There were a few empty chairs at General Eric Shinseki's June 2003 retirement ceremony. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn't make it to the event, which honored Shinseki's 4 years as U.S. Army chief of staff and 38-year military career. Neither did Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, nor any of Rumsfeld's other close associates. For a four-star general concluding a brilliant career, it was a major breach of protocol.
It was also no surprise, given Shinseki's simple answer to a simple question a few months earlier. On February 25, 2003, as the general testified before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the looming war in Iraq, Senator Carl Levin asked him what kind of manpower he believed it would take to keep the peace in postwar Iraq. "Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required," he said. It was the reasoned estimate of a lifelong military man who had lost most of a foot in Vietnam, had led NATO's Peace Stabilization Force in Bosnia, and had commanded both NATO's land forces and the U.S. Army in Europe.
But it was not the answer his civilian boss was looking for. Rumsfeld was then in the process of convincing Congress that the war would require relatively few ground forces. Shinseki could have parroted the party line, or hedged his answer to appear more neutral, but he didn't. As Bill Clinton recently put it, Shinseki committed candor. "He was a darn good military leader but not a very good politician," says Les Cotton, the sheriff of Navarro County, Texas, who served as a soldier with Shinseki in Vietnam.
The DOD's response was swift and wounding. "Wildly off the mark," said Wolfowitz, trying his best to publicly repudiate — and humiliate — the general. Rumsfeld made similar public comments. "This is someone who at the height of his professional career . . . in the name of disclosure and truthfulness chose to take the ultimate hit," says Michael Useem, professor of management at the Wharton School of Business. "It's courage on the inside."
Shinseki had been taking hits for months before his Senate testimony. Unhappy with Shinseki's support of the Crusader artillery system, Rumsfeld had taken the unprecedented step of naming the person who would be his replacement a full 14 months before the end of his term. But Shinseki simply soldiered on, intent on getting as far as he could in his attempt to make the Army a more flexible, speedier force. Shinseki wasn't just bucking the higher-ups. In working to create an Army that would emphasize smaller, lighter forces, the career armor officer was taking on his own people — the tankers.
Shinseki also believed that leadership isn't about equipment so much as it is about people. He dared to question whether the way the Army trained its own leaders could be improved, conducting an enormous, forcewide study of training and leadership development. Shinseki even benchmarked private corporations to create a strategic leader development program for 300 junior officers.
Since leaving the military, Shinseki has demonstrated still another type of strength — the strength to let events prove him right rather than clamoring for attention after the fact. "You don't hear him in the press saying, 'I told you so,' " says Scott Snook, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and a retired Army colonel who served with Shinseki. "It would be out of character." He has refused all interview requests and given only a few speeches, but he did join the board of the Kennedy School of Government's new Center for Public Leadership.
It was there last October that David Gergen, the CPL's director, called him out of the audience during a discussion on moral leadership and asked him to discuss his controversial testimony. He answered Senator Levin's question because, Shinseki said, "I made it a point to remind myself that I was first, last, and always a soldier." Remembering that, he went on, reminded him of his responsibility to other soldiers, the young people the country asks to "stand up and do the unthinkable." Or, as Snook puts it, "There's no question that he serves soldiers, and if there aren't enough soldiers, people are going to die. Those two things go together, and I'm sure he sleeps well at night."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.