What media professionals can learn from General Patton

By Bob Provost

Rutgers Business School

Newark, New Jersey, USA


One of the most iconic motivational speeches in history was actually a series of speeches given by U.S. General George S. Patton, Jr., addressing the inexperienced soldiers of the U.S. Third Army prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II. The words of this flamboyant, “colourful,” and controversial, but incredibly effective, leader were immortalised in the 1970 movie Patton.

Let me give a nod here to New Jersey’s Rich Vezza, publisher of the Star-Ledger, who first brought my attention to Patton as a leadership model. A little research led me to the aforementioned speech.

I’ll share a few excerpts and my interpretation of them in this blog post. If you decide to check out the full text, be warned: It is profanity-laden and graphic. Patton was about to lead thousands of young (mostly teenaged) men into their first combat and he needed, as they say, to “put fire in their bellies.”

My first excerpt is, fittingly, from his opening remarks:

“Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

The bottom-line marketing translation:

“No business ever triumphed in the competitive market by cutting costs. Cutting costs is a short-term, survival tactic, not a winning strategy. The winning business is the one that forces the other bastards to cut costs to survive.”

Now I’m not saying cutting costs isn’t a good move in the short-term. It is, however, a tactic of deconstructive change. It is applied to parts of the organisation that have become obsolete or no longer contribute (sufficiently) to the overall success of the enterprise.

However, while cost cutting may lead to savings, it is not the path to success. Only when an organisation embraces constructive change(s) by strategically investing in future growth can the organisation be said to have a winning strategy.

Your team needs to feel it is being lead to victory, not hunkering down in a bunker hoping to survive.

This leads me to the next quote:

“When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.”

The bottom-line marketing translation:

“If you expect to recruit and retain the best talent, if you want advertising revenues and audiences to grow, your news media organisation needs to be perceived as a winner. No one stakes their future on a loser.”

Pay attention to your organisation’s image. If you’re not proactively out in the market promoting your award-winning news coverage, success as the public watchdog, efficacy for local advertisers, and relevancy to emerging younger adults … well, you are allowing your image to be shaped by the negative news of print sales declines, layoffs, and other traumatic headlines that reach the public eye and awareness.

No one is going to tout your digital audience growth, the reach of your total print distribution system or your value as a multi-media news provider and marketing partner.

Internally, does your team and/or organisation celebrate successes regularly and enthusiastically? Do the members of your news team hear about sales successes in advertising? Does the ad team hear about the achievements in the newsroom or audience development? Do reader and advertiser testimonials circulate internally and externally?

Success breeds success, and a culture of success must be propagated. It will not happen by default.

“I dont want any messages saying ‘Im holding my position. Were not holding a goddamned thing. Were advancing constantly and were not interested in holding anything … My men dont dig foxholes. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving.”

The bottom-line marketing translation:

“The difference between management and leadership is progress. Management is the simple maintenance of the status quo. Leadership is taking the organisation from point A to a more desirable point B. A leader has set ambitious goals and communicated those goals and a plan to achieve them. Your organisation (and the news media industry) need more leadership; for with leadership comes momentum, progress toward goals, and success.”

I think this interpretation speaks for itself. Often, when I am asked how I’m doing in the workplace, my response is “Oh, I’m causing my share of trouble!”

As a CMO, it’s been my (thankless) job to be the change agent. I’m the guy who is supposed to research and introduce “new and different” while identifying and eliminating “old and obsolete.”

Resistance to change is human nature. Tenured employees are just as reluctant to get out of the rut of routine as a soldier under fire is to leave the shelter of the foxhole.

A good leader never lets the team get too comfortable, for with comfort comes complacency and decline. Still, you have to be sure your team understands you’re leading it to a better place.

In closing this New Year’s topic, I am going to share three excerpts from Patton’s comments collectively:

“There will be some complaints that we’re pushing our people too hard. I don’t give a damn about such complaints. I believe that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood … All the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters. Every single man in the army plays a vital role. So don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant … You know how I feel. I’ll be proud to lead you wonderful guys in battle anytime, anywhere.”

The bottom-line marketing translation:

“Tell your team members they are the ‘best in class,’ and nine times out of 10 they will try to prove you right.”

At the height of the success of the newspaper industry in America, success ultimately rested on the shoulders of a youth getting out of bed or home from school and delivering on a newspaper route. If that didn’t happen, the work of the journalists in the newsroom and the account executives in advertising was all for naught.

Those days are long gone, but the point remains. Every employee must understand and feel his efforts are of value and necessary for success.

The people on your team will endure stress and make sacrifices to meet your expectations if they understand the “why” of what they are doing. But they won’t give their all time and time again to help you grind out another dollar of profit for Wall Street shareholders.

What future hope and promise have you held out for them personally (professional growth, advancement, job security)? What higher purpose do they perceive is served by your news organisation and their work (corporate and social responsibility)? How much time and attention have you given to the motivation of every individual in the organisation?

And, finally, when was the last time you told your team that you are unequivocally “proud to lead you … anytime, anywhere.”

About Bob Provost

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