George Catlett Marshall was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the Second World War. In that capacity, he managed the astronomical growth of America's armed forces from a tiny pre-war entity to the thirteen-million-person juggernaut that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. After the war, Marshall became secretary of state and oversaw implementation of his namesake Marshall Plan, which succeeded in rebuilding war-ravaged Europe. He went on to serve as secretary of defense and, later, as head of the American Red Cross. Despite these profound achievements during a lifetime of service, Marshall is perhaps one of the least-well-known leaders in our history.
Marshall's relative lack of name recognition today represents the natural outcome of his supreme selflessness coupled with his fierce and unwavering commitment to always putting the needs of the country first. George Marshall embodied a critical leadership trait that, unfortunately, we seldom see in sufficient measure: he showed humility.
When the Allied high command decided in 1944 to invade Europe via the Normandy beaches of France, President Franklin Roosevelt confronted a difficult choice as to who should lead such an important and complex operation. By all accounts, Marshall had earned the right to head up the effort, and very much desired the appointment. His superior leadership skills and strategic acumen were unmatched. Yet when Roosevelt asked Marshall whether he would prefer to lead the D-Day invasion or remain on duty in Washington as chief of staff, Marshall demurred. He told the president that whatever his decision, Marshall would "go along with it wholeheartedly. The issue was simply too great for any personal feeling to be involved."
In the end, Roosevelt told Marshall that he "could not sleep at night with you out of the country," and the assignment went to Dwight D. Eisenhower instead. Ike succeeded dramatically, became a national hero, and rode his fame all the way to the White House. Some people might interpret Marshall's actions as a sign of weakness, but nothing was further from the truth.
Indeed, in Marshall's case, his quiet and modest demeanor masked tremendous drive and a will of iron. Thankfully for the free world, his ambition and willpower were not personal or selfish in nature, but directed solely toward the purpose of serving his country by defeating our enemies. He was ruthless in his decision making when the issue of winning the war was at stake.
In his book Good to Great, noted business author Jim Collins describes corporate CEO's who embody this combination of extreme personal humility with great professional determination as Level 5 Leaders. Collins and his team studied companies that made a leap from good results to great results and sustained those levels of performance for at least fifteen years. These companies produced stock returns during those fifteen years that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times.
While Collins expressly sought to avoid a conclusion that these stellar results were due primarily to great leadership ("Ignore the executives," he told his research team), he could not overlook the overwhelming data that proved that in fact Level 5 leadership was key. Every single company on the roster had Level 5 leadership at the time they made the transition from good-to-great.
Collins observes, "Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of United States President Abraham Lincoln (one of few Level 5 presidents in United States history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring great nation. Yet those who mistook Mr. Lincoln's personal modesty, shy nature, and awkward manner as signs of weakness found themselves terribly mistaken…"
Collins identifies such CEO's as Darwin Smith, who led Kimberly-Clark from 1971-1991, and Colman Mockler, CEO of Gillette from 1975 to 1991, as classic examples of Level 5 leaders who achieved extraordinary results during their tenures, but who were also always quick to give credit to others (not surprisingly, neither man is a household name today). Collins was "struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn't talk about themselves… It wasn't just false modesty. Those who worked with or wrote about the good-to-great leaders used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious… and so forth."
Finally, in contrast, Collins also found that in two-thirds of the companies against which he compared the good-to-great companies, leaders with enormous egos not only did not perform as well, but frequently "contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company."
Where do you, your boss, and the rest of the leaders in your organization fall on the humility spectrum? Today, the simple truth is that we need more leaders like George Marshall, Darwin Smith, and Colman Mockler-- people who show humility while striving to accomplish great things for the institutions they serve.