The Greatness That Cannot Be Taught

His personal hero.


I am highly wary of the self-conscious American cult of leadership. It’s not unlike the American cult of dieting. Almost everyone in this country, I expect, would like to be thinner. And even more than thinner, I suspect that everyone would like to be a leader — every man and woman his or her own Jack Welch.


We are the great learn-it-yourself, do-it-yourself society. Everything in life can be gleaned during a short course, or from reading a book. And who teaches at these traveling leadership seminars and writes these leadership books? Successful football and basketball coaches, prominent American military officers, and what might be called the “super CEO.” That’s a CEO who is so successful and so charismatic that he belongs not merely to the business world but to the world of popular culture, like Welch, or Lee Iacocca before him. (Somewhere out there on the sidelines, there’s also that great wannabe-but-never-was Donald Trump, selling himself in good times and bad as the exemplar of the great American dream — although he’s really more like Brazil. He owes the banks so much they dare not let him fail. Say this for Trump, he’s always out there hustling. Maybe someday there will be at least one grown-up in the country who takes him seriously.)

The problem with our become-a-leader-in-30-days craze is that what worked for Welch and Iacocca is not readily transferable, nor are the secrets of their success easily passed on in a book. I knew Iacocca in his Chrysler days, and he was not only very good at what he did but also equally good — indeed brilliant — at personalizing his success. He weaved a national success story, America’s comeback against the Japanese, into his own personal autobiography. America’s resurgence was Lee, and Lee was America. But I doubt that anyone who was not Lee could learn to be Lee by reading his book. To be Lee, you would need his talent, his superb skills at marketing, his almost unmatchable ego, and his rage to succeed as an Italian-American in the face of the prejudice he encountered as a young man (a rage that, by the way, also helps explain the success of another great figure of the cult of leadership, Vince Lombardi). I think you had to be Lee in order to be like Lee; I don’t think you could be Lee through study. And I doubt that Lee’s brand of leadership is readily transported to other business situations.

That’s also true for the generals we lionize as leaders. The lessons that men such as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell drew upon came from careers spent studying other men who had gone before them in their own profession. (The tough, hands-on Schwarzkopf is the lineal descendant of Grant and Patton. If he were a manufacturer, he’d be right there on the factory floor. The cool, controlled Powell, so subtle in estimating others and so careful to make sure that everyone is on the same page, is the direct heir of Eisenhower.) When it was their moment in the crucible, they tested those lessons on location, in very practical ways.

I suspect that little of what they learned has much validity in the broader, less hierarchical culture, in which you cannot give orders and assume that they will be obeyed. Even more so today: We have always been the least obedient of societies, and we are a good deal less obedient now than we were half a century ago. People are better educated, and the truly talented ones, the ones you want to motivate, have many more options of their own. They’re not likely to sit around and take orders from a harsh drill-sergeant-like superior. In business, this means that talented young executives, if they are treated like foot soldiers, will simply walk out the door.

I have similar doubts about coaches making the leadership tour — especially football coaches. It’s our most hierarchical sport, and football players, more than most athletes and most Americans, are accustomed to doing what coaches tell them. A good football coach is not necessarily a born leader. He’s simply a good football coach. In professional football today, that’s less about leadership than about estimating talent, handling the salary cap, and being lucky because your players sustain a minimal number of injuries. In college football, it’s more often than not about recruiting and having an amenable admissions director working with you.


So if leadership can’t be taught or transferred, how do you foster it? Where do you find leaders, and how do you create them? The truth is that in most fields, it’s a natural process. Leaders are men and women who have chosen the right profession. They’re good at it, and because they’re good at it, they like it, and because they like it, they’re even better at it. They’re so good at it that they’d rather work than play. They’re naturals, and excelling comes naturally as well. They’ve understood their field from the start, and they’ve studied it without even knowing they’ve studied it. They could look around from the day they joined an organization and understand the talents of those who went before them, understand the people around them, and know when and just how hard to push them.

“Leaders often don’t become serious until midcareer, because their own talent surprises them.”

What they have is precious — nothing less than a gift. They may realize when they’re relatively young that they have a genuine talent and that they can go quite far, much farther than they originally thought. But often, they don’t become serious until midcareer, because their own talent surprises them — they were not that brilliant when they were in college or just starting out. Academic excellence, after all, rarely translates into professional success, and the special intelligence that makes leaders thrive in their field is not necessarily an intelligence that transfers well to other fields. They are extremely well prepared, and they push themselves hard. Most crucial to leadership, they give off a unique aura, the sum of their confidence, their tone of voice, their feeling for command. They are not people you want to fail.

So with the bar set so high, who is a great leader? For a remarkable example of leadership in a terrible time, I would cite one of my great personal heroes, General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, during the Korean War. Ridgway took over a bedraggled, disheartened American fighting force that had just been hammered by the Chinese up near the Yalu River in one of America’s worst military defeats. In the brief period of several months, he turned it into what it was supposed to be: a proud combat-ready force, more than able to hold its own in a difficult, bitter war.

Let me set the scene. In the fall of 1950, General Douglas MacArthur had just executed his brilliant Inchon landing behind North Korean lines. Trapped, the North Korean army hastily retreated north. Thanks to Inchon, MacArthur, a general who always put himself above the normal chain of command, was at the pinnacle of his success. No one dared question him as his armies started pursuing the enemy across the 38th parallel. But President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were properly nervous as MacArthur went farther north, because just across the Korean-Chinese border were hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops. The one thing Truman and the Joint Chiefs feared was a larger, wider war with the Chinese. In mid-October Truman flew to Wake Island and met with MacArthur. Speaking as a general and a self-appointed expert on the mind of the Oriental, MacArthur assured him the Chinese would not enter the war, but that if they did, the result would be the greatest slaughter in history.

And so MacArthur, exceeding his orders, sent his forces farther north, pushing them to race to the Chinese border so that they could be home by Christmas. In late November, his troops — most wearing summer-weight uniforms in Arctic temperatures, fighting in terrible terrain with their lines of communication vastly overextended — were hit by surprise by hundreds of thousands of Chinese. The American units, terribly vulnerable to this assault, largely fell apart (though the Marines’ fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir is one of our most valorous moments).


A month later, in late December, with MacArthur alternating between talk of using the atom bomb and getting off the Korean peninsula completely, Ridgway took command of the Eighth Army in Korea. He was nothing less than a miracle worker. Today he would be called the real deal. He was already known as a great soldier, having led the airborne jump behind German lines on D-Day. A friend of mine in the CIA briefed him during the Korean War and later told me that he had never dealt with anyone as demanding, as probing, and as relentless as Ridgway. He was highly intelligent and ferociously focused. He needed to know everything, especially about the enemy. He was furious with commanders who did not know their men and who did not know exactly where the enemy was. He pushed his troops hard, but he was always out there at the front, sharing as much as possible in their hardships. He wanted his troops warmly clothed, well fed, and well led by tough field officers whom he did not fear to relieve if he felt they weren’t getting the job done. There would be no more retreating, he told his command upon his arrival. They would turn around and start moving north again — hence his nickname, “Wrongway Ridgway.”

“Ridgway’s brilliant, driving leadership would turn the battle like no other general’s in our history.”
— General Omar Bradley

Ridgway was courageous, but he is also instructive to us as a reflection of a new kind of military leader. In retrospect, MacArthur, the man he would soon replace as allied commander in the Far East, seems like a leader from another century: He was always busily engaged in cultivating his own personal mystique as the great man, the Great MacArthur who was head and shoulders above all other generals. The idea was that because he was such a great general, those he led were also great and would now fight well because he was leading them.

Ridgway was very different, a leader for the new, modern era. His leadership was of a more egalitarian kind, premised on letting the men fighting under him find something within themselves that made them tough and combat-ready. The point of his leadership was not that they would think that he was a great general — although in time they did — but that they would fight well because they were now more confident about who they were and what their mission was, and confident, too, that they were tough and well prepared. And in a stunningly short time, he turned the Eighth Army around and made it a remarkable fighting force, one that could stalemate the vastly superior number of Chinese.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to the normally taciturn General Omar Bradley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, talk of that moment and of the role played by Ridgway: “It is not often in wartime that a single battlefield commander can make a decisive difference, but in Korea, Ridgway would prove to be the exception. His brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership would turn the battle like no other general’s in our military history.”

That was leadership at its best: a truly great man rising to the heights during an unforeseen, desperate occasion, lifted by his talents and his instincts, and imposing the force of his will on so many disheartened others. It was as if he had prepared for this moment during his entire career — and maybe he had. You won’t find the secrets of it in any of his books. He did what he did because to do anything else would have been less than who he was.


David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize at 30 for his reporting on the Vietnam War, is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and War in a Time of Peace. His next book, due out October 2005, is about the Korean War.

Discussion Guide

Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:

David Halberstam lays out his outline for what makes a “Super-CEO.” Who are the rising Super-CEO stars in business today? Would Jeff Bezos of Amazon, A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble, or H. Lee Scott of Wal-Mart fit this category? If not, what are they lacking? General Ridgway had his defining moment of leadership in Korea — what moments in business have separated good leaders from great ones? Any examples from your company?