No Time for Spectators is a masterful recount of Martin E Dempsey’s career and life as one of the United States military’s top generals. General Dempsey has crafted a well-structured set of tips for aspiring leaders which collates key lessons he has learnt throughout his career. From his time at West Point through to his role as senior Defence advisor to the President, he doesn’t hold back in candidly identifying some of the mistakes he made throughout his career and what he learnt because of them.
It’s a field guide on how to learn through trial and error. It normalises humanity as a military officer, and it highlights that General Dempsey continued to learn lessons right through to the end of his career. It also shows many instances where he mentored and guided those around him through sharing his wisdom and advancing their understanding of the world.
The book is a great read and can be just as easily read in small doses or in one sitting. Each of the narrated snapshots in time throughout the book allow the reader to get just as much from a five-minute read as they do from an hour-long sitting. General Dempsey breaks his book down into nine chapters that each have a key theme and are filled with a multitude of short stories that each build toward the theme of that chapter.
They centre on the key tenets: learn to follow first; never forget that character matters; be passionately curious; understand the limits of loyalty; don’t hurry; welcome moments of surprising clarity; sweat the small stuff; exercise sensible scepticism; and be responsibly rebellious.
General Dempsey starts the book with an all too common claim that he didn’t want to go to the United States Military Academy (West Point) or become a military officer. After being encouraged to apply for the U.S. Naval Academy by his veteran uncle and impressing the U.S. Army’s track and field coach during his entrance physical fitness examination, he was hurriedly appointed to West Point.
At the beginning of the book General Dempsey recalls key moments in time that were pivotal to his career. He details a time when he had all but resigned from the military as well as a time when his career was almost ended due to health issues. This sets the reader up to recognise that everyone has twists and turns in their lives and careers, and because of this we are all just a single decision away from significantly changing the course of history.
The book is filled with first-hand accounts of frank discussions that General Dempsey has had, particularly during his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama. After providing his initial reaction to each situation, he is honest in identifying to the reader when he may not have presented his best self in certain situations, but quickly follows with an internal reflection to identify what he learnt from that situation. He also expertly weaves key themes through his stories, even when the stories are distinctly separated by time, to identify the impact that each lesson had on interactions later in life.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when General Dempsey recounts a particular federal budget whereby the Department had forecast a considerable shortfall. This required the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make a proposal to the President for additional funding. The timing of the request meant that it was perceived by the President as showing disloyalty, when in fact the Joint Chiefs had put the proposal together as an act of loyalty to forewarn the President of their budgetary concerns. After explaining himself to the President, General Dempsey was able to secure additional funding, but his proposal had been misinterpreted. The lesson in this was that the best advice must be sensitive to not only timing but also competing priorities. Your leader is likely to have more information than you; therefore, even the most carefully crafted proposal may not consider all of the factors at play.
You never know where you will be transported each time you turn the page with the vivid storytelling of General Dempsey’s long and prestigious career. He has had the pleasure of being surrounded by many great leaders throughout his career and he has wasted no time learning everything he can from each of them. His willingness to learn from everyone around him, coupled with his humility gave him an advantage over his peers. The thing that separates him from the rest is perhaps not his intellect, intelligence, education, or charisma – but rather his deep thinking and analysis of the world along with his continuous self-assessment and reflection. As you read his book you realise just how much he listens to others and values their input.
General Dempsey’s constant reflective practice and refinement of his lessons learned over time identifies to the reader that the very best individuals are willing to fail, reflect, and learn. His ability to critically analyse and self-reflect meant that he was able to continuously improve throughout his career. Rather than blame others for his mistakes, he constantly searched for the lesson in every circumstance so he could quickly learn and move on. He never dwelled on the past, but continually adjusted his perspective over time as he gathered a broader understanding that allowed him to adjust his approach to similar situations in the future.
The book is designed to impart a philosophy that in life, there is no time for spectators. It offers candid reflections relevant to all individuals at all stages of life, not just the astute military leader, with military jargon broken down to ensure his message is not lost in translation to the broader audience. For that reason, I recommend this book to anyone wanting to live life to the fullest, reflect, and learn from every interaction in their life.