Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Major General Malcolm Frost

I spoke to Major General Malcolm Frost (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?

Major General Frost: I enjoy playing poker, watching my daughter run track and play volleyball, attending college and pro sporting events, skiing, hiking, golfing with my buddies, and the occasional fine bourbon and cigar.

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

Major General Frost: I was put on my path to the Army when the father of a fellow youth soccer player identified me to my father as a candidate for one of our military academies. I did not know that for 20-years the foundation of my success as a leader was playing team sports in high school and at West Point. Through my teammates, parents and coaches, I learned leadership, teamwork, communication, relationship building, competition and the drive to win. Once in the Army, I stayed because of the people, culture, leadership, and pride gained serving and defending our nation. My growth as a leader was shaped by several inflection points throughout my career in the Army. These include serving in the mid-90’s as a young leader in an elite airborne unit in Vicenza, Italy. The quality of leadership and soldiers was exceptional, our mission was exciting and fulfilling, and the ability to travel Europe was incredible. Serving in arduous conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, including being responsible for complex missions and 800 to 5,000 soldiers, has a way of etching leadership lessons into one’s soul. Lastly, I’ve been fortunate the past seven years to serve in a variety of unique enterprise leadership positions for our Army and military that are rare for an officer who grew up as an infantryman.

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

Major General Frost: Leadership is forged during adversity and crisis – when you are driven to not fail your people and accomplish the most difficult mission when nothing seems to be going right. For me this occurred during intense fire fights and after losing soldiers in combat. I learned this is when people thirst for leadership. They are intently watching and waiting – gauging your emotional reaction, seeking clarity in orders, wanting intensity of purpose, and desirous of confidence that things will get better.     

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

Major General Frost: Effective leaders are passionate, energetic, genuine, caring, courageous, value based, communicate effectively, listen well, develop relationships, are team players, and know how to build consensus with internal and external stakeholders.

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

Major General Frost: You must make a concerted effort to continually improve. Rate yourself from A to F on leadership traits and seek feedback from superiors, peers, and subordinates. Then re-calibrate your grade. Analyze to figure out if they see you differently. Are they correct or is it a misperception? Should you work on why they perceive you that way (another trait)? Rank your leadership skills and identify the top three and bottom three. Develop a path for improvement for your bottom traits. This could mean self-study, exposure, repetition, seeking mentorship, developing new techniques, or harnessing emotional control. It doesn’t just happen – you must commit and work on it. No matter who you are, communications is an art form we can all improve on as leaders. Verbal and written, briefing, tone, body language, intonation, and knowing what to say, when to say it, and who else is in the room when you say it.  The path to mastery of communications will only make you a more effective leader over time.

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

Major General Frost: Leadership starts with having an organizational vision that accounts for the environment and its changes over time. Leaders must inspire followers, develop strategic plans underpinned by operational milestones, and execute effective and efficient management processes that facilitate achievement of the vision over time. Throughout, you must treat people as your organization’s center of gravity, follow the golden rule, and put them first. If you do that, the mission will take care of itself.

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

Major General Frost: Bad news doesn’t get better with age. Proximity is not an excuse for selective micromanagement. Confidence is required, cocky is suspect, arrogance is fatal.

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

Major General Frost: There are three leaders throughout my life that have had the greatest impact on me. The first are my soccer teammates and classmates from West Point. They taught me to see myself through their eyes. I learned patience, humility, followership, teamwork, grit and resilience from this incredible group of leaders and Americans. They are friends for life. The second is Mayor (Major General) Najim Abed Al-Jabouri, the mayor of Tal Afar during my deployment to Iraq during the Surge in 2006-2007. He taught me the importance of relationships, compassion amid war, diplomacy and patience. I admire him for his leadership in the face of extraordinary hardship, risking his family and his life for his fellow countryman and the idea of what Iraq could be. He is a modern Iraqi founding father in my mind. The last is General Dennis J. Reimer, the 33rd Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. I served as his aide as a junior officer over twenty years ago. He taught me the importance of hard work, dedication, values, compassion, being a gentleman and strategic vision. I also learned the importance of mentorship across generations and how passing lessons deep into an organization can have a profound effect on leaders of the future.

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

Major General Frost: That we are dissimilar from them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I like to say, “I wasn’t born a General” when people start treating me, well, like they think a General should or wants to be treated. I was born Malcolm and grew up as an average American in Torrance, California. I’m still that person today. We are from your communities and love the same things you love. We also swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and its ideas as outlined for the people, by the people. In essence, we work for the citizens of this great nation. I’d also offer that Army and military leaders are perceived as only understanding the military and are pro-conflict. In fact, the reverse is true. We must practice diplomacy, be versed in economics, know the information environment, and understand legal, financial, intelligence, and educational aspects of national power. Lastly, we train to deter and prevent conflict first. The last person that wants conflict is one who has served in war. However, if necessary, we must be prepared to deploy, fight and win for our national interests.

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

Major General Frost: The three most important issues facing our nation are our inability to adequately address and remedy our rising national debt by taking on the tough issue of growing entitlements and shrinking discretionary funding, the decline in propensity of our youth to serve our nation in some capacity, and an unhealthy and unfit youth that has resulted from lifestyle choices and a shift away from PE, recess, gym and other scholastic fitness initiatives. For the world, the slow decline and fragmenting of global institutions, organizations, and partnerships that have been the foundation of relative stability for over 75 years, the decline in democratic nation states and corresponding rise in nation states run by autocrats, and exploding human population growth and its effect on the planet. I am optimistic yet practical about our ability as a nation or world to address these problems. The capacity of Americans or humanity to rally and address any problem or crisis and turn them around exists, however the will to do so in modern times only seems to occur when we have crossed a red line that nobody can see or predict. Too often, it takes an emergency or disaster that threatens the masses to get our attention to act.   

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

Major General Frost: Never forget that the person (or group) you are talking to doesn’t live in your mind. It is not enough to communicate so that you are understood, you must communicate to ensure you cannot be misunderstood.

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

Major General Frost: Give of your time and money to a worthy cause that you are passionate about.  Volunteer, get involved, and help your community, fellow citizen and our youth.

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

Major General Frost: Watching and playing sports has been the foundation for my success because ultimately leadership is about being part of a team and inspiring people to come together toward a common goal of success, which equals winning. Sports teach you about people, relationships, strengths and weaknesses, influencing, following, leading, success, and failure.

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