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General Tommy Franks on Leadership

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Be Accessible. Every leader should be accessible to friends and advisors who can give honest counsel without fear or the need to soften it with flattery. – Michael Josephson

Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with General Tommy Franks (retired), former head of U.S. Central Command. This role effectively put him in charge of all U.S. military operations in twenty-five countries, from Egypt to Central Asia. In his role, Franks bought a reputation for no-nonsense, practical leadership and genuine care for those in his command.

As commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command from 2000 through 2003, Franks faced and overcame America's most significant challenges, from the attack on the USS Cole to the devastation of September 11th to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A highly decorated four-star general, Tommy Franks led a coalition of more than sixty nations and 250,000 troops to victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, winning respect and admiration at home and abroad.

Franks has always been a student of leadership, recognizing that the military environment presents the most significant challenges for leaders. Acknowledging that no one hates war like a soldier hates war, Franks, the soldier's soldier, recognizes the challenges facing military leaders in motivating and encouraging their troops during these disturbing times. Franks illustrates that his military leaders' challenges are like the challenges we face in motivating our troops in our companies and organizations.

Likewise, leadership in whatever arena requires flexibility and confidence. As Franks likes to quote, no plan ever survived first contact with the enemy. As leaders, it is not enough that we plan. Franks suggests that we must prepare for first contact when our flexibility, creativity, and ability to regroup and redirect our troops are most important. Effective, influential leaders prove this flexibility, conviction, and confidence in today's chaotic marketplace.

Importantly, leadership is not about grandstanding or hype. Unlike his predecessor, Storming Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy Franks has been called reclusive and a quiet warrior. However, Franks ISN’T shy; he does not believe that showboating and flamboyant leadership is effective, nor does it have a place at the top. Effective leadership comes from seeing it from the front lines and telling it like it is from the heart.

There is a reason you will hear me go back to the idea of leadership on the front lines. Leaders that can do the work themselves, leaders that will not ask their people to do things they cannot do themselves or would not ask someone else to do without the opportunity of doing it themselves. There are some skill sets that leaders really cannot learn. We are not robots; you cannot know everything, but what you can do is put yourself in the field and immerse yourself in what that experience is like. A leader can listen to his troops and the people on the ground and listen to understand. Only then will a leader lead with a clear view and not leaving leave

Tommy Franks recently authored American Soldier (HarperCollins, Aug 2004), in which Franks retraces his journey from small-town boyhood to his role as one of history’s most influential commanders. Drawing on his memories and newly declassified records, Franks offers the first correct insider account of the war on terrorism. He speaks frankly of intelligence shortcomings and WMD threats that shaped each battle plan. And while he writes candidly of the war’s aftermath, Franks shows that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remain heroic victories, wars of liberation won by troops unequaled, he writes, by anything in the annals of war.

The book and the man are more than simply a recounting of military history; it/ is a study of leadership at its best. Franks-isms include:

You do not manage a group of soldiers up a hill under fire; you lead them. (Tommy Franks on the difference between management and leadership.)

During my months in combat, I understood that a soldier owes loyalty to his unit and his boss. A leader must be able to count on the complete support of his subordinates. However, relief not only flows up the chain of command but also [must] flows down.

Being in charge does not automatically mean you know what is going on.

(Speaking to his officers) 
“If a trooper comes to you with a problem, remember this: It is your problem, and it is my problem. We will not lose good soldiers because we do not give a rat’s ass about them as people.”

“In war, commanders must be able to delay their emotions until they can afford them.”

(Speaking to the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
“Look, you have a three-star who commands a service part for me and is the serviceability we need to develop a joint plan. It is best to let those guys know your ideas. And then trust them to work for all of us to build a cohesive approach, rather than a patchwork of service interests.”

“I defer to no man in my love of troopers; I still consider myself a soldier. But it has often been necessary for our nation’s history to fight for our freedoms, and it has never been more essential than today. Fighting terrorism has more to do with our kids and grandkids than us.”

“Haul ass and bypass.”
(Strategy attributed to General George Patton recognizing that the aim of any campaign is the enemy’s center of gravity. This same strategy served as Frank’s basis for the invasion of Iraq.)

“If we had to do it all over again, armed with what we know today, I am sure the decisions would be different. I am not sure, however, that all the other choices would be better.”
(Tommy Franks reflecting on postwar Iraq.)

“This is a great country.”
(Tommy Franks reflecting on the opportunity afforded everyone in the U.S.)

Only the curious will learn, and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning. The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient.

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