The Top 15 George C. Marshall Quotes & Leadership Lessons

George C. Marshall, whose ancestors on both sides of his family were Virginia settlers dating back to the 1600’s, was born on December 31, 1880, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

His family, while not impoverished, was in financial straits when he entered the Virginia Military Institute in 1897.

While he struggled at first, he steadily improved, and decided upon a military career, primarily focused on leadership.

He graduated in 1901, when he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the infantry, embarking on 18 months of duty in the Philippines.

After his overseas duty and assignments stateside, Marshall graduated with honors from the Infantry-Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth in 1907, and then from the Army Staff College in 1908.

He steadily worked his way through the ranks, serving as the chief of operations of the 1st Division and the First Army during World War I, and then as aide to General John Pershing for five years.

A Lieutenant Colonel by this time, Marshall commanded the 15th Infantry in China from 1924 until 1927.

Afterward, Marshall returned to school, this time as an instructor in the Army War College in 1927, and then as assistant commandant of the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Marshall served as senior instructor to the Illinois National Guard for several years before accepting a post with the General Staff in Washington, D. C.

In September of 1939, Marshall was named Chief of Staff and general by President Roosevelt.

Marshall urged military readiness even before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and was later charged with building, supplying, and sharing the responsibility of deploying over eight million soldiers during WW II.

In 1941, he became part of the policy committee supervising the atomic, or “a-bomb,” studies conducted by American and British scientists.

As Army Chief of Staff, Marshall eventually inherited the a-bomb project, which was renamed the Manhattan Project, when atomic activities were turned over to the Army.

Marshall chose to play an indirect role, however, delegating to General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, and relying on civilian members of the team for decision-making.

He was largely responsible for securing the funding for the project which was quite a feat, for he could tell Congress very little about what the funding was for.

After resigning as Chief of Staff in 1945, Marshall assumed a diplomatic role and represented President Truman in China, attempting to mediate opposing sides in the Chinese Civil War.

These efforts were unsuccessful, however, and in January, 1947, he accepted a position on the Cabinet as Secretary of State, during which time he introduced his plan for economic aid and recovery for war-ravaged countries of Eastern and Western Europe, which became known as the “Marshall Plan.”

Marshall attempted to include the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in aid and recovery efforts, but Moscow rejected all offers of assistance.

The continued differences in political ideology soon progressed into what history labeled the Cold War.

Fear and uncertainty throughout Europe and the rest of the world over relations with Russia prompted Marshall and a group of leaders to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to ensure the security of the West and to create a balance of power in Europe.

By now, Marshall was almost 70 years old and suffered from significant health issues, prompting him to resign as Chief of Staff, but returning to service briefly in 1950 for one year as Secretary of Defense.

During this time, he oversaw the formation of an international force, under the United Nations, that stopped the impending North Korean invasion of South Korea.

After 1951, Marshall remained on the active-duty list and served as a consultant to the federal government.

He was the highest-ranking General in the Army.

Although a military man, Marshall is probably best remembered for his commitment to international peace.

He believed that nations were capable of cooperating with each other, and worked towards this end, so much so, in fact, that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

He was, in the words of Winston Churchill, the “true architect of victory” in the West European arena of World War II.

George Catlett Marshall died on October 16, 1959, and was buried in Section 7 of Arlington National Cemetery.

General George C. Marshall was an incredible leader.

Here are 15 quotes and leadership lessons from America’s foremost soldier.

15: “What I learned at VMI was self-control, discipline, so that it was ground in. I learned also the problem of managing men.”

Marshall’s self-control and discipline were well demonstrated throughout his adult life, often described as quiet, but with a temper that could flare if sufficiently provoked.

He was described as quietly confident, fair, and had the ability to motivate those under him to strive for their best while recognizing the challenges of leadership.

14: “Keep your wits about you and your eyes open; keep on working hard; sooner or later the opportunity will present itself, and then you must be prepared both tactically and temperamentally to profit by it.”

George C. Marshall said this to a student at Fort Benning in the 1930’s.

This still, and will always hold true.

Opportunities show their face at odd times, but if we have followed the steps that Mr. Marshall outlined here, we will recognize the opportunity and we will be able to take full advantage of that opportunity.

13: “Don’t fight the problem, decide it.”

Problems have a way of deciding things for you if you let them, and Marshall was not one to lie down and wait; rather, he was one to make it happen.

12: “When a thing is done, it’s done. Don’t look back. Look forward to your next objective.”

We cannot go back and fix a mistake or change that action; we can only learn from it and change the way we manage our next actions.

If we are always looking back, our focus is not on the present or the future.

11: “We have walked blindly, ignoring the lessons of the past, with, in our century, the tragic consequences of two world wars and the Korean struggle as a result.”

This goes along with the quote before.

We MUST learn and change because we are otherwise living the definition of insanity: do the same thing over and over expecting different results.

10: “Don’t ask me to make the decision.”

While Marshall did not press too hard against using the atomic bomb on Japan, he knew the consequences would be heavy loss of life.

He felt this decision was of such gravity that it was beyond the scope of the military and should be handled by the president.

After the bomb was dropped and others were celebrating, General Leslie Groves recalled that “General Marshall expressed his feeling that we should guard against too much gratification over our success, because it undoubtedly involved a large number of Japanese casualties.

9: “I can’t expect loyalty from the army if I do not give it.”

A true leader, Marshall did not ask for anything he was not prepared to give.

He was genuine and committed to the core.

8: “You have to lead men in war by requiring more from the individual than he thinks he can do.”

Much like a coach of a sport’s team, George teaches us that we can show and require much more from individuals than they even can think they can do.

By doing so, we show them that they can go beyond their limitations and we empower them.

7: “Passive inactivity, because you have not been given specific instructions to do this or to do that, is a serious deficiency.”

Marshall knew what was right, and strongly believed that action must follow conviction, for to do anything less was neglecting one’s duty.

6: “The most important factor of all is character, which involves integrity, unselfish and devoted purpose, a sturdiness of bearing when everything goes wrong and all are critical, and a willingness to sacrifice self in the interest of the common good.”

This is a George C. Marshall leadership lesson that should be repeated daily by military leaders.

Our character defines us and we will be judged by that character.

We may make mistakes, but how we admit and handle that mistake is a sure sign of our overall character.

5: “Go right straight down the road, to do what is best, and to do it frankly and without evasion.”

Known for his candor, Marshall espoused unwavering honesty and transparency, expecting those around him to do the same.

4: “Military power wins battles, but spiritual power wins wars.”

As a firm believer in God, George Marshall spoke with candor he was so well known for.

If he was in the position in this era, he would have been blanketed with protest from atheist groups.

This is where we as a nation must draw the line.

While those who do not believe in God have a right to say their stance, we should not provide them the power to say we cannot rely on our Higher Power in our governing and military process.

If we do not stand for Him, He will allow us to tumble.

3: “If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.”

Marshall was painfully aware of humanity’s penchant for conflict, and knew that the likelihood of ever straying from it was slim.

2: “It is not enough to fight. It is the spirit which we bring to the fight that decides the issue. It is morale that wins the victory.”

It has been shown time and again that a force with high morale but fewer soldiers actually has the advantage over a force with low morale and bigger numbers.

1: “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.”

I believe this is George C. Marshall’s top quote.

We as a nation should go to all means to walk away from war unless we are completely cornered that it is the only answer.

I was taught as a young man that it takes a bigger man to walk away from a fight and that in fights, both the winner and the loser lose.

Final Thoughts

George C. Marshall lived by several leadership principles that defined him as one of the top military leaders in history.

They include:

  • Selflessness – A leader’s service comes before their self-interest.
  • Candor – A leader must speak with both responsibility and honesty.
  • Integrity – A leader both speaks and acts in an honorable way.
  • Commitment – A leader always adheres to what is right.
  • Courage – A leader may feel fear but will not show the face of fear.

On March 15, 1960, President Eisenhower announced that the space complex at Redstone Arsenal would be renamed as the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

The formal dedication ceremony was held on September 8, 1960, and a bust of General Marshall was presented by his widow and President Eisenhower.

The bust is on display to this day at the space center.

General George C. Marshall played an unprecedented role in our nation’s history.

If you have any other stories about him or quotes you would like to add, please share them in the comments below.

Other posts you may enjoy:

  1. Top 37 George Washington Quotes & Leadership Tips
  2. 12 Common Army Leadership Mistakes
  3. Top 7 Military Leadership Lessons from the Vietnam War
  4. Being Calm, Cool and Collected: Leadership Tip for Army Leaders
  5. How to Develop Your Military Leadership Skills: 13 Ways to Do It
chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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