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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Lieutenant General Stephen Speakes

I spoke to Lieutenant General Stephen Speakes (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.

Steve: I was born in Mexico City, and did not live in the continental US until I was 10 years old. I mention that because I have had to adapt at an early age to culture that was new to me. That set the stage for a life of continuous change and adjustment, one that I was prepared for from my childhood.

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

Steve:  Effective leaders must have enormous endurance, both spiritual and physical.  I believe that leaders are in place to change and influence human behavior for the better.  To do that an effective leader must be persistent because the natural state of human affairs is inherently random.  To bring change requires consistent and strong behavior. The leader’s behavior must be uplifting, and it must be consistent with the leader’s actions, and demonstrated daily.  A leader cannot function without stamina as even the greatest and most appealing of ideas require reinforcement and diligence to see implemented.

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

Steve: I believe that good leaders study the art of leadership all the time.  Almost every situation in life can be a leadership training opportunity. When I watch football on Sunday, I often study how a head coach reacts to adversity.  Does he model self-control and judgement, or does he go wild with emotion? Does he stick with the players he has on the field during moments of adversity, or does he make immediate change? Does he think “play by play” or does he show strategic thinking, able to anticipate the impact of a decision minutes or even days ahead?  We all know that we have seen successful leaders demonstrate opposite behaviors (for example self-control vs rage), so why does a technique work for one and not for the others? At work daily I see leaders who are compassionate, while some are indifferent to their co-workers, yet both achieve results. I see leaders who operate based on detailed planning, while others seem to react to events.  I think I know what techniques are most effective over the long term, but I am continually fascinated to see that there is no assured solution for any of these dilemmas. What works for one leader may not work for others. Developing a recipe for “good leadership” has been the quest of my lifetime requiring continuous study and reflection.

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

Steve:  Treat your teams as you would wish to be treated yourself.  

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

Steve:  Be strong morally and ethically.  Soldiers will not follow somebody who does not live a value-based life.

Keep it simple.  Strong leadership is not rocket science. It is the application good intent and common sense to tough issues.  People must immediately grasp what they must do to be successful. Great leadership approaches have an intuitive appeal.

Be persistent.  Success comes to those who keep trying.  This business of influencing human behavior is not for the faint of heart.  It’s for the people who have a sustained commitment to doing better and making enduring changes.

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

Steve: The leader I most admire had a very special distinguishing characteristic:  He was a kind and gentle person, and to make it even more remarkable, he demonstrated these traits at a time when Army leaders thought great leadership was directive, terse, abrupt, and sometimes profane.  This leader stood out to me because he believed in those he led. He believed in their good intent. When he saw them doing something wrong the first person he questioned was himself, asking himself thoughtful questions about how effectively he communicated, or whether he had provided his team the resources they needed to act.  I noted that his subordinates prided themselves on meeting or exceeding his expectations and would do anything for him. They never hesitated to go to him with a problem he could help them solve. Being on his team was a fascinating example of how a supportive and kind leader can positively influence those around him and create an organizational climate of great strength.

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

Steve: People who do not have any experience with the military mistakenly think that leadership in the military is easy because military leaders only must give orders to lead.  They totally miss the fact that what military leaders are required to achieve with their teams is incredibly challenging for even the finest leaders. They must lead their subordinates through long deployments, endure harsh living environments, and embrace physical danger or discomfort.  All of this requires great leadership skills. Daily military leaders operate at a very high level to achieve great feats from their teams.

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

Steve:  I believe the biggest issue facing the US is a growing sense of alienation between our fellow citizens. Many data points seem to confirm that as people we are increasingly fearful and threatened by those we perceive are different than we are.  Too often we appear to fear the other political party. We categorize people negatively by what part of the country they are from. I believe that the Nation’s decision to abandon the draft and implement an all-volunteer military was a key factor accelerating trends of alienation exacerbated by modern communications methods. When we had a draft, we had a tool that brought Americans together in an environment of common purpose and encouraged us as a people to think beyond our origins. Lacking that forcing function we are now able to comfortably and often unknowingly adopt positions of hostility and suspicion.  At this point I am not optimistic we will be able to reverse the trends active in our society accelerating alienation and accentuating our differences.

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

Steve: Courtesy of Ann Landers I am proud to cite “MYOB” (Mind Your Own Business) as wonderful advice. It has kept me from trying to impose my views on others or suggest my solution when it would not have worked anyway.

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

Steve: Be civil and courteous.

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

Steve: All my life I have loved to run.  The time spent running has enabled me to think freely, to dream, to imagine, and to then return to the world after my run in a better place mentally. During those blissful and solitary minutes I have solved my biggest problems, confronted my most challenging issues and solved disputes amicably and thoughtfully. Everyone needs their own time and space!

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