Breakthrough Moments in Relationships

Great advisors often have moments when they forcefully demonstrate qualities such as great conviction, perceptive big picture thinking, and independence—or when they simply act rapidly and decisively on their client’s behalf. These instances illustrate how great advisors distinguish themselves from ordinary ones.

The room was silent as the world’s most powerful chief executive began to speak. Surrounding President Franklin Roosevelt at the conference table were key cabinet members and the top officers in the U.S. military. It was November 14, 1938, and in an atmosphere of isolationism Roosevelt was struggling to mobilize the United States for the inevitable war with Germany. His latest plan, an impractical compromise, was to get Congress to appropriate funds to purchase 10,000 airplanes—but to appease the isolationists, he recommended that no budget be set aside for crews or ground forces.

As Roosevelt outlined his proposal, heads nodded in sympathetic agreement. One by one, he asked his advisors what they thought. “Good plan, Mr. President,” they each intoned as Roosevelt went around the table. General George Marshall, newly appointed deputy chief of staff of the Army—and one of the most junior officials in the meeting—came last. Experienced in European trench warfare and knowledgeable about the German military, Marshall came to his new job with a deep sense of conviction and integrity. He knew what it would take to wage war on a global scale.

“Don’t you think so, George?” the President asked Marshall. “ Good idea, isn’t it?”

The faces in the room blanched at Marshall’s reply:

“Mr. President. I’m sorry,” he bluntly told Roosevelt, “but I don’t agree with that at all.”

Roosevelt gave him a startled look and abruptly ended the meeting. As the other shocked generals and cabinet secretaries left the room, they each shook Marshall’s hand to bid him goodbye. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau whispered to him, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” Everyone knew that Marshall would soon be removed from his post and sent to some far-off military installation. Quite the opposite happened, however: from that day onwards, Roosevelt adopted Marshall—one of the few of the president’s men who had the courage of his convictions—as his closest military advisor. Just a year later, Roosevelt pinned another three stars on his shoulders, appointing him secretary of the Army.

Have you experienced a “breakthrough moment” in a relationship? What happened?

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