November 11, 2018 | by Bob Weidner

Leaders Looking Over The Trenches

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” – General George S. Patton

I recently participated in a CEO leadership panel sponsored by CEO Magazine and the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at West Point. It was a vivid reminder that leadership is a lifelong journey. I’m back and although I’m still in a state of joy following our daughter’s wedding, with memories of her beauty and happiness etched deep, I still cannot get the image of the statue of General Patton out of my mind. (Lauren, knowing my love of history, will forgive me, I hope.)

This time wasn’t my first at West Point, but the retired full bird colonel and academy history professor who led us brought a deeper dimension of reflection than on previous tours of these hallowed grounds. He told us during our briefing to look closely at the statues because they would “talk to you.” The sculptors, he said, used their artistry to deliver messages from the leaders themselves. Standing at the bases of these works of art would tell us something about what each subject stood for, and what they endured.

The statue of Patton doesn’t depict an officer in starched uniform. Patton is presented as a soldier’s soldier. He’s in a worn leather jacket and boots, and looks haggard. Clearly, he has seen things on the front lines. It’s not just his clothes that tell the story, however. It’s his eyes. They aren’t cast downward; they are looking slightly over the observer, to the horizon.

Because that’s what generals—what leaders—do. They anticipate, and they strategize.  They have the uncanny ability to see over today’s situations and focus on what’s on the horizon. They incorporate what’s happening on the ground today into their plans for tomorrow. At our TLDG program, Battle Tested Leadership Principles for Metals Executives, a three-day session held at West Point and offered to all MSCI members, attendees learn from military leaders who have experience in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situations because those are the situations where generals—leaders—are born. Participants in Battle Tested Leadership Principles engage with history while also learning to adapt to the disruptive forces challenging their preconceived notions of success and failure.

Back on my tour, I also learned how Patton embraced technology. Patton attended the Virginia Military Institute and West Point at the turn of the 20thcentury. He loved horses, so he endeavored to be a cavalryman.

Little did he know that the horse would not lead him to the majority of his victories.

One of Patton’s first theaters of battle was the Mexican Expedition in 1916. This operation was the first major U.S. military battle where automobiles were used. Patton also was part of the first U.S. tank operations in World War I and helped the U.S. Army develop its armored warfare doctrine. He didn’t get mired in the view he had envisioned for his career; he adapted.

On one of my recent travels I ran into an old friend who had just retired from the trucking industry. After we discussed his plans and our families, we got to talking about executive leadership. He said, “Leadership is defined by those who can look over the business instead of being consumed in the business.”

There are so many challenges consuming our industry today: unfair trade practices by countries including China; a deficit in skills needed for advanced manufacturing; technological disruption hastened by artificial intelligence, blockchain, and autonomous vehicles; and ongoing political turmoil and dissension. And it’s not just stock market volatility and input prices executives worry about. They also contend with threats of workplace violence and the fact that, as demonstrated in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh last month, there are individuals among us who still harbor deep and terrifying hatred against entire slices of humanity.

It is easy to become consumed. Like Patton, though, we can live in the trenches and look over them. Like Patton, we must develop skills to operate in volatile, uncertain, complex, rapidly changing, and ambiguous environments. We must learn how to make decisions with incomplete information. We must effectively manage risk, embrace change, and find ways to communicate strategy to our colleagues and our teammates. And we must, like our military academies, create structures that foster leaders, not followers.

As I was touring West Point this October my thoughts could not help but turn to the late Sen. John McCain. He was a Navy man, but he was a man in the mold of Patton. Sometimes brusque and often contrarian, he always was with and for his troops. No matter our political allegiance, we must honor the fact that McCain, when offered early release from Hanoi, refused. Later, McCain explained why. He said, “I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break … would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early …”

McCain saw past his own circumstances (torture) to understand its meaning. He was not only a leader as a result. He was a hero.

Patton said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” As we approach our American Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the men and women who made our history and who, like Patton and McCain, offered us such remarkable examples of leadership.