Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan

I spoke to Lieutenant General Jeff Buchanan (U.S. Army, Retired) about his journey and his best advice on leadership

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Jeff: I changed my major halfway through my junior year of college from physics to wildlife ecology because I thought it was something I could actually enjoy.  Even though it eventually took me five years of college and 185 credit hours, here’s what I learned: really loving what I studied caused me to work harder and get better grades.  My key lesson from that experience is that you’ve got to follow your heart. I’ve given this advice to my kids about their school choices and to the Soldiers I’ve served with about their career choices.  If you follow your heart, things will eventually work out and more importantly, you won’t have regrets about the road not taken.  

Adam: How did you get here and what experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Jeff: My dad was a Soldier and I wanted to try the Army out.  I thought I’d stay for as long as I was having fun and could make a difference, but I never had a vision of having a career in the Army.  But 37 years later I have loved every minute of it. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some pain along the way but I had a love for Soldiering and a love for Soldiers and I think that’s what helped bring me here.  One of the things that shaped me as a leader is the fact that I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but every time I was in the position to make mistakes and did, I had forgiving and willing leaders to help me learn from those mistakes and move forward.  I’ve found that when we are in an organization that has zero tolerance for mistakes and zero forgiveness, then we have a really hard time reaching our potential and growing because people don’t express their desire to learn, they don’t try new things, and we’re just stuck in ruts.  

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills? 

Jeff: Understanding that everyone makes mistakes, but if you give someone a second chance, they will typically excel.  Maybe 90 to 95 percent of the time when I give somebody a second chance, they usually become the best we have. Personally, I have grown more through my failures than I have through my successes.  Knowing my shortcomings helps keep me humble. I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou quote “you don’t want modesty, you want humility.” Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, its thinking of yourself less.  To me, being humble means understanding we all have a potential to fail, that I won’t have the best answer at all times, and by listening to others I am much more likely to get a better answer.       

Adam: In your experiences, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Jeff: I think about the difference between leadership and management, both of which are important.  Management is simply making things happen, whereas leadership is influencing other people to want to make things happen.  The difference to me is people. In leadership, relationships between people are the most important part of the equation. The most effective leaders I’ve known have a high emotional intelligence, they’re servant leaders, they understand people, they are humble, they are willing to listen to others, and in the end they’re most effective in influencing other people. 

Adam: How can leaders and inspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Jeff: I am a big believer in gaining knowledge to expand my perspective by considering other people’s perspectives.  Reading helps me do that. There are a ton of books on leadership and I don’t think you can go wrong in reading any of them.  Become a critical consumer of information though. Just because somebody you admire wrote a book, that doesn’t mean you should automatically buy into everything that is in there.  I encourage everyone to study leadership, to learn from good and bad examples, and then use it to reinforce your sense of self because every one of us is different. You shouldn’t try to be somebody else.  

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Jeff: I think the most important aspect to building teams is to be a good team player.  You must have the sense that what you are doing is for the good of the team. It’s about working together for a team goal that may be in fact counter to your individual goal.  It’s the difference between winning an individual rushing title in the NFL and a team that wins the Super Bowl. Once you realize that nobody has the market cornered on good ideas, everyone on the team can contribute to the decision making process and I think you end up with better outcomes and in fact better leadership.

Adam: What is your best advice on motivating and inspiring others?

Jeff: Lead by example.  You don’t have to be the best at everything, but you have to be willing to do what you ask your subordinates to do.  One thing I do, and some people don’t understand why, is when I’m walking around and I see trash, I pick it up. I do that because someone has to.  It’s not beneath me to pick up trash and more than anything, it’s just my intent to lead by example. 

Adam: What are three leadership lessons from your experience in the service that are applicable to a broad audience of leaders?

Jeff: I think military leadership is akin to leadership in the civilian world and there’s not a whole lot of differences.  Building teams is critically important, even more so than having a vision. In the book Good to Great, one expert says vision is overrated and describes building teams as ensuring you’ve got the right people on the bus and that they are sitting in the right seats on that bus.  If you can get that right, they’ll help you build a vision that they own. As a result, your organization will be able to move in a direction you want it to based on the team that you’ve built.  So to me that’s what I try to do with military leadership as well — get the right team onboard and they will take the organization in the direction we want to go. It’s not about my vision, it’s about our vision.

Adam: What are the best leadership lessons you have learned from your experience leading the military’s relief efforts in response to Hurricane Maria?

Jeff: The importance of listening to other people to discover where the problems are.  There are 78 different mayors in Puerto Rico and they all had different needs. We couldn’t really help them until we listened to them.  

Adam: What should the public better understand about Hurricane Maria and the hurricane recovery efforts?

Jeff: Hurricane Maria was very different than the other two major storms in 2017 because from the state perspective, Florida and Texas are very wealthy and have very well-resourced emergency management agencies.  As bad as Harvey was, the governor could call on multiple other big cities in the state to assist Houston and the same for Irma in Florida. Out-of-state assistance could just drive there to help. Puerto Rico didn’t have any of that.  It was in debt, virtually the entire island was tremendously devastated by the hurricane, and all the people there were victims of the storm. Other states couldn’t help because they couldn’t get there. And when you add all that up, Puerto Rico was just overwhelmed. 

Adam: What issues are you concerned about and how do you feel the Army can address them?

Jeff: I’ve been an outdoorsman all my life and I’m concerned about the impacts of a changing environment on vulnerable populations.  We’ve seen throughout history examples of mass migration and instability that are caused by droughts, famines, and natural disasters.  I think there are some things that can be done at a policy level to set conditions to mitigate the impacts changes in climate can have on large populations.  This is not an issue for the Army to address, but the military will surely have to deal with the aftermath if conflict breaks out as a result of instability.  

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and why do you admire them? What did you learn from them?

Jeff: I am going to take a little liberty with how I answer this question.  To me, there has only ever been one perfect person to walk the face of the earth, and it’s Jesus Christ.  Why do I admire him? He is the epitome of a servant leader. He led by example with absolute integrity: what you see is what you get.  I don’t think any of us will ever be able to truly walk in his footsteps, but we can be better people and better leaders if we try to follow his example.

Adam: Do you think people have misconceptions about the military and what are they?

Jeff: I think some people think that leadership in the military must be easy because all you have to do is give someone an order and they will do it. But the potential cost of what we do might require us to sacrifice our very life. You’re not going to get someone to willingly sacrifice their life just because you outrank them and give them an order.  They have to believe in the mission and they have to believe in taking care of each other. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Jeff: Never pass up the opportunity to shut up.  To me, this means it’s really important to listen to people.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Jeff: Serve other people. I believe that’s the crux of why we’re put here.  Life is not about yourself, it’s about making sacrifices for other people.  

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Jeff: I enjoy running.  It’s shaped my thoughts because it’s about bettering myself and it helps me remember to do a better job setting a good example for others.  I’m also a bow hunter. Bow hunting helps me tackle one of my greatest weaknesses — a lack of patience. You can’t be a good bow hunter if you’re impatient.  I also like to make my own beer. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I don’t know if that has shaped my leadership perspective much but it’s fun.

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