An Insight a Day

Taking the Time to Think

From the book A World Without Email, a brief look at George Marshall, the US Army chief of staff during World War II, on concentration and big picture thinking over being responsive.

Those who retained access to Marshall were provided a clear structure for their interactions, turning briefing the general into an exercise in controlled efficiency. You were instructed to enter his office and sit down without saluting (to save time). At Marshall’s signal, you would begin your brief while he listened with “absolute concentration.” If he discovered a flaw or something missing, he would become angry that you hadn’t noticed and resolved the issue before wasting his time. When you finished, he’d ask for your recommendation, deliberate briefly, then make a decision. He then delegated taking action on the decision back to you.

Perhaps Marshall’s most striking habit was his insistence on leaving the office each day at 5:30 p.m. In an age before cell phones and email, Marshall didn’t put in a second shift late into the night once he got home. Having experienced burnout earlier in his career, he felt it was important to relax in the evening. “A man who worked himself to tatters on minor details had no ability to handle the more vital issues of war,” he once said.

Marshall focused his energy as a manager on making key decisions that would impact the outcome of the war. This was a task for which he was uniquely suited. He then trusted his team to execute these decisions without involving him in the details. As Eisenhower recalls Marshall telling him: “[The War Department] is filled with able men who analyze the problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”

It seems clear that Marshall would have rejected the claim that it’s more important for managers to be responsive than thoughtful. The report on Marshall’s leadership style emphasizes on multiple occasions the general’s commitment to concentration, especially when it came to making key decisions, when he would exhibit “thinking at a fantastic speed, and with unmatched powers of analysis.” The report also emphasizes the attention Marshall invested in “reflection” and big picture planning—trying to stay a step ahead of the complicated landscape of problems presented by global warfare.

Marshall was more effective at his job because of his ability to focus on important issues—giving each full attention before moving on to the next. If he had instead accepted the status quo of the War Department operation, with sixty officers pulling him into their decision making and hundreds of commands looking for his approval on routine activity, he would have fallen into the frantic and predictably busy whirlwind familiar to most managers, and this almost certainly would have harmed his performance. Indeed, if something like a hyperactive hive mind workflow had persisted in the 1940s War Department, we might have even lost the war.


The key lesson I want to extract from Marshall’s story is that management is about more than responsiveness. Indeed, as detailed earlier in this chapter, a dedication to responsiveness will likely degrade your ability to make smart decisions and plan for future challenges—the core of Marshall’s success—and in many situations make you worse at the big picture goals of management. In the short term, running your team on a hive mind workflow might seem flexible and convenient, but in the long term, your progress toward what’s important will be slowed.

A World Without Email

If you're interested in the full case study, you can read the original report here.