Military leaders often have statues raised to them. Some go on to become U.S. presidents (including Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower). When General H. Norman Schwarzkopf retired from the U.S. Army, there was not even a ceremony -- unless you call getting handed your retirement papers a ceremony. Although that seems ungrateful for a man who led the allied troops so well in Desert Storm, it somehow seems fitting for this man. In this appropriately titled autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero, General Schwarzkopf shows himself to be a man focused on the tasks ahead of him as a servant leader rather than as a man searching for a hero's accolade.
Although General Schwarzkopf accomplished a lot, you get the sense from this book that these accomplishments were heavily influenced by a father, also a West Pointer and U.S. general by the same name. From the time he was quite young, his father and mother made it clear that he was to go to West Point. Clearly, being a dutiful, good son was his primary priority throughout his life. While many will excuse any failings in their own lives by having had a dysfunctional family, General Schwarzkopf seemed to roll with the punches. His mother suffered from alcoholism, no doubt influenced by his father's long overseas assignments in Iran.
Two particular elements of his life story particularly affected me. While a young officer, he often encountered older, senior officers who disgusted him with their lack of attention to duty and lying. Rather than fleeing from this corrupt connection, he soldiered on encouraged by good officers who pointed out that the system could only be cleansed by good officers rising to the top. He also liked virtually nothing about what he saw in the Vietnam War (either in Vietnam or on the home front), and internalized those lessons for running his own combat commands in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a result, loss of life was kept to a minimum, the culture of our Saudi hosts was honored, and politics was kept from shortchanging the troops.
I had a chance to hear General Schwarzkopf speak a few years ago. I'll always remember his advice to the audience about leadership. "Be the leader you would like to have." I would rather have that kind of leader than a hero any day.
Understanding that General Schwarzkopf had extensive experience in Iran and Europe as a youngster helped me to appreciate how lucky we were to have a talented general who also knew and appreciated Arabs and their culture. If you are like me, you will enjoy his reactions to the first times he was honored with foods that Americans normally don't eat. Like a good soldier, he popped them right down.
I also appreciate the candor in the book about his own failings and losses of temper, especially. Some autobiographies airbrush out any flaws or blemishes. That's essential to the myth of the hero. Showing the realities, on the other hand, legitimately can inspire all of us to overcome our faults to accomplish what needs to be done.
I recently read Stephen Ambrose's book, Citizen Soldiers, about the battles in northwestern France following D-Day through to the surrender of Germany. I was struck by how much of the top general's job involved diplomacy both with politicians and field commanders. I hope that lesson will be remembered as we begin our new task of stopping terrorism, and as we educate the next generation of military leaders.
After you read this book, think about a leader in your organization. What lessons from this book would apply to helping that leader? How can you assist that leader in being able to uncover and benefit from those lessons?
"Be the leader you would like to have."