General George S. Patton: One of the Greatest Military Leaders

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General George S. Patton Jr., old “Blood and Guts”, was a megalomaniac with an explosive temper and served as the commander of Third Army during World War II. During that time, he was held as one of the most respected, feared, and despised leaders that the American Army had to offer. To this day, he is arguably one of the best known and most brilliant leaders in American Military history.

Former General of the Army Omar Bradley once stated: “Leadership in a democratic Army means firmness, not harshness; understanding, not weakness; generosity, not selfishness; pride, not egotism” (ADP 6-22, 2012).

To be a leader in the Army it takes someone with the ability to apply personal qualities, talents, and experiences to a complex mix of organizational, situational and mission demands in order to exert influence on an organization, its people and its mission (ADP 6-22, 2012). When you are a leader there is more to the job description than giving orders. It takes a special person to be an effective leader—let alone an effective leader in combat. Imagine being the person who had to give orders that would send thousands of Soldiers into combat where they can be injured or killed. As a leader, knowing and understanding the potential of what can happen to the Soldiers you lead is a heavy burden.

Patton was often accused of being a hard leader, but he knew and understood what actions could result from the orders he gave his Soldiers. After the end of the war, he was visiting wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital where he said, “If I had been a better general, most of you would not be here.” (Keane, 2012). These are not the words of an uncaring, heartless leader. These are the words of a man who knew that the decisions he made impacted every Soldier he led.

Patton’s intolerance for weakness was one of the main reasons he was viewed as a “hard” commander. Patton was once visiting a field hospital when he encountered a young Soldier, huddled on his cot crying. When Patton asked him what was wrong, the Soldier replied that it was his nerves and that he couldn’t stand the shelling anymore. Patton yelled at the Soldier: “Your nerves…you are just a … coward, … Shut up…I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot at seeing a…sitting here crying…” (Keane, 2012). He yelled at the medical staff to not admit the Soldier for continued medical care, since there was nothing wrong with him. He held that hospitals should not be cluttered by those who are too weak and afraid to fight. Patton then ordered the Soldier to go back to the front lines telling him: “you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t, I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose” (Keane, 2012). Throughout the course of his rant, Patton slapped the Soldier twice, knocking the Soldier’s helmet off his head and into the next tent and even drew a pistol on the young man threatening to kill him.

When you hear the story of “the slap” it is easy to understand why Patton was viewed as a feared, disliked leader and often described as hard and crass. However, while he was extremely unorthodox, there was a reason that Patton did what he did as a leader. Today, the young Soldier would be classified as someone experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but in those days, it was known as “shell shock” or even “combat-fatigue” which was viewed by many as malingering and cowardice (Keane, 2012). Patton, having many years of combat experience, understood that panic and fear can spread through his formation rendering them ineffective. And an ineffective unit fighting in a war, not only meant losing the battle, but meant losing lives.

When many people think of Patton, they probably think of him as a large man with an even larger commanding presence. While this is true, he could be humble about his actions and even note his humanity. In one interview he stated: “I do a lot of things people don’t give me credit for and I’m not as big a bastard as a lot of people think. The commander of invading troops is under great tension and may do things he later regrets” (Keane, 2012). The fact is, that if a good combat leader is leading his troops he is leading from the front. Patton was the type of General who never shied away from a battle. He often exposed himself to artillery fire and shelling, fighting alongside his Soldiers. He believed that an Army was a team; that it needed to live, sleep, eat, and fight as a team. He never asked his men to do what he was not willing to do himself. He felt the same stress, fears, and concerns that his Soldiers did in combat, but on top of those feelings, he shouldered the burden of leading the Soldiers in battle and driving to win his unit’s portion of the war.

Patton was a very controversial character with a colorful personality, but it what that personality that enabled him to motivate and inspire his Troops. One of the best examples of this is the speech that he gave to the Third Army when then arrived in Europe set to embark on 281 days of combat (Montefiore, 2006). Many of the Soldiers in the audience never experienced battle and had no idea what was waiting for them on the front lines. Though the language was course and riddled with profanity, Patton reminded them why they were there, who they were fighting for, and spoke words that instilled the courage needed for the challenges they would face (Corbett, 2010). He also let them know that they were a unit and that they needed to rely on each other. He spoke of pride, telling them they were the best and were going to win this war (Corbett, 2010). The words he chose and the way he delivered his speech relayed that he believed in them and in the Army and its mission. He was able to influence the men in the audience to believe as he did and provided the motivation they needed as they moved to battle.

Leadership comes more from the character of a person verses knowledge of what leadership is. It springs from intuition and pours from the heart rather than from anything anyone can read on leadership. There is no clear-cut definition of how a leader should act or say. Rather, it depends on the situation they are facing. Patton faced some of the hardest times and had to make some of the most difficult decisions. He was a stubborn, out-spoken disciplinarian, but he earned the respect from his troops due to the care he had for them; his willingness to make sacrifices; and his understanding of his role and the responsibilities that came with it (Montefiore, 2006).

Leadership is an art, there is no recipe on how to be a great leader. George S. Patton was far from perfect, but many of the characteristics that he possessed comprise the ingredient list for what it takes to be a great leader. He may be known for his unorthodox ways, but no one who has ever studied Military Leadership can refute the effectiveness or success that he had throughout his career. For those reasons, he will forever remain one of the great American Military leaders.

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