May 28, 2015


A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General. By General Ann Dunwoody (U.S. Army, Ret.) with Tomago Collins. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Here is a book that is very successful on one level, that of autobiography, and much less so on another, that of advice dissemination. Ann Dunwoody became the first four-star female general in United States history when President George W. Bush nominated her to that rank in 2008. It was a remarkable accomplishment – just how remarkable becomes clear from A Higher Standard. She had to “hang tough with the boys” at a time when that simply was not done. She had to endure hazing rituals that are no longer allowed in the more-humane, more politically correct U.S. Army. She had to find ways to compete on others’ terms, including some that she declines to share with readers: “I asked…whether I might offer a joke to prove my worthiness. I will not tell the joke here, but suffice it to say it was one of [the] crassest jokes ever told and would have made the saltiest of sailors hoot and holler. The crowd roared its approval, five thumbs immediately raised from the board, and it was done.”

     Hmm. This is not exactly what is meant by a “higher standard,” but the book’s title nevertheless resounds with meaning as readers follow Dunwoody’s career from her first command (leading 100 soldiers) to her final one before retirement (heading the U.S. Army Materiel Command, a supply chain that included 69,000 employees and supported the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan). There is plenty that is uplifting in her story. She stands for values that many now consider old-fashioned but without which there might never have been a United States, certainly not one as powerful as the nation is today (for all that some say the power is being vitiated). Readers need to be comfortable with Dunwoody’s straightforward thinking in order to appreciate the full impact of her story. “I felt a personal responsibility to prepare our American sons and daughters for war. …[The] Quartermaster Creed – ‘I can shape the course of combat, change the outcome of battle’ – this has resonated with me for almost thirty years…[and] the Soldier’s Creed…takes precedence for me over every creed I hold dear except the Apostles’ Creed.”

     The Soldier’s Creed says, in part, “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.” Anyone uncomfortable with these sentiments, strongly stated and clearly strongly felt, will find A Higher Standard very difficult to read, detailing as it does Dunwoody’s rise through the ranks and the challenges she faced throughout her career. A self-described “Army brat,” she relished her father’s frequent reassignments, considering them new adventures – an attitude that stood her in good stead in her own career. She is plainspoken about what she often faced and how she handled herself: “I’ve walked, crawled, and skipped through many open doors and even had to kick in a few. With each opening comes the challenge of proving I can handle the job…[but] for me it was never about becoming the first anything; it was about being able to make a difference and being respected as a soldier and a leader.”

     Those seeking to make a difference and gain respect in civilian life, however, will quickly realize that Dunwoody’s tactics in a rigidly hierarchical system, where everyone clearly understands the chain of command and knows the rules and the consequences of failing to play by them, will be of little value in, say, a typical business situation – although certainly some large companies continue to operate with a military-style approach. Dunwoody’s recommendations for success in the civilian world are certainly not wrong, but they are naïve and have been put forth many times before. Among them are to recognize when something is wrong and hold people accountable for it; to learn how to cultivate your advocates and deal with your detractors; to see yourself always as part of a team, and to reward team members’ good performance and correct performance that is subpar; and to value diversity as an inherent strength that improves management and leadership. The last of these recommendations is more arguable than the others, at least in the way “diversity” is so often implemented – on the basis of meaningless, superficial characteristics, such as skin color, rather than meaningful ones, such as differing cultural backgrounds, viewpoints or thought patterns. But to at least some extent, all these notions are positive, values-driven ones in which Dunwoody surely believes. And she also surely believes very strongly in herself, as she had to in order to attain the heights to which she rose. Even her self-deprecating comments have an underlying ring of positivism: she was a strong, multi-talented athlete in college, a “hyper tomboy,” but still has “nightmares about falling off the balance beam, and this remains a great source of humor for my husband. He laughs at the fact that I’m afraid of static heights, particularly ledges of any kind, even though I never thought twice about jumping out of airplanes anywhere, anytime. I guess trying to perform four feet off the ground on a four-inch-wide beam can be more intimidating than jumping out of a plane from one thousand feet while strapped with military equipment.”

     Clearly, Dunwoody had a remarkable Army career, and a remarkably successful one; and her recounting of what she did and how she did it is engaging, involving and often fascinating. A Higher Standard is certainly worth reading to learn about the substantial accomplishments of its author – but with the exception of her can-do attitude (which comes across as a can-do-anything attitude), readers are unlikely to find advice and suggestions here that they have not heard before and that they can emulate in their own, more-mundane, everyday civilian lives.

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