Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker: Leadership Lessons from George C. Marshall

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Keep your wits about you about you and your eyes open; keep working hard; sooner or later the opportunity will present itself, and then you must be prepared both tactically and temperamentally to profit by it.
— George C. Marshall

As we go through our lives and look to improve as leaders and human beings, there are many famous names that repeatedly come up as people we can learn from. In the past few years as I delved into reading more about Stoicism, the name George C. Marshall become much more prevalent. I wasn’t really familiar with Marshall. As the first chapter is aptly titled “The Unknown Famous American”, it seemed I wasn’t alone. But as I continued to read it was evident that his influence on the United States as General of the Army, Secretary of State and as a leader, during the twentieth century was vital. Many have spoken of his greatness, “Winston Churchill called him the "organizer of victory" and "the last great American." Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Marshall, "Our people have never been so indebted to any other soldier." And Harry Truman referred to him as the "great one of the age.” Some remarkable praise from other leaders whom many leaders of today try to emulate. I must say that I took away more from this book than many others I have read, both from a leadership perspective and that of being a good person. George C. Marshall is someone worth learning from.

True leaders find a way to lead regardless of their position, stature, or age.

This may be a simple thought but it’s important. It’s important for any person who considers him or herself a leader but even more so for those of us who aren’t directly in charge of something. It becomes an easy way of thinking that because we don’t make the final decisions on something, that we can’t really be leaders. Deep down we know this isn’t true and Marshall’s simple theory makes sense. What many may see in Marshall is the final product but as the book eloquently states, “the thirty-four years he labored in obscurity and struggled under the army's seniority-laden laden promotion system before becoming a general officer-is equally instructive”. It goes into great detail as to how Marshall lead those around him regardless of his title or position. It is inspiring and a good reminder to any of us who consider ourselves leaders.

People Talk. Give Them Something Positive to Talk About

“In whatever organization you find yourself, remember that people talk. And it's not all idle gossip. Our cultures learn to protect themselves by getting the word around about people whose honor is doubtful. You'll never be more valuable than your word. I don't mean this as a warning, but as an opportunity-because, by the same token, healthy organizations also spread the word about people of incorruptible honesty. So tell the truth, deliver what you promise, let your caring show, and you'll be noticed.” This is a good reminder that not only does gossip get spread negatively, it can be spread positively if we give people reasons to do so. Our actions are everything and leaders must be aware that by doing the right thing, they can protect themselves more so than just trying to get people to like them.

We will take care of the troops first, last, and all of the time.
— George C. Marshall

Never. Stop. Learning.

One of my all-time foundational beliefs, reiterated by Marshall, we must never stop learning and have the humility to admit there is much we don’t know. But we also must have the desire and willingness to learn and grow. The author speaks of Marshall’s love of learning, “Many other officers of the era also shared Marshall's self-confidence, confidence, self-discipline, and "compulsion to excel," but it was his "intense desire to know" that separated Marshall from his peers. Even during the war years, when the responsibilities that befell him were of such a magnitude that it would have been forgivable if Marshall had found little time for anything else, he refused to stop learning. He understood his job demanded constant learning.” Even during the gravest conditions a country can endure, he still found time to learn. We have no excuse.

George C. Marshall was a fascinating man and leader. His lessons that are taught through this book can help guide those of us that strive to become better leaders and people.

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The Culture Code

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“Every evolution is a lens to look for teamwork moments, and we believe that if you stitch together a lot of opportunities, you start to know who the good teammates will

— Tom Freeman (SEAL Commander)

The title of this book grabbed my attention given the fact that any person who coaches is in the business of culture. If we've played and/or coached enough teams we have all experienced both the good and bad that culture can be. Daniel Coyle went in-depth and spent many years studying the cultures, good and bad, surrounding groups in multiple industries including NAVY SEALs, the San Antonio Spurs, Google and Zappos to name a few.  

No Bullshit and a lot of love

San Antonio Spurs GM RC Buford once defined the way head coach Gregg Popovich handles his players by saying "He fills their cups". He fills their cups? It's a staple of the contrasting styles which define Popovich's coaching philosophy. If you've ever heard the man deal with the press or get in the face of a player it's evident that he is old school and leads with toughness. But that's only one side of him. He's brutally honest, no doubt and no player is safe from being told the truth be it the last player on the bench all the way up to Tim Duncan (when he played). But what seems to set Pop apart is his real love for his players. He really wants them to feel like a family, that they can come to and rely on him for anything.

He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death
— Chip Engelland (Spurs Assistant)

Pop is one of these guys who may not outwardly preach his philosophy or leadership style but if you look deep enough, read the right articles and listen to his players, you come to realize that this simple form of management really works for him. Honesty and love. These are probably two words that should define many of our coaching styles.

Sweeping The Sheds

You may have heard the saying "sweeping the sheds". If not, it is something that was popularized by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. But as Coyle points out in the book, the origins of this come from a few places, in various ways and have profound effects on teams and cultures. For example, take this quote below from former McDonald's CEO Fred Turner about owner Ray Croc,

Every night you’d see him coming down the street, walking close to the gutter, picking up every McDonald’s wrapper and cup along the way

Obviously, Croc didn't NEED to do this, but it was his way of showing that he wasn't more important than anyone and the common goal was to constantly make McDonald's better. Turner goes on to speak about how he saw Croc once spending a Saturday morning "with a toothbrush cleaning out holes in the mop wringer. No one else really paid attention to the damned mop wringer, because everyone knew it was just a mop bucket. But Kroc saw all the crud building up in the holes, and he wanted to clean them so the wringer would work better”. The larger point that Coyle makes here is that when a leader does all these menial little things it says to the group WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, and that is a very powerful message.

Log PT 

Draper Kauffman was not a name I was familiar with before reading this book. I came to learn that he is arguably the most influential person in the history of Navy SEAL training, and the one who created "Hell Week" along with many other aspects of their training. Specifically Kauffman created Log PT. As Coyle eloquently explains, log PT is not complicated, 

Basically, it consists of six SEAL trainees performing an assortment of maneuvers that seem more appropriate to an Amish barn raising. They lift, carry, and roll the log. They move it from shoulder to shoulder and push it with their feet. They do sit-ups while cradling it, and they stand for long periods while holding it overhead with extended arms. There is no strategy, no technique, nothing that calls for higher levels of thought, skill, or reflection. What sets Log PT apart is its ability to deliver two conditions: intense vulnerability along with deep interconnectedness.

This excerpt is part of the book that focuses primarily on vulnerability, a word that is not often talked about within sports teams but is clearly important. To his example when the SEALs showed vulnerability while holding the log or seemingly may drop it, when someone was about to lose it the feeling emanated throughout the group and others were able to balance out accordingly. He goes into more detail and it's worth reading this alone if anything because it shows us that there is a process that, as Coyle puts it "travels back and forth through the fibers of the log". As stated in the book that process is as follows;

1. A teammate falters.

2. Others sense it, and respond by taking on more pain for the sake of the group.

3. Balance is regained.

It's clear that balance must always be regained.

To get to how and why cultures work or don't work is clearly an ongoing process within the psychology and business community. Coyle shows us some really interesting examples on both ends of the spectrum with real ideas that coaches can implement into their own settings. I would highly suggest reading this both for the ideas and the stories that accompany them.

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Getting To Us

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You have to be empathetic in knowing that everybody has their own lives, and everybody has something tough going on. You need to make sure you understand that before you coach them
— Brad Stevens

As soon as I saw Seth Davis tweet about his book being released in March, I knew I had to read it. I have total affection for anything that is "behind the scenes" and especially if it involves coaches. This book was unique in the sense that each coach he profiled (there are nine) are all in the same profession but have such differing approaches that work for them and their teams. As I get more experience coaching I have realized that there really isn't just one way to do something and we have the ability to learn from those that we may see as different from ourselves. 

Davis did a nice job of not just speaking to these coaches about their successes or one specific aspect of their leaderships styles, but rather he focused on their entire lives and how past experiences bolstered future endeavors. From Coach K's diverse cultural upbringing to the chaotic upbringing that Dabo Swinney experienced, the stories are engaging and shed light on how these coaches became the leaders we see today.

Here are a few interesting pieces from the book I thought would be worth sharing. 

Teach Them And Then Empower Them

Urban Meyer is a really interesting character, and one who has needed to adjust his life and style to better suit his mental state. The story of how his family made him sign a contract with various stipulations prior to accepting the job at Ohio State has become famous. But what may surprise many given the style of coaching we all see is how Meyer really leans on his staff. In fact it would be hard to imagine how his mental state would be if he tried to do everything himself. As Davis notes, "One of the staples of Meyer’s leadership was his ability to teach assistants what he needed them to know and then empower them to pass that knowledge to the players." This is important not just in understanding how Meyer operates, but for making sure that assistant feel just as important to the overall success or failure of the team as the head coach does. Meyer shows that this isn't just an empty sentiment. He would often create moments throughout the season where his coaches were put on the spot to help improve the team. As Davis notes, "At various times during the season, Meyer would call on one of the leaders without warning and ask him to speak to the team. “You’ve got fifteen minutes,” he would say. “Make us better.” "

I think this does a couple things. In addition to teaching his coaches what is expected of them and then allowing them to impart this information to their players, giving his coaches the opportunity to address the team in a valuable way must gain the staff real credibility within the team. Meyer isn't a perfect coach and surely has his flaws, but the way in which he relies on his staff proves to be incredibly fruitful to the success he's having in Columbus.

"The answer is I spend time with my players"

This is what Tom Izzo said when asked about what he does best. I found it to be profound, especially in a time in which it's much easier for coaches to play the "I can't relate" card. But when you really think about it, people are people. Regardless of age, social status, or anything else. We all have the capability to get to know one another. By spending time with other people our eyes are often opened to how people work, what makes them tick, etc. I am sure many coaches would rather focus on winning and utilizing their players like pawns on a chessboard rather than spend the time it takes to get to know them. Izzo is proof that success can be maintained with this approach and that in getting to know his players it has led to even more meaningful victories.

From day one, he creates a family atmosphere and makes it known that he cares about you as an individual.” Izzo offers this service because he genuinely cares about his players, but he also believes that it helps the team win. “When people ask me what I do best, everyone thinks it’s rebounding or whatever,” he says. “The answer is I spend time with my players. That’s how I get to know them and can determine which way I need to go with them.

Izzo wants to be so available to his players that back in 2002 when Michigan State built a new basketball facility he didn't want a door on his office (fire codes prohibited this). But it again proves that he wanted his players to know they could always come to him and in his terms he "thought it would set the tone". The model he has created at MSU is undoubtedly special and I imagine in no small part due to his open door policy.

Teach, Show, Do.

When you really think about the key elements of coaching it is this, first you teach someone how to do something, next you show them how to do it, and then you let them do it themselves. Along the way though we are all guilty of making this more complicated than it is, or needs to be. In Davis's profile on Jim Harbaugh, another guy I didn't expect to take much away from but ultimately did, he talks about cutting the grass as a kid and his grandpa's influence on his coaching. “If you were going to cut the grass, he’d teach you, he’d show you, and then he’d let you do it. That’s how it works in coaching. You give them a tool, give them a teaching point, but at some point the player has to learn to do it himself.”

It's simple advice, something we all know. It also seems like it would be common sense but many times the simplest ideas can be the hardest to implement. It's another reminder to me that when things seem to be the most difficult it is best to go back to the basics. Start there and then ultimately the players have to be able to learn themselves.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed this book.  Not only did it feel like I was getting to know all these different coaches, it felt like I was getting to peer behind the curtain just a little bit. It reiterated the point that even people we don't necessarily have aligned views with, there is always something to learn if we look in the right places. 

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The Obstacle Is The Way

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The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
— Marcus Aurelius

This is the book that opened my eyes to Stoic philosophy and quite frankly changed my life for the better. I was really unaware of this way of thinking and living, but since I found it I can't stop trying to learn more and more. The amazing thing you quickly realize is how many of this extremely old ideas are applicable today. The Obstacle Is The Way is a small sample of what Ryan Holiday has introduced myself and all his readers too regarding Stoicism, and for anyone new to the philosophy, it is a great place to start. What this book really does is give us ideas and tools in which we can use to change our perspective and outlook on all the events that happen in our life. This book will resonate with you I can almost promise that. Shortly after it came out, the book to the NFL by storm and was quickly referenced in many other major collegiate and professional organizations. I hope it has a positive impact on you as it did me.

The Obstacle Is The Way

Ryan Holiday quickly introduces us to the main idea behind everything in this book with a powerful statement from Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of the Roman Empire) ,

“Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” 
— Marcus Aurelius

The words in this statement really resonated with me, and with reading them over and over they sink in deeper. The idea is quite simple but takes practice to implement into our lives. As Holiday puts it, "in Marcus's words is the secret to an art known as "turning obstacles upside down". There is always a way out or another route to get where you need to go." With these principles we can work on changing our perspective toward events that happen in our lives and how we continously move forward.

A Simple Process, Not An Easy One 

Sometimes simple things are the most difficult to do. Doing them once is an accomplishment but doing them repeatedly takes effort. The process in which Ryan Holiday lays out what our approach to overcoming obstacles is in theory quite simple but as he notes, not easy. 

"It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty. It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will."

Perception. Action. Will. What is so fantastic about these three disciplines is that, like all of this book, they are applicable to almost everything that happens in our lives on a daily basis.

There Is No Good Or Bad Without Us

When you think about it, all the events that take place in our life aren't determined good or bad without our consent. We are the ones who feel. We are the ones who decide whether or not what happened was good or bad and it all is based around our perception of an event. 

There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.
— Ryan Holiday

This is a powerful sentiment because it allows us to realize that in many cases we DO harness the power to determine the lens in which we will view an event. This is not to say that we should see the world to be something it's not. Or to try and put forced positivity on everything but it can help us realize that in many cases what we deemed bad was actually not as bad as we thought. Our perception can flip it around. As Holiday continues to say, "A mistake becomes training"

Like I said, this book changed a lot of things in my life. My approach to each day, each event and every moment has been turned upside down in a truly positive way. I believe that everyone should read this book. It has the power to influence your attitude toward life, as well as how you interact with those around you. 

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Pep Guardiola The Evolution

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The art of leadership is knowing when to lay your baton down and let the orchestra play.

— Herbert von Karajan

I had no idea what to expect when I dove into this book. Would it be more of a biography or maybe an analysis of Pep himself? I was interested either way but really had no expectations. My perspective on Pep was a bit uneducated in all honesty. I had this view that he saw the game in only one way and squeezed as much as possible out of his teams to perform in his singular vision. For some reason he also seemed to be a bit off-putting, I don't know why exactly but in reading this book I quickly came to realize that this was more based on my lack of knowledge about him than it being an accurate characterization. This book was written by Martí Perarnau, a Spanish journalist who has spent a large part of the last several years around Pep. He first wrote the book, Pep Confidential which was about his 2013-14 season with Bayern Munich (*I haven't yet read this book). Pep Guardiola: The Evolution was a book about, well, evolution. A large portion of this book got into the nitty gritty about Pep, the manager and the man, and his personal evolution. In many senses the football aspect of this book was an avenue to describe much of this evolution.

Let me preface these reviews with saying that to really get the entire picture I would suggest reading any book we discuss from cover to cover. But I will focus on a couple key areas that I think are worth sharing with you. For context, this book was written during his three years at Bayern Munich, a place much different from his comfort zone that is Barcelona. Moving to Bavaria may have seemed an interesting choice when he took the job but what the reader is quickly reminded of is how much Pep enjoys a challenge and how this whole experience allowed Pep to influence Germany and Germany to return the favor to Pep.

"systems don't matter, it's ideas that count"

In chapter 3 Pep goes into a quite detailed discussion about the process of having an idea, transmitting that to his team, and ultimately his players learning and implementing it. It's funny because for so many people on the outside it seems as though Pep has ideas and by having the best players these brilliant performances appear out of thin air. And although having the Messi's and De Brune's of the world helps greatly, it's still about having a vision and convincing players that this is the best way to do things. The quote below does a nice job of painting this picture and showing his process.

The coach explains his ideas using words but the player then assimilates them through repeated practice, relying on direction and advice in a context that is as close as possible to a competitive match. ‘We have to convince the players about the usefulness of the tactical concepts they are practising and they learn on their feet, playing football because that’s what it’s all about.’
It’s not about mechanically repeating a series of actions but about understanding exactly why you are doing them. ‘It’s vital the players make their own decisions during training sessions,’ explains Guardiola.

What I really liked about Pep's process of teaching and implementing ideas to his players is that he is very clear about making sure the players have a general understanding of the concepts but that they 'make their own decisions'. So often coaches try to force feed exactly how to do things rather than give players an opportunity to be creative within a specific vision.

Philosophy as a frame of reference

To build upon the idea above, it was clear that in Pep's own personal evolution he was successfully able to shift his vision of philosophy as gospel to a frame of reference. What makes him such a brilliant manager amongst many things was how he was able to take bits of his education under Cruyff plus experience at Barça and piece it together with the players at his disposal at Bayern Munich.

In reality the true measure of a coach is not so much the quality of his convictions but rather his ability to teach and embed them even in less than ideal conditions. A good coach should be constantly revising his beliefs, amending and adapting them to achieve the perfect synergy between his own philosophy and the club he represents. A belief system should never become the straitjacket of dogma and it’s clear that Guardiola now sees his philosophy as just a frame of reference within which he can move and expand.

the work of a master craftsman

By definition a Craftsman is 'a person who practices or is highly skilled in a craft; artisan'. For those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves coaches this is an excellent reminder that what we are in fact are artists. Maybe not in the way in which an artist is talked about in pop culture but as the quote below shows us we are in fact the artists who have the unique ability to form sportsmen or sportswomen.

One of the people who has most influenced Pep is Argentinian volleyball coach Julio Velasco who has this to say: ‘A coach should approach his work like a craftsman, not like a shop steward. That’s where the real joy is. We are the artisans of the training and formation of sportsmen and should be more concerned with the progress they make rather than the results they achieve. It is the process that matters, not the victories. That’s where the joy and satisfaction comes from. Our first priority is to ensure that our players develop and after that we think about how to win.’

Like I said, this is just a great reminder of the fact that being a coach we must be comprised of more than a one-track mind focused solely on winning. Winning should be a byproduct of developing players and people as noted above. 

Final Thoughts

This book was fascinating and the way in which this book was written keeps the reader captivated, I found it hard to put down. It doesn't matter if you know the outcome of his tenure in Germany or not, it's like you are hearing about it for the first time. I can't recommend this book enough, not only to those in soccer but anyone who considers themselves a coach. If you decide to read this I hope you get as much out of it as I did. I'd love to hear any additional thoughts and comments as well. Click here to purchase your own copy.