To some extent, Americans' high opinion of military leadership stems from the rehabilitated public perception of the GI. Some of us are old enough to remember when Vietnam veterans were blamed for the unpopular war they fought. Nowadays it seems every second American car sports a "Support the Troops" magnet and even those vehemently opposed to the war and our political leaders don't take it out on GI Jane or GI Joe.
But the poll's respondents probably weren't thinking about young enlisted men and women when they were asked about military leaders. They more likely pictured those senior leaders we see on the news: the cerebral, calmly confident David Petraeus; the avuncular Mike Mullen; the uber-intense Stanley McChrystal.
At their best, these and other military leaders offer lessons for leaders in other sectors. For starters, humility is in style in today's military. McChrystal showed his single-bed monk's cell to the audience of "60 Minutes." By contrast, George Patton set himself up in the most elaborate European palaces his staff could find, while the nation's top auto executives flew private jets to Washington when they came asking for a hand-out of taxpayer dollars.
Military culture is built on clearly articulated values meant to serve the greater good and elevate service above self. Good leaders put their mission and their people ahead of their own narrow self-interest; this is why you can go to the field with any military unit and find the most senior people at the end of the chow line. If there isn't enough food for everyone, the highest ranking people will be the hungriest.
The best military leaders also have what I'd call a Gary Cooper ethos: They're strong, both physically and morally; they set aside self-interest to benefit the whole; they're calm and competent under pressure; they're willing to do the hard but necessary jobs most of us are happy to duck; and while they're doing all this they're nice to children and old ladies and dogs.
And it's because we have such high expectations of military leaders that we are shocked when they fail us. Some officer knew or should have known what was going on at Abu Ghraib; someone knew that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly, not enemy fire.
Soldiers become irate when they find a leader cutting corners for his or her own personal comfort or gain precisely because all parties know that military leaders aren't supposed to behave that way. In contrast, Bernie Madoff surprised us with the scale of his theft and, to a lesser extent, the way he abused his clients' trust, but I haven't heard anyone yet say, "I never thought a New York money manager would do something like that."
Posted by: rstagner | November 4, 2009 8:55 AM
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