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Ken Adelman
Political advisor

Ken Adelman

A Reagan-era Ambassador and Arms Control Director, Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice-president of Movers and Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development.

Succes doesn't always translate

High trust for the military extends beyond its members getting to do such cool things as wearing snappy uniforms, saluting smartly, unfolding gigantic flags in Yankee Stadium, or doing thunderous fly-overs at the Super Bowl. This public trust springs mostly from their willingness to sacrifice everything for us. Their mission could not be of greater value. Consequently, and appropriately, it's greatly valued.

Yet, too much admiration for military leaders leads to two problems. First is the misperception that because they perform nobly on the battlefield, they must be good at overall strategy. This just isn't so. Two lightly-experienced ex-soldiers -- Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman -- had a far better grasp of grand strategy than their highly decorated generals, George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur.

Likewise, when President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed they didn't want to "second guess" their military commanders in Iraq, they were shirking their responsibilities. That's precisely what they're in office to do: to guide their generals in overall strategy and not slough this off as "second-guessing."

Second, because someone is a great military leader does not mean that he is a great government or business leader. Some skills transfer; many don't. Ulysses Grant, who is among America's greatest generals, was an abject failure in business and went on to be an abject failure in the presidency. Shakespeare's Othello was obviously talented in battlefield command, but hadn't a clue about marriage or civil society.

We can learn two big lessons from military leaders:

1) That results count far more than aspirations. "'Tis deeds that win the prize," says a character in "Taming of the Shrew," who should have been a member of this year's Nobel Peace committee (where intentions trumped accomplishments as the prime criteria).

2. And that personal success best be based on performance -- ""Who does more than his captain in war becomes his captain's captain." ("Antony & Cleopatra") - and not on smooth talk or lofty promises.

Come to think of it, this hard-knock, no b.s., direct approach of the military evokes such admiration in America today precisely because it's so lacking in other realms of American contemporary life.

By Ken Adelman

 |  November 4, 2009; 9:07 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree completely with your assessment that not all leaders translate from military to civilian/political leadership well. I also agree that former President Bush and SecDef Rumsfeld did hide from some responsibilities in not "second guessing" the generals in charge though Mr. Rumsfeld injected himself early in the planning process and disregarded GEN Shinseki's advice to use a larger number of troops initially.
However, there are a high number of former Flag Officers that have been greatly successful in leading business and non-profit organizations around the country that do it without the need of the spotlights.
As to the snappy uniforms, flags, and flyovers most of those Soldiers would much rather just be in the stands watching the games with their families completely anonymous to everyone around them that they are anything other than a fan out for a fun day at the park just like the thousands of others. I have 23 years in the Army and I do not know any Soldier that actively searches for the limelight. Everyone I know is in to do their job and support their families just like the people that choose not to serve.
These are my personal opinions and are in NO WAY to be considered as official Army opinions
MAJ Champ

Posted by: MAJChamp | November 15, 2009 7:32 AM
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Regardless of anything I think of the substantive portion of the article, I'm pretty much offended by the opening:

"...members getting to do such cool things as wearing snappy uniforms, saluting smartly, unfolding gigantic flags in Yankee Stadium, or doing thunderous fly-overs at the Super Bowl."

Sorry, but wearing the uniform has never been a cook think , nor is saluting smartly (after all, during recent administrations we've apparently trained presidents to "salute smartly" for no reason; better they acknowedge with a smart, civilian, nod of the head or hand over their heart, as appropriate). Nor do I think that unfolding flags in Yankee Stadium nor doing "thunderous" flyovers is cool for the service members.

What would be "cool" would be is if they could go about their job anonymously and quietly, sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium or at the venue where there's a flyover, and have others do the flowers and flourish FOR them, instead of them doing it for the civilian, non-military spectators.


Posted by: Dungarees | November 5, 2009 1:39 PM
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Mr Adelman in your writing you sight Uniformed leaders at the top of the spectrum as either flops or marginally functional in their post military endevors. I would like to point out that outside of the Grants and Macarthurs there are millions of former/retired non flag officers, who have gone into private life and have has success in building small & medium sized businesses, chairing college and university departments, authoring books and providing subject matter expertise to think-tanks and media outlets. Some have returned to gov't to continue to serve in senior and executive positions or have worked succesfully for Non-profits or charitable organizations out fron and in leadership roles. Those things really define who we are!

Its not so much the "snappy" uniforms and the notion of a free pass from a "glad it was you and not me" public. No, the truth is we former and retired officers and senior enlisted folk are different from our civilian peers. We understand the difference between "how much can I take against what I will give back."

Respectfully: CDR/USN/RET

Posted by: TippyCanoe | November 5, 2009 12:04 PM
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Here in the U.S. we glamorize the military--I think excessively --for the risks involved. We are on a dangerous path towards blind faith in this country when it comes to the military when it is socially unacceptable to criticize military actions or offer anything other than praise for the military and those in it.

Posted by: UnPatriotic | November 5, 2009 11:39 AM
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The purpose of any military is ultimately to kill whomever is deemed to be the enemy. An institution whose purpose is violence cannot be all things to all people, nor can an institution be all things to all people.

Posted by: UnPatriotic | November 5, 2009 11:33 AM
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Kinda disappointing. What started out as an interesting and thoughtful commentary turned into a logical jumble by the end. Ken's first couple of paragraphs on military/political history were very interesting. Where he lost it was when he tried to use Shakespeare to explain the "two big lessons". The quotes that he used are no more related to military performance than to any other human endeavor, nor are the so-called lessons especially profound. Maybe Ken was tired and engaged in a little cutting and pasting.

Posted by: JohnnyBoy1950 | November 5, 2009 11:06 AM
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Groveling at the feet of our particular “American” brand of militarism is a direct consequence of our national schizophrenia about military service; and the deep segregation that has grown up in American life between the segregated culture of military life (also the class from which it springs) and the non-military classes in our society.

Posted by: rc115shepherd | November 5, 2009 11:04 AM
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The war against terrorism cannot be upgraded to a war against Islam. Christians can no longer be expected to join a holy war. The only way the infidels can be destroyed is by changing the reason for killing them. The war on drugs can be expanded to Afpak where everybody is an addict. Urine tests must be given by American soldiers and addicts have to be shot. This new approach will keep the war going for decades and enrich the bullet manufacturers.

Posted by: melvin_polatnick | November 5, 2009 10:31 AM
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Ken, as always, I love your writings...thanks so much for your thought provoking topic. I'm not certain, though, that using fictional characters to make such an important point is helpful.

The points you make about the real-life individuals above are accurate--and we are in complete agreement on them (particularly about Lincoln, Truman and Bush). We have, however, had countless leaders in business and politics who came from the military ranks (including our first president). And there is a wealth of information out there that shows that military veterans have gone on to create and lead world-changing organizations (FedEx, MailBoxes Etc., Nike, Perot Systems, AOL, and a never ending list). In fact, on a per capita basis, veteran business owners out number non-military-veteran business owners on a scale of 4 to 1. It is precisely the leadership skills and experience that these vets gained in the military that has created jobs and driven their companies to success. And of course, it is individual businesses that drive our economy. KornFerry did a study on this a few years ago--just google it, the report is on-line. It also showed that veteran led companies (as opposed to veteran owned companies) out-performed their non-veteran-led counterparts over several years. It seems to me there is overwhelming evidence that shows military vets are doing something right.

Certainly, too much unwarranted admiration for any group is dangerous. I'll even concede that the title of this article may be accurate, in that success doesn't ALWAYS translate. And, of course, there are some dimwitted politicians and business leaders who are military vets--just as there are non-vets. But clearly, those folks with military leadership experience have made overwhelming contributions to our society, both in uniform and out. Focusing on fictional characters and a few (though high-profile) failed military leaders is disingenuous and irresponsible when writing on such an important topic.

Posted by: LarryBroughtonDOTnet | November 4, 2009 12:30 PM
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