leadership positions throughout the rest of his storied career. His last job in service was as the Commanding General leading the Coalition during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After the victorious 100-hour invasion, the incoming Secretary of the Army (Mike Stone) asked him if he’d consider the Chief of Staff of the Army as his next post. To which he responded: “I’d rather retire with a great victory than suffer a thousand defeats at the hands of Congress” knowing that whoever took over would be responsible for downsizing the Army. He wanted no part of that and left at the highest possible point of a military career.

6. Nothing energizes an organization more than having a goal.

Learning for the sake of learning is noble, but it’s not as effective as having a goal to reach for. Training for the sake of training is noble and it’s what you should be doing in the military anyway, but it’s not nearly as effective as having a goal to strive for. “We can fix our problems through training,” I said, “but it would help a whole lot to have a goal. I’d like the 1st Brigade to represent this division in next summer’s maneuvers.” If you have no objective, it’s difficult to motivate your troops. They need to see that their hard work resulted in some successful outcome. Leaders need to be creative at how they train their troops.

7. Mistakes are a part of learning.

Don’t go through your military career trying to avoid mistakes. Rather, pursue meaningful goals with your team. That change in perspective (avoiding mistakes versus pursuing meaning goals) is the key to success. The Mission Command concept of “prudent risk-taking” embodies this idea. Take risks that you can recover from and avoid the big ones if possible. There is an inverse relationship between the safety and effectiveness. The safer the training, the less effective. Effective training like live fire exercises carry greater risks. There is a limit though. Leaders need to figure that out.

8. No matter how high you are on the totem pole, you will never get rid of that feeling of being an imposter.

Acknowledge that, but move onto your goal. Before one of his first press conferences as the Commanding General managing the war effort, General Schwartzkopf doubted himself. He anticipated all the critical feedback he would get from the press. He had to remind himself several times not to let them intimidate him. He had to remind himself that he knew “a hell of a lot more about what’s going on than they” did. In every piece of footage I can find of him, he presents himself as the most confident person in the room. It’s reassuring to know that even someone who’s risen to the top of the leadership ranks has self-doubt.

9. Learn how to tell your boss “no.”

General Schwartzkopf managed the military effort oftentimes in spite of the political pressures Washington was applying. Washington, on several occasions, “pressured him to put aside his military judgment for political expediency.” Washington’s objectives were so far removed from their understanding of the military realities (restraints, constraints, and limitations) it would take to realize those objectives. The General’s difficult task was to communicate those realities to powerful individuals who would rather not hear them. But having experienced the horrors of war and the resulting human toll. He communicated his objections effectively, but had to concede on some points. There is always a limit to the amount of “no’s” your boss can take before he replaces you. A leader figures that out by having priorities. A leader must also able to communicate, in a way his boss can understand, the risks of deciding against recommended courses of action.

10. Getting feedback from subordinates is important (3 questions).

When General Schwartzkopf was assuming brigade command, he conducted his own assessment of the unit’s strengths and weaknesses. He knew his perspective didn’t tell the entire story. To get the full story, he sought feedback from his subordinates.

He asked them to think about and answer three questions:

  1. What are the commanders (leaders) of this brigade supposed to be doing?
  2. How well are we doing it?
  3. If you could start something, stop something, and continue something in this brigade, what would those things be?

The subordinate leaders in the brigade gave him some valuable feedback. More importantly, they shed light on certain issues that would have gone unnoticed had he not done this exercise. One important piece of feedback he received from his subordinates regarded family readiness. This is a critical piece of military readiness that we almost take for granted today because it’s already built into the structure. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion back then and oftentimes, leaders didn’t give families a second thought.

We can all learn leadership by learning more about those who came before.



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