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US Commanders Everyone Should Study

Whether you are serving in the UK or the US, when we begin our military career we have choices when it comes to developing our leadership abilities. First, we can go through our careers stumbling through leadership as we figure it out along the way. The problem with this approach is that we only get the privilege of command for short windows of time, and by the time we start making headway it’s time to move on. Or, we could emulate those leaders who we observe throughout our careers. While there is merit to this approach, it relies on luck. We’re hoping to come in contact with really good commanders worth emulating or that we will serve with really bad ones (to do the opposite of when its our turn). There is a third choice that brings us into contact with some of the greatest military leaders throughout history. We develop ourselves through reading about leaders who came before us. 

In America, we have had a number of military leaders worthy of study. By studying their leadership we gain an understanding of the problems they faced, the decisions they made, their successes and mistakes, and how they approached the art of command. More importantly we gain points of traction by which to grow our leadership abilities and become the best version ourselves.

Below are 5 U.S. military leaders who Ifeel are worthy study. While I know there are numerous others that could be onthis list, these are the ones who’ve inspired me over the last 15 years of service.

The Self-Education of a General: General George Washington

He was almost one of yours, but thankfully it didn’t work out. Washington was a self-taught general who didn’t have aprofessional military education system or 25 year career to prepare him for hissenior leadership role. Prior to taking command of the Continental Army,Washington had only led 300 soldiers. However, what he lacked in experience hemade up for in self-study. Washington took his military education seriously, grasping every opportunity to increase his knowledge in the art of war. Hebought every military science and history book he could find, making notes inthe margins and eventually producing orders from them. This commitment prepared him for the challenge he faced in the Revolutionary War.  

To learn more about Washington’s commitment to self development, I encourage you to read A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education ofGeorge Washington by Adrienne Harrison, George Washington and the American MilitaryTradition by Don Higginbotham, and finally Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. The last title is a more macro view of the Revolutionary War, however it reveals the crucial roles of contingency and bold leadership in theevents that turned the tide in the Revolutionary War. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning.

Leadership in War: General U.S. Grant

Grant began his career as only an averageofficer, graduating 21st in a class of 39 from the United States Military Academy. He didn’t give off the appearance of being a military leader or a winner. He wasn’t polished, had a drinking problem, wasn’t successful in business, and was a good deal shorter than Lincoln, Lee, and Sherman (Grant wasonly 5’8 or 176 cm). But when the US Civil War broke out, Grant made his mark.He led the Union Army to victories at the Battle of Shiloh and the Vicksburg Campaign, and eventually defeated General Robert E. Lee. He became Lincoln’s most trusted military advisor, following a series of failed commanders. Through his memoirs, readers are transported into the mind of U.S. Grant as he tackled complicated problems, dealt with a myriad of personalities in his subordinate commanders, and came to terms with wartime decisions. 

First, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by U.S. Grant is a must-read because thisbook offers many insights for leaders who may one day lead Soldiers in combat. Next, is the recently published Grant by Ron Chernow. This book offers an in depth study of Grant’s life prior to the war, during the conflict, and into his presidency.       

The Ultimate Mentor: Major General Fox Conner

Mentorship/Protégé relationships are acritical component of our profession; therefore it’s worth studying those whodid it well. Major General Fox Conner had an uncanny ability to recognizetalent in younger leaders and then work with them to unleash that talent throughout the careers. In WWI, Conner served as Pershing’s Assistant Chief ofStaff for Operations (G3) and later became Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army in 1925.  But he left his mark on the military by mentoring three young officers: George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower,and George Patton. He met these future generals early in their careers and played a critical role in the rise of each one.  

Fox Connor’s mentorship is best captured inthe book Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art ofMentorship  by Edward Cox as wellas several article to include one by US Army ColonelCurt Taylor, who writes “ Could it be that one of the most important heroes of World War II is a man most Americans have never of; a man whose only claim to fame is that he poured his life, his experience, and his wisdom into the development of [three] outstanding young leaders?”

How to Attack: General George S. Patton

While General Patton needs little introduction, his commitment to deliberate self-development is often overshadowed by his reputation as a man of action. Patton’s way of war was notshaped by doctrine and field problems alone. Throughout his life, he complementedhis experiences with a disciplined effort of reading and self-study. Beginning in his early 20s, he used the margins of books, notebooks and notecards to capture his thoughts and reflections, further enhancing his self-development.As a cadet at West Point, he scribbled “rear attack” and “flank attack” in the margins of his books. Decades later, these words would define his aggressive nature as a field commander. Patton also attacked the profession early on, andattempted to influence it, which he managed to do as a young lieutenant, by publishing articles in journals.

To learn more about Patton, I recommend three books: 21st Century Patton by J.Furman Daniel III, which is a published selection of Patton’s articles and speeches, along with great commentary by Daniel. Next, Patton: A Genius for War by CarloD’Este, which is one of the best biographies on the General. Finally, The Patton Mind by Roger Nye, whichexamines the roots of Patton’s genius by analyzing all of the books Patton read and his notes on them.

To Train an Army: General Don Starry

As military leaders we should want nothing more than to give our enemies an unfair fight—with the advantage in our favor. And one way in which we do this is through training our forces. I can’t think of anyone who has written as extensively on the “why” and “how” of training as General Don Starry. In Vietnam, he commanded the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Following the war, he served as the commander of the ArmorSchool, 5th Corps in Germany, and the Commander of our Training andDoctrine Command. Under his leadership, the Army developed our AirLand Battle Doctrine in the early 80s, which set the stage for the next two decades offorce development. He retired in 1983 after Commanding U.S. Readiness Command.

Thanks to the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth we can now read (for free!!) Starry’s most important speeches, articles, and memorandums in an excellent two-volume series titled Press On!  He wrote about everything to include strategy, logistics, leadership, training, NCO development, the role of the commandsergeant major in organizations, values etc. One thing that stands out is his ability to communicate. In his writings, he’s able to briefly describe aproblem, develop the operational solution, outline the Army strategic approach to implementing that solution, and describe the tactical effects. This seriesis one of the most important additions to my professional library.  

Learning from the Past

I would like to thank my British counterparts at the Wavell Room for allowing me to participate in this important discussion. I hope the leaders I presented will spur your own interest in them and help you develop your own leadership abilities. As illustrated by Niccolo Machiavelli one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the study of past leaders.  In his dedicatory letter to the opening of The Prince, he wrote that the most important thing he holds dear is the “the knowledge of the actions of greatmen, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity.”

Maj Joe Byerly

Maj. Joe Byerly is a US Army armour officer, planner with the U.S. Special Operations Command, and a non-resident fellow with West Point’s Modern War Institute. He runs a website called From the Green Notebook.

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