Research Paper: Curtis Lemay: Using Hersey-Blanchard Leadership

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[. . .] Got any comments?"[footnoteRef:12] He was also a tireless advocate for providing better conditions for his men. However, "one story that circulated about him was that when a group of colonels invited him to dinner he replied with a scowl, 'a man should have dinner with his friends, and the commanding general has no friends.'"[footnoteRef:13] Yet he did demand to see all of his officers once a week, telling them they did not need an appointment, just to walk in the door. When he trusted men, allowed them to make decisions on their own, but only if he was sure that their views were consistent with his own. [12: Narvaez, 1990.] [13: Narvaez, 1990.]

Despite his hard exterior, LeMay's daughter recalled him often asking people to dinner when he was serving in Germany in 1947 and in charge of the Berlin Airlift. "He has the reputation for being gruff and a disciplinarian and a perfectionist, and I think he probably was in the business environment, but when he was out for a personal evening with friends, he was just one of the people."[footnoteRef:14] His stern attitude was acceptable in the context of the military, but once LeMay stove to enter the fray of political life, his narrow views and lack of ability to ingrate himself with others shoved him to the periphery. [14: Jane LeMay Lode, "The Cold War Comes to Nebraska," Oral History Interview Form, 10 Sept 1998. (accessed 21 Aug 2013).]


LeMay's popularity began to dwindle as antiwar sentiment escalated in the United States during the 60s. LeMay "found himself constantly in conflict with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor. He lost most of those battles, many of them waged in favor of new air weapons, including a bomber to replace the B-52" and in the popular media was mocked as type of crazed Dr. Strangelove-like character for his advocacy of a more aggressive campaign in Vietnam to assure a quick victory. [footnoteRef:15] LeMay's political views not strictly pertinent to military endeavors also began to harden.[footnoteRef:16]When conservative candidate George Wallace ran as an independent for president on a position of segregation and expansion of the Vietnam campaign, LeMay was his vice-presidential running mate. [15: "General Curtis LeMay," The American Experience, 2009. ] [16: Narvaez, 1990.]

After his retirement, LeMay's daughter remembered her father as having a relatively modest lifestyle. "I suppose, when he retired, like so many of them do, they get so much for a speech or they...he was never interested in that. He just didn't do that. If he felt it was something he wanted to do, he went and did it. He never asked for any remuneration. Probably, looking back, that wasn't all that bright. But that is just what he did. He never really demanded the things that, probably, would have been due his station."[footnoteRef:17] LeMay was thus far less astute in terms of the needs of public relations, even to promote himself, versus his acute understanding of the narrow leadership demands placed upon military leaders. In reference to his legacy, it has been said "The country needed a man like Curtis LeMay in World War II and the Cold War. But generations after those conflicts it is hard to remember why."[footnoteRef:18] [17: Lode, 1998] [18: Warren Kozak, LeMay: The life and wars of General LeMay, (Regnery History, 2011).]

Contrasting military and civilian leadership

Figure 1

Image source: Project management skills

LeMay's life in the military was highly successful but his life in politics was not. Was LeMay's hawkishness so politically unpalatable that this resulted in his demise? Or was it his interpersonal style, which is regarded in a mixed fashion by friends and associates? Hersey and Blanchard, authors of a pioneering approach to situational leadership theory (Figure 1) would suggest that there is an inherent problem in transferring the leadership code of the military to that of civilian life. Although LeMay regarded the President as Commander-in-Chief during wartime, when it came to what he saw as the interference of politics in military strategy, he was uncompromising in his opposition. The decision to go to war may be political but the fighting of the war itself could not be so.

LeMay's refusal to play the political 'game' can be seen in his response to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, an astute politician, knew that LeMay agreed with his rival for the presidency Barry Goldwater that a no-holds war should be waged against Vietnam, rather than half-measures. To ensure he did not throw his support to Goldwater, Johnson offered LeMay an ambassadorship, to which LeMay replied that it made little sense to take him out of a position he knew something about (the military) and to give him a position he knew nothing about.[footnoteRef:19] He continued to fight with Johnson, demanding a more aggressive air-based bombing campaign vs. A cautious ground war against the guerrilla forces. [19: Kozak, 357.]

Even if there may be merit in the argument that a clear goal and a hard-fought war is superior than the methods used in the Vietnam War, neither Goldwater nor LeMay were able to convince the public because of their hawkish style. When talking about the issue with others, rather than attempting to sell his position or to nuance his point-of-view to gain power (as Johnson was so effectively able to do so in his political career), LeMay did not. This garnered him a reputation for being cruel and merciless, while LeMay saw himself as pragmatic. "If only somebody could keep them from doing the goddam thing piecemeal," a general confided to LeMay regarding the Vietnam War. LeMay voiced these thoughts aloud in public and was unable to articulate his concept that being 'cruel' only to be kind was necessary in wartime.[footnoteRef:20] Ironically, there was some ideological overlap between LeMay and the antiwar demonstrators whom he despised: both agreed that war was unadulterated hell and should be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. The only difference was that LeMay believed that victory in Vietnam was indeed a worthwhile objective and thus demanded an aggressive bombing campaign. [20: Kozak, 351.]

When followers -- soldier or civilian -- lack confidence, they are often willing to place their trust in a leader as was the case during World War II and the uncertain and turbulent period after the Cold War. As Hersey and Blanchard note in reference to their situational leadership theory, an acceptance of directive behavior comes when people are willing to be told "what and how. It involves telling and showing people what to do, how to do it, when to do it; monitoring performance; and providing frequent feedback on results. Directive Behavior develops competence in others." [footnoteRef:21] LeMay was willing to bolster his troop's confidence by sharing in their physical struggles, even when he did not have to do so and had frequent contact with his immediate subordinates regarding military matters. But when followers are emboldened (as they were after a string of evident failures of politicians to lead effectively in Vietnam), a different style of leadership is called for, which LeMay discounted. [21: Ken Blanchard, "Situational leadership II: The article," available (accessed 7 Sept 2013).]

LeMay was not interested in acting in the manner of a coaching type of leader who was willing to change his tactics to render his directives more palatable -- he was not even willing to personally ingrate himself through social meetings, given that he frowned upon mixing business with pleasure or tainting the decisions he might make with irrelevant considerations (although his friends and family had nothing but high praise for his interpersonal manner). Nor was he willing to take the approach of a 'supportive' leader who allowed his followers to exercise discretion: he felt he knew what was right and how things should be done, based upon his experience. Subsequent failures to achieve success in Vietnam only bolstered this belief. He was angry and frustrated at what he saw was tolerance for different points-of-view, leading to an unwinnable war. "If a war is worth winning LeMay's answer was simple: do not get involved in the first place."[footnoteRef:22] [22: Kozak, 342.]

It should be noted he was willing to give the authority to make decisions to some of his followers. During his leadership of the SEC, he noted: "If I'm busy, I'll tell you to get out. I want men of action in my organization who can make their own decisions…If you make an occasional wrong one, I'll back you up."[footnoteRef:23] But that was only when he trusted his men to conform to his basic vision of what the service should resemble. [23: Narvaez, 1990.]


Regardless of what one thinks of whether America should have entered Vietnam or not, LeMay's idea that all military maneuvers should have a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Curtis Lemay: Using Hersey-Blanchard Leadership.  (2013, September 7).  Retrieved July 19, 2019, from

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"Curtis Lemay: Using Hersey-Blanchard Leadership."  September 7, 2013.  Accessed July 19, 2019.