In 1951, fifty years after he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, George C. Marshall attended the dedication of the Marshall Arch at the school. Marshall had spent almost all of those fifty years in the service of his country, and one would be hard pressed to find another American military leader — or any American leader, for that matter — who had played such pivotal roles in the shaping of 20th century history. In World War I, he was instrumental in planning the Battle of the Argonne, the largest battle in US military history, and the battle that ended the war. Because of his leadership in World War II, Winston Churchill labeled Marshall the “organizer of victory.” His authorship of The European Recovery Program — more commonly known as The Marshall Plan — was instrumental in rebuilding Europe following the devastation and economic collapse wrought by World War II. He was the longest serving Army Chief of Staff, and also served as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and President of the Red Cross. He was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year twice, in 1943 and in 1947.
Understanding or categorizing Marshall’s leadership, then, is not a simple matter. Fifty years — more if one includes his time at VMI — is a long time to spend learning and practicing leadership, so variations and evolution are going to occur. Styles and approaches will change over time, and different theories might appear or reappear more or less predominantly at certain instances.
VMI, World War I, and World War II
One early insight into Marshall’s character can be seen from his “rat” (freshman) year at VMI. One night, weary from typhoid, in a particularly dangerous VMI hazing ritual, Marshall was forced squat over the point of an upturned bayonet that had been lodged into a hole in the floor. Though exhausted, Marshall refused to give up or complain, instead collapsing from exhaustion and being severely cut on his buttocks. While being treated by the school’s medical staff, he refused to give the names of the upperclassmen who had hazed him. Had he, they would very likely have been expelled, but Marshall would have faced retribution from others. Contrary to popular opinion, and contrary to biographies written as early as 1947 by William Frye and as recently as 2009 by Gerald M. Pops, this did not earn him any particular respect or prevent continued hazing. “After the accident I don’t think there was any particular difference in the hazing. It always was rather robust in the earliest weeks but it continued the entire year so far as I remember,” according to Marshall himself. It wasn’t just the rat year when Marshall was hazed, either. Because of his northern accent, he would continue to be hazed, “up to the day of my graduation.”
If one were to use the trait approach to analyze Marshall, it wouldn’t be difficult to quickly and easily find a number of Stogdill’s ten traits by looking at his decision to attend VMI and his behavior there. Marshall demonstrated drive for responsibility and task completion by choosing to attend a military school. It would’ve been easy enough for him to go to a traditional school, but Marshall set out to become a military officer — a leader — despite the fact that it didn’t seem likely in those years. He also could’ve given up at VMI, given the continued hazing, but instead he demonstrated vigor and persistence in pursuit of goals. He demonstrated clearly readiness to absorb interpersonal stress.
During World War I, Marshall, by then a Colonel, served under General John J. Pershing in the 1st US Army. Late in the war, Pershing was faced a nearly impossible task. In order to begin an offensive in the Argonne Forest, he would need to win a major victor at a place called St. Mihiel, then shift his entire army — 400,000 men — in a different direction and move them 60 miles to face a new front, all in a period of 10 days. Marshall was tasked with planning and organizing the logistics of the operation and the subsequent Argonne Offensive. The plan succeeded, and the subsequent 45 day long battle effectively ended the war.
Here, again using the trait approach, Marshall demonstrated venturesomeness and originality in problem solving, as well as willingness to accept consequences of decision and action and willingness to tolerate frustration and delay. His interactions with Pershing demonstrated self-confidence and sense of personal identity.
Marshall’s self-confidence would become evident again in 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held a meet with top US generals. Roosevelt was planning to begin shipping weapons and supplies to the British in order to assist them against Nazi Germany. All of the generals agreed with Roosevelt’s plan, except one. Marshall presciently recognized that doing so would draw America into the war, and, aware that the US Military wasn’t at all ready for war, vocalized his opinion. Roosevelt ignored Marshall’s objections, but saw that he possessed the kind of confidence that would be needed in the years ahead. Roosevelt promoted Marshall to general and appointed the outspoken leader as Chief of Staff of the US Army. Marshall would come to be a close advisor to Roosevelt.
In 1939, when he became Chief of Staff, the US Army was the 17th largest in the world. With fewer than 180,000 soldiers, it was a bit larger than Bulgaria’s military, and a bit smaller than Portugal’s. With the threat of war becoming more likely every week, Marshall began planning for US entry into the war. In fact, Marshall orchestrated the greatest expansion of the US Military ever, and grew it from 180,000 in 1939 to more than 8 million soldiers by 1945. By the end of World II, Marshall had created and lead the largest army in US history. There can be little doubt that the allied victory in World War II would not have been possible without Marshall’s massive mobilization and organization of American military power. Marshall’s ability to influence other persons’ behavior as well as his capacity to structure social interaction systems to the purpose at hand, along with the traits demonstrated above, all contributed to Marshall’s leadership capabilities.
Another way of looking at Marshall’s military career is with through the skills approach to leadership. Marshall spent his life, from VMI forward learning to lead. It is rational to believe that Marshall, then, acquired and honed the technical, human, and conceptual skills necessary to become the amazing leader that he was.
Post World War II
Following World War II, the United States and Europe turned to Marshall for another important mission. This was different, though. After a lifetime of learning for, preparing for, and orchestrating wars, Marshall was tasked to come up with a plan to rebuild Europe. In 1947, as Secretary of State, Marshall outlined his proposal, the European Recovery Plan (ERP), or as everyone knows it today, the Marshall Plan during a speech at Harvard University. The plan was meant to rebuild areas of Europe that had been devastated by the war, and to jump start European economies that had crumbled. Marshall’s plan involved recreating European industry along the lines of American-style industry. The transformation was incredible, and the period between 1948 and 1952 was the fastest period of economic growth in European history. It could be argued that this amazing period of peacetime growth was the result of transformational leadership from George C. Marshall. Because of his efforts during World War II, Winston Churchill referred to him as the, “organizer of victory.” Less than ten years later, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize committee called him the, “organizer of peace.” Adding weight to the notion of transformational leadership, Marshall was and still is the only career military officer ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Marshall would later serve as the President of the Red Cross, and then Secretary of Defense. Any study of Marshall will reveal a man of humility and honor, and a man whose leadership accomplishments are nearly unmatched in American history. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been written about him, and he is truly an American hero. I’d highly recommend that anyone interested in leadership could learn a lot by reading about Marshall.
Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications
Uldrich, J. (2005). Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker: Leadership Lessons from George C. Marshall. New York, NY: Amacom Publishing
Pops, G. M. (2010). Ethical Leadership in Turbulent Times: Modeling the Public Career of George C. Marshall. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Marshall, G.C. Picayune Interview with George C. Marshall Tape 3. Leesburg, Va. George C. Marshall Foundation. Accessed from http://marshallfoundation.org/library/documents/Marshall_Interview_Tape3.pdf