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Is the U.S. military as good at producing leaders as it says?

Posted by John Reed on

I recently received an email from a young West Point graduate who had gotten out of the Army and was working at a household name big U.S. corporation. He was flummoxed by his inability to use his West Point and Army leadership training and experience in his work. He complained that the organization was predominantly women and they seemed to have a coffee klatch network that actually ran everything. The official organization chart seemed not to be the way things were really done. He was asking me what leadership style or approach to use. He was an entry-level manager.

Secretary was the real power behind the throne

At Harvard Business School, one of our cases was about a successful builder. What we were supposed to get out of the case by reading the facts about the company and from the Socratic Method questions of the professor was that the whole company was run by the boss’s secretary.

This was not good or bad per se. It depends upon the company’s goals and potential and whether the leadership of the secretary was achieving those goals and realizing that potential better than an alternative leader.

Probably, at least in some ways, it was not. So the lesson was to supplement the secretary where necessary.

Also, there was an obvious need to create a succession in case she quit or needed to be fired as a result of some not-yet-discovered malfeasance or she died or became physically disabled.

There is also an issue of using best practices with regard to checks and balances to prevent embezzlement, kickbacks, and such. Generally, it is not prudent to allow anyone in an organization to have too much control over money. For example, in banking, there is a rule that everyone has to take vacations during which others have to do their jobs. That’s because embezzlers typically never take vacation in order to prevent something from coming up during their absence that would reveal their embezzlement.

‘Managing from the 50th floor’

We also had other cases at Harvard about small companies. I remember one where Professor Earl Sasser—whose brother Jim was a U.S. Senator from Tennessee at the time—commented that a small company executive was, “Managing from the 50th floor when he only has a two story building.”

In other words, he was being too bureaucratic and high falutin’ for a tiny company. In another case, I offered the observation that the company in question was just the boss and three girls and a coffee pot—so stop with the management consultant and market research suggestions. Other than getting crap from the females in the class for saying “girls” instead of “women,” that was what the professor that day was looking for.

Results, not ‘leadership’

My point here is that leadership is a really big thing with the military. Too big. Their focus needs to be on results, not process. Leadership is process.

The young West Point graduate I quoted above seemed to see leadership, incorrectly, as an end rather than a means to an end. That faulty perspective was probably the result of the overemphasis on and overuse of that word at West Point and in the U.S. military.

See my Web article on the evidence that Barack Obama is no leader.

What is ‘leadership’ really?

Leadership is also a “talk is cheap” word. Its definition is so vague that bullshit artists can claim it without being called on it. And the U.S. government and military are among the great producers of bullshit in the world today.

Webster’s New Universal Dictionary offers little illumination. It defines “lead” as

“to guide or conduct by showing the way”

Gotta know ‘the way’

What is “the way” when it comes to winning our wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan? There is virtually no evidence that the U.S. military knows the way to win such wars. They are making some progress, but they have been more like a very, very slow moving experimental research project than an organization that knows what it is doing since the middle of the Korean War. Indeed, they may well be moving slower than the world is changing which means they are getting farther and farther away from the answer with each passing year.

Until U.S. military leaders know “the way,” they cannot show “the way” to their subordinates. Knowing the way is a prerequisite—a sine qua non—to leadership. Until such time as the U.S. military figures out the way to win our current wars, leadership is generally a matter for the future.

Webster’s other definitions are merely tautological, that is to lead is to be in charge or direct. Such definitions contain no element of competence or achieving results. Too often, that is the definition that the military intends.

I am in charge of X number of men and therefore I am a leader.


Another Webster’s definition is,

to show the method of attaining an object

That is a teaching definition and, again, it begs the question of whether the U.S. military knows how to attain the object of winning recent wars. They do not.

Webster’s definition number 9 introduces results saying,

to induce; to prevail on; to influence

That reminds me of a definition of leadership that I heard when I was a West Point cadet:

A leader is someone who causes people to do that which they ought to do but would not do in the absence of the leader

This is a results-oriented definition that I like. Once again, however, the phrase “that which they ought to do” means that knowing what they ought to do is a prerequisite to leadership. To put it kindly, the U.S. military has been bewildered about how to win in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Bewilderment is not a foundation for leadership. In the U.S. military, “leadership” has become a substitute for results and a “fake it til you make it” way to cover up the bewilderment.

What about generic rather than war-winning leadership?
I did learn some useful things about leadership at West Point and in the Army.

In the book I wrote called Succeeding, I have a chapter entitled “Mechanical Tricks.”

It says that every career or job has aspects that anyone can master. For example, a shortstop in baseball needs to know that he must throw the ball to second base if it is hit to him with a runner on first and no runners anywhere else and fewer than two outs. Anyone can learn that. Does that mean that anyone can learn to be a shortstop? No. I could not. Infielders are born not made. I was born to be an outfielder, albeit not a very good one. My son Dan was a great infielder.

The point is not that learning mechanical tricks of the trade will make you a success at any trade, but rather that any trade you take up has such tricks and you must learn them to maximize your chances of succeeding. There is an old saying among us football coaches that “You don’t need talent to hustle.” Unfortunately, the corollary to that is that many who have talent figure, “If you have talent, you don’t need to hustle.” And at the lower levels of amateur sports, most coaches let them get away with not hustling. Mastering all the mechanical tricks of a trade is hustling.

Are there mechanical tricks of the generic leadership trade?

Yes, there are mechanical tricks to the leadership trade. West Point and the Army teach many of them and that’s good. But as I said with regard to shortstops, learning the mechanical tricks increases your chances of succeeding, but leaders are born not made, so just learning the mechanical tricks of leadership will not by itself make you a leader.

Should West Point and the Army continue to teach those mechanical tricks? Absolutely. What they need to stop doing is claiming they produce the world’s greatest leaders.

Command voice

Let me give you an example. In 2005, my freshman high school football team was doing stretching exercises before an early-in-the-season practice. I was standing next to a natural leader linebacker named Chris Borges who was taking a turn at leading the stretching. I was whispering suggestions to him to get him to learn the mechanical tricks of how you speak to your subordinates in a scattered-around-the-field-outdoors situation. My comments went something like this.

Chris, you need to enunciate the preparatory command more slowly and clearly so they understand exactly what you want them to do. You rushed and slurred the words a little bit last time and they were uncertain which stretch we were doing. That’s why they looked raggedy responding to you.


Chris, when you give the command of execution—the one that gets them to start the stretch—you need to snap it out like the crack of a whip or a starter‘s pistol. Let me do the next one and watch how they respond to my commands compared to how they responded to yours. You were too conversational about telling them to start.

I then lead one of the stretches demonstrating to Chris exactly how you enunciate the preparatory command and bark out the command of execution.

Did you see how sharp they were in responding to my command? That was not my age or authority as coach. It was my voice. You need to get the same confident reaction on the field when you call the defense and the strength of the offensive formation. You must use that same tone of voice to yell “Mustang Black!” or “strong right!” or whatever you want so that the team will have confidence in the defense called and promptly execute it.

I also taught him to use his diaphragm rather than his throat to add force to the voice and avoid fatiguing the vocal chords.

I did a similar thing training our quarterbacks how to call cadence and audibles. There is a line in the Bible, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?” As a result of the training I got in those mechanical voice tricks of leadership at West Point, my linebackers and quarterbacks sounded like pros, not “uncertain trumpets,” as most young high school players do.

On 10/10/08, I went to the high school to watch Chris and my other 2005 freshmen, who were seniors in 2008, play. I happened to sit next to Chris’s father and mentioned this article. He said that he had come to practice one day and was astonished at how Chris was commanding his teammates in practice. He said he had never heard him talk that way before.


Taking charge of adults

In January, 2008 I was at a football coaching clinic. Before a session started, the room was full of coaches engaged in loud conversations. The very old guy who was the conference operator came in and tried repeatedly to get everyone’s attention to make an important announcement. But his voice was so quiet and conversational that no one paid the slightest attention to him.

I watched this go on for about four iterations then I yelled in my best West Point grad voice at an OSHA-violating decibel level, “AT EASE!” I figured that some of them had been in the military and the others would figure out what it meant. They all instantly shut up and looked at me as if to say, “Who is this nut?” at which time I motioned with my hand to direct their attention to the old guy. (Perhaps I should say “older.” I was 61 at the time.) He made his announcement and left, after which the conversations resumed. No one said anything to me, probably because there was zero uncertainty in my West Point-trained “trumpet.”

By the way, almost the exact same thing happened at my 35th Harvard Business School Reunion in October 2012. A female professor could not get a room full of about 85 middle-aged and senior MBA grads to quiet down. I finally barked out “At ease!” They all shut up, the professor thanked me, and got the class going. (At Harvard Business School reunions, you attend class on Friday and Saturday in the same MBA classrooms where we were 35 or whatever years before.) This was a room full of established, successful leaders, including many former military personnel.

Stray artillery round

I was involved in another incident where I similarly took charge of people I was not formally in charge of. In June of 1966, when I was a 19-year old rising junior at West Point, I chose artillery as my branch for a one-month internship to occur in July of 1966. Each cadet who was going on the internship that summer got an hour or a day—I forget which—of quickie instruction on that branch. One of the things they taught us in the artillery session was that when you are an artillery forward observer and you see an artillery round go astray, you tell the guys who are in radio contact with the gun batteries, “Cease fire!” Then you figure out why the round went astray before you resume firing.

The following month, when I had turned 20, I was in an artillery battery in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. I was with about two dozen officers and another dozen career sergeants on a hill top acting as forward observers calling in artillery fire on old vehicles on another hill about a mile away. I was a mere cadet—not yet even the lowest officer—a second lieutenant. The other officers there were mostly captains and ranged up to the lieutenant colonels who were battalion commanders.

Suddenly, we heard a loud “spit spit spit” sound zoom over our heads followed by a huge explosion in the air about 40 yards away (called a VT shell—VT stands for variable time or some such—those shells have a timer that causes them to explode in the air above the enemy rather than a contact detonator that explodes on contact with the ground or other object).

No one was hurt, but we could hear shrapnel (artillery shell fragments actually) hitting our vehicles and cutting through the leaves on the trees around us. Everyone hit the dirt. I crouched down next to a vehicle and looked around at everyone else. Since I was the lowest ranking non-enlisted man there, I said nothing, expecting the colonels to yell, “Cease fire!”

After four or five seconds of stunned silence, I concluded that the others there—all very experienced artillerymen—were in brain lock or did not know what to do so I took charge of the situation and screamed “Cease fire! ” at the half dozen or so jeeps that had radio contact with the half dozen gun batteries that were firing the cannons we were controlling. The radio operators instantly started screaming “Cease fire!” into their handsets and fire ceased.

Investigation revealed that an aiming stake had fallen over at one of the guns. An aiming stake is a five-foot long red and white striped steel pole. You stick it in the ground next to each cannon before you start shooting to serve as a constant landmark from which to make all changes. If you move it, you have to start over with regard to zeroing that gun in on the targets. A soldier went out and picked it up and jammed it back in the ground any old where. The gunner then cranked his traversing wheel around until he found the stake in his surveyor-type eyepiece and they fired the shell that almost hit us. This happened because the gunner and the kid who repositioned the post were as dumb as the post. So much for the notion that paratroopers are elite. I remember a master sergeant on the forward observer hill walking around with a jagged shell fragment showing it to everyone. He had to keep flipping it from one hand to the other because it was too hot.

Did this incident illustrate the effectiveness West Point’s leadership instruction? Generally, yes. It is a good illustration of the principle I stated above that before you can lead you have to know the way. Because of the little instruction I had gotten in June 1966 at West Point, I knew the artillery “best practice” of yelling “cease fire” whenever an artillery round went astray. On the other hand, the artillery officers and NCOs on that hill, some of whom were themselves West Pointers, and all of whom had years of formal training and experience with artillery—not just one day—had the same training and more.

My command voice training and experience at West Point was also important. Had I not had it, I probably would have said to the guy nearest me in a quiet conversational voice, “Sir, aren’t we supposed to say ‘cease fire’ when that happens?” As a result of having both training and experience in yelling commands at West Point, I knew to eliminate the middleman of asking someone else to do it and I knew how to use my voice in a way to get the same instant obedience from those radio operators as I did from those football coaches decades later. Since I had given commands many times at West Point, I was totally comfortable giving them that day at Fort Campbell.

I also think my not having brain lock after the explosion was the result of my West Point training. Part of it was from Beast Barracks where the upperclassmen yell at you a lot and you have to learn how to function with that happening. I think upperclassmen yelling at plebes and plebes calling upperclassmen “sir” is wrong and should be eliminated. But it needs to be replaced with a briefer, less demeaning, less hazing type simulation of combat chaos like pilots get when their flight simulators are programmed to give them all sorts of panic situations. We had many such training sessions at West Point mostly in summer time.

Since West Point, I have been in many high-stress situations like football coaching, Vietnam, Harvard Business School, Ranger School, and around serious injuries, where others around me got brain lock or panicked. Because of West Point, I immediately recognize such situations as ones requiring me to slow down, take stock, speak confidently, and make calm decisions. But I must note that some of those who were not responding so well to such situations were also West Pointers. So although I got that from West Point and many, probably most, of my classmates did, too, it did not seem to take universally.

You may wonder what the officers said about my taking charge of the stray artillery round situation at Fort Campbell. Not a word. I suspect they were so profoundly embarrassed by a 20-year old cadet having to take charge of them in a dangerous situation that they simply never spoke of it even to each other.

No one said a word either at the two “at ease” incidents other than the quiet, quick “thank you” from the professor. In all three cases, I think the leaders were embarrassed that they needed to be led to a different behavior if only momentarily and that I was able to do so. If they had it to do over, they would have ignored my “at ease.” It was effective because I did it in a commanding, self-confident manner. They were embarrased that I led them and they allowed themselves to be led by me.

Covered in blood

I’ll give you one more example of West Point training in leadership directly being effective.

My wife’s aunt, a retired high school physical education teacher, was visiting us. My oldest son was about four and out playing in the yard. He suddenly ran in screaming as if he were on fire covered in his own blood. My wife and her aunt freaked out. I saw that it was a panic-is-not-useful situation and immediately calmed my voice. I took him into the bathroom and wiped the blood off him with a towel trying to find its source. He did, indeed, have a bad cut that took stitches to close, but it was no big deal. We put a towel on the cut and put pressure on it while we took him to the emergency room and got him stitched up.

How did West Point teach me that? At Camp Buckner, which is a wooded, mountainous area just west of the Military Academy, we were trained in dealing with wounded soldiers during the summer between our freshman and sophomore years. They had real soldiers playing the roles of wounded men, complete with Hollywood realistic wounds and fake blood being pumped out as we dealt with them. I remember one of the “wounded” men had his stomach ripped open such that his intestines were hanging out. Another had his head blown open exposing his brain. The soldiers had a squeegee ball hidden in their hand with which they made the blood keep squirting out. We had to calmly administer first aid to these guys and get them evacuated to the rear in the training. When my son came running in covered with blood, I had a “been there done that” feeling. He didn’t even have his intestines hanging out. Piece of cake.

Again, this was a best-practices situation. The military knows how to handle those situations and therefore they know how to train soldiers to handle them and therefore the soldiers can lead effectively when those situation occurs. But you can probably get as good or better training in an advanced first aid course or an Emergency Medical Technician course.

Again, the military’s ability to train leaders is limited to their knowledge of how to handle the situation. Not knowing how to win asymmetric wars is a huge problem with regard to producing pertinent leadership. Military training generally only works for specific situations and although there is some spill over to similar situations, like calling plays on a football sideline while the play clock is ticking down, knowing how to care for wounded soldiers does not necessarily make you, for example, an effective leader of the old girls network in a civilian corporation.

Born not made

Some aspects of leadership can be taught and mastered by anyone, namely best practices (yelling “cease fire” when you see a stray artillery round hit) and mechanical tricks (using your diaphragm and speaking in a clear, sharp, loud voice when commanding). But other aspects of leadership fall into the born-not-made category. For example, the fact that most, but not all, of my West Point classmates responded favorably to our training that was designed to keep us calm in stressful situations indicates that those who were born with that quality can have it enhanced by training and experience, but that those who were not born with it generally get little or no benefit from training or experience in it.

There are other such qualities, like politician abilities, that are born-not made. Ronald Reagan was born to be a politician. Empathetic, able to read people and relate to them in ways that caused them to respond. He did not go to politician school. If he had, he probably would have been a better politician sooner. But politician school would have had no effect on my politician abilities. I have none. Don’t want any. But leaders sometimes need politician skills. My lack of them hurt my ability to lead in some situations.


At a more basic level you have things like phobias. People who are afraid of heights cannot be or at least should not be paratroopers. I had no trouble jumping out of airplanes. But there are other areas where I am near incapacitated by unchangeable brain wiring. Paratrooper school is helpful at the mechanical tricks of being a paratrooper as well as the mental attitude it requires. But if you are afraid of heights, no school can do much about that.

I am generally thin and my upper body muscles are relatively weak. My lower body muscles are relatively strong. When my son Dan was a college football player (tailback), his weight-lifting marks in upper body were embarrassingly low by Ivy League team standards, but his lower body marks were so high that some of his teammates were embarrassed and did extra work in the weight room to try to match or exceed him—unsuccessfully. (As a senior, my son was a 220 pound, 6'2" running back who once had an open-field, head-on collision with Harvard 2nd-team All-American linebacker Dante Balestracci in a third-and-three run. Dan got the first down. Balestracci went on to a tryout with the New England Patriots. There’s more to being a running back than weight-lifting marks.)

Body types are born not made. Can anyone improve muscles strength from training and work outs? Yes. Can people who tend to be thin like me compete successfully in body-building competitions? Nope. No matter how hard I word, I cannot look or get much better than a beginning gymnast. People tell me I look “fit” or “trim,” but never buff. And I work out seven days a week. My sons all look buff with lighter work outs than I do. My youngest has big guns (biceps) from curling 60 pounds. I curl 130 every third day and have high school sophomore football player biceps (slight evidence of muscles).

Leadership is the same. Training can get you some benefit, especially in mechanical-trick areas, but there is an irreducible, unchangeable, born-not-made component to leadership, body building, and most things in life. Those who have it benefit from the training and experience. Those who do not have it, get little or no benefit from the training or experience and are unlikely to achieve adequacy no matter how much training or experience they get.

And there is still that fundamental problem that no one can teach leadership in an area until they master the underlying subject matter. The trainers and their graduate “leaders” must know the way before they can show the way. In the big picture sense of its win-our-wars mission, the U.S. military generally does not know the way. See my article on whether there really is any such thing as military expertise.

Other West Point mechanical tricks of leadership

Other mechanical tricks of leadership or achieving results that I learned at West Point include:

• reconnaissance
• rehearsal
• recognizing that some people respond to hard ass, but not nice guy, and other people respond to nice guy, but not hard ass
• that people can meet far higher standards than I would have believed if you demand them
• what I call the “Ooomph” principle, that is, you can be a lot more forceful to get people to do things than laymen think
• that conflict is not a to-be-avoided-at-all-costs thing
• the need to take good care of your subordinates

More tricks learned in the Army

In the Army, I learned that not everyone is as talented, motivated, decent, and trained as West Point cadets and that getting the right people under your command is far more important than one would figure out at West Point where almost everyone is a great subordinate. I also learned that only high stress, like Ranger School, reveals some important character flaws. I also learned “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in the Army. For example, my wire squad (switchboard operators and repairmen) in Vietnam did the sort of job that no one noticed, which is the way it’s supposed to be. Every time I walked through their area, which was daily, I said, “Keep up the good work, guys!”

I take no credit for the great job they did. They were doing it that way when I arrived. They needed no leadership so I gave them none. West Point probably would have had its cadets reflexively try to make things better. That would have been for the cadet’s ego and career, not the accomplishment of the mission or the welfare of the troops. It also would have annoyed and mildly insulted the wire guys. If they want, they can make the platoon leader look bad by sabotaging the operation in subtle ways.

So what am I getting to here? That West Point and the Army do know and teach through classroom instruction, example, and experience, many mechanical tricks of generic leadership. That’s good, but very limited.

‘Follow me’

One Army recruiting TV commercial has the narrator say something like, “When a civilian employer asks you if have ever had any leadership experience, just smile.” Then the commercial cuts to a young sergeant saying “Follow me” as he and they parachute jump out of the rear door of a plane.

Cute. The Army is big on that phrase, “Follow me.” It’s on a statute of an infantryman at the Infantry School at Fort Benning.

Leadershipwise, “follow me” refers to two leadership mechanical tricks: setting the example and putting yourself in the location where you can best direct your subordinates. Point man, the implicit location of a guy saying “follow me,” is generally a lousy position from which to lead in battle. Good place to get killed, not to lead.

When I was in the Airborne, the highest-ranking officers always went out the door of the plane first. That’s very “Follow me.” It’s also very wrong. They should be in the middle of the stick (plane load of paratroopers) not at either end. See the true-to-life movie The Longest Day, about the paratrooper landings in Normandy in support of D-Day, where the commanding general of the division did a “follow me” first-guy-out-the-door theatrical stunt then spent the rest of the night wandering around alone looking for troops to command. That, folks, is how not to lead.

‘Managerial,’ not ‘leadership’ experience

As to civilian employers, they generally do not ask if you have had any “leadership” experience. Rather, they ask if you have any experience doing the job for which you are interviewing. They might ask about “managerial” experience, which has a connotation of getting things done in the far less rigid, and far less clear, “chains of command” that characterize civilian businesses. The thought of you barking out commands to the “girls” (as they call themselves) in the office or the more experienced men and women in the company, makes the prospective boss shudder. The prospective bosses would also typically think it brash and naive overconfidence if you started talking about how you were going to use your military “leadership” skills in a civilian company to which you were new. It implies that the civilians already there are not leaders or are ignorant of leadership skills. There is almost no chance of that if the company is worth working for.

As I said at the beginning of this article, you cannot lead until you know the job. Job one for a guy just out of the military is to learn the business you are entering. You cannot lead generally until you know more about it than the people you are leading.

Top big business managers do not fit that because no one can at that level of complexity, but they have to be experts at finding excellent subordinate mangers. Some young captain or sergeant getting out of the military is not qualified to be a high-level civilian manager, in part, because he has zero experience hiring and firing people.

Far from being prized by civilian employers for your leadership skills, civilian bosses are more likely to think you need to be deprogrammed to erase your military notions of top-down, “do what I say because I outrank you,” command leadership to replace them with the ambiguous, matrix, “get along with people” skills that are necessary to succeed in non-military organizations.

Promoted according to your follower, not leader, abilities

One of the dirty little secrets of the U.S. military’s great leadership training and experience is that promotions there are entirely based upon how you do as a follower. The vast majority of the great leaders in the U.S. military have probably been passed over for promotion and the great ass kissers were the ones who got the promotions. Name some of the great West Point leaders and I’ll bet you cannot get very far before you name a guy who got fired by the Army—Patton and MacArthur for example. I shudder to think what would happen if some our current most successful civilian leaders like Steve Jobs or C.C. Meyers were suddenly made Army officers who were subordinate to higher ranking officers. They would probably be court martialed.

Will they train you to be a leader in the military?


Will they give you experience at being a leader in the military?


Will they reward you if you lead well?

Ha! Not a freaking chance!

They will reward you if you make your superiors like you. The U.S. military does not give a rat’s rump about how your subordinates respond to your leadership. They only care about whether your boss likes you.

In my final command position—company commander of Bravo Company at Fort Monmouth School Brigade in 1971, my superiors relieved me because I refused to spend Unit Fund money on a Soldier of the Month Savings Bond purchase that my superiors wanted (in violation of Army regulations) and because I refused to attend “command performance” parties at superiors’ homes on Friday or Saturday nights.

I refused to buy the bonds because Army regulations said I was supposed to spend the money in accordance with the wishes of the troops. I met with them weekly and asked how they wanted me to spend the money. They wanted the foosball machine in the day room repaired. I got the foosball machine repaired. I was following not only Army regulations, but also what I was taught at West Point about taking care of your troops. The Army has no complaint about you taking care of your troops AS LONG AS IT DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO PISS OFF OR EMBARRASS YOUR SUPERIORS. Actions like having your men take off their boots during a forced march and put their bare feet up so you can walk along and check them for blisters do not bother the brass. But many situations where your troops are being jerked around are caused by your superiors and, in those situations, taking care of your troops requires a career-ending confrontation with your boss. I did it many times. I never saw or heard of any other officer do it.

MBA ‘leadership evaluation’

I had an amusing repercussion of the “fight for your troops” ethos I learned at West Point at Harvard Business School. During your first year there, you spend all day every day in the same amphitheater as your 84 section mates. So you get to know those 84 people very well.

Once, when I arrived late, my section mates told me I had missed a discussion about which member of our section the section members would most want to work for. They said I was voted the one most would want to work for. I was stunned and asked, “Based on what?” They said it was because they thought I would fight for them whenever necessary. “That’s true, I would, but how the hell would you guys know that? You never worked for me or even with me.”

They said that during the hundreds of case discussions that year, I would occasionally and passionately point out the need to protect or take care of subordinates in the case as part of how to manage the situation. I guess I did. I learned that at West Point, but as I said above, it appears to be lesson that was interpreted far more narrowly, e.g., checking for blisters, by others than my comprehensively broad get-in-the-boss’s-face approach.

‘Movie extras’

In Vietnam once, my company was supposed to be teaching a class in something thought up by an empty brass hat up the chain of command. The company commander was not complying with that order, but reported that he was. Then the empty brass hat in question showed up and wanted to watch the class which was to be in session in fifteen minutes. The company commander quickly got an officer or sergeant to teach it and needed troops to play the role of students. He woke up my night-shift guys for that purpose.

They had worked all night running the corps commander’s radios, and were sleeping in a special building with air-conditioning and blacked-out windows. When I heard about it, I went straight to the company commander’s office and asked him if it was true. He said it was. I told him if he ever pulled another stunt like that I would climb the chain of command to the President if necessary until I found someone who agreed he needed his ass chewed. I was a first lieutenant.
He was a captain—one rank higher than I. He never did it again. He was probably too busy giving me a 40 on my efficiency report—at a time when anything below 97 meant your career was over. The efficiency report did not mention his using my men as “movie extras” in his phony class. Just another day at the office using the leadership skills I learned at West Point and being “rewarded” appropriately by the Army that so treasures the leadership skills they teach.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Army taught us to take care of our troops at West Point, then drove out of the Army every officer who applied that lesson to situations where it meant standing up to his superiors. Most of the protection the troops need is from their leader’s own superiors.

‘Command performance’ parties

On Friday and Saturday nights, I was usually on a date and the last damned place I would ever taken a date was to a party of Army officers who were either sucking up to the brass or hitting on my date or getting drunk or most likely, all of the above. I have never taken a drink of alcohol. (See my article on O.V.U.M., that is, stuff that is Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory)

In contrast to my superiors relieving me, my subordinates in Bravo Company (my last command) circulated and signed three petitions demanding that my superiors reinstate me. They hated my successor who immediately announced he was reinstating the savings bond purchases with their Unit Fund money. Did I lead my men successfully? Close enough. Did I suck up to my superiors? Absolutely not. So does the Army produce leaders or followers? When it comes to training and many job descriptions, they do offer leadership training and experience. But when it comes to incentives, which ultimately trump training and experience as far as the resulting behavior is concerned, the U.S. military hates and discourages or even bans leadership. They talk about leadership. They teach leadership—such as their knowledge of the subject is. But they reward followership, or more accurately, ass kissing, and punish any leadership that bothers the boss, which is to say, most leadership.

Name the great current American leaders that the military has produced

To hear the military tell it, people who have had leadership training and who been in leadership positions in the military are the best leaders in America.

Oh, really? So where are they?

Since 1992, each of our presidential elections has featured a former military guy against a former draft dodger. The draft dodger always won. The one West Pointer, Wes Clark, lost early. As I write this, on 10/11/08, never-served-in-the-military (or in any other real job) anti-war candidate Barack Obama is leading Service Academy graduate, retired Navy Captain, Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain.

Are there any former military leaders in the Senate? My namesake and former cadet platoon member Jack Reed, Senator from Rhode Island is a West Point grad, but he never served in a war. I suspect his being in the Senate stems more from his government and law degrees from Harvard than from his West Point training and experience at leadership in the military.

Another way to see how the U.S. military is doing at producing leaders is to see what leadership positions they hold in our society after they get out of the military. Most people are only in the military for two or three years. Some are in longer. And a smaller number make a career (at least 20 years) of the military. In the last 30 years or so, the number of people on active duty in the U.S. military has ranged from about 2 million during the Reagan Administration to about 1.4 million today. Let’s assume an average of 1.6 million and that their average tenure is four years. That means that in the last 30 years, about 12 million people have been on active duty in the U.S. military. Virtually all of them get out of the military when they are still young enough to have second careers in the civilian world—age 38 to about age 53.

So if these 12 million men and women are such great leaders, where are they in our society?

The last president who served on active duty in the military was George H.W. Bush who got out of the military in 1945.

Many people who served briefly in the military are in Congress. But the question should arise are former military people disproportionately represented in Congress. If they got extraordinarily effective leadership training and experience in the military, they should be. Furthermore, those analyzing it need to figure out how to separate those who became Congressmen as a result of the benefit from leadership training in the military and those who just used military service as a resume entry and did not benefit from training or experience.

In my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?,” I contrast the top ten most prominent living West Point graduates with 13 prominent living Harvard Business School graduates. HBS does not claim to produce “leaders.” But the contrast between the two lists is stark. Of the ten most prominent living West Point grads, only three—Reed, Petraeus, and Krzyzewski—currently hold leadership positions. The others are all former this or that like Buzz Aldrin. But the Harvard list has all sorts of people who hold top leadership positions in many walks of life including the current Commander in Chief George Bush, historian Michael Beschloss, GE head Immelt, New England Patriots owner Kraft, NYC Mayor Bloomberg, and so forth. Plus I could have named far more than the 13 I named. The Wikipedia write-up on Harvard Business School has a longer, rather astonishing list.

Does Harvard Business School do a better job of training leaders than West Point? In many ways, and probably the most important ways, yes. The leadership you learn at Harvard Business is more free form and results oriented. The West Point version is more pro forma, narrow, specialized, and divorced from the reality of actually getting people to do any useful task. At West Point, you learn how to get people to perform close order drill and the manual of arms and do choreographed calisthenics in the artificial world of the military. At Harvard Business, you learn how to get people to make or sell a product or service in the real world. Probably more important is the real world management experience you get in the civilian world after Harvard compared to the nutty and largely useless, if not harmful, experience you get in SNAFU Land after West Point.


The most obvious dead giveaway that the military are poseurs with regard to leadership is their propensity to discuss it in a vacuum.

Those of us in the real world who have to get results when we are in a leadership position—as in my coaching of a high school football team in 2003, 4, and 5—are more likely to use words like “team,” “teamwork,” and “team building.” Talking about “leadership” and what great leaders we are implies that the followers are insignificant—that our great leadership is what made everything happen. In the real world, real leaders are very mindful of the feelings of their followers and of the crucial importance of the contributions of their followers to the success of the team. Military people think they take care of that by saying their troops are “outstanding” every time the subject comes up, but then they cancel that out the next time they use the word “leadership,” which puts the spotlight back on them.

Only in the military, where you can just talk a good game and look the part, and where subordinates are afraid to piss off the brass, could you pontificate endlessly on the leadership of yourself and your subordinate leaders and not catch any flack for it. In the real world, such a “leader” would hear complaints about his narcissism and taking too much credit for the success of the group pretty fast. In German, the word “leader” translates to “Führer.” Real leaders who get followers to do great things in the real world do not have a Führer complex.


Leaders and followers are opposite ends of a see-saw. The lower one end is, the higher the other must be. In other words, if you have great followers, you need little in the way of leadership to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We practiced leadership at West Point on our follow cadets—who were highly talented, motivated, and disciplined. Leading them is like playing tennis without a net—very poor preparation for leading regular Army troops.

The worse the followers, the greater the leaders need to be. As I often say in my writing about football coaching, an ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of coaching. Coaching is the football equivalent of leadership. Another coaching saying is that, “Great players make great coaches.”

The military work force is generally low quality. See my article on the need for a military draft, in part to upgrade the quality of military personnel, for details on that. For example, the military has been granting waivers to allow about 8,000 convicted criminals a year to join the Army. When I was a platoon leader and company commander in the Army, I never had any say whatsoever about the subordinates assigned to me. That has always been standard military procedure. In the civilian world, that would be considered insane and good leaders subjected to such situations would generally resign and go elsewhere.

In the real world, you do not expect your subordinate managers to exhibit such loaves-and-fishes leadership. Rather, you get the best people you can overall, including both managers and subordinates. And those best managers are well aware that they must constantly give credit to their subordinates for the group’s successes. He leads best who leads least. The smart leader makes his leading as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. Military people are very self-conscious and affected about their approach to leadership.

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

Like Soviet refugees

Here is a fascinating email I got from a friend in response to another article on the military’s propensity to think their good intentions, occasional tiny progress, and talking a good game and looking the part are sufficient. I have redacted his name and company. The company is a large, household-name, publicly-traded corporation. He is talking about career U.S. military personnel who are convinced they are better than civilians, but who have never worked anywhere but the military since they were teenagers.

But then again, they have been living in an "alternate reality" since they were the tragedy is that "they don't know that they don't know", like a catholic priest giving marital advice.

[redacted company name], I worked alongside a few smart qualifed Russian immigrant professionals who had grown-up in the Soviet system, and then emigrated here. They were good, smart, and tough workers, but occasionally they would say and do strange things, and come to absolutely bizarre conclusions about how to respond to a given interpersonal or organizational situation.

Everybody commented on it. They never made it to management. It was because their formative adult experiences were the "alternative reality" of the Soviet Union, and they could never get past their early ducklings.

And here is the kicker: I noticed the EXACT SAME PHENOMENA in the handful of 20-and-out retired lifers that worked at
[redacted company name]. Nobody trusted them to operate autonomously because they operated (from our perspective) on their own bizarre, but internally consistent to them, "the-military-is-reality" mindset.

We had a few retired Lt Cols, a few retired Master Sergeants (these guys specialized in yelling and bluster when ever anybody called them on their bullshit...the Colonels were more subtle), and one retired Brigadier General who lasted only 18 months when the CEO finally figured out that the guy was all show and no go, and was completely and utterly helpless without a phalanx of flunkies (newly exited Captains that he hired) wiping his ass and filing his expense reports.

I have never seen a bigger disconnect between appearances and personal capability than this guy in my life! He was the company joke...the other SVP's just rolled their eyes and smirked whenever his name came up.

The 1-star retired general (might have been a 2-star, don't remember) was very personable. His shtick was the OPPOSITE of the gravel-voiced, jaw-thrusting "damn fine officer...balderdash....I-am-a-very-important-and-serious-person-with-Gravitas" stage act. We called him "General Glad-Hand".

He was a proud West Point grad, and wore one of those gigantic rings....about the size that some black rapper have that are encrusted with diamonds and gold. He liked to display it too... I believe the term is ring-knocker ? I had never encountered a person who was proudly displaying their college ring TWENTY YEARS (!!) after earning it. Oh well, to each their own, was my attitude. [Reed note: I was the only one in my class not to buy a class ring. I may be the only one in the Long Gray Line who did not buy one. No big reason. It was expensive, ostentatious, I never wear a ring including a wedding ring although I have been married for 40 years. I have never owned a ring of any kind. I did not want to be a “ring knocker” as West Pointers are called in the military. And the company that made the rings can make one at any time if I had ever changed my mind, a service normally used by guys who lose their ring. A large percentage of West Point grad wives wear a minaiture version of their husband’s West Point class ring a their engagement ring. I asked my wife a few months ago if I was correct to think she would have vetoed that if I suggested it. After a thoughtful pause she said, “Maybe back then I would have considered it.” Not now.]

General Glad-Hand was an expert at all the prehistoric Mayflower WASP social graces...and his wife was "a perfect and gracious hostess from 1957". I went to a dinner party at their house once. I swear I thought I had been time-travelled back to the stage set and mannerisms of "My Three Sons"....or "Mad Men" without the edge. And this was 1990 !

General Glad-Hand had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, where his job (as he explained it) was literally to go to cocktail parties at other embassies 7-nights a week, standing around with drinks in his Formal Mess Uniform, chatting with the other Military Adjutants from other countries, hoping to pick up a little military intelligence.

He told me he was the 1st to break the news that the Soviets-and-the-Chinese were shooting at each on their border again, and that "scoop" got him his generalship. Later on, he was President Reagan's "football carrier". The guy with the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes. (Why you need a general to silently carry around a briefcase that is never opened, and to speak only when spoken to, is beyond me..)

He came to the attention of our "Steve Jobs" like founder CEO, who had no military experience, was big on actual leadership, and wanted to give a general a try. General Glad-Hand was a superb presenter and briefer...entertaining, clear, personable, likeable, and so on....provided he was handed his script and overheads. He was completely incapable of generating (or even comprehending) his material, but like a superb actor, just give him a script, wind him up, push him out on stage, and he will entertain and impress the audience ! (But NEVER let him answer the questions about the material after his pitch...have someone else do that...our CEO learned to his embarrassment.....also just like an actor.)

Our CEO gave him a real-job to start with, but after it became obvious what he was, he was just trotted out for Board Meetings as "Reagan's football carrier" so the Board Members could rub shoulders with "a hero" and be suitably impressed and feel they would sign-off on the CEO's budget and initiatives with nary a question, which was General Glad-Hands true usefulness.

I encountered General Glad-Hand early one morning (before everybody else got there) staring in befuddlement at the filter-cofee maker. I took pity on him and showed him how to make filter coffee. It was obvious that this 45 year old man had not made himself a cup of coffee since percolators (remember those?) went away and were replaced by filter coffee makers in offices. General Glad-Hand also hired an extraordinary number of "personal assistant" staff. Even the CEO had 1 secretary and 1 personal assitant aide-de-camp. All other senior managers had 1 secretary. General Glad-Hand had 4 or 5 people (all ex-military) who had various titles, but their real job was to personally cater to him....very noticeable and out-of-step with the corporate culture.

Oh, and the good General was a HORRIBLE driver. Possibly from having been sitting in the back of staff cars and such his whole entire some sort of Chinese Dowager Empress, unable to walk because of her bound feet.

General Glad-Hand left of his own accord after a couple of years, and got himself appointed to the Boards of a variety of Firms doing mucho business with the Feds and the Pentagon. I believe the proper term is "cashing in his stars" ?

Our CEO never hired another General again. Been there, done that. If ya need an empty-suit presenter, you can find them in the civilian world that can actually do their own Q & A sessions.

Name redacted on my initiative

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