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Vol. 7, No. 4
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

THIS MONTH’S FREE DOWNLOADABLE BOOK: Leadership: A Study of the Qualities Most Desired in an Officer by Arthur Harrison Miller (174 pages)

Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen not  Published  in the Journal of Leadership Applications:

Don’t Be Afraid of Getting Laid Off from Human Resources IQ

The Most Important Leadership Decision from Human Resources IQ

What are You Going to Do About It? from Human Resources IQ

Peter Drucker Says Leaders Make Themselves from Training Magazine

Leadership Laws – It was Drucker’s Favorite Book   from Leadership Excellence Magazine

People Have no Limits – Even after Failure from Human Resources IQ

A Sure Way to Fail from

What to Do about the Crisis from

Drucker: Every Leader Must Declare his Expectations from

Peter Drucker of the Value of Ignorance from Performance and Profits

Peter Drucker’s Story of Two Vice Presidents (Why What Everybody Knows Is Frequently Wrong) from Moving Ahead

Webcast: The Lost Lessons of Peter Drucker from The American Management Association

Five Things William Cohen Has Learned From Peter Drucker from CIO Magazine

How the World’s Most Celebrated Management Consultant Got His Title from Industry Week

The Night Peter Drucker Declared He Was Not My Father from

Drucker’s Lost Lesson from Training Magazine

Effective Leadership in Leadership Excellence

Other Recent Articles; Not Linked

“Leading in Crisis,” The Keystone Review, March 2009, Vol.2

“What Drucker Taught Us about Social Responsibility,” Leader to Leader Journal, Winter 2009, pp.29 -34

“What Drucker Taught Us about Social Responsibility and Leadership,” Creativity and Innovation, Peter F. Drucker Society of Korea, Summer, 2008, pp.1-30.



© 2009 William A. Cohen, PhD

During World War I, Corporal Alvin C. York was a soldier in Company G, 328th Regiment, 82nd Division of the U.S. Army. No one noticed anything particularly unusual about him when he was drafted into the Army. That is, until he filed to avoid military service as a conscientious objector. However, his new company commander convinced him to remain in the army. York went overseas to France with his unit.


There was one other item of interest in his background. It made him very attractive as a combat infantryman. It may also help to explain why his company commander tried so hard to keep him in the army. York was an expert shot. He had been a champion marksman in his home state of Tennessee before the war. As a rifleman, he really knew his stuff. His company commander felt York’s knowledge and skill in marksmanship would be very handy to have on the battlefield. As it turned out, this became more important in France than anyone could have imagined.


By October 18th, 1918, York was a corporal. He was sent on a patrol in the Argonne Forest with sixteen other men under the command of a sergeant. The patrol managed to surprise a German headquarters and took several prisoners. As the patrol moved on, they stumbled on a hidden nest of enemy machine-guns and were themselves surprised. The machine-guns opened fire with deadly effectiveness. Only York and seven privates survived the first volley. Corporal York was suddenly thrust into the role of leader in a very perilous situation.


The seven privates wanted to surrender. York asked them to wait. He told them to keep under cover and guard their prisoners. Then he began to look for a position from which to fire at the Germans. You can imagine what must have gone through the minds of those young privates. York had only one thing going for him and they knew that York was an expert marksman and knew his stuff.


Corporal York found a good spot from which to shoot. He could see the enemy clearly, but they could not see him. He fired several shots and then moved to a new position. He kept repeating the process. By the time a machine-gun would begin to fire at him, York had already moved. Meanwhile, he was able to get a couple of shots off at the Germans manning the guns. He rarely missed. The enemy felt helpless against his relentless sniping, as man after man fell to his marksmanship. They thought they must be facing many Americans.


The Germans sent a squad of eight armed infantrymen to get him. York had a clear view of them as they approached. He fired and worked the rifle’s bolt as rapidly as he could. Before they could fire a single shot, he dropped all eight. Then York moved again to another position where he began shooting at the machine-gun crews again.


More enemy soldiers began to fall to York’s bullets. The German commander seemingly could do nothing. He didn’t know that the deadly fire came from only one man. Thinking he must be surrounded by a larger force, he surrendered his command. With only the seven privates helping, York captured another 132 prisoners, including three officers.


The Supreme Allied Commander, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch had been at war for four years. He was aware of the daily actions of millions of men in battle. He saw hundreds of situations where courageous leaders performed heroic deeds. Yet, Foch called York’s feat the greatest individual action of the war. General Pershing, the overall American commander, immediately promoted York to Sergeant and recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is America’s highest decoration for valor, and Sergeant York received it shortly thereafter.


Now let’s look at the facts of York’s exploit again from a leadership perspective. York was a very brave man, and a highly skilled marksman. However, had York not been able to persuade his men not to surrender, it is unlikely that he would have been able to accomplish anything. Unguarded, their former prisoners would have soon informed the German commander that only one man opposed his battalion. Do you think that commander would have surrendered to York then? He and his men would have been encouraged to attack in overwhelming numbers. York’s privates obeyed his order not to surrender even though they faced overwhelming odds only because knew that York was such an extraordinary marksman. York may have been their leader for only a few moments, but they knew that in this respect, this leader knew his stuff. Between the wars, York was commissioned in the Tennessee National Guard, and he served during World War II as a colonel.


My West Point classmate, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Schwartz fought and led in Vietnam in two combat tours as an infantry officer. Afterward he became Director of International Marketing for Litton Applied Technology in San Jose, California. Interviewing him for an earlier book leadership he said: “I am most proud of the fact that no one lost his life under my command because I made a mistake. Job competence is crucial because leaders lacking it waste lives and frequently still fail to accomplish the mission.”


[1] During World War II, the U.S. Army conducted a study to find out what soldiers thought about their leaders. The best and the brightest did this research, including professors from Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago. They surveyed tens of thousands of soldiers and asked: “What are the most important factors associated with good leadership?” The most frequent answer these researchers received was: “That the leader know his stuff.”[2]



Knowing Your Stuff is as Important in Business as in Battle

You’d think that knowing your stuff would be obvious in either military or civilian life. Yet, it is unfortunately true that some leaders don’t “know their stuff” to the extent that they should. This is because their emphasis is less on becoming an expert and “learning one’s trade,” than on getting ahead. This leads to a focus on office politics rather than professional expertise. Moreover, a number of management books fall into this same trap in advising their readers. They fail to emphasize that a leader becomes the real leader of his organization when those that follow recognize that the leader knows what to do when he or she gets ahead, not because the leader knows what to do to get ahead. Others don’t follow because leaders are good at office politics. They follow leaders because they are good at what they do. There is no substitute for a leader investing his or her time into becoming an expert. As Fortune once proclaimed: “Forget about fighting over titles and turf – it’s what you know (and how you use it) that really counts.”[3]


Even a New Leader Can Know His Stuff and Demonstrate It

Elliot Ackerman, Second Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps was just starting out.  In November of 2004 he was a Platoon Commander in Company A of the First Battalion of the 1st Marine Division in Iraq. As a junior officer, he was pretty green. But Ackerman already knew his stuff and he proved it. During an operation in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the enemy initiated a ferocious counterattack. Several Marines were caught in the open and were wounded. Lieutenant Ackerman didn’t hesitate, although he was soon hit by shrapnel himself. He went out unprotected and pulled the wounded into shelter. He knew what to do. Under cover he called by radio for evacuation of his wounded. Things rarely go perfectly in situations like this. The vehicles sent to evacuate his wounded men could not locate his position. Ackerman again didn’t hesitate. He knew his stuff and he knew what had to be done immediately although the enemy fire hadn’t slackened.  He left the safety of his protected position and braved a gauntlet of enemy fire to personally find and direct these vehicles. As the battle continued, he recognized that some of his Marines on a nearby rooftop were visible and exposed to enemy fire. He ordered them to seek cover in the buildings below. But he knew that the position was critical for too see the enemy and take action.  That meant he had to be on the spot, so he took the position himself.  Methodically he spotted enemy strong points and marked them with machinegun fire. American tanks then silenced the enemy positions, one by one. Throughout the battle and despite his own painful shrapnel wounds, he simultaneously directed tank fire, coordinated four separate medical evacuations, and repeatedly led his platoon directly into the heart of the enemy over which he ultimately prevailed. Ackerman knew his stuff.


How Bill Gates Became one of the Richest Men in the World

Bill Gates is the Chairman of the Microsoft Corporation which he founded and built himself. His personal fortune has been estimated at $58 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) dollars. Amazingly, he achieved much of his success while he was still in his 20’s. He became a billionaire when he was only 31. What do think? Was he just there at the right time and right place? Was Gates just lucky? Did people lend him money, and others of ability acknowledge him as leader and help to build his giant corporation because of his academic education? Because of his Hollywood-handsome looks? His influential parents? Hardly. Bill Gates went to Harvard, but he dropped out after only two years. He wears glasses. Some say he looks almost nerdish. His father was a Seattle, Washington attorney, and his mother a school teacher.


If you look at Gates’ career, you can see that he took the time to learn his stuff. His secret was not office politics, but the expert power he acquired. Gates started learning how to program computers when he was 13. By the time he entered high school, he knew enough to lead a group of computer programmers who computerized his school’s payroll system. The, while still a teenager, he started a company that sold traffic-counting systems to local governments. When he entered Harvard, he was already an acknowledged computer expert. He spent his freshman year at Harvard preparing the language for the world’s first microcomputer. His second year was more of the same. Then he decided to drop out so he could spend full time developing computer software. Not long after that, he founded the Microsoft Corporation. Others followed Gates because in this new field of computer programming, Gates was top gun. They didn’t care how old he was. They didn’t care if he wasn’t 6’5” or who his parents were or were not, or whether or not he had a college degree. Gates knew his stuff. Today, daily newspapers and magazines frequently carry news of Gates’ latest exploits. He makes news today not because of his wealth, but because he is successful and people still follow him because he still knows his stuff.


General Sir John Hackett, experienced as a battlefield commander, as well as principal of Kings College, London, and author of the international best seller,The Third World War wrote: “. . . the leader, besides being a competent manager, must be known to possess a high degree of competence in some specific skill or skills closely relevant to the discharge of the organization’s primary task.”[4]


A Teenager Becomes a Fighter Ace and a Colonel

Some say we can’t learn much from the young, but that simply isn’t so. A 19-year American wanted to join the Air Corps and become a pilot back in 1940. This was shortly before the U.S. entered World War II. Unfortunately, Chesley “Pete” Peterson could not pass the Army’s eye exam. One day he learned that the British were looking for volunteers for the Royal Air Force. England was already in the war, and was short of pilots. The RAF decided to form a squadron made up entirely of Americans. Because they needed pilots badly, the visual standards for pilots weren’t as high as in the U.S.


Peterson took the flight physical for the RAF and passed. They sent him to Canada for pilot training. Before long he was a fighter pilot in one of the two American Eagle Squadrons flying Spitfires against the best pilots in the German Luftwaffe. What happened afterward shows how having technical expertise and leadership expertise are both important. Peterson’s squadron was in combat over England almost every day. Needless to say, there was considerable danger. Losses were high. When not actually flying, many pilots lived pretty wild lives on the ground. Peterson could party with the best of them. But, during periods of combat operations, he didn’t waste his time partying. Instead, he took the time to become an expert fighter pilot. He read everything he could about air combat and sought out other pilots with whom he talked at great length.  He also went through a lengthy ritual every night. Before going to sleep, he went over every minute of the fights he had with enemy during the day. He reviewed what went right and what went wrong. He thought about what he had done that worked, and what he had done that had not worked. He analyzed his mistakes and considered how he could avoid them in the future. He planned what he would do differently the next day. Before long he shot down his first enemy aircraft. And then, another. And then another after that. It wasn’t long before he had shot down five enemy aircraft. This gave him the designation “ace.” Peterson was now an expert fighter pilot. Would it surprise you to learn that though he was one of the youngest pilots in his squadron, when they needed a new squadron commander, they chose Peterson?


Squadron Leader Peterson continued to follow his plan in a search for continued excellence. This time he worked at becoming an expert as a squadron commander.  He followed the same routine, so he learned fast. When the Royal Air Force needed a new Wing Commander, again they selected Pete Peterson. He stuck with his plan. When they needed a Group Commander . . . well, you can guess the rest.


By 1943, the U.S. was very much in the war. Now it was the U.S. which needed experienced pilots. With the concurrence of the RAF, they transferred the entire unit to the U.S. Army Air Force. The U.S. gave Peterson the rank equivalent to the rank he held in the RAF. So, Peterson became a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force at the age of 23. He was the youngest colonel in our air force. Peterson stayed in the United States Air Force after World War II. Twenty years later, Pete Peterson was promoted to general. He was still only in his early forties. I’m certain that much of Peterson’s success had to do with the fact that he always took the time to learn his stuff. I don’t know whether Peterson knew anything about office politics. I rather think he did not.

Why Peter the Great Succeeded Where Others Failed

Peter I, the 17th Russian Tsar was called “the great” for a reason. He not only was a great administrator and a great military leader, he founded the Russian empire. He changed what had been a backward country into a modern Western state. Peter the Great served in every rank in the Russsian army from private on up. Previous rulers of Russia were given senior rank in an elite regiment or fleet even before they were teenagers. Peter refused to accept any rank he did not earn. He enlisted in the Preobrazhensky Regiment as a drummer boy because that was the very lowest position. He allowed himself to be promoted only when he felt he had merited the promotion. When it was his turn at guard duty, that’s what he did. He slept in the same tents as his brother soldiers and ate the same food. When ordered to dig, he dug, and when the regiment paraded, he stood in the ranks, undistinguished from others.


Slowly, laboriously, at every level, he learned his stuff and became an expert. He eventually won an officer’s commission, and eventually general officer rank.  His refusing to serve in military positions other than those he earned by merit became a lifelong policy. When he went with his army or sailed with his fleet, it was always as a subordinate commander. He believed that leaders had to know their stuff, and to do this, they must learn their business from the bottom up. Only when he had acquired expertise at one level would he agree to be promoted to the next highest level.[5]




You Must Learn From Every Experience, As Washington Did in War

Every experience as a leader can teach us something, the failures perhaps more than the successes. In fact, you may be able to make an argument for the case that the more and bigger failures you have, the greater your potential for success – so long as you learn from your experiences.


George Washington began as Commander-in-Chief of American forces with no top level command experience because there was no one else. Previously, he had been a major in the British Army. Consequently, he blundered badly at first. So much so, that his mistakes could have ended the American Revolution less than two months after our Declaration of Independence.


What did he do wrong? First, he demurred in the Continental Congress demand that he defend New York, even though he knew that to do so threatened the very existence of his army, and therefore American Independence. Once having made this decision, he split his army, putting one third under the able Major General Nathanael Greene on Long Island and retaining the remainder under his personal command on Manhattan to prevent the British from attacking up the Hudson. Greene’s selection was a good choice, but splitting his army was dangerous. The two forces were not mutually supporting, and the British could have concentrated first against one, and than against the other and easily defeated both.


When General Greene fell ill, Washington blundered again. He chose Major General Israel Putnam as Greene’s replacement. Unfortunately, General Putnam was a general that needed to be on a very short leash. Washington should have kept him on one until he better knew his capabilities. Instead, he trusted Putnam in this critical assignment and did little supervision, even though Putnam was mostly an unknown quantity. But that wasn’t all. Washington didn’t make the command relationship between himself and Putnam clear. Putnam didn’t know whether he had an independent command and could do as he saw fit, or if he should try to function under Washington’s immediate direction.


Washington’s opponent, the British General Howe, shifted the bulk of his forces to Long Island. He discovered that Putnam had made a basic error. The American left flank was not secured along the Brooklyn Heights. In fact, it was “in the air.” Howe easily brought 10,000 men around Putnam’s left flank, and encircled his army. Putnam’s defense collapsed. Washington then compounded his earlier errors. He took reinforcements to Long Island. This had the effect of moving additional troops into the trap. The river couldn’t be crossed at this point and so couldn’t be supported or reinforced easily. Washington’s army was in the perfect position to be totally destroyed. He was saved only because Howe failed to attack. This was so bizarre that historians can only speculate that perhaps the British commander deferred in the hopes that the Americans would rejoin the mother country with minimum bloodshed. In plain fact, we came very close to losing the war. On the night on 29-30 August, Washington wisely evacuated his troops and withdrew.


Eventually Washington was pushed out of New York proper, and reestablished a defensive position near White Plains. Here again, he split his army, placing half under the command of the ambitious and incompetent Major General Charles Lee. The only thing that saved the loss of Lee’s entire command was that Lee himself managed to get himself captured by the British, thus removing top level incompetence from American ranks. On December 26th, Washington won his small, but important victory at Trenton, New Jersey by crossing the Delaware River. You’ve probably seen the famous painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” However, soon after his victory, Washington suddenly realized that he had erred again. He had left is right flank unprotected just as Putnam had done. It was exposed to British attack. If that flank were turned, he would have no place to go but back toward the sea.


However, with all these mistakes, Washington was learning his trade. He learned from every experience. Washington didn’t dwell on his errors. He analyzed the situation, drew conclusions and noted what he had done wrong and what he had done right. He planned how he would react in the future.


Washington slipped around the British secretly by using icy backroads. He made a forced march to Princeton where he had numerical superiority over the enemy. Through this action, he surprised, attacked, and defeated three British regiments. These were part of another British army commanded by General Cornwallis. It was much larger than his. Washington couldn’t take General Cornwallis’ army on head to head. He didn’t have the strength. But entrenched aside Cornwallis’ line of communications, he forced the British to evacuate all of central and western New Jersey. Frederick the Great called this ten days’ campaign beginning with Washington’s crossing the Delaware, “one of the most brilliant in military history”[6] . . . and that despite the mistakes.


Self-made millionaire Wayne Allyn Root actually organized this idea into a formalized structure and wrote a book which he called The Joy of Failure. Root himself said that after getting rejected by law school, he lost a political election, and then drove his real estate business into the ground. “I failed at twelve careers and businesses,” he said[7] However, he learned from every failure.


John Macy failed, but learned, from seven previous department store attempts before he founded the one that caught on and that bears his name. 150 years later there are 810 stores and 182,000 employees in the U.S. alone. It is said that Thomas Edison failed at more than a thousand attempts to invent the light bulb. It seemed that every material he tried for filament burned up. While many of us would call each attempt another failure, Edison had it right. Declared America’s most versatile inventor: “I have not failed. I have learned yet another material that will not work as a filament.”


How a Social Security Recipient Became a Multi-Millionaire

“Colonel” Harland Sanders got his first social security check after retirement, and decided it wasn’t enough to live on. He then went on the road and spent two years trying to sell owners of fast food restaurants on the idea of using his recipe for Kentucky fried chicken. He didn’t ask for any money up front, only that the owner try his recipe, and if successful, give him a few pennies from each sale. Every single owner he approached turned him down. But Sanders learned from each rejection. He improved his presentation. He did more research. He learned to handle every possible objection. Finally, after two years, he got a single  acceptance. And then another, and another, and another after that. Like all practitioners of Heroic Leadership, he never stopped learning.


Norm Brodsky, founder and still president of CitiStorage, an archive-retrieval business in Brooklyn, New York, and past Inc. 500 business owner once wrote, “You will never stop making mistakes. We hope that the new ones won’t be the same as the old ones, but I promise you they’ll be just as painful . . . But, as upset as you may get, it’s important to bear in mind that failure is still the best teacher. You’ll do fine as long as you’re open to the lessons it’s trying to teach you.”[8]



If you want to be a Heroic Leader, don’t waste your time learning how to defend your turf or being perceived as a “fast burner”. Instead,


·        Know Your People


·        Become an Expert


·        Learn from Every Experience


          That way, your people will follow you because you:






[1] Schwartz, William L., survey form and letter to the author, May 3, 1996.

[2] National Research Council with the collaboration of the Science Service, Psychology for the Fighting Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1944) p. 307.

[3] Fisher, Anne, “Six Ways to Supercharge Your Career,” Fortune (January 13, 1997) p.46.

[4] Hackett, Sir John, The Profession of Arms (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983) p. 217.

[5] Massie, Robert K., “96,” in Max Hastings, editor, The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) pp.139-140.

[6] Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, Military Heritage of America (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1956). Pp. 86-91.

[7] Stuberg, Robert, “An Interview with Wayne Root,”  Insight, No. 175, (Niles, Illinois:  Nightingale-Comnant Corporation, 1997).

[8] Brodsky, Norm, “Failure Can Be the Best Teacher You’ll Ever Have – Provided You’re Ready To Learn,” Inc. Magazine Archives, Inc. Online (November 1996) p.31


For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



Officers can never act with competence until they are masters of their profession. —

Major General Henry Knox, Continental Army, later 1st U.S. Secretary of War