A Legacy of Leadership: Who is Fritz Kroesen?

By Brigadier General (Ret.) John H. “Jack” Grubbs, Ph.D., P.E., Sunday, January 01, 2017

Strong leadership comes in many forms.  When considering the good and bad in the business of leadership, I always – always – use General (Ret.) Frederick J. Kroesen as my yardstick for strong, competent leadership.  Allow me to tell a story.

In early 1968 I returned to Vietnam.  The only good news was my being placed in the category of “volunteer.”  The volunteer status goes like this – "Grubbs, you're leaving your family for Korea, Ethiopia, or Vietnam.  If you go to Vietnam as a volunteer, we will guarantee you a pinpoint assignment of your choosing." I chose Vietnam with an assignment to the 34th Engineer Group (Construction) in Vung Tau, Vietnam.  My first Vietnam tour was as a combat engineer with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, so the 34th Engineer Group would provide the more “classical” construction engineering opportunity.

The old saying “don't volunteer for nothing” turned out to be sage advice but what was done was done.  After one day at the reception center at Long Binh, Vietnam, located in the southern third of the country, I began to feel uneasy about my situation.  Other new arrivals had already been assigned and shipped out to specific units.  Given the Army promised me duty with the 34th Engineer Group, I should have been on my way first.  I waited. On the third day, everything went wrong.  I checked the assignment bulletin board. A sheet of paper had approximately 25 names on it.  The heading at the top read “Local” and was followed by a list of two dozen soldiers headed for areas in the southern part of Vietnam. Vung Tau was in the South.  Below those names was a second label, reading “Up Country” beneath which lay, still riveted in my mind, a single name:

GRUBBS, John H. (CPT)            23d Infantry Division

Unknown to me at the time, the 23d Infantry Division was the numerical designation of the “Americal” Division. My response, beyond the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, was to ask a question, “Who are they?”

The next day, March 16, 1968, I arrived in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. I was immediately assigned to the 26th Engineer Battalion (Combat) and sent to Landing Zone (LZ) Fat City.  Three months later, I was assigned to command A Company garrisoned at Landing Zone (LZ) Baldy, about 90 kilometers north of Chu Lai.  We were the direct-support company for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB). Immediately upon assuming command, I was directed to report to Colonel Frederick J. Kroesen, the Brigade Commander, at 7 o’clock the next morning.  All I knew at the time was that Colonel Kroesen was a veteran of World War II and Korea.  I expected to meet Attila the Hun.

I reported to Colonel Kroesen at the appointed time. Concurrently with a sharp military salute came "Sir, Captain Grubbs reports as ordered." Nothing else went according to my stereotyping of an infantry brigade commander.  A large man, he stood up and, towering over me, returned my salute; next he extended his hand and spoke:  "What's your first name?"

What followed was remarkable.  Not once did he tell me what I was going to do for him or for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Instead, he sat me down in front of operational maps and proceeded to brief me as though I had four stars on each shoulder. At the end of the hour, I had a solid grasp of the tactical situation and the concept of operations the brigade was using.  Just as important, I sensed he trusted me to do my job. With a full understanding of the difference in experience, position, and responsibility, Colonel Kroesen treated me as an equal.  It was refreshing to meet a leader who, as is often said, I would follow into the bowels of hell.

That initial sensing of his leadership proved valid throughout my tour of duty in the brigade and in the more than four decades that followed. Colonel Frederick J. Kroesen rose to the rank of full General and served as Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army.[1]  General Kroesen was a major influence in my serving another 30 years in the Army.  I would like to think that my leadership style has Frederick J. Kroesen stamped all over it.

As Head, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, I invited General Kroesen to speak to a class on military geography at West Point. Needless to say, his storytelling, bringing forth example after example of positive leadership from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, was riveting. Since he was a “target of opportunity,” I asked him to address my officers as well as cadets. During one of the sessions, a young officer asked General Kroesen to tell us about his philosophy of command.  I did not realize it at the time, but the question obviously put him on the spot. Here was a retired four-star general who had lived but not articulated his personal philosophy of leadership.  He later wrote about the question and his being “caught off-guard”.[2]  Both in the session, and in his writings, General Kroesen summed up his leadership philosophy up in three basic principles within which were subsumed many others.  After each principle written by General Kroesen, I have provided a comment relating to leadership traits in any environment, particularly business:

  1. Principle:  “ … a commander [leader] must have absolute confidence in his or her own decision making abilities and a willingness to make decisions under pressure.”

Traits: Personal competence in knowledge of one’s profession, mental toughness, decisiveness, common sense and sound ethics

  1. Principle:  “ …  confidence in decision making has to be complemented by an equally strong conviction that subordinates will see to the implementation of decisions.”

Traits: Trust in members of the team, ability to communicate, ability to teach and train, loyalty, discipline, mentoring

  1. Principle:  “A third principle of my command philosophy is the requirement for the commander to realize that he [or she] needs help.”

Traits:  Realistic self-esteem, trust in others, mentoring on a two-way street.

General Kroesen was not only on target with his words, but his actions over the years left a legacy in the leadership shown by his many subordinates.  In parsing his principles and relating them to his personal actions, we see the manner in which he treated members of his command. Examples I witnessed include:

  • During daily command briefings in Vietnam, he asked tough questions of his staff and commanders and insisted everyone knew what was going on. To my knowledge, he NEVER berated an officer, non-commissioned officer, or soldier in public.
  • During a major combat operation (Operation Pocahontas Forest, 1968), I was given free reign as to the allocation of numerous attached combat engineer units, with different combat support capabilities, to the combat maneuver units. I kept him informed; he supported all of my decisions.  He delegated authority and responsibility.  He allowed me to lead.
  • It was his idea for me to brief infantry battalion commanders concerning the optimum employment of engineer resources as a force multiplier.  He knew the basic resources and competencies of a combat engineer company. My relationship with the infantry commanders was rock solid.
  • As president of a general court-martial proceeding, he provided insight without improperly influencing the voting of each member.
  • Unlike some commanders, he never held his maneuver forces as being more “elite” than the support forces. In his brigade, everyone had a stake in accomplishing the mission.
  • Following retirement from the United States Army, General Kroesen gave freely of his time serving with advocate and military resource organizations, speaking to civic and military groups, including cadets at the United States Military Academy, and to writing on topics of national security.  

Many of my strongest leadership perspectives were seeded in the experiences with and observations of General Kroesen. Other former commanders and soldiers who served with him would say the same thing. Most importantly, his example of positive leadership over more than 70 years has gone well beyond the first generation. His entire life constitutes a legacy of strong, positive leadership.

A general officer assumed command of an Army division whose previous commanding general had been relieved. Among the first words he spoke to the division staff and subordinate commanders were “I am assuming each of you is competent and will do your job.” From that moment on the chain of command achieved the mission and revered the division commander.
His name – Frederick J. Kroesen

[1] General Kroesen was the 2007 recipient of the Thayer Award, awarded annually to a non-graduate of the United States Military Academy for service and accomplishments in the national interest.

[2] Kroesen, Frederick J., and C. R.  Newell (ed.), “General Thoughts: Seventy Years with the Army”, edited by C. R. Newell, Institute of Land Warfare, Association of the United States Army, Arlington, Virginia, 2003, pp. 72-74.

Brigadier General Jack Grubbs, Ph.D.

Expertise: Leadership, ethics, teambuilding, strategic planning, coaching  Experience: General Grubbs has more than five decades of leadership experience in the United States Army, academe, and as a business owner. His military assignments include two Vietnam tours as a combat engineer platoon leader, company commander (twice), and battalion operations officer with the 173d... Read More +

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