Do You Have the Courage to Lead?
by Brian D. Shaw, President of the George C. Marshall Foundation
Public officials at all levels need a type of courage that’s not often taught. They are expected to develop a bold vision for strategic change and to produce results that address the demands and expectations of multiple, often conflicting constituencies. Many are given this responsibility early in their careers. They must have or develop the courage to lead in this complex and constantly changing landscape.
One exemplar of the courage to lead is George C. Marshall. In a long, productive career of public service, Marshall solved some of the biggest, most complicated problems the world had seen.
During nearly 50 years as a career military officer and as a civilian leader, Marshall was a tireless and selfless public servant who was able to find innovative solutions for huge problems. He became Army chief of staff during World War II and later served as secretary of state and secretary of defense. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the Marshall Plan to save postwar Europe.
Marshall was well known for his ability to take charge, take action, take risks, resist bad ideas, encourage challenges from subordinates, confront authority, and propose bold thinking and action.
His candor, commitment and character were hallmarks of his courageous leadership. How did Marshall—and how do other exceptional public leaders—achieve such success and rise to ever-greater positions of responsibility?
Terry Newell of the George C. Marshall Foundation faculty described the character and skills of exceptional leaders for the 2013 Council of State Governments Toll Fellows in August. He used the Marshall Plan for context in understanding the many pressures on government leaders. Newell is the author of the recently published Statesmanship, Character and Leadership in America. One chapter focuses on Marshall’s leadership of the Marshall Plan.
In addressing the dire postwar conditions in Europe, Marshall proposed a bold concept when he unveiled his ideas for the Marshall Plan. He was deliberate in addressing the concerns of many stakeholders. Yet the genius of the Marshall Plan speech that laid out a solution for the economic and psychological problems of western Europe was that it included principles, but avoided specificity.
For instance, Marshall made no mention of dollar amounts of required aid or countries by name to receive that aid. Marshall knew being too specific in his address at Harvard might have divided people in Europe and at home, Newell noted.
“He’s very deliberate and strategic. He wants European buy-in and cooperation among the nations of western Europe,” Newell said.
Marshall also challenged war-weary Americans to sacrifice once again. “He was asking something of the American people, but nothing more than he had asked of himself during his career,” Newell said.
Central to his ability to propose the Marshall Plan and see it enacted was Marshall’s reputation for honesty and candor, his commitment to facing tough problems head on, his capacity for hard work, his eye for detail, his optimism and his selfless service.
After his public life ended, he still served the nation. On June 2, 1953, he entered Westminster Abbey as head of the U.S. delegation to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The crowd stood in tribute.
Marshall asked for whom they were standing. “You,” came the reply. That Marshall seemed surprised is evidence of the humility of his character. Six months later, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Leaders today need more than leadership skills. They need statesmanship in service to a transcendent purpose,” Newell said.
Marshall was a model of the exercise of statesmanship. He worked tirelessly on passage of the Marshall Plan legislation with President Harry Truman’s political opponents during 1948, a presidential election year. He launched a public speaking campaign to promote the Marshall Plan and he insisted that Europeans take the lead. He urged Americans to understand the postwar mix of poverty, disease and despair in Europe and to rise above their own needs after nearly two decades of depression at home and war abroad to the majestic heights of helping people they did not know.
The Marshall Plan was not his name for it. Marshall would not have done that. But Truman insisted.
“General, I want the plan to go down in history with your name on it. And don’t give me any argument,” the president told Marshall.
In support of his country, George Catlett Marshall did not oppose the idea because he never refused an order from his president. It was just one more example of the selfless, courageous civil servant that was at the core of who he was.