Shortly before President Trump selected him as U.S. national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster penned a new book foreword, writing that with the nation at war against “modern day barbarians,” like Islamic State and Al Qaeda, military commanders must “learn from leaders who went before them.” To learn “the hard way” from personal experience, and not from history, he wrote, would prove exceedingly costly in lives and treasure.
In his new capacity, McMaster would do well to learn from both his own personal experience and that of Colin Powell, who also served as national security adviser while an active duty Army lieutenant general. Throughout his career, Lt. Gen. McMaster, like Powell before him, has toggled between dual roles, acting simultaneously as a leader of troops and as a follower of senior ranking officers.
McMaster’s intellectual independence, overt confidence, and willingness to speak his mind, did not always sit well with Army superiors, who twice passed him over for promotion. Nevertheless, the general turned national security adviser could serve the country well by staying true to himself and by acting like Powell did, as a deeply thoughtful and morally courageous senior military adviser to President George H.W. Bush.
Powell is often lauded as a model leader, but his extraordinary effectiveness as a subordinate was the most significant factor in explaining his professional success and rapid ascension in the officer corps. Moreover, by the time Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had become the consummate follower; an exemplary subordinate who not only displayed extraordinary commitment and competency, but also independent critical thinking and a well-honed sense of ethical integrity that valued moral courage.
McMaster can also learn from Powell’s experience as a senior subordinate to President George W. Bush. Powell excelled in asking the president difficult and clarifying questions about policy proposals. He regularly offered the president assessments and options that differed markedly from other principals on the National Security Council.
Likewise McMaster can profit from Powell’s mistakes. First, Powell failed to develop a close and thus more open and influential relationship with Bush. Second, Powell failed himself, the president, and the country, by not demonstrating sufficient independent and critical thought on the most important issue his day: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
McMaster, in a related book chapter, wrote about the importance of “adaptive leadership.” He focused on the heroic leadership of Lt. Col. Harold Moore during the Vietnam War. Moore, in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, defeated a much larger enemy force because of his ability to adapt tactics to the exigencies of the battlefield.
So must McMaster learn from history and learn to adapt his effective combat leadership in Iraq to the often cut throat, political battlefields of Washington.
Jeffrey J. Matthews is the George F. Jewett Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the University of Puget Sound. He is completing a biography of Colin Powell and is co-editor of The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster wrote the new foreword and a chapter in the book.
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