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Looking for talent to lead a post-crisis world

What George Marshall of the Marshall Plan can teach us about finding rare talent during turmoil.

5 min read


Looking for talent to lead a post-crisis world

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

Crisis brings out those who have been overlooked.

Few knew this better than General of the Army George C. Marshall, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II. Marshall had served since graduating from the Virginia Military Institute at the turn of the 20th century. He served in World War I and was Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s aide-de-camp in the following years, then endured the long hiatus between the wars. And endured is the right word; the Army shrunk in size and frankly importance. It was a backwater, and only the hardy persevered.

Between the wars, there was an emphasis on decorum more than competence. Officer balls were a highlight. Training was limited more to the campground than the battlefield. All the while, Marshall kept his eye out for talent (although reports of his “little black book” have been discounted).

These talented officers included George Patton, Omar Bradley, Joe Stilwell, Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower. Their senior officers had overlooked these men, but when war came, they were promoted to general and proved their mettle in Europe.

Cream rises to the top in hot coffee. Likewise, talent rises to the occasion when the situation grows hot. For this reason, leaders need to keep an eye out for employees who are ready, willing and able to help.

Identifying the up-and-comers when all hell is breaking loose is not easy. Executives are typically looking to survive the day, not look forward to succession planning. And so that’s why it is essential to pay attention to what is happening and who is making it happen.

Action steps

Here are some traits to watch for:

  • Out-of-the-box thinking. When the world is turned upside down, conventional thinking has failed. You need people who think differently. These are folks who can look at data and see patterns and make predictions that no one else can. They are relational thinkers who construct ideas by joining concepts from different disciplines.
  • Critical thinking. The ability to recognize the opposites can both be true is essential to strategic leadership. Leaders need to possess the capacity to reason with precision and to propose solutions that address problems.
  • Introverts. By nature, those who are quiet are observing without calling attention to themselves. You must look beyond “the noise” to determine what quiet people achieve. They are content to let the work speak for itself. (Note: this is not a criticism of extroverts, of whom I am one. It is a reminder that introverts do not call attention to themselves.)
  • Confidence. When promoting someone, you must ask: Does this person inspire followership? Those who inspire have confidence in themselves as well as confidence in people around them. People feel good about following such a leader.
  • Team ethos. The ability to think of how actions affect others is essential to leadership. A person who knows that leaders accomplish little by themselves but much by working with others creates camaraderie and teamwork.
  • Trustworthiness. Do employees look to this individual as a trusted source of information? Such individuals are relied upon for their expertise as well as their reliability. They pull through.

Another story

One final Marshall story, as told by Bradley, casts further light on an executive’s role in the process of promoting.

In 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Marshall had a cadre of young officers around him dutifully executing his ideas. In due course, Marshall gathered the officers together; they were a proud bunch. They felt self-assured and ready. Marshall noted that they had done what he had asked them to do.

No doubt, the group exchanged satisfied smiles with one another. And then Marshall lowered the boom. “You haven’t disagreed with a single thing I have done all week.” He made it clear that he did not want yes men; he wanted officers who could think on their own and take action without being prompted.

Acting in a crisis requires the talents of women and men who can think on their feet in accordance with strategic intent. Waiting to be told what to do never works. Initiative and execution are at a premium.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.

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