A notable old letter came across my desk yesterday (that is, someone e-mailed it to me), and the correspondent shares a perspective on senior leadership not too often espoused, but worth considering, though we’re seeing something of a revival of this antiquated approach these days, especially in the private-sector.

It was August 1939. The author was acting Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, general officers of the 20th century. President Roosevelt had earlier nominated Marshall to serve as Chief of Staff, a recommendation that sprang, in part, from the candor and acumen Marshall demonstrated by vocally disagreeing—yes, disagreeing—with President’s plan to provide aircraft to Great Britain. Roosevelt had failed to consider the sizeable logistics and training requirements. Marshall reminded him. In this letter, Marshall was advising promotable Colonel Bruce Magruder, who would pin on his first star two months later.

Working yourself to death

“You’ve always worked too hard,” Marshall begins, “you have done too many other people’s work.” That failure, according to Marshall, nearly cost an otherwise apparently successful Magruder his promotion to brigadier. In part, Marshall is talking about accountability. Not accountability necessarily in the pejorative sense, the punitive sense, but accountability that rightly expects people to do their own work, and do it well, or fail. Magruder, it seems, was happy to work himself to death for success, while others enjoyed the fruits of his labor. Marshall, as well, suffered from this flaw. He writes, “I woke up at about thirty-three to the fact that I was working myself to death, to my superior’s advantage, and that I was acquiring the reputation of being merely a pick and shovel man.” In other words, Marshall learned that he was micro-managing. Doing other people’s work rather than depending on them to do it, and do it well.

TIME MANAGEMENT in the military

Conventional wisdom in too many offices and much of the military, at least when I left in 2011, was that working long, late hours is necessary for success, especially while the country is fighting its forever war. For some, working exhaustive hours is necessary to succeed, because they’re slow. For others in uniform, long, murderous hours as a staff officer are a perfectly noble gesture that honors fallen comrades and those still fighting on the front lines. And for some others, there’s the sense that if I’m not staying exorbitantly late, well, then I’m half-stepping, and so it’s a costly way to make what may be excellent work seem much more difficult than it really is. Those sorts of professional work ethics apparently ruled Marshall’s day, too. And, in his view, it was a wrong approach, for many reasons, not the least of which is that, in the final analysis, it’s both unproductive and unsustainable. And if that sort of performance is necessary for organizational success, well, there’s something wrong with the organization.

After realizing his own error, Marshall writes, “I made it a business to avoid, so far as possible, detail work, and to relax as completely as I could manage in a pleasurable fashion. . . . I refused to read a great deal of the material worked up, and made a practice of pleasant diversions. I have finally gotten to the point [after six years of trying] where I sometimes think I am too casual about things; but I think I have reaped a greater advantage than this other possible disadvantage.”

don’t need it? Don’t do it

I think what Marshall learned, and what’s instructive for all of us, is how to recognize, prioritize, and act on what’s truly important, what’s truly productive and meaningful for success at whatever particularly level of responsibility we find ourselves. The rest that needs to be done can and should be done by those responsible for it, whether that’s at a lower level or a higher level. And what doesn’t need to be done, well, don’t do it. While that approach may first sound harsh or neglectful, what Marshall intends is for himself, and his people, to be truly productive for clear ends, not just busy for the sake of being busy.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.