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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Lieutenant General Thomas Trask

I spoke to Lieutenant General Thomas Trask (U.S. Air Force, Retired) about his journey and his best advice on leadership

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

Tom: When friends come over to our house, they are often surprised to see pictures of my wife and I in a production of the Nutcracker Ballet.  My daughter is a dancer and when we were stationed in Valdosta, GA, the ballet company she was part of was short one adult couple to dance a waltz in the party scene.  My wife, who was a competitive ballroom dancer in college, quickly volunteered us. Sometimes, you just have to step up! Folks in my command who attended one of the shows were disappointed that I was wearing white tie and tails rather than dance tights.

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

Tom: I went to school on an ROTC scholarship and fully intended on taking my engineering degree to the civil sector as soon as my mandatory service was done. However, during college and during my early years as a helicopter pilot, I was taken by the sense of team that exists in the military.  My dad and my step-dad were both career airmen and they both told me this, but until I lived it, I didn’t understand. After a few years, I knew that this is what I wanted to do and that learning to effectively lead these teams would be important to me. 

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

Tom: When I was a teenager, I didn’t have to work very hard to be pretty good in school.  When I got to college and was surrounded by people smarter than me, I learned that I had to work really hard just to be average.  I learned to leverage the things I was good at, and make sure I worked with people whose strengths were my weaknesses. This is where I learned that teams can produce results that are greater than the sum of the parts. 

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

Tom: First and foremost is integrity.  As an effective leader, the people around you must know that what you say, you believe to be true, and what you do, you believe to be right.  This includes peers, bosses, and those on the team you lead. It doesn’t mean you always have to be right or have the answer. To be an effective leader over the long term, others must believe that you are doing what you think is right.

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

Tom: Read, Read, Read.  Leadership is about people and all people are different.  Learn about different types of people by reading biographies. And don’t just read about people in your field.  Learn from leaders in business, sports, politics, and so on.

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

Tom: My first boss was Major Dan Turney.  Dan was the Operations officer for the unit and he taught me what it meant to be an officer and a leader,  not just a pilot. He demonstrated what it meant to be a professional. That meant understanding enough of everything from maintenance to meteorology so that you can provide oversight, guidance, and motivation for the team. Dan seemed like a natural leader, but I learned that he actually worked very hard at it.  Much later in my career, I worked for Admiral Bill McRaven, who was able to articulate a vision for what American Special Operations Forces needed to be, and the path to get there. He did it better than anyone I ever worked for. He never claimed to be able to do all of the tasks that would be required, but he knew the extremely talented people in the command could do them, and he let them.

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

Tom: Trust must come from you first. This is counterintuitive to most people, particularly when you first come into a new position where you and those around you don’t know each other well.  For many, there is a period of hesitance and inspection while you decide if you can trust your team. That may be less so if you were able to bring in many of your own team, but it still happens.  I always found that if you trust immediately, then let folks prove they’re not trustworthy, they rarely let you down. I was in the first week of a new command at one of our professional development schools and late in the workday, we had a task to provide a short talking paper for my boss by 9 a.m. the next morning.  I brought the key staff in briefly, and they assured me this was a short simple assignment. It was given to a staff officer to draft. It was the end of the workday, so I told the team to go home and come in a few minutes early in the morning to take a look at the draft, make any changes, and have time to get it up the chain on time.  What really happened was that everyone else came in a couple hours early and went through several iterations before I came in. Under the previous boss, they were expected to have a perfect product, and the boss would still go through every word in detail. I realized that this team was used to having every detail scrutinized all the time, and they weren’t taking any risk or any initiative.  So when I saw the very simple product, realized they had worked on it for two hours, and it represented what we had discussed the evening before, I told them to send it up without reading it. Two years later, as I prepared to leave that job, I had more than one person come up and tell me about that morning and how it changed the way business was done across the organization. They felt they had a boss that trusted their work and that their work was likely to go up to the headquarters the way they did it.  I think this encouraged free-thinking and creative solutions.

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

Tom: First, assume that you don’t always have the best solution. It’s easy to think you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be in charge, right?  The key to leadership is getting a team to produce the best solution even if no member of the team knew what it was by themselves. That means looking for different perspectives and different experiences to contribute to your effort.  Second, always give the credit to the team when it goes well, but take the blame for yourself when it doesn’t. It really is true that almost nobody succeeds by themselves, and if the team fails, it really was your responsibility to make the team succeed.  In every failure as a leader there was something you could have done for the team to increase the likelihood of success. Lastly, praise in public, chastise in private. I have never seen a case when embarrassing someone in public has made them better or made the team better.  I’ve seen plenty of leaders do it, and it usually felt to me that they just wanted shake the blame from themselves.

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

Tom: The biggest misconception to me is that leadership in the military is different than any other walk of life because we have rank and orders, everyone simply responds without thought.  Our military is made up of every element of our society. They truly represent the people. There are poor people, rich people, men and women of all races and creeds. They join for every possible reason and motivation, some for adventure, some for travel, some for education, and some just for job opportunities. And they’re millennials with the same motivations of millennials in the civilian world. Barking orders works in basic training, but even there, the military is looking for and building problem solvers. Successful leaders, in the military or not, motivate teams by giving team members ownership in the process and outcome as much as possible.  I never once in my career said, “Do this and that’s an order.” 

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?

Tom: There are several critical issues that I could list but it’s hard to say that three are the most important.  You could list human trafficking, lack of basic human rights, restrictions in individual liberty, threats to the environment, or the growing gap between rich and poor.  But I think the basic problem that needs to be addressed to solve the rest is tolerance. I’ve stressed the need for diverse thought in creating successful teams, but diverse thinking is only useful if people are willing to sit down and listen to and respect those who have a different opinion.  And all opinions should see the light of day, no matter that you may disagree with them. This is not just a problem in politics or race relations, though those are critical areas where we need tolerance. Intolerance appears everywhere in our society, and social media makes it easy to articulate.  We must be able to respectfully disagree and stop hating those with opinions different from our own. And because of my experience and inspiration from working with the young people that serve in our military today, I am optimistic that we can make progress in all the great challenges. It’s easy to bash this generation, but in addition to their understanding of tech, and their creative problem solving, they also demonstrate tolerance.  I believe that the generation of my kids will be the next greatest generation.

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

Tom: I have two: First, if you think you’re smartest guy in the room, get some more people in there.  Second: Find out what your team hates to do the most and go do it with them. 

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

Tom: Always think about who will replace you and make sure they are prepared to do it.

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

Tom: Most of my hobbies have revolved around sports.  Sports is an incredible leadership laboratory, and you don’t have to be the team captain.  The examples of good and bad leadership are there for everyone playing to learn from.

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

Tom: It was a great honor and pleasure to serve for 33 years in the Air Force, and I learned that there are great leaders, formal and informal, in every walk of life.  I believe there is a time when every person need to stand up and lead. 

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