The Courage to Speak and Listen

By John L. Gronski, Major General, USA, Ret.

With the leadership workshops I conduct, several themes continue to come to the forefront. Many junior leaders want to gain techniques for leading up, otherwise known as speaking truth to power.

The notion of “listening” as an important leadership attribute is also discussed and mentioned a great deal.

There is a historical vignette about an encounter between a young Major George Marshall and a seasoned General John “Black Jack” Pershing that has been written about quite often, but it is a tale that highlights both of these themes and is worth revisiting again. The following paragraphs are taken and paraphrased from a chapter in the book “The Generals” by Winston Groom.

During WWI, George Marshall, who eventually became a five-star general and was the Army Chief of Staff during WWII, served as a major and operations officer for the First Infantry Division, the “Big Red One”.

The Courage to Speak

Marshall had been on hand to witness the chewing out by General Pershing, the intimidating Supreme Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, of Major General William Sibert, Commanding General of the First Infantry Division. The incident occurred during a training exercise at which Pershing claimed the First Infantry Division displayed poor training, poor comprehension of tactics, and could not follow orders.

Marshall was incensed that Pershing chewed out his Division Commander in front of all the other officers, embarrassing MG Sibert unmercifully. As Pershing turned to leave, Marshall grabbed Pershing by the arm and told him, “There is something to be said here and I think I should say it because I have been here the longest.”

“What do you have to say?” Pershing demanded. Everyone from Sibert on down was horrified that Marshall had the nerve and ill manners to touch Pershing. Marshall, his temper held in check, responded with a torrent of facts, listing lack of supplies, and lack of help and guidance from Pershing’s headquarters. Pershing listened and walked away saying, “You must appreciate the troubles we have.” Marshall further horrified everyone by replying, “Yes, General, but we have them every day and we have to solve them before night.”

Everyone was certain Marshall would be fired before the end of the day. In fact, there was no retribution. Instead, whenever Pershing visited the First Infantry Division, he immediately sought out Marshall and took him aside in private conversation.

The Courage to Listen

Later Marshall wrote, “It was one of Pershing’s great strengths that he could listen to things.”

Marshall exemplified a leader who displayed the personal courage to speak “truth to power”. Marshall was a character-based leader and there are many incidents throughout his career whereby he chose the hard right over the easy wrong. In this particular episode with Pershing, Marshall knew that “something” had to be said, even at the risk of jeopardizing his own career. As it turned out, Pershing grew to trust Marshall and used him as a confidant. Pershing understood that Marshall would tell the boss what he should know rather than what he wanted to hear.

On the other hand, Pershing displayed great emotional intelligence. He was self-aware and maintained self-control and did not overreact to Marshall’s comments but rather displayed the humility to take those comments for what they were worth. Pershing listened, something that successful leaders do.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker.

A decorated combat Veteran, infantryman, and Ranger School graduate, John is a transformational leader and has significant experience in business as a management consultant, where he led teams implementing large, complex projects. He now serves as an executive coach, leadership consultant, and trainer.

Learn more about John Gronski at  https://johngronski.com/

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