ÈÍÒÅËÐÎÑ > ¹64, 2012 > How Are Great Leaders Made? Lessons from the Career of General John Shalikashvili (1936–2011)
Speaking at an August 6, 2011, memorial service for the recently deceased General John Shalikashvili, former Secretary of Defense William Perry described the general as a superb military leader, a Soldier’s Soldier, an exemplar in civil-military relations, and a remarkable, effective diplomat.
General Shalikashvili attained the highest positions of command and inf luence in the U.S. military. As Assistant to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell from 1991 to 1992, he was the trusted interagency representative of perhaps the most powerful Chairman in U.S. history. He also held the position of Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1992 to 1993—a critical period of post–Cold War transition. Finally, he himself served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking uniformed position in the world’s most powerful military, from 1993 to 1997.
General Shalikashvili addresses U.S. and UN troops at Sword Base in Mogadishu, Somalia, Operation Restore Hope
U.S. Army (L. McQueen)
What catapulted General Shalikashvili to this pinnacle of leadership was his stellar command of Operation Provide Comfort, which represented the first time that a major international humanitarian crisis was tasked to the U.S. military.
In April 1991, more than 500,000 Kurdish refugees had been chased into the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Barred from crossing the border by a nervous Turkey and too afraid of Saddam Hussein’s military to willingly return to the lowlands of Iraq, the Kurds were stuck. Not equipped for the inhospitable mountain conditions, Kurdish men, women, and children began dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. Called in to lead the combined rescue operation, General Shalikashvili accomplished what General Powell would later term a “miracle”: leading a coalition of militaries from 13 nations and more than 50 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to stop the dying and return all the Kurds to their homes in Iraq in only 90 days.
If we wish to understand how great leaders are made, General Shalikashvili’s command of Provide Comfort provides an excellent case study. How did he accomplish this miracle? Since there was no preexisting playbook for such an unprecedented crisis, the general had no option but to rely solely on the skills and experience he developed during his prior 33 years of military training. When he stepped off the plane in Turkey to take command of the operation, what skills did he bring with him?
My research on the life and career of Shalikashvili has led me to conclude that he drew on three main resources that made him an effective, unifying leader:
On April 17, 1991, Lieutenant General Shalikashvili, second in command at U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR), was in a mild state of shock. As an expert in the subject of defending Western Europe from a possible Soviet invasion, he had never before heard of the Kurds. But after a series of meetings that day in Heidelberg, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt, Germany, he boarded a plane to Incirlik, Turkey, on orders to evaluate and report back on this rapidly developing refugee crisis at the Iraqi border. His first thought before departing was to check his footlocker to see if the Service schools had provided him with a manual titled something akin to “operations other than war.” But no such manual existed; this was the first time the U.S. military had been called upon to lead the response to a major international humanitarian crisis.
By the time the general arrived in Incirlik, the situation had changed so rapidly that, while en route, he had been made commander of the entire operation. After a quick review of the situation, it became clear just how herculean the task before him was. In the days ahead, he would have to:
The challenges were indeed daunting, and a trip to Turkey that he originally thought would last a few days would be extended into months. Yet Shalikashvili faced his new assignment with his characteristic calm. By this point in his career, he had a proven track record. Since being inducted as a draftee into the U.S. Army in July 1958, he had developed a broad array of leadership skills that he could rely on.
Maestro of Operational Challenges
One of General Shalikashvili’s greatest strengths was his ability to manage highly complex missions, particularly those with a major logistical dimension. The basic building block of this skill was the importance he placed on “knowing one’s stuff.” This was a lesson taught to him early in his career while serving as a second lieutenant leading a platoon in Alaska in the early 1960s. The general later recalled with appreciation his platoon sergeant, First Sergeant William Grice, stating:
[He] knew that if our platoon was going to be good at the countless things that would make us a finely honed war-fighting machine, then he had to teach me and practice with me so that when I walked that gun line, the soldiers would know that I knew more than them.1
So throughout his career, Shalikashvili threw himself into becoming an expert at whatever he was tasked to do. Upon arriving at Fort Bliss in the early 1960s, First Lieutenant Shalikashvili took a 2-week crash course to learn about the Nike Hercules guided missile system. For the next 2 years, he instructed U.S. and Allied officer students ranging from second lieutenants to general officers on the topic. His superiors consistently lauded his ability to relay complex information in an accessible way and to a wide range of students.
Similarly, when Captain Shalikashvili was a nuclear weapons control officer for the 32d Army Air Defense Command in Germany, he developed a system of easy-tounderstand instructions and booklets. A subsequent command inspection found his system so effective that it was adopted USAREUR-wide. Other large units with similar quick-reaction responsibilities and functions would visit Captain Shalikashvili’s operations center for first-hand study.
The general was able to convert his expertise into inf luence. As a senior Army staff officer at the Pentagon in 1986, Major General Shalikashvili helped develop the Army position on the reduction of mediumrange nuclear missiles in Europe. General Robert W. RisCassi, USA (Ret.), General Shalikashvili’s boss at the time, later recalled the moderating inf luence that Shalikashvili had. “There were camps that said we can’t give up one iota of anything, and those who said maybe there are some things we can give up,” RisCassi recalled. “Shalikashvili just brought logic to the table. He’s relaxed, non-intrusive. His forte is knowledge.”2
By the time he reached f lag grade, Shalikashvili’s expertise in a broad array of logistical and operational areas allowed him to manage complex systems. For example, as deputy commander of the 1st Armored Division in the mid-1980s, one of the “hats” he wore was as “mayor”—making him responsible for providing service to a military community of 27,000 Soldiers with an annual budget of more than $65 million. The community he was responsible for as the USAREUR deputy commander, his position at the time of Provide Comfort, had an even larger budget of $100 million.
Shalikashvili’s proven logistical and operational capabilities earned him chances to experiment. As commander of the 9th Infantry Division (ID) at Fort Lewis in 1987, Major General Shalikashvili oversaw a “high technology test bed” tasked to integrate three brigades—one heavy armor, one light infantry, and one “experimental mechanized”—into a new type of fighting force. During his 2 years of command, the division came close to accomplishing what would normally take the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command 10 years to complete (design a division, build an organization, design and procure equipment, and create a corresponding doctrine and train Soldiers how to fight under it). Provost Marshal Larry Saunders of the 9th ID recalled that Shalikashvili made the experimental division work because of his ability to “operate in chaos without operating chaotically.” Shalikashvili’s huge appetite for creative solutions to both logistical problems and operational challenges was infectious. “Yes you can do it!” he would tell his team. “Don’t give me five to six ‘A’-level ideas, instead give me twenty or thirty ‘B’-level ideas. We can improve later. Let’s just keep the pace going.”3
Kurdish children play in refugee camp at Turkey-Iraq border during Operation Provide Comfort
U.S. Navy (April Hatton)
Shalikashvili’s expertise in creative logistics would serve him well when called upon as the deputy commander to handle two untraditional missions of high diplomatic sensitivity. One was Operation Steel Box, a mission to retrograde 100,000 chemical munitions—including the nerve agents sarin and VX—out of Germany. A second mission was an 11th-hour operation to rush the troops and equipment—including tanks—of 7th Corps from Europe down to Saudi Arabia in time for the Gulf War ground campaign—all without interrupting Germany’s Christmas holiday traffic. Shalikashvili successfully handled both, leading General Powell to remark to then SACEUR General John Galvin, “Shali is looking good, isn’t he? I mean really looking good.” Galvin agreed.4
This brief overview of General Shalikashvili’s career helps us understand one of the key skills that he brought to bear on this massive rescue effort. “Knowing his stuff ” and having built up a broad range of experiences in managing logistics and logistical-intensive missions gave him the confidence to tackle Operation Provide Comfort calmly and creatively and to understand and get others to understand how these complex problems— such as airdrops, ground transportation, and building temporary camps and waystations—could be solved. One example of how he drew on past experience to tackle the problems faced at Provide Comfort involves the command structure of the units left to watch over the Kurds after the main ground units left Iraq. In a highly untraditional move, an aviation brigade commander was put in control of the remaining infantry, aviation, and support units. Shalikashvili had experimented to great success with such an unorthodox arrangement during his command of the 9th ID at Fort Lewis.5
The Ultimate Team Player
No such complex operation undertaken in a rapidly changing environment can be managed by just one man. The logistics of rescuing these 500,000 refugees could only be accomplished by a coordinated team effort. As commander, General Shalikashvili was responsible for the coordination.
Up the chain of command for this particular operation were the strategic policymakers: Shalikashvili reported to General Galvin, who in turn reported to General Powell. Laterally, USAREUR was responsible for much of the day-to-day planning and providing the bulk of the logistical support. Down the chain of command were the men and women of the operation, who would come to number more than 35,000 troops from 13 countries. The military contingent would also work in close cooperation with volunteers from more than 50 NGOs, as well as with Turkish government officials and citizens.
What helped General Shalikashvili coordinate the efforts of this vast team was that he had a holistic perspective—the ability to see how the parts relate to the whole.6 This was a skill he had honed throughout his career. One such opportunity came during a 3-year stint at the Army personnel center in the early 1970s. There, he focused on both the individual and the whole as an assignments officer, guiding the careers of almost 14,500 field artillery majors and lieutenant colonels by trying to match their talents and the Army’s needs in making position assignments. His superiors at the time noted how Shalikashvili demonstrated “the rare combination of confidence and humility, ambition and self lessness, which enable him to be sensitive to the problems of an individual or drive an Army-wide requirement.”7
And Shalikashvili cared deeply about the individual. It is telling that he used the occasion of his retirement speech in September 1997 to drive home the point that members of the military “are not ‘personnel,’ but living, breathing people.” He unfailingly treated every person—regardless of rank or specialization—with the same fundamental respect. Ref lecting on Shalikashvili’s tenure as SACEUR, USAEUR commander General David Maddox stated, “He’s unassuming, straightforward, and most importantly caring. He makes people feel comfortable. He cares [about] what you say and what you think. I think that everyone—be it a private or a general—knows that he listens and cares about their views.” U.S. Navy Europe commander Admiral Mike Boorda agreed: “He has this way of listening to you, and while you are talking he makes you feel you are the only person in the world.”8
Shalikashvili also had the rare ability to become even more polite and considerate as the pressure mounted. Admiral Thomas Fargo experienced one example of this in 1994 when he was Director of Operations (J3) of the U.S. Atlantic Command when Shalikashvili was Chairman. While at the hospital one day with his wife who was undergoing surgery, Admiral Fargo was summoned to a secure phone to speak with General Shalikashvili. Apologizing for having to call at this inopportune time, Shalikashvili explained that Fargo was the only one available who could provide him with some needed information. “Once I relayed to the Chairman what he needed to know—information for an important briefing he had in one hour with the U.S. President on our plans to intercede in Haiti—he spent five more minutes on the phone with me asking about details of my wife’s surgery,” Fargo said. “I never forgot this and neither did my wife. He showed his compassion.”
This basic respect that Shalikashvili had for people worked as a lubricant to smooth the dozens and even hundreds of interactions that he had during the course of any one day of Operation Provide Comfort— regardless of whether it was with a superior, subordinate, media representative, Kurdish tribal leader, refugee, coalition member, representative of the Iraqi military, or an NGO volunteer.
This lubricant would prove crucial because every day of the operation required juggling priorities. Shalikashvili would later recall that during Provide Comfort, they had “the most interesting meetings that you might want to attend, because everyone knew that he had the highest priority of equipment or supplies that needed to be moved on any given day.”9
Colonel Frank Adams, USA (Ret.), was a brigade commander at the 9th ID when Shalikashvili commanded. “Gen[eral] Shali’s personable, calm, nonthreatening approach was very good in making people—even prominent people—not feel like they’ve come out of a discussion having lost, even if their ideas were not adopted,” he said, explaining how Shalikashvili’s temperament went a long way toward maintaining team unity.
As a team player Shalikashvili also respected the roles and responsibilities of other individuals on his team by refraining from stepping outside the parameters of his own position. John Lee, who was the command sergeant major in the 3d Brigade of the 9th ID when Shalikashvili commanded, later recalled:
[General] Shalikashvili did not major in minor affairs. He focused on the higher-order role that a division commander should take on: how to resource, equip, and train a multithousand man division. He would never jump in and start making loud and public corrections. Instead he was very good at holding the leadership levels accountable for what was under their particular purview, and he used the chain of command to effect change.
Shalikashvili adopted the same approach during Provide Comfort. Soon after arriving, he delegated day-to-day operations to his deputy, Major General James Jamerson, USAF (Ret.), and his chief of staff, Brigadier General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret.). This allowed Shalikashvili to focus on supervising the field formations, maintaining good relations with the national contingent commanders, and adjudicating any disputes that could not be resolved lower down the chain of command.
Maintaining good relations with the national contingent commanders was particularly crucial to such a high-profile international coalition effort. There were tricky issues that needed to be hammered out. For example, each country had its own set of rules of engagement that dictated what its military could and could not do. Under French rules, for instance, a French infantry platoon could not come to the aid of another coalition platoon under attack. And British national rules—despite the pressing need for such support—would not allow British artillery battalions to be deployed into northern Iraq to support either coalition forces or their own troops.
The rapid pace of events on the ground often meant that national commanders could not report back to their home offices for guidance or instructions. Many times decisions needed to be made immediately via discussions among the coalition commanders on the ground. Such a decisionmaking environment allowed Shalikashvili’s excellent interpersonal skills to come into full play. The relationship that he developed over the course of the operation with British commander Major General Robin J. Ross, Royal Marines, for instance, played a key role in eventually convincing the British government to change its rules of engagement to allow British artillery to be deployed into northern Iraq.10
Another facet of being a team player is understanding that the team sometimes needs wiggle room to work in. Mistakes can happen, and subordinates occasionally need the leeway to attempt creative solutions. Brigadier General Stanley Kwieciak, USA (Ret.), recalled a situation that occurred when he took over in 1979 as battalion commander in Bamberg, Germany, under Colonel Shalikashvili—the division artillery commander for the 1st Armored Division at the time. Within a few months of his arrival, division headquarters conducted an inspection. “We failed miserably,” recalled Kwieciak, “but Shali didn’t say ‘You screwed up.’ Rather he said ‘go get to work and see if you can fix things.’” Shalikashvili gave him the nod to reorganize his unit contrary to the Army’s Table of Organization and Equipment, a tweak that was a key part of Kwieciak’s creative plan to make his battalion more efficient and fix maintenance and training problems. At the end of Kwieciak’s command came a second inspection—which, Kwieciak recalled, the battalion passed with f lying colors.
Shalikashvili exercised such leadership qualities during Provide Comfort. General John Abizaid—who commanded the 3d Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, which was brought into the operation as an air combat team—would later recall that “Shalikashvili was very comfortable letting the commanders on the ground do their job. He would come to the ground only to get the information he needed to be a strategic leader.” In the chaos of the operation, when a misunderstanding led Abizaid’s unit to move deeper into Iraq than planned, Shalikashvili did not reprimand him for it. This professionalism earned Abizaid’s deep respect. This respect was mutual; Shalikashvili would later call on Abizaid to serve as his executive officer when Shalikashvili became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In July 1995, two top nuclear scientists—Robert Peurifoy and Sidney Drell— spent a full day briefing top U.S. policymakers on the results of the most in-depth study to date on whether the United States should sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Dr. Drell later recalled General Shalikashvili as being the most informed of all the policymakers they briefed, and Dr. Peurifoy believed that Shalikashvili was the only policymaker they met with who seemed deeply concerned with doing the right thing for the country. Shalikashvili was seemingly one of those rare individuals who had the natural ability to connect with others by expressing—through speech, intonation, body language, or other indirect signals—his empathy and concern.
Shalikashvili was able to use this skill to motivate, as demonstrated during the drawdown of the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Because many of the coalition partners were small countries lacking robust logistical support, the United States decided to extend its own deployment in order to lend them assistance. Knowing that the U.S. troops stationed there would be dismayed that their greatly anticipated homecoming was being postponed by at least 6 months, Shalikashvili f lew to Somalia to make a personal appeal. Larry Icenogle, the Chairman’s Public Affairs Officer at the time, recalls Shalikashvili telling the troops, “We got these nations into this, we’ve got to help get them out.” Through the power of his personal touch, the Chairman helped the ground troops understand how much their sacrifices would contribute to the larger good.
Conducting final inspection of Joint Services Honor Guard at farewell ceremony
DOD (R.D. Ward)
Shalikashvili was such an exceptional leader because he was so motivated by a desire to contribute to the common good. The roots of Shalikashvili’s altruism can be traced back to formative experiences in his early years. He knew firsthand the misery that war could bring. His own father would twice become a prisoner of war, once of the Germans in 1939 and then of the Allies in 1945, and he saw the toll this took on his family. In addition, his childhood home was destroyed by German artillery when Adolf Hitler’s military invaded Poland in 1939. Then, during the bloody Warsaw Uprising of 1944, he watched Polish fighters bury their war dead in the small yard of his second home, which later collapsed around the Shalikashvili family when hit by a German dive-bomber, forcing them to take refuge in cellars and sewer pipes. Fleeing to Germany after the uprising was suppressed, his family lived for 8 years with the assistance of charitable relatives. Distant nonblood relatives then brought his family to the United States in 1952. A grateful Shalikashvili would recall that these American benefactors—who provided his family with sponsorship, a safe ocean passage, housing, jobs, and even college scholarships—“didn’t know us from beans.”11 Thus, Shalikashvili’s own childhood experience served to reinforce the importance of both helping others in need and, as a commander who put troops in harm’s way, approaching the use of violence with utmost gravity.
General Shalikashvili had a strong desire to serve the country that took in his family and gave them “boundless opportunities.” During his tenure as Chairman, Shalikashvili stated that the honor of being nominated by President Bill Clinton to the position was but the second greatest in his life: “The first was the day back in 1958 when I became an American citizen”—the first and only citizenship he would ever hold.12
As one final motivation, the military community itself was Shalikashvili’s everything. He was a man who had a genuine love for Soldiers and the soldiering life. He likely pledged absolute dedication to the military family as a captain stationed in Germany in 1965. Within the space of a few short months that year, he lost his first wife to cancer and their baby to complications following a premature birth. A stricken Shalikashvili felt “the sun would never shine brightly again.”13 His performance reviews from the period, however, suggest a young Soldier who beat back the dark shadows by focusing all his considerable talents on improving his military community.
To reiterate, during his command of Provide Comfort, Shalikashvili relied on three important resources to help accomplish the mission. The first was rock-solid professional competency in dealing with complex operations, particularly one-of-a-kind, logistically challenging, and diplomatically sensitive missions. The second was his holistic understanding of how to lead a team. But it was the third source—altruistic motivations for tackling the task at hand—that was particularly important for such an unprecedented humanitarian operation. Shalikashvili would later recall:
It was an eye opener to me how much can be done by men and women who see an awesome task ahead of them and come to the task with enthusiasm and not to fight over turf, wire diagrams, and who works for whom or what. . . . I don’t recall one meeting where someone started pointing at someone else and saying that is your job, why don’t you start doing this. . . . It was just great.14
As the commander of the team, Shalikashvili was the one whose motivations would help set the tone for the operation as a whole. Ref lecting on Shalikashvili’s performance during Provide Comfort, General Powell lauded him for being “not only a gifted leader but [also] a sensitive human being,” one who “understood what it was to be a refugee.”15
Indeed, many times during the operation, Shalikashvili would visit the Kurdish camps. As he strolled from tent to makeshift tent, he would seek out the refugee children, particularly the orphans. They would chat and laugh together. Asked about those visits to the camps, Shalikashvili replied: “When you see youngsters who are muddy and dirty and near death, and then see them a few weeks later cleaned up and playing and feeling like kids again—if you walk away from that without your heart beating fast, then you are made out of something different than I am.”16
And despite Shalikashvili’s efforts to avoid the spotlight, his enthusiasm for rescuing these needy refugees would be recognized. At a September 1991 House Armed Services Committee Defense Policy Panel, Shalikashvili—who by then was General Powell’s assistant—briefed Congress on the recently completed Provide Comfort. What those assembled learned from Shalikashvili was that his deputy commander for the operation, Jim Jamerson, was an “absolute professional.” Brigadier General Dick Potter was a “super
At the end of Shalikashvili’s prepared statement, Representative Norman Sisisky (D–VA), who had earlier traveled to the region to see the operation firsthand, looked pointedly at Shalikashvili from the dais at the front of the room and said, “General, you talked about all your commanders but I can tell you that it was your enthusiasm over there that really did the job. And you really are to be commended.”17
Little wonder, then, that author David Halberstam once wrote that Shalikashvili had “an immigrant’s special appreciation for America and a belief that this country, not just in the eyes of its own citizens, but in the eyes of much of the world, was the place the least fortunate turned to as the court of last resort.”18 The passing of an immigrant who came to the United States as a 16-year-old stateless war refugee, yet retired as the highest-ranking Soldier in the world’s most powerful military on July 23, 2011, gives us all cause to ref lect. General John Shalikashvili’s success story is one that offers many lessons for those who wish to develop leadership skills.