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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

June 5, 2014 at 10:31 AM

George Marshall management

General_George_C._Marshall,_official_military_photo,_1946One name likely to appear little in the coverage of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings is George Catlett Marshall. That’s a shame because he offers a primer on management and character that would benefit any age or calling.

This anniversary is particularly poignant because the World War II soldiers, including the boys who stormed the beaches in Normandy, are passing on at an alarming rate. By one estimate, about 1,000 American veterans die every day. This was the largest invasion in history. One can be forgiven for having some sympathy for a young German conscript who looked out his pillbox slit that morning of June 6, 1944, and saw the sea filled with Allied ships.

But this is a business blog, so I won’t inflict my history jones on you too much. The success of the invasion came from bravery, material might, good leadership and was shared by the Canadians and British, as well as the Yanks. But the forgotten “architect of victory” (Churchill’s words) was Marshall, the Army chief of staff.

He presided over the expansion of a tiny peacetime Army into a mighty host (Rick Atkinson’s magisterial Liberation Triology is the best read here). He selected most of the generals who would become the nation’s great commanders, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Not only that, but he placed people in the right jobs. Patton was a brilliant ground commander. He would have been a disaster as Supreme Allied Commander.

On the other hand, and unlike in today’s military, he quickly sacked failed or less effective generals. Marshall was unbending on accountability. Also unlike today’s political generals, Marshall stood above politics. Even the wily FDR was afraid to cross him or use him. Nor did he appear bedecked in a dozen lines of ribbons and other decorations.

In the prickly relationship between the British and the Americans, with Ike as diplomat in chief, Marshall played a key role, especially in pushing Churchill for an invasion of France. Eisenhower had a volcanic temper hidden by the famous smile. Marshall was a deeply serious man not to be trifled with. He had a temper but rarely had to use it. A look, a word, would do.

So in an age when even a book has been written about Jesus as CEO, Marshall has much to teach us, especially about integrity, accountability and organizational genius.

After the war, when he became the nation’s first five-star General of the Army, he didn’t “cash in” with a big-paycheck job in the defense industry. In spite of failing health, he went on to become Harry Truman’s Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. His name was given to the plan that revived Western Europe. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

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