Great Captains of History: Inspiration to Guide Corporate Success

By Colonel (Retired) James M. Johnson, Ph.D. , Sunday, January 01, 2017

The making of America’s Great Captains: as a corporate leader, what can you learn from their character, intellect, leadership, and example, to help drive your organization to greater success? Theodore A. Dodge published his classic work, Great Captains, in 1889, singling out Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick, and Napoleon as meriting the distinction of Great Captain.  Although Dodge was a brevet lieutenant colonel who had lost a leg at the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, to his way of thinking, not a single American general had made the cut.  He quoted Napoleon to explain why the list was so selective even in the period that he had analyzed, since he failed to include, for example, Genghis Khan and de Saxe:  “The art of war is the most difficult of all arts, the military reputation in general the greatest of all reputations.”   In his six lectures, Dodge also chose not to anoint any of the American or Prussian commanders who had followed Napoleon in the American Civil War and the Wars of German Unification.  His assessment of what produced Great Captains, however, allows present-day students of leadership to add to his initial list: “the coexistence of extraordinary intellect and equal force of character, coupled with events worthy of and calling out these qualities in their highest expression.”  Thus the American Great Captains honored at West Point in statues, roads, and areas may be added to Dodge’s list:  Washington and the West Pointers, Grant, Lee, Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur.  In some distant time, even Schwarzkopf and others may be added to the discussion.  American Great Captains of Industry stand out as well:  Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and Vanderbilt.   Military and corporate leaders can look to these Great Captains for inspiration to guide their organizations to success.

What has distinguished the military Great Captains of history is the ability to exercise the

art of command to shape momentous events.  U.S. Army Field Manual, 3-0, Operations, says that “the art of command lies in conscious and skillful exercise of command authority through visualization, decision making, and leadership. Using judgment acquired from experience, training, study, and creative thinking, commanders visualize the situation and make decisions.”  The ancient Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, wrote in The Art of War that the commander has the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness. The Prussian Karl von Clausewitz blended all of these qualities into military genius: “first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hours, retains some glimmering of inner light which leads to truth, and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead."   The military genius possessed coup d’oeil or intuition,” the ability to see things simply”—a mental eye that can size up the situation in a glance leading to situational awareness "that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection."  Dodge’s Great Captains were military geniuses who exercised the art of command and changed the course of history.  Above all, they possessed great intellect and character and were strategists of the first order.   

West Point’s Great Captains walked the stage at momentous times in American history: the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II, and left their mark.  From Washington to MacArthur, they were men of character, intellect, and judgment.  As combat commanders (all but Eisenhower), they showed courage and situational awareness on the battlefield.  All had the organizational skills that allowed them to command successfully large armies; Eisenhower and MacArthur even commanded the armies of other nations.  All meet Dodge’s criteria. 

The Thayer Leader Development Group’s “America’s Great Captains:  West Point and the Making of its Generals” is focused on West Point and its influence on the U.S. Army’s great leaders.  History comes to life at West Point during a seminar about leadership and a guided experience of the United States Military Academy.  Guided through some of West Point's most famous and historic sites, landmarks, and monuments, the group will gain insights into how West Point nurtured officers to lead the Army and the nation. During this session, participants will discuss highlights of the leadership of America’s Great Captains--Generals George Washington, U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower--and then visit the places they lived and studied, including Trophy Point, the Plain, the West Point Cemetery, and the monuments that memorialize them for their contributions to the United States of America.  Participants will walk where these great men walked and see the West Point cadets who are inspired by their monumental deeds.

Contact us to find out more about the Thayer Leader Development Group and to explore opportunities to develop a customized leadership development program for the leaders of your organization.


Colonel James M. Johnson, Ph.D.

ExpertiseMilitary history, American Revolution, Hudson River Valley, staff rides  ExperienceDr. Johnson has over 49 years of leadership experience with a 30-year career in the U.S. Army. He served in leadership assignments both in the U.S., Germany, and the Republic of Korea, to include teaching as a member of the History... Read More +

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"Most important things leaders do: 1) accomplish the mission 2) take care of their people"
Colonel James M. Johnson, Ph.D.
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"Most important things leaders do: 1) accomplish the mission 2) take care of their people"
Great Captains of History: Inspiration to Guide Corporate Success




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