Powerful Leadership Lessons
Jul 15, 2009

There may be no greater sacrifice than risking one’s life in order to serve and protect one’s country. It’s humbling to consider how many brave Canadians and Americans are doing just that in Afghanistan right now. Many of these men and women lead their fellow soldiers through treacherous conditions every day. What’s more, they’ll continue leading when they get home – in the workplace, at home, and in their communities.

As the military continues its overseas operations, it will need more great leaders to emerge within its ranks. That’s why it is important to shine a spotlight on great military leaders – those who can offer been-there-done-that lessons on the art of leadership for those inside, and outside, the armed forces. Charles Garcia does just that in a new book that brings attention to a prestigious program that, for the past 40 years, has drawn from the wisdom of America’s top military leaders, and helped develop the leadership skills of former enlisted men and women.

“It’s common knowledge that the ­military produces strong, quick-thinking leaders,” says Garcia, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a former White House Fellow, and author of Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization. “But what’s less known is that the White House Fellowship Program has been helping military men and women further hone their leadership skills for four decades – including great leaders at the highest ranks like former Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark.”

Garcia’s book takes an in-depth look at the White House Fellowship Program, which has pushed young Americans to excel for four decades now. Using insightful, first-hand accounts from past program participants, the book explores leadership lessons that are a major part of every Fellow’s experience.

“Though serving in the military and completing a year as a White House Fellow are very different experiences, there are core similarities that can’t be denied,” says Garcia. “Both are life-changing experiences, and both teach timeless leadership skills. My goal with this book is to share these leadership lessons with everyone else.”

Leadership Lessons of the White House ­Fellows includes 20 tenets of successful leadership, each illustrated by multiple inspiring anecdotes. Read on for a sampling of eight of those powerful lessons, backed by real-life stories from some of the nation’s most decorated military leaders and those who learned from them:

Put Your People First
No organization is better than the people who run it. The fact is, you are in the people business – hiring, training, and managing people to deliver a product or service. People are the engine of your success, and you will need to attend to your people with a laserlike focus if you are to become a great leader.

Mitchell Reiss (WHF 88-89) has seen firsthand that a leader’s focus on his or her people is an incredibly powerful tool. He learned that valuable lesson during his White House Fellowship from his principal, the National Security Advisor, former Secretary of State, and former White House Fellow, Colin Powell.

“Two weeks after I started my Fellowship, there was a picnic over the weekend for the National Security Council staff and their families,” Reiss recalls. “We got there promptly, but General Powell was already there helping set up, helping cook the burgers and hot dogs, and personally greeting every single person, not just on the staff but their families. He came over to me and knew not only my name but introduced himself to my wife, Elisabeth, and thanked her for allowing me to work the hours that I worked at the NSC. He told her she should feel that she is part of the NSC family as well.

“That very brief but very personal interaction with Powell had an extraordinary impact on her. After he left, she turned to me and said, ‘You better do a good job for that man. If you need to stay late at work, I will never complain.’ That’s the sort of transformative impact that leadership can have, and I was able to see it up close and personal with Colin Powell. This lesson was invaluable when I later worked at the State Department, where I tried to replicate this sense of teamwork and compassion.”

Root Out Prejudice
Great leaders recognize that talent and leadership abilities are distributed randomly. Therefore, they do not form judgments about a person based on ethnicity, gender, religion, age, or any other factor. They root out prejudice and biases in themselves and others and ensure that there is an equal opportunity at all levels for everyone to rise to a position of leadership in his or her organization on the basis of merit and character.

In 1975, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 having been in effect for 11 years, violent racism was still prevalent in America. Cliff Stanley (WHF 88-89) was forced to face this ugly reality when a sniper targeting African-Americans brought grave personal tragedy to his family. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Stanley and his family were traveling to Annapolis after enjoying a dinner at his brother’s home. As they headed into Washington, D.C., the car windshield was shattered by the sniper’s bullet. Stanley’s wife was paralyzed and his uncle was killed.

This event led to a major life decision for Stanley: He could either take the Marine Corps’ offer to be relieved of his duties, or he could tough it out in a profession where he constantly faced adversity and roadblocks due to his race. Stanley chose the latter. Rather than tuck tail and run, he persevered and became the U.S. Marine Corps’ first-ever African-American regimental commander.

“I knew if I wanted to be promoted, I’d have to work five times as hard as the other guys, so I put all my efforts into working hard,” he said. “I just didn’t want to waste energy dealing with the issue of race. I love the Marine Corps. They treated us with great compassion, and things change – that’s one of the most beautiful parts about American society.”

He continued to succeed in his military career, and was one of the Corps’ highest-ranking African-Americans when he retired in 2002 as a two-star general. Throughout his career, he was sensitive to discrimination and ensured that wherever he went there was a level-playing field and that everyone was judged on the basis of competence and character: a true meritocracy.

Act with Integrity
The actions of great leaders are consistent with their words. Saying the right thing doesn’t mean much. Doing the right thing means everything when you want people to follow you passionately. By acting with honor and integrity, you build trust with your followers.

During his Fellowship, Dennis Blair (WHF 75-76) – current Director of National Intelligence, former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, retired four-star navy admiral, and former Rhodes Scholar – was one of a group of special assistants to Housing and Urban Development ­Secretary Carla Hills. He witnessed how Secretary Hills fought to maintain an honest, aboveboard environment, despite ample opportunities for duplicity.

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development had been rocked by one scandal after another over the years,” Blair explains. “It moves a lot of money around and... there’s just a lot of potential for corruption, but one of the leadership lessons I took away from that assignment was from the tone that Carla Hills set. She was fiercely, unflinchingly determined to do the right thing, and never batted an eye about it. Whenever misconduct came to light, she dealt with it quickly and effectively, firing people if necessary and then moving on.”

During Blair’s year in Washington, President Ford was up for reelection. The president and his cabinet, including Hills, were under intense pressure to run a ­winning campaign. Although everyone’s job was at stake, Blair saw no one abuse his or her power or resort to cheap tactics to influence the election. “They played by the rules, fought fair and always tried to do the right thing.”

During his own career, Blair had several opportunities to “shade his principles” for his own benefit, but chose not to. On at least one occasion, doing the right thing cost him dearly. Although he wouldn’t ­provide details, he did reveal that because of his leadership role he had a shot at becoming vice chairman or even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To be considered for one of those jobs, he would have had to modify his philosophy and change his leadership style to please a new administration. He chose to stick with the methods and values he had developed throughout his career.

“It wasn’t that difficult a decision,” he says. “Certainly I would have relished the chance to make more of a difference in that higher position, but I was not willing to change my philosophy or my style. I had too much confidence in my approach to change it even though I knew that meant I wasn’t going to move up further in the organization.”

Be Persistent
Great leaders learn to cultivate a habit of persisting. Calvin Coolidge said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

As a White House Fellow, Wesley Clark (WHF 75-76) was assigned to work with James Lynn, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who took Clark along on a trip to Israel in 1976 where he met Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin told Clark, who commanded a company in the Vietnam War, about his experiences as a colonel during the War of Independence. The story goes that during a key battle with the Jordanian Arab Legion, Rabin was told by his battalion commanders that ammunition was very low and that they wanted to pull out. But Rabin denied the request and said their mission was to hold. He told Clark that it turned out the Arab Legion was also low on ammunition and after its commanders told this to the ­Jordanian brigade commander he decided to fall back. The win was a major success for Israel in the War of Independence.

Clark applied that lesson when he commanded the combined U.S. and NATO forces during Operation Allied Force, which was NATO’s first major combat experience, in Kosovo. “When I was in the Kosovo campaign, there were a lot of people who suggested that it would be over in a day or two, that all you had to do was bomb them. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” Clark said. “It became a matter of persistence. We decided to use coercive diplomacy. We seized control of the escalation ladder, and we established escalation dominance. No matter what Milosevic tried to do, he was always going to be out-escalated by the NATO forces. We brought in more aircraft and attacked more targets. We eventually threatened to institute a ground campaign.

“Ultimately, despite the problems of the campaign, despite the difficulties of coalition warfare with all these frictions and differences between America and allied contentions of war and how to fight this one, we were able to hold together. Nothing we did – no single target, no single strike – was more important than maintaining a persistent NATO strategy. Through 78 days of persistent strategy implementation, we broke his will. It was strictly a lesson in the power of persistence. You don’t give up.”

Be a Great Communicator
Leadership is about influencing others, and this requires the ability to communicate. Once you master the ability to influence individuals intuitively by first connecting with them, and then choosing words that are impactful to carry your message, you need then to figure out how to communicate to a larger audience. Always keep in mind that your actions truly speak louder than your words.

After learning the value of quality communication from U.S. Treasury Secretary William “Bill” Miller,  her Fellowship principal, Marsha “Marty” Evans carried on that tradition in her work with the Navy.

In 1986, former Fellow and Naval Academy Superintendent Chuck Larson (WHF 68-69) tapped Evans to be one of six battalion officers at the Naval Academy – the first female battalion officer in Navy history – placing her in charge of the training and well-being of hundreds of midshipmen. The academy was a place of discipline and decorum but, occasionally, a lower classman would slip up by wearing nonregulation clothing. One day, Evans saw a third classman in a Budweiser t-shirt and she assumed there had been a breakdown in communication.

“I remember the lecture so well,” Evans recalls. “I said, ‘You know, my own basic leadership belief is that people generally want to do the right thing, and if they’re not doing the right thing it’s because they haven’t been trained properly. They haven’t somehow had the benefit of the teaching and the leadership of their seniors. So, I can only come to the conclusion that this youngster is wearing this t-shirt because he has suffered from faulty communication by his midshipman chain of command.’ Each person in the third classman’s chain of command was held accountable and punished.”

Evans’s commonsense approach to encouraging better communication in her organization helped her create a more cohesive team and also garnered the Navy’s attention. She was promoted steadily throughout her 30-year career and retired as a two-star rear admiral, one of only a few women to attain the rank.

Energize Your People
A great leader needs stamina and vitality to be physically energized, emotionally connected, and mentally sharp. Are you a leader like Nelson Rockefeller? He supercharged those around him with energy so great that they came away as buoyant as if they’d been filled with helium. Instead of being the type of leader who sucks the energy away from others, resolve to be the kind of leader who strives to bring passion and positive energy to the workplace every day.

U.S. Major John Patrick Gallagher (WHF 07-08) learned about leadership from General David Petraeus. General Petraeus was a colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division at the same time Gallagher was assigned to the division as a second lieutenant. One day, Petraeus called his brigade together and asked who could tell him the number one leadership priority of the brigade. Answers ranged from integrity to professional and tactical competence to marksmanship until finally someone hit the nail on the head – physical fitness.

“We thought he was kidding, and we couldn’t for the life of us figure out how that could be the number one priority in the brigade,” recalls Gallagher. “But we learned later that he was right. Self-discipline, being able to perform under pressure, and exist outside our comfort zone would be the key that unlocked our success.”

Petraeus started to lead his troops through 75 minutes of intense exercise every morning. And with every pull-up, push-up and sprint, the brigade became more alert, had more physical and mental energy, and more individual and team pride.

“All those other things we wanted to do well got better, whether it was marksmanship or vehicle maintenance or soldiers going on leave and not getting arrested for DUI,” Gallagher says. “All these other indicators went up when Petraeus created this climate of self-discipline. He boiled down his leadership approach to this: ‘Am I giving my subordinates energy, or am I taking it away? Put another way, am I leading in a way that causes my subordinates to be more enthusiastic and creative about doing their jobs – to believe more deeply in what they are doing and why they are doing it – or am I leading in such a way that it is stifling growth and enthusiasm?’ If the latter is true, the job may still get done by the sheer force of your legitimacy or presence, but it doesn’t get done as well, and it doesn’t last after you’re gone. Petraeus knows how to lead in such a way that it gives his subordinates energy. That’s an incredibly powerful leadership tool.”

Know When to Compromise and When to Stand Firm
Although it’s not possible to resolve every conflict through negotiation and concession, it is feasible in most cases. The tougher decision is when not to compromise, which often puts your livelihood, your reputation, and the organization you lead at risk. Keep this in mind the next time you have to choose between seeking compromise and holding firm on a critical issue: If you can resolve the matter through give-and-take without sacrificing your core beliefs and integrity, find the middle ground. You’ll soon learn that compromise is the art of making everyone a winner.

Former Secretary of the Army Francis “Fran” Harvey (WHF 78-79) worked his Fellowship in the Department of Defense. His principal was Secretary Harold Brown, who Harvey says grew the defense budget during his tenure despite the Carter administration’s pledge to do the opposite. From him, Harvey learned that sometimes it’s best to stand firm on what you believe in.

After working in the private sector during most of his post-Fellowship years, Harvey was appointed by George W. Bush to be Secretary of the Army. At the time, the 2005 Army budget was $98.6 billion, and it was his responsibility to prepare and submit a new five-year financial plan. The Office of Management and Budget and the Secretary of Defense recommended a decrease in the Army’s budget. But Harvey knew that to provide troops with needed equipment and protection, the budget would have to increase.

Harvey and his partner, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker, dug in and began to compile the necessary facts and figures. When the fiscal guidance came down recommending a cut without regard for what that would mean to the troops on the ground, Schoomaker and Harvey had three choices. They could cut personnel, cut force structure, or stand firm and demand that the money be allocated. They chose to stand firm. They refused to submit their budget, and their tactic worked.
Indeed, during Secretary Harvey’s brief tenure, the Army budget more than doubled from what it had been 10 years before. He also sharpened the Army’s recruiting focus by launching a program that financially rewarded soldiers who referred a recruit who then made it through basic training. Harvey and Schoomaker also launched the Army Business Transformation initiative, a servicewide plan that is still in use and improving the quality and productivity of all of the Army’s business practices.

Harvey was a strong advocate for his troops throughout his tenure, providing needed renovations and protective equipment. He established the Army Wounded Warrior Program, which helps soldiers rejoin society after an injury and assists them financially for at least five years. He oversaw the revamping of the Army’s casualty reporting, notification, and assistance procedures.

Harvey was forced to step down in 2007 after allegations of substandard conditions and poor management at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Harvey maintains he didn’t learn of these problems until they were reported by the media (at which point he took immediate action to solve them).

“The bottom line is that the budget went from $98 billion in 2005 to $141 billion for 2009,” he says. “And today I’m very, very proud of the fact that because General Schoomaker and I stood our ground and refused to compromise, the Army is finally getting the resources it needs to be completely ready for the full spectrum of conflict.”

Lead by Walking Around
Leaders who sequester themselves in the C-suite quickly become disconnected from their people. If you want to know how best to lead your organization, head to the lunchroom, the shop floor, or the purchasing office and ask the “stupid questions.” Chances are good that your people will be delighted to answer them.

Retired Four-Star Admiral of the U.S. Navy Charles “Chuck” Larson (WHF 68-69) believes in the power of mixing and mingling with one’s team. Whether he was serving as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, or commanding officer of a nuclear attack submarine, Larson didn’t sit back and wait for his people to come to him. Instead, he engaged in what he calls “walk-around leadership.”

Whenever someone wanted to brief him on an issue happening in his or her space, Larson frequently offered to meet that person on his or her own turf. Also, he would regularly pick different sectors of the organization at random and go there to meet the people and see what they were working on.

“On the submarine I was always walking around talking to people on their watch stations, asking them what they were doing or watching maintenance being conducted,” Larson said. “As superintendent of the Naval Academy I made a decision that I was going to have internal relations perfected before I started external relations. Twice a week I would drop in on a class – maybe a leadership or ethics class and then one from another part of the curriculum – and just show up unannounced. Once a week I ate lunch with a random table. I was always out and about and accessible, and people knew they could talk to me because I showed a real interest in them.”

Wrap up
This has been a synopsis of eight of the 20 lessons highlighted in Garcia's book. Many argue that no organizations teach the universal tenets of leadership better than the military. And complimentary to those experiences are, according to author Garcia, the White House Fellowship programs that teach by showing rather than telling. “If all of our leaders, public and private, and the young people who will lead us into the future, had the opportunity to learn from the great mentors within the military and the White House Fellowship Program, we’d see the U.S. once again live up to its image as the land of opportunity.”

Charles P. Garcia is a former White House Fellow, graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Columbia Law School graduate, and best-selling author. Named entrepreneur of the year by three national organizations, he is on the board of Fortune 500 companies and serves as the chairman of the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How to Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness, and Find Success in Any Organization (McGraw-Hill, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-07-159848-4, U$24.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009