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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Lieutenant General Robert E. Milstead Jr.

I spoke to Lieutenant General Boomer Milstead (USMC, 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?

Boomer: Thanks, Adam, for the opportunity to share with you my experiences and some personal thoughts about leadership. It’s important to recognize that everyone is different and unique and that there’s no one single recipe for a successful leadership style. For background, I was raised the son of a career Air Force officer (pilot) and therefore moved often. I graduated from high school in Taiwan. I then attended the University of Houston. The one thing I never lost sight of was my desire to fly. I’m a surfer and have been since I was 12 years old. I can’t count the number of boards I’ve had over the past 50+ years. Moving as we did, I’ve had the opportunity to surf in many interesting places. My first travel after retiring was surfing in Costa Rica with a couple of long-time military surfing buddies. I then returned the following year with my wife. I’m currently recovering from multiple back surgeries and looking forward to getting back in the water. Heading back down to Costa Rica and surfing again is the polar star of my rehabilitation.

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

Boomer: I’m not sure how I got here – mine has been an unusual career path. I’m an aviator – a Cobra pilot. My formative years were spent in the cockpit.  But besides my tours in operational aviation, I’ve had some other unique and challenging assignments, to include training newly commissioned lieutenants, public affairs, and recruiting. I feel the diversity of these assignments has certainly proven beneficial.

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

Boomer: When we fail or come up short, well that can really take the air out of our sails. I believe you don’t truly fail until you give up. For me, it was when I didn’t screen for LtCol command the first time. It crushed me. I had never been faced with such personal failure before. I also felt I had let others down, especially my family. Eventually everything worked out, but those were some dark days and I learned much about myself. Having experienced such a setback put a lot about life into perspective and it has also allowed me to empathize with others facing similar challenges.

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

Boomer: First and foremost – be yourself. Secondly, realize you serve those you lead, not vice versa. I believe character is the core competency. Thomas Paine said, “reputation is what men know of us, character is what the angels know of us.” There are hundreds of books and countless adages defining the qualities of an effective leader – a leadership catechism if you will. To each his own, but the most succinct definition of leadership I’ve found comes from the American historian and author, Douglas Southall Freeman. When addressing the graduating class of the USNA in 1946 he told them (gender specifics aside): “Know your stuff, take care of your men, and be a man.” Everything else is commentary…

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

Boomer: I don’t believe anyone is born a leader. They may be born into an opportunity to lead, but leadership is taught and developed. I’ll use myself as the example. I was more the follower during my early years, even through college. It was in the Marine Corps where I was taught and developed leadership. It doesn’t happen overnight either. There is a maturing process, and we develop at our own pace, often by trial and error. My leadership “skills” as a young lieutenant differed from those when I was a squadron commander, which were similarly different than when I was a Marine Air Group commander, and so on.  With the years, we learn, develop, and mature our own personal style of leadership.

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

Boomer: When building a team, first surround yourself with talented people and then get out of their way and let them do their job. I call it my DAD Principle – delegate and disappear. In the military we call this mission orders. Of course, you remain ultimately accountable, but let your team perform. Equally important is to understand that unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We all think differently, have our own cultural backgrounds, and therefore bring our unique personalities and skills to the team. That’s what gives a team its strength. As for managing and leading, you must first understand the difference – you manage things and you lead people. The terms are not synonymous. You can still be a good manager but a bad leader (I’ve served under such), but you can’t be a good leader without being a good manager. Two additional points I’ll stress here are that you don’t have to be the best horseman to lead the cavalry, and never get too busy to lead!

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

Boomer: My lessons have been many. Allow me to share several bullets that illustrate some of those lessons that are applicable anywhere – whether in the military or in the business community:

*  Plimsoll Line (Google it) – You need one and you need to recognize it in others.

*  Calm, like panic, is contagious. Be contagious in positive ways.

*  Foster and be the exemplar of a good work/family balance. If you’re lucky you’ll grow old with your family, not just your job.

*  I call it my HEP Principle: Humor – you must have a sense of humor, especially during the tough times. You must be equally capable of laughing at yourself as easily as laughing at others. Enthusiasm – when sincere, it is contagious. Years will wrinkle your skin but lose your enthusiasm for what you do and it will wrinkle your soul. Lastly, Patience. You must be equally patient with yourself as with others.

*  People act the way they are treated. After time they may not recall exactly what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

*  My wife once reminded me that all too often we don’t realize we are a role model until it’s too late. I have never forgotten that. When leading an organization, remember that you live in a fishbowl – everyone is watching. Don’t ever underestimate the reach of your influence.

*  I’ll close with my most important lesson – my life priorities – my faith and my God, my family, and then my job.  

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

Boomer: I’ve never worked for anyone I didn’t learn something from. I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to some great leaders and mentors. But even poor leadership can be beneficial as it illustrates what not to do. Over the years I’ve learned lessons experiencing poor leadership. Tough lessons to be sure, but valuable, nonetheless.  It’s said leadership is not a title, that it’s about behavior. To that, some I’ve admired and learned from most have been subordinates. The list of great leaders I’ve served with over my career is long and I’m certainly better for having served alongside them.

Adam: What is the biggest misconception people have about the Marines?

Boomer: Many neither understand nor appreciate the ethos of the Marine Corps. They hear terms like “Semper Fidelis” or “Esprit de Corps” but see them as little more than a catchphrase. But to a Marine they have deep meaning. We like to say our Corps rests on three pillars: we make Marines, we win America’s battles, and we transform young men and women into quality citizens that are Marines for life. It’s that third pillar, the transformation, that I find almost mystical. General Victor “Brute” Krulak (whose son would become our 31st Commandant) described it as “a form of unfailing alchemy which converts unoriented youths into proud, self-reliant stable citizens – citizens into who hands the nation’s affairs may be safely entrusted.” There is no such thing as an ex-Marine!

Adam: What is the biggest misconception people have about military leaders?

Boomer: Some think military leadership is little more than “being in charge” and ordering others around. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of our military services develop quality leaders. The Marine Corps teaches that every Marine is a leader regardless of rank. One day these men and women will return to civilian life. They will bring with them their individual and developed leadership skills to the workplace, the little league diamond or soccer field, and the classroom… The list of places where their influence will be felt is endless, and our nation will be better for it.

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

Boomer: These are just some of my personal thoughts about leadership after leading Marines for forty years. Much about leadership defies concrete definition. Again, everyone is different and has their own unique style of leadership. I’d like to close saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my career as a Marine. The only reason I made it as far as I did was because I was blessed to work with an incredible group of men and women. It’s said that you can only go as far as your Marines will carry you. More important is that I was supported by a loving wife and family. Our families pay an enormous sacrifice for us to wear the cloth of our nation; they too serve. When it’s all said and done, and I’m an old (older) man sitting on the front porch looking back – I’ll never forget the way my kids called me Dad, my wife called me Honey, or my Marines called me Skipper. Thanks!

Semper Fidelis.

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