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Dr Michael Wallace:”Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience”

When you’re off duty and with your spouse or loved one, be present with that person. Don’t let work intrude 24/7. Take some time for you.Keep a sense of humor. There are times when a movie quote or one-liner can lighten the mood during a stressful situation. In this interview series, we are exploring the […]

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When you’re off duty and with your spouse or loved one, be present with that person. Don’t let work intrude 24/7. Take some time for you.

Keep a sense of humor. There are times when a movie quote or one-liner can lighten the mood during a stressful situation.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael Wallace, Program Director, Professor of Practice, Emergency & Security Studies at Tulane University School of Professional Advancement.

Michael Wallace, Ed.D., is a retired military intelligence officer with 20 years of active service. His military assignments included Naval Special Warfare, Defense Human Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Dr. Wallace holds qualifications as both a U.S. Navy Information Warfare Officer and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer and additional designations in Defense Human Intelligence, Department of Defense Strategic Debriefer, and Naval Special Warfare Intelligence. He is also a graduate of numerous Department of Defense, other governmental agency and service-specific courses in intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and nuclear weapons. Post-military, he worked as a senior intelligence analyst in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Intelligence Directorate. Dr. Wallace has experience in counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, special warfare and intelligence collection and analysis.

Dr. Wallace joined Tulane SoPA in August 2012 as an instructor for the Emergency & Security Studies program. Since that time, he has taught courses in Domestic & International Terrorism, as well as Intelligence Research & Analysis. In June 2014, he became director of the program. In that role he is responsible for the academic administration of undergraduate, graduate, and certification programs in Homeland Security, Security Management, and Emergency Management, recruiting, hiring and managing program faculty, develop and revise courses and curriculum, and serves as the senior academic advisor for all students and potential students.

As the Emergency & Security Studies program has expanded into Emergency and Security Management, Dr. Wallace has developed and maintained relationships with many groups related to Homeland Security and Emergency Management, including the Homeland Security Institute, Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, the University and Agency Partnership Initiative (UAPI) for Homeland Security Education, INFRAGARD Louisiana, New Orleans Police Department Academic Research Advisory Committee, International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), and Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Partnership. These partnerships create vital opportunities for Tulane students to connect with and learn about professional organizations within the Homeland Security, Emergency Management, and Security Management communities. Dr. Wallace is also a member of the International Society for Preparedness, Resilience, and Security and a member of the Advisory and Editorial Review Board for the Journal of Security, Intelligence, and Resilience Education.

In addition to his duties as director and professor of practice, Dr. Wallace is involved in veteran organizations and assisting student veterans. He is a lifetime member of the Veteran of Foreign Wars, the Military Order of Foreign Wars, Wounded Warrior Foundation, and the Disabled American Veterans and is a member of the New Orleans Mayor’s Military Advisory Council.

Dr. Wallace is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and holds a Master of Liberal Arts from Tulane University. He earned an M.M.A.S. in Military History from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, a doctorate in Education from the University of Alabama, and was awarded a certificate of completion for the General and Flag Officer Homeland Security Executive Program, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His knowledge of and passion for history is evident in his educational endeavors. He is a qualified U.S. Army Field Historian and has written, presented and published on the history of antebellum southern military colleges.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Sure — I was born in South Florida, grew up in Alabama and went to high school in North Atlanta before attending the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, VA for college. I am an only child, and my parents were very supportive of anything I wanted to do, which from an early age, was serving in the military. Both of my parents valued education (I am a second-generation college graduate) and worked hard to get their undergrad and graduate degrees and ensure I had the opportunity to get a college education.

I was a 17-year-old when I matriculated at VMI. My time there opened my young, naïve eyes to the world through the military environment, classmates from around the country and world, and travel in the US and Europe. It also taught me to judge people by their actions and not their appearance.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing? Can you tell us a bit about your military background? Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I served most of my career as an intelligence officer, so most of my interesting stories the military doesn’t want me talking about. However, when I entered the Navy, I was a Surface Warfare Officer, which means I “drove” ships. On my first ship, the USS Nassau (LHA-4), one of the most exciting and terrifying conning maneuvers was coming alongside a replenishment ship to get refueled and supplied. The reason is that the two ships are approximately 160ft from one another and moving at 13 knots while this is occurring — giving you a minimal amount of error. There are two ways to conn alongside a replenishment ship — either start further out and work your way in to 160ft or come in closer than 160ft and work your way out. In my vast experience, it made more sense to come in close and work your way out — this way, you would be heading away from the other ship if an emergency occurred.

As I started my approach to the replenishment ship, other senior officers realized what I was doing and voiced concern to the Commanding Officer (CO). The CO, CAPT Mark Vanderberg, dismissed their concerns and didn’t say a word to me as I came alongside. Afterward, he gave me a “well done.”

The CO’s faith in me gave me the confidence I needed to conn a 40,000-ton ship for the rest of my tour. It also showed me that as a leader, you need to have faith in your subordinates.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I’ve known several heroes during my service. A very personal one is Major Paul Syverson, USA. Paul was a VMI classmate who rose to command our cadet company in our senior year. Quiet and unassuming, he was someone who didn’t talk about what he would do — he just did it. After graduation, he went into the Army and had a very successful career before applying for and completing Special Forces training. Paul was involved right after 9/11 in Afghanistan, responding to a prison uprising where CIA officer Mike Spann was killed. Syverson, extremely wounded, was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

A few years later, in 2004, Paul was on his third deployment with his Group in Iraq. Scheduled to come home in a few weeks, he was killed in an insurgent attack at Camp Anaconda PX. Paul used his body to protect other soldiers.

Paul is survived by his wife, son Paul, and daughter Amy, who at the time of his death was two months old.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I’d define a hero as someone who acts while others hesitate or heads the other way. I’m not a hero for serving in the military — Paul is a hero, a firefighter who runs into a burning house is a hero, as is someone who sees a car accident and tries to help people is a hero. For me, a hero knows no gender or race but is judged by their actions.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

My experience in the military helped in both business and leadership. The military stresses planning and preparing, which is essential in the business world. One of the most valuable skills the military imparted to me was to think about second and third-order effects. That is, if you do this, what will the results of that course of action be?

On leadership, get out of your office and “walk the spaces” as we used to say in the Navy. See what your employees are doing — what ideas they have and if they have any problems. Let them know that you care and are interested in both their careers and well-being. Being fair and taking care of your employees will gain their loyalty. Threats and cajoling never succeed as a leadership tool.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have many people to thank for their kindness over the years, but one sticks out: Colonel William Dabney, USMC (Ret).

Colonel Dabney is a legend in the US Marine Corps. If you don’t know his story, I’d recommend you Google him. He served as the VMI Commandant of Cadets when I was a freshman. As many cadets do the first year at military colleges, I had some doubts about my collegiate choice. Someone suggested that I talk to Colonel Dabney, and I did. He was an intimidating man, but after we started talking, it felt that I was talking to an uncle. He told me there are things worth fighting for, and if I quit, I would regret it for the rest of my life. He was right, of course.

For the rest of my cadetship and even after graduation, when I would see Colonel Dabney, he remembered our past conversations and would ask me how and what I was doing. He was a true gentleman and an outstanding leader.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

This is an interesting question with different answers depending on the area. For example, FEMA’s Emergency Management Terms and Definitions document has over 20 definitions for “crisis” culled from business, military, politics, international relations, and academic studies.

For me, a crisis is “a low-probability, high-impact event that threatens the viability of the organization and is characterized by ambiguity of cause, effect, and means of resolution as well as by a belief that decision must be made swiftly.” (Pearson, Christine M. and Judith A. Clair, “Reframing Crisis Management,” Academy of Management Review 23 (1998): 60. An organization can be anything from a business to a government.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

Business leaders need to think about threat assessments and risk management. There is a difference between the two — threats are an outside force that can harm you while the risk is the extent of damage an attack could cause. In thinking about risk, leaders need to think about the threats, the vulnerability of critical assets to threats, determine risk (including how much risk you’re willing to take), how to reduce risk, and list risk reduction measures.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

There are five steps that a leader should follow in a crisis. They are:

Assess — take some time to accurately assess what has happened and what is currently going on. Remember (and this is VERY important), first reports about an event are almost always wrong!

Gather and Engage Stakeholders — engage experts in various areas to help with a crisis. Ask for opinions from these people. Exercise your team regularly — a crisis is a wrong time to get everyone together for the first time.

Plan — Use your experts and stakeholders to come up with a plan. Usually, these plans will fall into three categories: best, typical, and worst-case scenarios. Also, plan for those second and third-order effects.

Act — when you have a plan, execute with confidence.

Communicate — keep stakeholders and others in the know. No one likes surprises.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

You’ll need flexibility, be agile in decisionmaking, confidence in your team, get and keep situational awareness, and maintain a sense of humor.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

When the 9/11 attack happened, I was stationed at Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Hawaii. With the time difference between the East Coast and Hawaii, I received word of the attack very early in the morning. As we all arrived at headquarters, reports were stating that the White House, Capitol, and the National Command Structure were destroyed. After a few moments of standing around in disbelief, our commander took charge and had us gathering information for the Pacific Fleet Commander. It was surreal, but our boss understood we needed a small kick to get us focused on the job at hand.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

On deployment, we ran into an issue with some of our assets in a foreign country. As a knee-jerk reaction, our unit was shut down. After we took the time to figure out what happened, we came up with a new plan that would prevent what had happened but also allow us to accomplish our mission. We engaged our superiors and stakeholders who help us further refine our plan. We communicated our plan to those who needed to know and then acted.

Initially, it was a painful process. But because we took the time to figure out what happened, we were able to design a procedure that made sense and would prevent a failed repeat. We also enjoyed the trust of our superiors, which was instrumental in getting us back into the field.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

If you’re dealing with issues, especially post-traumatic syndrome (PTS), talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend or a professional, talking things out with someone can help tremendously.

Take a break during a crisis. Even if it’s getting up from your desk and taking a walk around the building, a quick break can do wonders.

Don’t ignore yourself. Try to exercise, eat well, and get sleep as you can. This becomes more important, the longer the crisis persists.

When you’re off duty and with your spouse or loved one, be present with that person. Don’t let work intrude 24/7. Take some time for you.

Keep a sense of humor. There are times when a movie quote or one-liner can lighten the mood during a stressful situation.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that taking care of veteran mental health is of tremendous importance. According to the VA, between 2008 and 2017, approximately 60,000 veterans have died by suicide; the rates have not dropped since then.

The VA is and has been working to help veterans get help who need help. However, the need is overwhelming. I had the opportunity to go on a trip with other US veterans to Israel, where we met with Israeli Defense Force veterans. Being with other veterans who had shared experiences was like a balm for some veterans on both sides who talked about issues and experiences they never had before.

I don’t have a plan or a movement in mind, but encourage veterans to seek out and talk with other veterans. Whether it’s telling a joke about another service or discussing something more serious, I’ve seen it work.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I’m a history geek, and I’ve been a fan of David McCullough’s books and narration work for years. He has made history accessible to a new generation of readers. When I grow up, I want to be David McCullough. I’d love to pick his brain over a meal.

And selfishly, because I’ve had a crush on her since 1994, I also wouldn’t mind brunch with Jennifer Anniston.

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