When it comes to building a successful life in the United States of America, there is no shortage of advice for aspiring leaders. Those that hope to one day command a team, launch a business, or run for political office can turn to the internet, books, or classes to learn tools of management, or they can look to military leaders.
Generals and admirals bring a unique perspective to the dialogue about how to galvanize the people around you to action. Those who served after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks have seen more than a decade of combat against a threat unlike any in American history, and it has given them deeper insight into the complex nature of how to serve as a leader.
Here are 17 quotes from post-9/11 generals that all good leaders should know by heart.
“Great powers don’t get angry, great powers don’t make decisions hastily in a crisis.”
— Gen. John Allen, to ABC News’s Martha Raddatz in an interview from Afghanistan in March 2012.
“If you’re not ready the moment things happen, then you’re irrelevant.”
— Gen. James Amos, discussing his vision for the U.S. Marine Corps with Men’s Health in June 2011.
“Clarity and simplicity are the antidotes to complexity and uncertainty.”
— Gen. George Casey, in a commencement speech to an an MBA class at Cornell University in 2014.
“You are not a profession just because you say you are. You have to earn it and re-earn it and re-evaluate it from time to time.”
— Gen. Martin Dempsey, addressing leadership scandal, on training future generals and admirals on April 13, 2013.
“No plan ever survived the first contact with the enemy.”
— Gen. Tom Franks, on his credo, stated multiple times throughout his career.
“Whatever goals we set for ourselves, we know we can go higher.”
— Adm. Michelle Howard discussing leadership in the Navy with Forbes in 2014.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
— Gen. James Mattis in a speech to Marines when they arrived in Iraq in 2003.
“Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.”
— Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a 2014 TED Talk on disruptive leadership.
“Our leaders can’t feel compelled to tell their bosses what they want to hear.”
— Gen. H.R. McMaster discussing how militaries learn to adapt with consulting company McKinsey in 2013.
“You can’t change the world alone – you will need some help – and to truly get from your starting point to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the goodwill of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide them.”
— Adm. William McRaven to the graduates of the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.
“Too often we just look at these glistening successes. Behind them in many, many cases is failure along the way, and that doesn’t get put into the Wikipedia story or the bio. Yet those failures teach you every bit as much as the successes.”
— Adm. Mike Mullen on success in a 2012 interview with the Harvard Business Review.
“All leaders will provide those in their charge sincere and concerned assistance with problems.”
Gen. Robert Neller on compassion in his message to Marines in 2015.
“We must be expert, and what I mean by that is leaders of great character, confidence, and commitment. We must be innovative.”
— Gen. Ray Odierno in a press statement about strategic leadership in the Army in 2015.
“Live the life of a leader — Leaders are never off duty.”
— Adm. Eric Olson in his list of 10 Commandments for a highly effective team.
“Committing to a particular goal publicly puts pressure on oneself. It becomes an enormous action-forcing mechanism and often helps you achieve more than you might have had you kept your goals to yourself.”
— Gen. David Petraeus on motivation in a conversation with Vanity Fair in May 2010.
“There is a tremendous role for creativity in competition. Everyone has their own set of heroes, leaders they would say epitomize leadership. … My experience with those leaders is they are constantly looking for ways to outfox their competition, they are studying hard, they are experimenting, they are going everywhere it takes to find some way to win.”
— Adm. John Richardson discussing developing leaders with Federal News Radio in 2017.
“Leadership is a gift. It’s given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it.”
— Gen. Mark Welsh speaking at the Air Force Academy in November 2011.