Why Donald Trump Likes To Surround Himself With Generals | KUOW News and Information

Why Donald Trump Likes To Surround Himself With Generals

Aug 23, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 10:50 am

When White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was pushed out of his job last week, it underscored the growing clout of President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.

And when Trump announced he was increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Monday, after suggesting for years that he wouldn't, administration officials were quick to note that he was heeding the advice of "the generals."

Trump, who attended the New York Military Academy as a teenager, has made clear he admires the toughness and discipline of military life and has appointed four former generals to top administration positions.

"I think that he likes the idea of military leadership, because military leadership is very decisive and audacious at times, and general officers are very good at simplifying problems and then getting the job done," said Thomas Kolditz, a retired brigadier general and the director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University.

While other administration figures have come and gone, Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are still on the job, with varying degrees of power and influence. (A fourth general, Michael Flynn, held a brief, stormy tenure as national security adviser.)

But as much as Trump reveres the military, his own management style could put him in conflict with the very generals he has appointed.

Leadership is a core part of military service, and promising recruits are taught from the beginning how to inspire and command respect.

"The heart and soul of who we are in the military is about leadership, and leadership on a day-to-day basis but very importantly leadership in combat," said retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen.

"So recruiting young men and women who have those skills early in their lives and then working hard to foster and nurture those skills are very important," he added.

Those qualities can make a big difference later on, when those men and women leave the military and venture into public life or the corporate world.

Former Procter & Gamble Chief Executive Robert McDonald attended West Point as a young man and later served five years in the Army, before leaving for a corporate job.

He had to make certain adjustments, he recalls. Because people in the Army move around so much, they're provided with manuals telling them how to do everything.

"So when I got to the Procter & Gamble Co., I went to my boss and I said, 'Where's the field manual that tells you how to organize your desk?' And of course they thought I was crazy," McDonald said.

But the leadership skills he learned in the military stayed with him throughout his career. McDonald likes to cite some words from the West Point Cadet Prayer.

"Those words are, 'Help me to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.' And it's remarkable, but in business as in life, the easier thing is usually the wrong thing to do," he said.

Carola Frydman and Efraim Benmelech, professors of finance at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, have studied the track records of chief executives who served in the military.

Among their findings: CEOs who are also vets are more cautious about spending money on research and development, and they tend to commit less corporate fraud.

They also don't tend to do any better than other chief executives, the research suggests.

But Frydman and Benmelech say CEOs who are also vets do tend to perform better during economic downturns. They can be good in a crisis.

"They bring the capacity to operate under stress, and in so many cases, this stress has been tempered in the hot flame of war. And you just can't pay enough for that kind of experience," Allen said.

That may be one of the qualities that appeal to Trump, whose administration has been plagued by leaks, aborted policy initiatives and high-level staff defections.

But Kolditz notes that Trump may not fully grasp the ethos of public service and loyalty to the country that military officers are brought up in.

"Donald Trump's grown up in a scrappier place, where it was pretty much about making money for yourself, and he is brand new to public service," Kolditz said.

"Many of the things that Donald Trump expects from his people require [their ideas about public service] to be set aside for personal loyalty to Donald Trump. And so we're going to see this meeting of the minds, and I think it will be a process of consistent negotiation in how things happen," Kolditz added.

"What he's looking for is success," Allen said. "And so in his mind it would seem he has concluded that among the many other people that might come into the administration, retired generals offer perhaps a time-tried and battle-proven executive who can come into the administration and provide critical leadership in key positions.

"And with Kelly, Mattis and McMaster, he has certainly found three of the best and he has placed them I think in three pretty critical positions," Allen said.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump goes back and forth on using the U.S. military. He used to advocate pulling out of Afghanistan, for instance, and now he's committing additional forces there. But he's clearly a big fan of using men with military experience for top positions in his administration. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports on how military leadership translates.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was fired last week, the decision was announced by Trump's chief of staff, former Marine Corps General John Kelly. And it was senior military officers that Trump turned to this week when he made his Afghanistan speech. Here was U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley on CNN yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEW DAY")

NIKKI HALEY: He listened to his generals. He saw what they were saying.

ZARROLI: As a teenager, Trump attended a military academy. And he's made clear he reveres the toughness and discipline of military life. He's appointed four generals to top positions. Tom Kolditz is a retired brigadier general.

THOMAS KOLDITZ: I think that he likes the idea of military leadership because military leadership is very decisive and audacious at times. And, you know, general officers are very good at simplifying problems and then getting the job done.

ZARROLI: In the military, promising recruits are taught how to inspire and lead, and those skills can make a difference later. Former VA secretary and Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald knows that firsthand. He went to West Point and spent five years in the Army. Then he went into the corporate world. He had to make adjustments. Army life is regimented. You even get a manual telling you how to organize your desk.

ROBERT MCDONALD: So when I got to the Procter & Gamble company, I went to my boss. And I said, you know, where's the field manual that tells you how to organize your desk? And of course, they thought I was crazy.

ZARROLI: The leadership skills McDonald learned in the military stayed with him throughout his career. He mentions some words in the West Point prayer.

MCDONALD: Those words are, help me to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong. And it's remarkable, but in business, as in life, the easier thing is usually the wrong thing to do.

ZARROLI: Northwestern finance professor Carola Frydman looked at the track record of CEOs who were in the military.

CAROLA FRYDMAN: We found pretty striking evidence that CEOs with military background are much less likely to commit corporate fraud. There is a sense that being ethical is really important.

ZARROLI: Frydman says veterans don't tend to do any better than other CEOs, but they're good in a crisis. And it's this ability to bring order by cracking the whip that seems to appeal to President Trump. But retired General Kolditz says today's military officers are taught to lead by inspiring trust and respect. They don't just bark orders. Kolditz says there's something else Trump may not understand.

KOLDITZ: Donald Trump's grown up in a scrappier place, where it was pretty much about making money for yourself. And, you know, he is brand-new to public service.

ZARROLI: It's not hard to imagine generals who were taught this ideal of public service clashing with a president who prizes personal loyalty. But people such as Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster bring something else to the table that Trump may come to appreciate. They are savvy insiders with track records on policy matters. That could benefit a White House where political experience is in short supply. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.