Three Leadership Lessons from General Norman Schwarzkopf

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How do you serve others through your leadership?

How do you serve others through your serving leadership?

When I was invited to work with the military after 9/11, the first person I called was my father. He had spent many years in the military and he understood the task ahead of me far better than I did. My exposure to the military came from history books and the many military officers I knew over my lifetime. My father suggested reading Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography “It Doesn’t Take a Hero. “ He felt it would give me a different view of military leadership than I had been exposed to during my career.

Many of the people I worked with in military intelligence had a different view of the act of war. Many were detached from the reality of war and the consequences of how they presented their findings impacting civilian leadership decisions. After I read General Schwarzkopf’s autobiography I began developing a better understanding of what our military officers had to deal with on the field of battle. I started asking my military colleagues different questions about how they applied key leadership concepts to the military.

There were three keys I took from General Schwarzkopf’s writing. They helped me shape my discussions with military and executive branch leaders after 9/11. I also understood some of the people I worked with had worked with General Schwarzkopf. So quoting from Schwarzkopf’s book would not give me instant credibility with these men and women. I had to try to incorporate these lessons in our overall discussions on what we were trying to accomplish in our service academies.

The first key I shared was “When placed in command, take charge.” My team was made up of leaders from all branches of the military and many were trained to work well in a command and control system. I wanted them to be able to slip in and out of leadership roles as the situation changes. This was a different view than many of my peers proposed. I shared several examples of why leadership needed to be individual, as well as team based. Today, you can see this strategy working in many of our best frontline military leaders.

The second key was “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in battle.” When working with the military you learn they leave very little to chance and everything to choice. They constantly drill and work on the details of their missions. They keep drilling so they are prepared for almost every eventuality. Their team members know their roles and are able to move at incredible speed when operating in the field. This provides their commanders incredible flexibility in dealing with any enemy. I’ve seen similar agility in other high performing teams of first responders in Ohio. These teams drill and then drill again until everything is working at 110 %. That extra 10% save lives in the field. You can only get it by working hard in drills.

The third key was “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.“ This quote was the capstone of our new strategy framework. When in doubt, rely on character to carry the day. I share this with every executive I work with. Most professors I work with stress strategy as the critical element to an organization’s success. I’ve found the opposite is true. The more character the organization’s leaders have, the more likelihood of enduring success. I’ve seen this work for many of the leaders I’ve worked with for the past 30 years. In an era where leaders’ careers are measured in 2 or 3 year cycles, many of my clients’ leaders have been serving for decades in their roles. When asked why their success has lasted so long they always share it’s about character.

This leaves me with my favorite quote in regards to General Schwarzkopf. He said, “True courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that’s what courage is.”

Thank you, General Schwarzkopf for teaching me about the true nature of serving leadership. Rest in peace, Sir. Your lessons on leadership will shape future generations of leaders around the world.

About the Author

Tripp Braden partners with entrepreneurs and senior executives on their high engagement C-Suite communication and content marketing strategies.

He believes client education is the best way of building trust and long term sustainable growth.

His consulting practice focuses on second stage entrepreneurs, technology organizations, and senior level business executives. Tripp partners with clients to develop high impact C-Suite communication and account based marketing strategies.

If you’re interested in learning more, contact Tripp at or send him an invite on LinkedIn. You can find Tripp’s business growth blog at Market Leadership Journal.

Tripp Braden – who has written posts on Empowering Serving Leaders.

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