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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Suckers for a uniform

I don't think Americans are that much different from people all over the world: We're all suckers for an authority figure in a uniform. Add to the snappy uniform a mien of deep seriousness of purpose surrounding a mission that is, in fact, a matter of life or death, the mystique of military training and strategy, and the respect accorded military leaders by the media, and you have a formula that gives military leaders the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, military leaders don't appear all that often in front of the public, and when they do, testifying in front of the Congress, for example, the exchanges tend to be highly scripted and non-confrontational.

But with the exception of Dwight Eisenhower, it's hard to think of a recent military leader whose service in the service has translated into political (or even business) leadership. Perhaps this, too, is to be expected: Take off the uniform, add in matters of public policy, where opinions are more open to dispute than in matters of military strategy, and the military leader of unquestioned authority becomes, well, just another person--and often one not well-schooled in the give-and-take of public discourse and the rough-and-tumble of the political arena.

Maybe the most important lesson on leadership this week is to tip our collective national cap to the founders of our Republic, who assigned the title "Commander in Chief" not to a military leader, but to our elected civilian leader. In a free country, all leaders should be open to having their decisions questioned and debated, particularly when they involve the use of force and the ultimate test of sending America's young people into harm's way.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  November 2, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Korn Ferry recently published a report that detailed why former military people are actually over-represented as business CEOs, not under-represented as Mr. Webber erroneously implies. Former generals are highly sought for corporate boards and leadership positions such as Lieutenant General Jack Keane of Met Life and President of H&K, Major General Gil Meier. They may not broadcast their military credentials when they move into business. Perhaps they don't make the cover of your magazine as business celebrities, but generals and former military officers are represented in the corporate sector in large numbers. The truth is that most generals don't have to work after a lifetime of military service, due to a generous pension program, and those that do are often picky about who they associate their reputations with. Some, such as General Shinsheki (VA Secretary), and General Powell (former Secretary of State), are drawn back to public service. I think Mr. Webber missed on this posting.

Posted by: ger7397 | November 8, 2009 9:54 AM
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Anyone who has been in the military would be the first to tell you that today's generals can be some of the oiliest, self-aggrandizing political infighters around.

Generals are little different than their civilian counterparts who have clawed their way to the top of a rigid bureaucracy: high-functioning sociopaths are definitely over-represented in both groups.

Posted by: DupontJay | November 3, 2009 6:26 PM
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None of the other astute comments below that list numerous General Officers who went on to strong success in other lanes included George C. Marshall. Marshall earned 5 stars and then went on to serve as Secretary of State, President of the American Red Cross and Secretary of Defense. He also earned the Nobel Peace Prize for the "Marshall Plan" for European recovery after World War II back when the Peace Prize required accomplishment.

Posted by: RedskinsReverend | November 3, 2009 10:18 AM
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Senators Bob Dole and John McCain come to mind. Both were Republican nominees for President besides being long-time senators. Even those who hated their politics were usually willing to admit (grudgingly) that they served in the military with distinction.

Posted by: dmm1 | November 3, 2009 10:17 AM
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For an award winning editor, a poor command of the facts. Being a General definitely helped Ike, however up until Clinton all post WWII presidents had served in the military (Truman, Army; JFK, Navy; LBJ, Navy; Nixon, Navy; Carter, Navy; Regan, Army; Bush I, Navy). Most made numerous speeches commenting on how military service helped them become who they were.

Some facts:
Americans w/ military service (past & present): 9% (2009)
S&P 500 CEOs w/ military service: ~8% (2007 study)
Congressmen/Senators w/ military experience: 24% (2008)

Posted by: daklub1 | November 3, 2009 2:07 AM
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I agree with most of these comments and I'm glad to not see any direct praise for Gen McChrystal who is one of a smaller group of "successful" generals who is not respected by many because of their lack of integrity and honor. As is the case in most fields, a few bad apples still seem able to rise to the top.

Posted by: GordonShumway | November 2, 2009 9:32 PM
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how many untrustworthy expensive military officers does it take to defeat a bunch of poor mendacious hill billies from the mountains of afghanistan?

do not count the ambitious career pretty boys in uniform with tattooes, nicotene dependance disorder, and body piercings.

Posted by: therapy | November 2, 2009 8:38 PM
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Really? Mr. Webber, it is a foregone conclusion that you are living under a very big rock. In addition to those posted by Woodbridgeva1, add to the list Bob Kerry,Pete Dawkins, and Jim Jones. Eric Prince is also quite successful running a security comapny, although its image has recently been tarnished by actions of several of his former employees, and rightfully so. If you don't know who these guys are, go look them up. Another soon to be former military type that could very well enter the political arena is General David Patreus.

Posted by: jemvbcarmagh06 | November 2, 2009 6:05 PM
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Mr. Webber, I am thunderstruck that you would be so oblivious to the civilian contributions of our former military leaders. Apparently, Mr. Webber's knowledge of military service begins and ends at the 5-star general level. However for those of us who are familiar with all of the ranks, you will easily count dozens of recent high-level political leaders (congressmen, senators, governors, and yes - presidents too) who served in the military, many of them decorated veterans. As far as the wisdom of our founding fathers to give the title "Commander In Chief" to a civilian, I would point out that these same founding fathers saw fit to actually give the very first job opening for Commander In Chief to a former general -- George Washington.

Posted by: carpiodiem | November 2, 2009 4:07 PM
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Are you daft? You obviously have very few contacts in the business world and know absolutely nothing about how decisions are made in the military. As to the concept of leadership, name me one member of the Senate, House or the Chicago "political machine" who understands the meaning of personal integrity!

Posted by: hawksley1 | November 2, 2009 3:54 PM
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Mr. Webber seems not to be well educated; there is a lot of reason why us military types do not fit in political or business leadership. Mostly people do not want to hear the truth about an issue, and teamwork is a must in the military not so in the civilian world...the list can go on and on for the reason why....

Posted by: Spacebee | November 2, 2009 3:51 PM
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Soldiers in the field ultimately deal in reality. If you lie, are not disciplined or are not trustworthy - you and your soldiers are dead.

Politics is the exact opposite.

Posted by: pgr88 | November 2, 2009 3:01 PM
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General Alexander Haig - Secretary of State
General Colin Powell - Secretary of State
General Al Dunlap - Turnaround CEO
Admiral Joe Sestak - Member of Congress
Admiral Jeramiah Denton -- Senator

There are probably more in the business world. I just can't think of them.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | November 2, 2009 2:51 PM
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The reason you do not see many former military in political or business leadership positions is that the military requires honestly and politics and business today don't know what the word means.

Posted by: Tuerke9 | November 2, 2009 2:48 PM
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