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When to talk back to the brass

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He was known for his reticence and composure, yet Gen. George C. Marshall, in at least three famous moments, publicly confronted his superiors.

        1. When Marshall’s hero, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, came to Europe in 1917 to observe U.S. troops, he berated a general and chief of staff for the troops’ performance. Marshall considered the dressing down unfair in light of wartime conditions and confronted Pershing with “a torrent of facts.” The surprised Pershing tried to defend himself, referring to some organization problems at headquarters, to which Marshall shot back: “Yes, General, but we have [problems] every day.”

          2. President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out his plans for building 10,000 warplanes in 1938, stunning Marshall because the president had no plan for recruiting people to fly or service them. The president asked whether he’d made a good case for the program, to which Marshall bluntly said “No.”

          3. At another meeting before the war in 1940, Roosevelt brushed aside Marshall’s remarks on mobilizing soldiers and planes. Now army chief of staff, Marshall asked for three minutes to speak. He pointed out that barracks, rations and weapons were in short supply, that new weapons were designed but not in production and that the Germans had 140 divisions to America’s five: a recipe for disaster.

Brain researcher Howard Gardner asks why a normally cautious person such as Marshall would risk his career to speak up in a highly charged situation. The answer: Marshall intervened when he commanded the facts, when he truly believed he was right, and above all, when he saw no one else coming forward with the truth.

In each of those situations, Gardner says, Marshall thought the leader should have been able to draw the right conclusion and adopt the right course of action but was proceeding in a misguided way.

By speaking up, Marshall also announced that he equaled the top brass. He was, Gardner says, declaring a new “we” of knowledgeable and responsible leaders that included himself. And he was inviting the top leaders to enlarge their circle to include him.

— Adapted from Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner, BasicBooks, HarperCollins.

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