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Marshall’s Four Rules When Leading in Troubled Times

Many would say we live in troubled times. Perhaps, most of us would say so. This past year, 2016, was a crazy year, which included:

  • Alarming terrorist attacks in several locations
  • A volatile economy full of underemployed people
  • Disturbing racial tension between police and minorities
  • An unpredictable presidential election in November

You might be surprised at where we can find simple but replicable action steps for times like these. I recently read a letter written by former General George C. Marshall who influenced both World War I and II. He is an unsung hero, but leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and even Joseph Stalin praised his leadership and even credited the Allied victory in the Second World War to Marshall.

Almost a hundred years ago, George Marshall was with General John Mallory and described to him the four traits a leader must exhibit when leading in troubled times and especially when leading tired, weary people. Here is the letter:

November 5, 1920

General John S. Mallory
15 University Place
Lexington, Virginia

My Dear General Mallory, 

Last summer during one of our delightful rides I commented on the advice I would give a young officer going to war, based on my observation of what had constituted the success of the outstanding figures in the American Expeditionary Forces, and you asked me to write out what I had said. A discussion with Fox Conner this morning reminded me of my promise to do this, so here it is.

To be a highly successful leader in war four things are essential, assuming that you possess good common sense, have studied your profession and are physically strong.

When conditions are difficult, the command is depressed and everyone seems critical and pessimistic, you must be especially cheerful and optimistic.

When evening comes and all are exhausted, hungry and possibly dispirited, particularly in unfavorable weather at the end of a march or in battle, you must put aside any thought of personal fatigue and display marked energy in looking after the comfort of your organization, inspecting your lines and preparing for tomorrow.

Make a point of extreme loyalty, in thought and deed, to your chiefs personally; and in your efforts to carry out their plans or policies, the less you approve the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.

The more alarming and disquieting the reports received or the conditions viewed in battle, the more determined must be your attitude. Never ask for the relief of your unit and never hesitate to attack.

I’m certain in the belief that the average man who scrupulously follows this course of action is bound to win great success. Few seemed equal to it in this war, but I believe this was due to their failure to realize the importance of so governing their course.

Faithfully yours,

George C. Marshall
Major, General Staff
Aide-de-Camp

Allow me to summarize the timeless truths Marshall taught here:

  1. The more distressed your team appears to be, the more cheerful and optimistic you must be. It needs to be genuine—but you must make up for others’ lack of hope.
  1. The less energy your team possesses, the more energy and attention you should direct toward them. Forgetting self, you must make up for what they lack in spirit.
  1. The higher you rise in leadership, the more empowering you must be to leaders under you. The more indirect your charge, the more trust and loyalty you need to show.
  1. The more bleak the situation, the more determination you ought display to your team. They must not question your commitment to the mission.

I don’t know about you—but these are four “common sense” directives I can use going into a new year. I trust they’re great reminders for you as well.


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Marshall’s Four Rules When Leading in Troubled Times