Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership that Matters

Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership that Matters

by Gary Morton
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Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership that Matters by Gary Morton

Truly engaging people is not about commanding them to do something; it is about getting them to command themselves to do it. West Point distinguished graduate Gary Morton knows how to deliver exceptional results while doing just that. As a platoon leader and tank commander in Army Task Force 4-68 and, later, as a young vice president at medical device manufacturer Stryker, Morton learned under two legendary leaders who, despite different styles, followed nearly the same steps to achieve results most considered unattainable. 

In only a year, Task Force 4-68’s commander, Lt. Colonel Alfred L. Dibella, turned one of the Army’s poorest performing units into the most lethal, combat-ready task force in the US Army. In simulated-combat missions at the grueling National Training Center, Dibella’s task force defeated the constantly triumphant OPFOR in every battle. This feat has never been repeated. Generals and commanders at every level sought to understand how this unit did the impossible. 

When John W. Brown became CEO of Stryker, it was a boutique medical device firm with a few innovative products and $17 million in sales. Under Brown’s extraordinary leadership it evolved into a $4 billion market leader feared by competitors and highly regarded by healthcare professionals. Stryker accomplished this remarkable run by securing 20-percent earnings growth every quarter, every year—for twenty-eight years. Again, this is a feat experts believed unachievable. 

​By explaining the ingredients of these two leaders' secret sauce, Morton lays the foundation for current and future leaders to ensure their own teams excellence. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626344488
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,230,980
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

West Point distinguished graduate Gary Morton had a five-year career as a tank officer, the highlight of which was being part of an extraordinary unit that achieved unprecedented results at the US Army’s grueling National Training Center—the only unit to ever win every simulated battle it fought. Gary also graduated with an MS degree from the University of Southern California with honors. After the Army, he joined medical-device manufacturer Stryker, where he held positions of increasing responsibility in project management, engineering, R&D, operations, marketing, and business leadership, all culminating in twelve years as Vice President and General Manager of the EMS equipment business that he cofounded. An innovative juggernaut, Stryker EMS grew to become the global leader in patient-handling equipment for the ambulance market. His team introduced game-changing products that have redefined how paramedics handle patients in emergency situations throughout the developed world. Today, he is retired from Stryker and lives with his wife in the Midwest, where he writes and invests. You can learn more at

Read an Excerpt



Following an intense field-training exercise a few months after he assumed command, Dibella planned a galvanizing event. He brought every soldier of the task force and closely related support units into the main auditorium at Fort Carson. He began his presentation by detailing the many challenges that units face in confronting the OPFOR at the National Training Center.

The delivery was brutally honest. The OPFOR literally picked most units apart. They had nearly every advantage: numerical superiority, specially selected leaders, intimate knowledge of the terrain, exceptional maintenance organizations, high morale, and extraordinarily experienced troops. They seemed unbeatable.

Then Dibella expounded on what he believed would be their weaknesses: They followed Soviet doctrine to a tee, which made them predictable. Their equipment, while well maintained, was technologically inferior. They had no thermal-imaging sights, only infrared. Their tanks carried less ammunition. Their air and artillery support was slower to react and less deadly than ours. They were used to winning and could be overconfident.

He issued the challenge that was to become our all-pervasive purpose over the next nine months, "Most units are lucky to win a battle or two. A great battalion wins four or five of the battles."

He let those facts settle with the crowd, then, with a deliberate southern Illinois accent, he exclaimed:

"Ain't nobody ever been nine and oh! That is what we are going to do!"

That became the rally cry and the goal. It was simple, measurable, and meaningful, and every soldier would make a difference in achieving it. It was bold, inspired competitive juices, and was just beyond what seemed possible.


I was sitting in front of two hardened and skeptical master sergeants from the brigade maintenance support unit. They had heard similar rally cries from other battalion commanders whose units went out to Fort Irwin and were summarily humiliated.

"Here we go again," they lamented. "Everybody thinks rah-rah will beat the OPFOR, then they go out there and get their asses kicked."

What made 4-68 Armor different? Why did that task force prove the master sergeants wrong? Well, first of all, this wasn't just a cheer to energize the team; Dibella meant it. He would do everything and anything to support the ideas, processes, commanders, and soldiers to do whatever was necessary (and ethical) to go 9–0. He ensured that his staff and all of his commanders were totally focused in the same fashion.

For example, some battalions spent weeks preparing for a parade in front of the new assistant division commander. At 4-68, we did not have time for lengthy parade preparation; we spent only a day. Being great at close-order parade drill was not going to help us win at the NTC. We spent our time refining our battle plans and drilling the requirements and expectations into every soldier.

I cannot emphasize this point too much. Most leaders define aggressive goals for their organizations. Most leaders work diligently and drive their organizations to achieve the goals. Only a few deliver truly extraordinary results. The crucial difference lies in the distinction between simple high expectations and an all-embracing goal whose achievement becomes pervasive in the organization. The absolute clarity of purpose Dibella delivered served as an umbrella over the priorities of the battalion. It forced us to face with brutal and complete honesty any problems or issues that would impede its achievement.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs before him, follows a similar ethos at Apple. When discussing the keys to success, Jobs remarked multiple times, "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do."

Such focus cuts like a finely sharpened sword through the hubris of corporate bureaucracy. For 4-68 Armor, it was a guiding light.

Truly deciding what not to do has a profound impact on the organization. Many leaders struggle with the truly part of that sentence. They will say that the priorities are A, B, and C, but when outside scrutiny concentrates on priority D, they waver. Most, with all the best intentions, attempt to achieve every potential goal. They want to go 9–0 and win the parade. Deciding what not to do clarifies the purpose.


Dibella also had a driving passion to keep things simple. The most cogent element of this was the adoption of the singular purpose. We were not just going to win a battle or two; we were going to defeat OPFOR every time. It was audacious, measurable, inspiring, and straightforward. During his presentation, Dibella laid out an uncomplicated plan that had meaning for everyone. In describing the kinks in the seemingly impenetrable armor of the OPFOR, he also described an innovative methodology we were developing to provide an outline for every line soldier's responsibility in every type of operation. He described some critical observations from NTC veterans regarding the intelligence-gathering methods of the OPFOR and how we would use their methods against them. He described the shortcomings in Soviet maneuver doctrine, how the OPFOR would religiously follow the doctrine, and how we could use our knowledge of it to defeat them.


Dibella described how the battalion's leadership was wrapping up all of these thoughts into a tangible definition of how we were going to fight our battles, which he aptly named the Silver Lions Playbook.

He described the genesis and reasons for the playbook, starting with a story about Jim Young, who had taken over the Army (West Point) football-coaching job in 1983. Young moved into a program with a storied past that had been struggling in the 1970s and early 1980s. The experienced coach observed several key characteristics of the Army team: They were undermanned in the sense that their players were smaller and slower than those of their opponents. The players were stressed for time, with an uncompromising full academic load along with cadet duties. Having an entire team with mandatory enrollment in demanding courses such as electrical engineering could distract considerably from the football program. However, he also observed that, man for man, these players showed uncommon discipline, and they exhibited great cohesion as a team. The challenges they endured in academy life could become a source of team strength. They were quick learners and could execute simple plays together with precision. Young believed he could fuse them into a high-performance organization.

Dibella also recounted Young's challenge in deciding what kind of offensive program he could create to overcome these weaknesses and capitalize on these strengths. The experienced coach determined that a wishbone offense might work. For those unfamiliar with football, the wishbone is an offensive methodology based on a formation having three backs in the backfield, making the formation shaped like a wishbone when viewed from above. Its landmark play is the triple option, where the quarterback has the options of handing off to the full back, who will run off the guard; keeping the ball and running off tackle himself; or pitching the ball to an outside back if the defense crashes the line. It is considered the consummate team offense. It is a simple, run-heavy methodology. There are essentially only six offensive plays to master: three to the right and three to the left.

The wishbone methodology would compensate for the weaknesses of the Army team: Size was less critical than strength. Speed was less critical than quickness. The flashiness of other NCAA Division I-A players could be overcome with toughness and the martial art–like capability of being able to use your opponent's momentum and your own to your advantage. It compensated for the players' lack of time because it was simple to implement. Young wanted to ensure the practice time was spent developing excellence in executing each individual's task in a limited number of plays. The team would drill their six plays until they could execute with great precision. The handoff smoothly placed, the pitch perfectly timed, the blocking assignments down cold.

The wishbone also relied on great discipline and unit cohesion. It counted on eleven men on the field all understanding what was happening with the offense, every player reading their block, every player executing their assignment. No one person was out for themselves or attending to their individual statistics. The quarterback would likely get hit on every play, but that would not matter; it was about the number of yards gained. The Army team began to act and react like a single unit. This simplicity lent itself to the discipline and unit cohesion they already had. Positive results in the games quickly followed.

By his second year, Young had dramatically turned the program around. The team's record went to 8–3–1. They won the highly competitive games against their service academy rivals at Air Force and Navy and capped off the season by beating the Michigan State Spartans at the Peach Bowl. It was the best season Army had seen in nearly two decades.

Dibella (a former quarterback himself) was inspired by the turnaround in Army football. He described how the situation Jim Young faced when he first walked onto the field at West Point was fundamentally similar to that of our combined arms task force at Fort Carson.

We were undermanned in the sense that the OPFOR outnumbered our forces and had their pick of soldiers. OPFOR was nearly always at full strength, whereas the units at Fort Carson needed to beg and borrow personnel just to fill out their authorized positions. Even with every position filled, Task Force 4-68 Armor would go to the NTC as a 2–2 task force, composed of two mechanized infantry companies (about 110 soldiers each) and two tank companies (14 tanks each), with a total of 40 tank-killing systems. The OPFOR regiment had 140 tank-killing systems and an all-in strength of over 2,000 soldiers.

We had constrained time to practice along with significant additional responsibilities. It would be important to maximize the use of available field training by keeping the concept of our operations simple and the responsibilities of every person on the team absolutely clear. That way, the soldiers could drill the actions that they were most likely to execute in the battles. The playbook became our implementation of a simplified offense for maneuver operations, like the wishbone. It brought focus to our field training. Similar to most Army units at the time, we were a unit filled with soldiers who had volunteered. They came with a great capacity for discipline and potential for unit cohesion, but the constant personnel shuffle and myriad responsibilities outside of combat readiness handicapped our preparedness. The playbook helped to concentrate our available training time on the missions and sub-missions each individual unit would perform in a play. It was a way to capitalize on the strengths of our soldiers, NCOs, and officers.

The idea of simplifying our operations into a set of clearly defined plays was an act of genius. Instead of devising a completely new maneuver plan for each mission, it systemized our concept of the operation with straightforward methodologies for moving, attacking, and defending. In doing so, the playbook served as a quintessential instrument of clarity down to the individual soldier level. By grasping the basic ideas in the playbook, the purpose — going 9–0 against the OPFOR — became ever more meaningful. Every unit and every soldier could understand their role and concentrate their training on their assignment. We practiced and practiced until each company, platoon, and tank crew could execute with precision. In the background, the soldiers also gained a heightened awareness that their actions made a difference. What they were doing fit into the simple concept of a well-designed battle play that was easily understood.

During the auditorium presentation, the playbook was in its infancy. Dibella, his staff, and the commanders had many general ideas, but it would take several months to flesh out the plan for each of the plays and many more to drill them to precision. The process of building the playbook and then drilling it to near perfection would further serve to empower a shared obsession for winning and unleash transformational creativity in the unit.

Winning every battle at that phenomenal training center would require radical new approaches in how we conducted combat operations. The playbook became a vital part of that process. In a unit without such clear focus, the playbook could easily have lost momentum, fallen into disuse, or become a pet project of just a few. Even for units with a more immediate war-fighting mission on the border with the Eastern Bloc, the passion for combat proficiency was not as extreme as that in 4-68.

One of the former captains in the task force recalled a subsequent assignment on the border, "You would think that our focus on war-fighting skills would be absolutely crystal clear, but just the opposite was true because we had a commander who let all these little ankle-biter things be more important than improving those skills."

Beating the OPFOR would require exceptional command and control of the engagement. If we could develop a solid set of operational concepts, capture them in the plays, and get all of the soldiers to know their roles, it could give us a major leg up. The playbook boiled down the complicated process of task-force-level combat operations into simple steps that every soldier could understand.

We developed six plays: two offensive or deliberate attack plays, defensive plays for narrow and wide fronts, and two movement or movement-to-contact plays. In learning the plays, every frontline soldier knew their assigned role and the overall maneuver. It made acting and reacting swifter and more decisive. It integrated every combat support and combat service support system.

On a deliberate attack into an objective, for example, the play allowed everyone to understand who would be supporting them on their right, left, rear, or front. The fire-support unit could grasp the general flow of each battle and could develop a sense of which missions should take priority. The Air Defense Artillery (ADA) unit could understand where they should expect the friendly maneuver units to be during various types of operations and could develop their own "plays" for effective ADA deployment. The helicopter and fixed-wing air support could anticipate where the friendly and enemy units would be on the battlefield. We practiced it, we drilled it, and we refined it. We worked tirelessly until the unit could execute the plays flawlessly and individual soldiers had mastered their parts, as Dibella would say, "down to a gnat's ass."

Thirty years after the rotation, Mark Pires, a former captain in the task-force operations staff, recalled the atmosphere. "As we developed that thing [the playbook], not only was it a great collaborative effort from everybody involved, but everybody understood their role as part of the bigger picture, and everybody understood what those around them were doing. Everyone understood their piece, why their role was important, and how they meshed with everybody else."

This utterly pervasive and absolute clarity of purpose conferred a sense of togetherness and teamwork. The playbook codified it for our battles. Our six plays provided a widely understood framework for decisions large and small that were made every second by soldiers at all levels. Through thousands of individual decisions, an invisible hand moved every activity toward the same pervasive goal. The collective result was magical.



I must admit that, after the auditorium presentation, there were still many skeptics. In particular, the NTC veterans who had experienced firsthand the unmatched combat skill of the hardened OPFOR troops thought it was a bit farfetched that any unit could beat them in every battle. These veterans wanted to buy in to the purpose, but in the back of their minds they couldn't help feeling it was a bridge too far. Their fallback was to put the same energies into doing everything humanly possible to improve combat effectiveness, essentially the same things you would do if going wholeheartedly after the 9–0 goal.

Fellow platoon leader Bobby Campbell had been to the NTC in an advisor role to assist in training a National Guard battalion. "What I saw when I was at the NTC earlier," he said, "was that there's no way to beat these guys. I don't know that I personally ever believed we could go 9–0, but I knew we could give the OPFOR one hell of a fight."

After the first wins against the OPFOR, the momentum built. Campbell recalled, "We all started to believe it as we went further into the rotation."

When we started winning in training exercises leading up to the NTC, many began to believe. When we started winning battle after battle during the actual NTC rotation, even the veterans began to feel that it might be possible. Toward the end, 9–0 was our universal battle cry, and for the many months leading up to the rotation, it made our priorities crystal clear.


Excerpted from "Commanding Excellence"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gary Morton.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION Two Extraordinary Organizations,
PART 1 Absolute Clarity of Purpose,
1 Clarity of Purpose in 4-68 Armor,
2 Clarity of Purpose in Action at the NTC,
3 Structuring 4-68 to Focus on the Purpose,
4 Organizing Around Strengths in 4-68,
5 4-68's Unwavering Support from the Top,
6 Clarity of Purpose at Stryker,
7 Clarity of Purpose in Action at Stryker,
8 Structuring Stryker to Focus on the Purpose,
9 Organizing Around Strengths at Stryker,
10 Stryker's Unwavering Support from the Top,
PART 2 Empowered Obsession,
11 Building Trust and Earning Respect in 4-68 Armor,
12 Creating Stable, Close-Knit Teams in 4-68,
13 Actions Making a Difference in 4-68,
14 Affecting Lives and Careers in 4-68,
15 Ethics, Intensity, and Respect at Stryker,
16 Stability at Stryker,
17 You and Your Team Matter,
18 Affecting Lives and Careers at Stryker,
PART 3 Unleashing Creativity,
19 Purpose-Driven Creativity in Task Force 4-68,
20 Creativity Unleashed by Resource Availability in 4-68,
21 Creativity Unleashed by Continuous Improvement in 4-68,
22 Purpose-Driven Creativity at Stryker,
23 Resource Availability at Stryker,
24 Continuous Improvement at Stryker,
CONCLUSION The Remarkable Influence of Extraordinary Leaders,
APPENDIX A Army Organizational Structure,
APPENDIX B Stryker Organizational Structure circa 1990s,

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Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership that Matters 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 16 days ago
Well written.