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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Lieutenant General Reynold Hoover

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

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?

Reynold: Well Adam, first, thank you for thinking of me and for your work on leadership education through forums like Thrive Global.   I suppose it has been declassified at this point, so I am able to share it with you and your readers.  A warning to young readers, however, who look forward to the Easter. It turns out, Adam, that I was the Easter Bunny on the South Lawn of the White House one year during the George W. Bush Administration.  It’s a cute story, but I think it underscores the important place humility, and taking time out for others, has in a leader’s toolbox. 

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

Reynold: Frankly, I’m not sure how I got here.  It was not a course I had charted for myself way back in nineteen hundred and seventy – nine when I entered the Military Academy at West Point.  If someone had said back then, one day you will be a Lieutenant General – I would not have believed it. I will say, that as a Citizen – Soldier in the National Guard I was fortunate to have two parallel, and successful, careers in the military and in the civilian world which has given me a unique perspective on leadership.  So, looking back through the lens of time, there are a few experiences that I can see were instrumental in my development. First, as a young Captain leading a Detachment of Army bomb disposal technicians, I learned the value and importance of trust in others and teamwork. In an occupation where failure was not an option, I counted on my fellow Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) warriors in combat, just as they trusted in me and together we got the job done.  The other experience I would say that shaped me, was later in life serving as the Chief of Staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was there, working under Director Joe Allbaugh who became a great mentor and friend, that I learned how important it is for leaders to be confident and decisive. I suppose I always knew that and had apply those skills throughout my military career, but it is more challenging in a civilian environment that doesn’t have the structure, rules and regulations typical of the Army.  At the time we were going through a transition from an independent, President’s Cabinet level, agency to an entity within the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which created some turmoil within the staff. Those skills became critical during the transition. So now the leader’s toolbox has a few skills for future use – humility, trust, teamwork, confidence and decisiveness. 

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

Reynold: Adam, there have been lots of challenges and a few setbacks throughout my career.  But, I think the one that I would like to focus on happened in 2009 as my unit and I were getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan.  I had been recently promoted to Brigadier General and we were at Fort Hood, Texas. It was the morning of the fifth of November, we had been there less than a week, when a gunman opened fire in one of the reception station buildings on post.  Thirteen innocent victims were taken that day. I had three soldiers in the building. One was in the cubicle with Mr. Cahill, one of the victims, when he was shot. That soldier had the courage to call in a report on his cell phone to my headquarters while he was under fire and scrambling for cover.  One soldier made it out safely; and, the third was shot several times in the arm and leg. He continues to struggle to this day. It was a horrific day. By that evening, I was standing in front my grieving unit offering some words of encouragement, strength and comfort. It was there that the most humbling of all things happened to me as we were, together, facing a tremendous challenge.  The unit, my unit, was praying for me. They were asking God to give me the strength and wisdom to lead them through not only the day’s events, but through our coming deployment. It was an incredible moment in my life that I will never forget

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

Reynold: If I could go back to my leadership toolbox, I think the defining qualities of an effective leader besides those things that I have already talked about are:  Wellness. Leaders need to have a balanced lifestyle both mentally and physically. We can’t always be “on”, we need to take time for ourselves and our families. I use to tell senior leaders that at the end of the day when Ruffles and Flourishes are played for them for the last time at retirement, they need to be there to be able to hear it and, most important, they need to be there for their family because at the end of day they have to go home.  So, taking care of your family and yourself are critical. Next, I would add to the toolbox, competency. As a leader you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You just need to be competent and you need to trust in your staff and others to work as a team so the organization can be successful. Integrity and relationships need to be in the toolbox. A leader’s reputation and integrity will precede and follow them wherever they go. And, I think, that leads to the last skill in the toolbox – loyalty to each other and to the organization.  You may have noticed I didn’t add vision or strategy in the toolbox. Those are important skills, and just as important as the ability to communicate effectively and to understand the environment in which we operate. They all go in the toolbox but because they have been written and talked about so much by others, I didn’t necessary include them.

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

Reynold: I am a big believer in leader professional development as a way to take your skills to the next level.  The military has long recognized the importance of leader development at every level, even for the most senior General and Flag Officers.  It is always hard to find time from our daily workloads for training and professional development, but it’s a must do.

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

Reynold: It’s funny.  You know, the person who I most admired growing up and I think helped build my leadership foundation?  Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. Don’t laugh. For your younger readers you may have to Google that one.  But Sheriff Taylor had it going on. He knew how to relate to people of all backgrounds, he could defuse the most complex situations, he had humor and wisdom, and he led the folks of Mayberry with a very subtle style of leadership.  I like to believe that I have some of those qualities and have demonstrated them throughout my career. But, besides a fictional character, there’s Director Allbaugh whom I previously mention and two other General Officers – General Frank Grass, the 27th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, who had great strategic vision; and, General Lori Robinson, the first woman to lead a major combatant command as the Commander of US Northern Command and NORAD. General Robinson had tremendous organizational leadership abilities, she trusted her team and knew the importance of taking care of servicemembers and their families.

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

Reynold: I think when it comes to building, managing and leading teams it is important for leaders to first learn the team, its strengths and its weakness; then apply the necessary skills from your leader toolbox to help make the team successful.  Every organization and every team is different, so there isn’t one leadership skill that fits all. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves or to pick up a broom or shovel, it will go a long way in building teamwork, trust and loyalty.

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

Reynold: Looking, again, through the lens of time I suggest three leadership lessons.  First, take care of those you are leading and their families and they will take care of you.  Second, goes with the first, take care of your own wellness so that you can effectively lead during the most difficult times.  Third, your time is fleeting as a leader so make the most of it, have fun doing it, and pave the way for others behind you who are coming up.

Adam: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about the military, the Army and military leaders?

Reynold: I haven’t given much thought to the misconceptions people might have about the military or the Army.  I will say that people who have not served in the military may not necessary understand what we do. It’s more then just fighting and winning our nation’s war – it’s developing leaders, it’s taking care of servicemembers and their families, it’s serving our communities and our nation when called, it’s recognizing and helping our Veterans and wounded warriors, and it’s about sacrifice and commitment to a calling much bigger than any one of us.

Adam: What do you believe are the three most important issues facing the country and the world? Are you optimistic about our ability to address them?

Reynold: From a military, diplomatic, and economic point of view I think China poses a significant challenge to us over the long course.  They are continuing to build and expand their military capability and reach; they are outpacing us diplomatically around the world; and, I believe they are buying or stealing our most sensitive technologies that will give them a global economic advantage in the years to come.  Next, I believe Russia poses a challenge across a wide spectrum national security concerns. Finally, whether you believe in climate change or not; and, for whatever the reason, something is happening to the world’s climate and environment that will challenge all of mankind in the coming years.  It will take extraordinary leadership and courage to address the problem and find reasonable solutions so that future generations will have clean water to drink and air to breath, and so that lands will be protected.

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

Reynold: On a rather humorous note, the best piece of advice I ever received was from a Major General when I was a Lieutenant Colonel, I think.  He said, ‘never pass up an opportunity to us a latrine.’ I have come to appreciate that advice as I get older. But on a more practical level for your readers, the best piece of advice I got was from my senior non-commissioned officer when I was a First Lieutenant and in my first EOD Command.  He said, “sir, it’s your monkey and you do whatever you want with it.” Those were not his exact words, but the point was….he wanted me to listen to him at a time when I was about to make a mistake. Listening to others, another important skill in the leader toolbox.

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

Reynold: Giving back.  That’s paying it forward.  Give back to others and help those who are behind you so that they have the tools and skills to pick up the torch after you.

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

Reynold: Hobbies?  It’s part of the wellness that I spoke about.  I like to climb mountains, alpine climbing. I don’t know if it has shaped me a leader per se – but it does provide some lessons.  When you are roped up with an ice axe, crampons, helmet and headlamp in the dark and its cold on the side of a glaciated mountain you are part of a climbing team moving toward the summit.  One step in front of the other and, eventually, you hope to reach your goal of getting to the top. That’s only half of the challenge, you still have to get down which can be even more challenging.  There is a book by Jennifer Jordan, “The Last Man On The Mountain” in which she chronicles the failed 1939 attempt to climb K2.  It’s a fascinating true story, but it’s also an interesting study in leadership and team dynamics – worth a read even if you are not a climber.  Some of my other hobbies are scuba diving, flying, running, and reading. I been diving since I was 14, got my open water instructor certification when I was a Cadet at West Point, and love the open water.  Another reason to be concerned about our global climate, to protect the ocean’s fragile coral reefs.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Reynold:  Adam, thanks for your time.  Hopefully, I have given your readers some food for thought that can be applied to their own personal leader development.  It’s been great chatting with you.

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