More Marshalls, Please: A Call for Principled Leadership
In 1944, as he oversaw global operations of the United States Army, General George C. Marshall received a letter from a handful of grade school students in Virginia. He was intrigued by their question about the selection of generals: “What are they like that makes you know they will be good ones?”
Despite his busy schedule, the Army Chief of Staff wrote back: “The most important factor of all is character, which involves integrity, unselfish and devoted purpose, a sturdiness of bearing when everything goes wrong and all are critical, and a willingness to sacrifice self in the interest of the common good.” His words still ring true.
Most people think of General Marshall for his contribution to rebuilding war-torn Europe after World War II. Almost daily, we hear a call for a “Marshall Plan” for various issues, from education to infrastructure to social justice. Marshall is rightly remembered for his role in the historic U.S. investment in the shattered nations of Europe, which gave their democratic governments breathing room on the eve of the Cold War.
In fact, June 5, 2022, marked the 75th anniversary of the historic address he delivered at Harvard University, during which he made the first public case for American investment in European recovery.
But he should be remembered for his qualities as a leader as well, qualities that our nation desperately needs during these turbulent times. In short, we need more Marshalls in positions of leadership at all levels of our society. In fact, General Marshall’s core principles have never been more relevant.
Throughout his career, Marshall embodied the principle of selfless service. In his view, leaders must place their organization’s mission above their personal needs and preferences at all times. They sacrifice personal gain for the good of all. Throughout his career, Marshall based his decisions on what he viewed as the best interests of his soldiers, units, mission and country.
He meticulously avoided self-promotion and personal credit for his successes, setting a sterling example of humility for others to emulate. He went so far as to refuse to vote, lest it introduce even the faintest hint of politics into his professional conduct.
General Marshall was committed to unwavering integrity in leaders. He believed that principled leaders have a well-developed sense of ethical standards and hold themselves accountable to live up to them. In fact, he risked career progression and short-term success when those goals came into conflict with his values.
As a relatively junior officer, he stood up to General Pershing as the U.S. Army prepared for combat operations in World War I, and as a relatively unknown general he stood up to President Roosevelt on the eve of World War II. He spoke truth to power.
Crucially, Marshall was committed to the principle of visionary leadership. Acting well was simply not enough, the leader had to think and act with a broad, forward-looking perspective. Principled leaders look over the horizon and make decisions based on the future they seek to create and the challenges they will face.
George Marshall’s record offers a litany of examples of his commitment to understand the larger forces at work. From his service as a junior officer through his leadership of the Army, the State and Defense Departments and the American Red Cross, Marshall drove his teams to plan based on a shared vision, rather than react to the events of the moment.
Our nation faces a leadership deficit. As we collectively confront a world of change, full of threats and opportunities, and with a society riven by division and conflict, principled leaders are worth their weight in gold. Marshall-style leadership is simply indispensable.
We at the George C. Marshall International Center, located at Marshall’s historic home in Leesburg, are dedicated to bringing to life the timeless values of selfless service and unwavering integrity to develop visionary leaders worldwide. In May, we presented the first George C. Marshall Award in Ethical Leadership to Colonel Greg Gadson, who is the epitome of perseverance and principled leadership in the face of great adversity.
We call on other institutions of our nation—educational, corporate, governmental and community-based—to join us in dedicating themselves to modeling and advancing principled leadership. We offer our support as they dive into the nuts and bolts of shaping and supporting leaders that “will be good ones.” In short, we need a “Marshall Plan for Principled Leadership” – and we need it today.