André Malraux, a hero of the French Resistance once said, “To command is to serve, nothing more, nothing less.” Implicit in those words is an idea often lost in the military today, where strong performance in front of the boss is frequently seen as the most profitable investment of scarce organizational energy. Malraux reminds us that any leader, but especially a leader on the battlefield, is ultimately no better than the organization he or she leads. In fact, history shows that the best indicator of a leader’s potential is the quality of their investment in their subordinates. Our finest military leaders were the ones who could unleash the latent talent of their people and generate incredible results with the talent they were given.
Aboard the fast moving train of a typical military unit, things too often look very different. We invest hours preparing PowerPoint slides and conference rooms for the all-important briefing to “the man” while neglecting our basic duty to develop the young leaders within our own ranks. In fact, a recent Army-wide survey of junior officers confirmed this widespread perception. Of the twenty-three different leader attributes and competencies described in the Army’s leadership field manual, junior officers consistently rated their superiors weakest in the competency of “Develops Others.” In repeated feedback sessions, young leaders assert that they are rarely formally counseled by their leaders. Furthermore, scheduled unit leader development activities are often tossed aside in the crush of mandatory requirements.
On a cold Sunday in October 1920, two young majors who shared a duplex at Fort Meade met for a leisurely dinner with a senior mentor named Colonel Fox Conner. At that time, Fox Conner was a rising star in the U.S. Army after a very successful tour as “Blackjack” Pershing’s Operations Officer in the First World War. Both of the young officers, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, were virtual pariahs in their own branches because of controversial articles each had written about the future of mechanized forces on the battlefield. In fact, Eisenhower had been told by the Infantry Commandant that his military career would likely culminate in his current duty as the coach of the Fort Meade football team.
Conner had known Patton for years but had just met Eisenhower. Unbeknownst to either officer, Conner was on his way to assume command of the 20th Infantry Brigade in Panama and was looking for a talented leader to serve as his executive officer. At Patton’s quiet urging, Conner ultimately selected Eisenhower and brought him to Panama. Thus began a mentorship that lasted until Conner’s death in 1951. In Panama, Conner made Eisenhower read Carl von Clausewitz’s dense writings three times until Conner was satisfied he understood them. The two spent many tropical evenings discussing the complexity of a future conflict in Europe as Conner continuously developed and refined the young officer’s insights about the nature of war. When the infantry branch denied Eisenhower admission to the Staff College at Leavenworth, Conner encouraged him to transfer to the Adjutant General Corps and then transfer back to infantry once admitted. Eisenhower, now educated in the art of war because of Conner’s tutelage (and with the help of Patton’s notes), ultimately graduated first in his class. Conner’s influence on Eisenhower was so great that a courier was dispatched to Conner’s hunting lodge in upstate New York in 1944 with top secret copies of the D-Day invasion plan because Eisenhower refused to endorse the plan until it had his old mentor’s stamp of approval.
Could it be that the one of the most important heroes of World War II is a man most Americans have never heard of; a man whose only claim to fame is that he poured his life, his experience, and his wisdom into the development of two outstanding young leaders?
It is a fascinating experiment in counterfactual history to consider where the world would be today had Fox Conner not seen and cultivated the latent potential in these two young officers. Would the incredible organizational miracle at Normandy have happened without Eisenhower’s meticulous planning and painstaking coalition building? Would the great German counter-attack known today as the Battle of Bulge have stalled in Bastogne were it not for the audacity and sheer willpower of George Patton? Could it be that the one of the most important heroes of World War II is a man most Americans have never heard of; a man whose only claim to fame is that he poured his life, his experience, and his wisdom into the development of two outstanding young leaders?
Growing the leaders we need to fight and win in an increasingly complex world will take more than just the standard large group lecture that has become the centerpiece of most unit leader development programs. It requires a sustained program of investment, one leader to another, face-to-face, and person-to-person. It demands that a leader not just talk, but also shut up and listen, asking probing questions and waiting for the answers, thereby shaping and molding the thoughts and insights of a protégé. It requires a program of learning that not only draws upon the classics of military art, but also weaves into them the refined perspectives of modern warfare drawn from today’s front lines. Most importantly, it demands that we, the caretakers of our great military institutions, unshackle ourselves from our email inboxes and go counsel our subordinates.
Counseling, as a vital component of leader development, has received a bad reputation recently. In today’s litigious society, counseling is now seen as nothing more than a necessary and inconvenient step before showing someone the door. Rather than a tool to make the good into the best, it is too often seen as a pro forma milestone on the way to a foregone conclusion. Counseling, when done right, is nothing more than constructive feedback on individual performance. The purpose of counseling is always to improve the counseled. It works best when it is built on a solid foundation of mutual trust and when the senior leader communicates a genuine intent to see the subordinate succeed. That sincerity of investment, built upon a sincere desire to help a subordinate achieve his or her full potential, is the indispensable hallmark of effective leader development.
Over two decades ago, a superb company commander named Bob Hannah took this young officer out to lunch at a low-quality pizza parlor and gave me my first real counseling session. I was four months into my first assignment in the U.S. Army and had made more than a few mistakes in that short time. Captain Hannah laid out in clear and unambiguous terms where my performance had fallen short and then showed me how I could recover. He then put me in charge of an enormously important project for the company and told me he trusted me to execute it well. Most importantly, he convinced me beyond all doubt that he was absolutely invested in my success. That event was a turning point in my fledgling career. After that session, I would do anything to make that project and our company succeed. Twenty-two years later, that afternoon in the pizza parlor remains the finest example of leader development I have witnessed.
If we expect to have Eisenhowers and Pattons on tomorrow’s battlefields, we must begin by creating a cadre of Fox Conners today from the leaders currently in our ranks.
In a world where no one has the time or energy to execute every mandatory task, the urgent too often crowds out the important. It is imperative that we take a hard look at the casualties of this frenetic tempo. No one can predict with certainty when the world will need another Eisenhower or another Patton but we know that the time will come again...and probably sooner than we think. That next generation of leaders who will decide the fate of thousands on the battlefield almost certainly stands in our ranks today. The most valuable thing we can do now is to invest our lives in them, mentor, develop, and counsel them so that when history calls, they will stand ready to do their duty. If we expect to have Eisenhowers and Pattons on tomorrow’s battlefields, we must begin by creating a cadre of Fox Conners today from the leaders currently in our ranks.
Curt Taylor was commissioned in the Army in 1994 and has served in a variety of command and staff positions. He holds a bachelor of science from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and two master's degrees from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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 Malraux, André. Man's Hope. New York: Modern Library, 1983.
 John P. Steele, 2011 Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership (CASAL), “Main Findings,” Vol. 2, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Center for Army Leadership, 2012, p. 40.
 Cox, Edward L. Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship. Stillwater, Okla: New Forums, 2011. Print