“A long time ago in a desert war far, far away.”

When I look back on the early days of military career, those are typically the words I use, playing off the opening crawl of the first Star Wars film. The Gulf War was a formative experience for a young lieutenant. It was a crucible event, testing my limits in ways that nothing ever had before. It was a transformational learning experience, imparting meaningful lessons that endure today. And it changed my career trajectory, leading to three decades of military service (and a few trips back to that same desert).

I was walking out the front door of our quarters on an otherwise normal Saturday morning when the phone rang. Two days earlier, Saddam Hussein had launched his forces into the tiny emirate of Kuwait. My leave was cancelled, and I had orders to report immediately as my battalion began preparing for our eventual deployment to Saudi Arabia. In the days that followed, with CNN playing constantly in the background, one particular figure loomed larger than life: General Norman Schwarzkopf, who would lead the coalition military effort to liberate Kuwait.


Schwarzkopf was the right leader at the right time in history. Selected to lead U.S. Central Command in late 1988, he was an accomplished strategic thinker with unmatched knowledge and experience in the Middle East. During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1989, he warned of the potential threat posed by Iraq. Just over a year later, he drew on the lessons of Internal Look ’90—a CENTCOM military exercise—to develop a response scenario in the event of a regional dictator invading a neighboring country to seize oilfields. When Saddam Hussein did just that on August 2, 1990, Schwarzkopf was ready.

Schwarzkopf’s larger-than-life persona was evident from the outset of Operation Desert Shield. As a wartime commander, he projected the concrete resolve of a leader with a laser focus on the task ahead, yet never lost sight of the incredible burdens of his command. Leading an international force of 750,000 into battle is no small task, and no one was better suited for it than Schwarzkopf. He was blunt, honest, and, to the enjoyment of millions around the world, entirely quotable. Whether commenting on the military prowess of Saddam or the fighting ability of his opponents, the media adored him and the public hailed him as an icon.


When Schwarzkopf published his autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, in 1992, it was an immediate best-seller. I wore out my own copy, eventually passing on my dog-eared book to someone else to enjoy. When he died in 2012, I was just completing my final deployment. Norman Schwarzkopf bookended two of the most significant moments of my life, my first and last combat tours.

Through it all, his words left an indelible mark on my leadership philosophy. Of the many thoughts he shared—in his typical candid, outspoken manner—10 stood out to me more than any others.

1. “You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it. And, therefore, you learn how to do it.”

It’s called vicarious learning. If you have an opportunity to learn from someone else’s mistakes, you should.

2. “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

Ethical dilemmas are the forge where great leaders are made. They’re not called “dilemmas” because there’s an easy answer.

3. “True courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that’s what courage is.”

Everyone around you is afraid, and they’re all looking for you to take the lead. Don’t let fear make your decisions for you.

4. “War is a profane thing.”

War delivers death and destruction on a wholesale scale. Once you know what that looks like “up close and personal” it dispels you of any romantic notions of war.

5. “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in battle.”

Patton once said, “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.” Train and train hard. The more effort you put into training now, the better prepared your team will be for the battles to come.

6. “When placed in command, take charge.”

There are those among us who are more enthralled with the idea of being in command rather than actually commanding. Someone entrusted you to lead. Do it.

7. “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”

Never ask someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. Lead from the front. Always.

8. “Fear will keep you alive in war. Fear will keep you alive in business. There’s nothing wrong with fear.”

A healthy dose of fear is a good thing. It means you recognize the risks you’re facing and the consequences that they bring. Just don’t let it be the foundation of your decision-making process.

9. “You can’t help someone get up a hill without getting closer to the top yourself.”

Lead by example. It’s that simple.

10. “To be an effective leader, you have to have a manipulative streak—you have to figure out the people working for you and give each tasks that will take advantage of his strength.”

This speaks for itself, really. Recognize and leverage the talents of your team, then remember to reward them appropriately when the time comes.

The Necessary Leadership Combo

Among the pearls of wisdom shared by Schwarzkopf, there is one that ranks toward the top of every list: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.” I don’t include it for one simple reason—I’ve known my share of leaders who were people of character that drove their organizations to failure because they lacked the intellectual capacity to think strategically. Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character, but it’s not an either-or proposition. You need both to lead effectively.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.