Lessons on Leadership: General Omar N. Bradley

Lessons on Leadership: General Omar N. Bradley

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  1. At the end of World War I, Omar Nelson Bradley considered himself a professional failure.  The 1915 graduate of West Point had been promoted twice since his graduation and held the rank of Captain in the United States Army at the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

    But, still he saw himself as a failure because his wartime assignment had been guarding copper mines near Butte, Montana. He never saw combat during the war.

    Learning Leadership

    Like many young leaders, Bradley wanted to be where the action was.  The battle field was where a leader proved his worth, received decorations, and promotions. However, his career took a different path – one that led him through a variety of assignments, many of which involved mentoring young officers under his command.

    He did not receive a front line combat command until 1942, but by the end of the World War II in 1945, Bradley was Commanding General of the 12th Army Group, which included four armies (1st, 3rd, 9th, and 15th) and more than 1.3 million men. And, more importantly from a leadership perspective, he was known as the Soldier’s General.

    This happened 65 years ago. What does it have to do with leadership in the 21st century? Today, business is fast-paced, ever changing, and high pressure and the leadership that General Bradley showed in leading the Allied forces to victory is just as applicable today as it was in 1945.

    Importance of Effective Leadership

    In a 1981 article, Bradley wrote about the importance of leadership in an organization:

    “This is the age of the computer, and if you know how to program the machine you can get quick and accurate answers. But, how can you include leadership and morale, which is affected by leadership, into your programming?”

    “Let us never forget the great importance of leadership; and while we use computers to obtain certain kinds of answers, let us not try to fight a whole war or even a single battle without giving proper consideration to the element of leadership.”

    Be Courteous

    Unlike some of his more flamboyant counterparts, such as General George S. Patton, Bradley was a quiet, courteous and self-effacing man. Will Lange Jr., a correspondent for Life Magazine said: “The thing I most admire about Omar Bradley is his gentleness. He was never known to issue an order to anybody of any rank without saying ‘Please’ first."

    Leaders Don’t Know It All

    Be willing to ask for feedback and encourage it, especially from direct report employees. Encourage them to avoid the “yes man” role in the decision making process.  Bradley wrote:

    “I would recommend to all leaders that they inform the members of their staffs that anyone who does not disagree once in a while with what is about to be done is of limited value and should probably be shifted to some other place where he might occasionally have an idea.”

    When employees have the opportunity to “be heard” during the decision making process, they are more likely to accept the final decision and work together to implement it. Keep in mind that there is a significant difference between having the opportunity to “say your piece” and “being heard.”

    Pay Attention to What Employees Are Doing

    In the pressure of everyday work, leaders tend to assume that everything is going well until a problem comes up. Don’t assume, find out. Get up from the desk, walk around the work area, and talk to employees.

    Instead of constantly sending e-mails or voice messages to employees, talk to them face-to-face. Kouzes and Posner call this “caring by walking around.” Pay attention to what workers are doing, not just what they are doing “right” or “wrong.”

    Keep Employees Informed

    Tell employees about changes before they hear it through the grapevine. Remember WIIFM: What’s in it for me?  This is the most common and frequently unasked question that employees have when a new initiative, policy, or procedure is presented. It is also a normal human response to change. Employees want to know what the change is; how it will affect them, and what they will have to do.

    Be prepared to answer these questions – even if the answer is an honest “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and tell you.” Employees need to know how and where they fit into the “big picture” of the organization.

    Character Counts

    Employees want to know that they can trust their leaders.  Workers do not leave companies, they leave managers they don’t trust or respect. Bradley used trust in a broad sense to describe “a person who has high ideals, who stands by them, and who can be trusted absolutely.”  Trust is hard to build and easy to lose.

    Trusted managers keep their promises; tell the truth, do what they say they will do, don’t gossip, don’t tolerate gossip from others and treat people fairly.

    Employees will forgive an error in judgment, but errors in character are “carved in stone.”

    Take Responsibility for Problems and Share Credit for Success

    The sign, “The buck stops here” sat on the desk of Harry S. Truman throughout his presidency. This means accepting responsibility for a situation and its results. Bradley shared the credit for victories but took full responsibility for problems and defeat. No leader is immune from making mistakes and a successful leader is one who accepts responsibility for mistakes and examines the situation honestly and openly to correct the problem.

    Photo Credit

    General Omar N. Bradley Official Military Photo, 1949


    Bradley, Omar. N. (1981) “On Leadership” Parameters XI, no. 3 (September 1981): 2-7

    Kouzes, James M. and Posner, Barry Z (2003). Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others.San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass Publishers

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