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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Major General Robert Mixon

I spoke to Major General Robert W. Mixon Jr. (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. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Robert: Many would probably be surprised to know that my “dream job” was to be a men’s college basketball coach.  I had the wonderful opportunity to work with two programs, first at Rice University and then Army West Point, in the 1980s – and I loved it!

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

Robert: I got here through a combination of timing, luck, and the investment of several inspiring mentors who were willing to listen and help me grow.  The most significant experiences in my career are those where I was given the trust and confidence to command Soldiers at several levels in the Army.  There’s really no leadership experience quite like command – where you are the person responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Robert: Some of the most challenging times in my early leadership career occurred while serving in the 1970s Army coming out of the Vietnam War.  We were trying to reconcile the transition from a being a draft Army to becoming a volunteer Army, while serving a Nation that largely ignored us.  I became quite discouraged by the way we were regarded by our civilian counterparts, and under-resourced in almost every respect. In 1980, while attending the United States Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, I wrote a paper on the subject, The Case for an American Foreign Legion, which reflected my disillusionment with where I thought our military was headed.  I don’t think I would have stayed in the Army had it not been for the subsequent transformation we experienced in the Reagan era of the 1980s.

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

Robert: I believe the most defining qualities of an effective leader in our Information Age world are being genuine, competent, and caring.  People want to follow someone who demonstrates what John C. Maxwell calls “personhood.” You are who you say you are. Similarly, they want to follow a leader who is competent in the skills of his or her level of responsibility.  Third, they want to follow someone who cares. Caring is the cornerstone of respect. 

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

Robert: Leaders and aspiring leaders must be lifelong learners if they are going to realize their potential.  Even the greatest leaders – those I and others describe as Level Five leaders – are lifelong learners.  Leadership is a journey, not a destination. You have to make a continuous commitment to the leadership journey of learning and growth.

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

Robert: High-performing teams are far more than a collection of talented individuals.  Team members should be carefully selected, coached and developed, and held to a high standard of accountability.  The highest form of accountability is mutual accountability. Great teams hold each team member accountable for their roles in the team’s success (or lack of it).  I’ve seen many great teams develop a Team Covenant for that very purpose.

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

Robert: First, I learned that you can delegate authority, but not responsibility.  Second, your word is your bond.  Third, do what’s right. Each of these lessons has had direct application to my civilian career, including those companies and organizations I work with now in an advisory role.  These three lessons are hard to live with every day, because there are all kinds of challenges and “grey areas” where they could be subject to interpretation. Great leaders provide clarity to their teams and organizations so those “grey areas” are few and far between.

Adam: What are the best lessons you learned from your experience leading the task force commissioned to modernize the way the Army was structured?

Robert: My role as the leader of Task Force Modularity was one of the most demanding assignments of my career, because we were charged by the leadership to help transform our Army while at war.  We had not changed the Army in well over 50 years, so you can imagine the inherent resistance to change inside and outside our ranks. The key lesson for me was that change is hard even when most see the need for it.  Effective change requires a clear vision of the end state (what does success look like?), and persistent focus from the senior leadership. I think we had those ingredients in 2003 and 2004, as well as a world-class team of professionals in the Task Force who were dedicated to doing what was best for our Nation and our Soldiers.

Adam: Given your expertise in the field, what are your three best tips on change management?

Robert: I mentioned two key elements in my earlier answer – a clear vision of the end state and persistent, focused senior leadership.  The third tip would be to involve as many stakeholders in the process as you can. If change is perceived as “someone else’s good idea” the odds for success are small.  The lack of clarity, persistence, and buy-in are the fundamental reasons 80% of change initiatives fail across all organizations. As one of my former bosses used to say, “This is adult work.”

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

Robert: I’d certainly say Generals Colin Powell and Crosbie Saint (United States Army) are two of the finest military leaders I’ve been privileged to have served with.  They “walked the talk.” People followed them because they wanted to. Two others that I have admired in my civilian career are Mr. Dave Pinder, President of Cardinal Integrated Glass Industries, and Mr. Sankar Sewnauth, CEO of CDS Life Transitions.  There are many more who have helped me learn what right looks like, and understand the value competent, caring leadership, but these are among the most outstanding leaders I have known.

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

Robert: I’d say the biggest misconception people outside the military have is that we are a very autocratic culture where compliance is more important than commitment.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Military men and women are among the most dedicated individuals you’ll ever know. Their level of commitment goes far beyond what they are required to do.  And in the military we have a very healthy sense of the importance of sharing ideas – to include disagreement – before the decisions are made. But once they are made, we execute them as our own. There’s a wonderful lesson for corporate America here…

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?

Robert: I believe our three most important issues facing America are respect, dialogue, and education.  We have moved away from respecting one another in some troubling ways. The prevalence of monologue instead of dialogue is one indicator of this trend.  We lack the ability to compromise, and that hinders our ability to make meaningful progress in national, state, and local politics or policy. As a result of this seemingly endless series of tirades by one interest group or another, we’ve begun to lose focus on education and learning from one another.  We must focus on providing both formal and informal educational opportunities for every American, on insisting we have leaders of character who are willing to listen and cooperate. I’m only cautiously optimistic we can overcome these challenges. The Information Age and social media are feeding the extremist tendencies of the few, in some cases at the expense of the many.  And thus the voices of reason are often not heard. We need leaders who are going to energize Americans to honor the values that have made us great. Those values are represented in our ability to show respect, have meaningful dialogue, and support education where we are willing to listen and learn from each other. The rest of the world is watching us. They will mimic our behaviors, one way or the other.

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

Robert: The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to look in the mirror when you want to find the answer to most of your challenges, and trust in God to help you with the rest.

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

Robert: Invest in the people around you.  If we all did a share of that kind of investing every day, the world would be a better place.

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

Robert: I learned to enjoy reading at a very early age, and I like to write (even though it is a difficult skill to do well). I also enjoy following a moderate physical exercise routine, and that has helped me keep a higher level of physical and mental balance over the years.  Finally, I like to have fun. Life is too short not laugh a little. As servant leaders, we grow leaders through practicing behaviors (including hobbies) they will emulate.

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

Robert: I feel privileged to have learned much about leadership from others, and it’s rewarding for me to be able to give back a little at this stage of my life.  Thanks to all of those who have helped make that possible. Enjoy your journey!

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