Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Major General Garrett Yee

I spoke to Major General Garrett Yee (U.S. Army) 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? 

GY: First of all, thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts on leadership.  As a member of the US military, leadership is ingrained in our culture. From day one, we begin our leadership training and it continues throughout our careers.  To begin, I don’t consider myself to be the authority on leadership, but we all have experiences, good and bad, that we can learn from, and hopefully become better leaders.

I was in the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps in college until I was kicked out after being on academic probation my freshman year.  How’s that for a start?

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

GY: I attribute the first part of your question to my parents and the great upbringing that they gave me.  In life, everything over time builds upon prior experiences and opportunities, to include opportunities to lead and grow as a leader.  In high school, I played football, was the captain of the wrestling team, in the student council, and an Eagle Scout. All great opportunities to learn teamwork and leadership. Those experiences helped to shape my future transition to seek opportunities in the community and military service.  

Fast forward several years, my deployment experiences have been instrumental to my growth as a senior leader.  The deployments afforded me the opportunity to lead under sustained stressful periods of time which also helped to build my resiliency as a leader.  

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

GY: Let me count the ways…

Some things can happen to you early in life that can have an impact on the rest of your career. In my case, I won a prestigious four-year Navy ROTC scholarship to attend Santa Clara University in California.  However, let’s just say that my freshman year of college was not my best year and after spending two quarters on academic probation, I lost the Navy ROTC scholarship. At the time, it was a huge failure for me.  It was a low point, and I spent the next three years clawing my way back in order to graduate on time. Through this life experience I learned determination and focus.  

In one of my first leadership assignments, I made the mistake of pushing the staff too hard.  Six months into my new role, I lost several key members who decided to transfer out of the department.  That was a long time ago and I still think about how I misjudged the workforce. As a leader, we often have endless energy, but we need to understand the capacity of the staff.

There are many examples, but these are two that come to mind. 

Adam: Can you discuss your efforts to help modernize and improve the Army’s network and cybersecurity efforts? What key lessons have you learned that are applicable to all leaders interested in better modernizing aspects of their organizations? 

GY: While the Army staff does have a role in modernizing the Army’s network, the lead for the network modernization is now the Futures Command under the Network Cross-Functional Team.  That said, here are a few lessons that I learned:

  1. We can’t move forward without our commercial partners.
  2. The more I learn, the more I realize that there is more to learn.
  3. We are never done.
  4. Changing the culture of cybersecurity is critical.  

Adam: More broadly speaking, what are three leadership lessons from your three plus decades in the service that are applicable to a broad audience of leaders? 

GY: A few of these are truisms:

  • Take care of your team members.
  • Always try to do what is best for the organization.
  • Treat each job as if it is your last job – you will likely make better decisions for the organization.

While these may seem obvious, we sometimes get caught up with the mission and other demands during our time as leaders. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

GY: The job of a leader is to provide purpose, direction, and motivation.  That said, there is a lot that goes into “how” leaders go about doing this.  It is not enough for a leader to have the right answer, it’s about being effective.  Here are a few here are a few key characteristics that I have observed in effective leaders that I look up to:

  • Good leaders are good listeners.
  • Good leaders welcome bad news.
  • Good leaders use the word “we” more often than “I.”

Like anything that we want to improve upon, it takes education and experience.  This means reading books on leadership or taking classes. It means taking on challenging assignments where we are stretched and can grow as leaders. 

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

GY: Best advice – take a genuine interest in the team members.  Understand their strengths, learn what they bring to the table, and understand how they fit into the overall picture.

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

GY: I have been fortunate to be around many leaders that I thought were great.  I watched and learned different leadership traits from each. Those that I admired the most were those who could remain calm in the midst of a chaotic situation, those who took a real interest in the people that supported the mission, and those who made you feel comfortable in their presence. 

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

 GY: Many people that I meet seem to think that military leadership is all about ordering people around. While there is a time and place for that leadership style in extremis circumstances, the best senior leaders that I have observed are also thoughtful, often analytical, and caring. 

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? 

GY: While I don’t have an opinion on the three most pressing issues facing the country and the world, I will say that I am optimistic about our ability to address any problem that we face.  

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

GY: Best advice…smile.  As a leader, we set the tone for the organizations that we lead and a smile goes a long way.

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

GY: We all can pay it forward by mentoring and coaching those that follow us.  If we don’t, who will?

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

GY: While I wouldn’t call these hobbies, in my free time, I exercise and try to read or listen to audio books.  As leaders, we often need endurance and exercise helps. I’ve heard that if you want to learn something new, read an old book. I think that’s true.  

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

GY:  I’ve learned that there is no leadership silver bullet – it takes practice and experience. If we want to be better leaders, we should become students of leadership. Thank you for the opportunity to share a few of my personal thoughts on leadership.

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