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Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military, with Tyson’s Karen J. Diefendorf

The military is a superb leadership lab. From the beginning, at least in the Army, every soldier learns that “leadership is influencing others toward a desired end.” It is influence, not manipulation, but personal and moral courage to be direct. It is about being a great follower and putting the mission ahead of oneself. It […]


The military is a superb leadership lab. From the beginning, at least in the Army, every soldier learns that “leadership is influencing others toward a desired end.” It is influence, not manipulation, but personal and moral courage to be direct. It is about being a great follower and putting the mission ahead of oneself. It is also about being a team player; service above self.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chaplain Karen J. Diefendorf. Diefendorf was born and raised in Vallonia, Indiana, a small rural town in southern Indiana. Desiring to remain within her own “denomination,” the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, she sought endorsement for Army chaplaincy which was granted in 1985 and entered active duty in 1986. Karen served 20 years as an active duty Army chaplain, assigned to various commands all over the world including the Pentagon where she worked on the Constitutionality of the Chaplaincy. Chaplain Diefendorf also contributed to the revision of the Army’s Field Manual on Leadership as it related to belief systems. She retired as a Lieutenant Colonel to answer her church’s call to become the Academic Dean at Lincoln Christian University’s Undergraduate College, Lincoln, IL. Over three years later she was recalled to active duty on special assignment, serving as Director of Training and Development, US Army Chaplain Center and School for an additional four years, totaling 24 years of active service. Chaplain Diefendorf received multiple military awards to include two awards of the Legion of Merit and Instructor of the Year at the Army Chaplain Center and School. She was also the first female chaplain to become a paratrooper. Following return to retired Army life, Karen accepted a chaplain position with Hospice Care of South Carolina and later added a part-time chaplain position with Tyson Prepared Foods plant, Columbia, SC. That introduced her to the breadth of Tyson’s chaplain program where she currently serves as Director, Chaplain Services for Tyson Foods, Inc., in Springdale, Arkansas.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I began telling people I wanted to be a preacher at the age of four. Most people figured I would change my mind, like most kids. Even though I knew my church didn’t generally ordain women and I had never seen a woman preacher, it always was in my mind.

I went to Bible College thinking I would stay a year and then transfer to an undergraduate program in either Psychology, Social Work or Pre-law. But once I began at Lincoln Christian College, I knew that’s where I wanted to be — and I enrolled in the Christian Education program.

During my junior year, the local United Methodist Church needed a part-time youth minister and they hired me. I stayed there for 10.5 years then moved to a small country church where I served as its pastor for 3 years. After completing one-year of clinical residency in Clinical Pastoral Education, I asked my church to endorse me for military chaplaincy. I entered active duty one year later.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I serve as the Director of Chaplain Services for Tyson Foods, Inc., responsible for more than 100 chaplains at our plants and facilities across 22 states. While I provide religious support and pastoral care and counseling to our team members, I’m also responsible for the strategic oversight of the program. I love having the ability to meet new people and the opportunity to share the various benefits that chaplain services offer.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was endorsed in 1985 as a chaplain in the US Army Reserve and spent one year with a Transportation Battalion in Peoria, IL. I entered active duty in 1986 after completing the Chaplain Officer Basic Course.

My first assignment was at Ft. Benning, GA, where I served as Battalion Chaplain to 2nd M.A.S.H., then I was assigned to the School Brigade where I covered the Officer Candidate School and the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (US Army Airborne School). I was the first female chaplain to become a paratrooper!

From there, I served in a Combat Heavy Engineer Battalion, covering soldiers all over the Pacific Rim. I also served at Tripler Army Medical Center as the chaplain to the Tri-Services Alcohol Recovery Facility.

Next, I was sent to Yale for a master’s degree in Ethics and returned to the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School (USACHCS) to teach Ethics and Leadership. The school moved to Ft Jackson, which gave me the opportunity to serve on the Installation staff.

Later, I moved to South Korea where I served in an Aviation Brigade and as Director of the Religious Retreat Center and then was the Chaplain Personnel Officer for 8th U.S. Army and U.S. Forces Command.

I thought my military career was set to end at the Pentagon, serving as Force Structure Office for the Chief of Chaplains (from which I retired in 2006). However, 3.5 years later, I was recalled to active duty and returned to USACHCS to serve as Director of Training Development, where I oversaw the development of all training from Private to Colonel.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

While serving at the U.S. Army Airborne School, a young soldier who was awaiting orders showed up in my office. I assumed his first Sargent (1SG) knew he had come, that he had permission, so after listening to the young man’s concerns, I sent him back to his unit and thought I’d walk over to talk with the 1SG to get his side of the story.

When I came into the doorway, I could hear the soldier being scolded by the Operations SFC. He was telling him that he should never go see the Chaplain again.

When the sergeant saw me standing there, he just kept on yelling at the soldier — and cursing my name and taunting me, asking “now what’re you going to do, chaplain?

The next morning, I asked the 1SG to come to my office and we discussed the issues and concerns — we had a productive conversation. At the end of the meeting, I thanked the 1SG and as I shook his hand, I told him that if I ever heard him bash my services and curse my name again, we would have a conversation in the LTC’s office and he seemed to understand what I was saying. After that day, I never had to ask for a detail to cut the chapel grass for the rest of my assignment there!

From that experience, I learned that it’s better to discover what is behind an issue before creating more drama. I had the “right” to put the 1SG in his place just like he was doing to the soldier, but I was the only female in the unit and this moment empowered me to take ownership of my role and the responsibility that comes with it.

I was not the chaplain they wanted. We were still trying to figure out how I would relate to them. I also knew that whatever I said to him would spread like wildfire in the unit. By showing him a better way to deal with issues and making it clear that he was not to disrespect me, whether I was around or not, we were able to establish mutual respect for each other — I wouldn’t disrespect him and the difficulty of his job, but I also expected no less from him toward me. By the time I left the post, we were great friends.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I was deeply touched by the stories of two chaplains who died serving in Vietnam and South Korea.

Charlie Watters, a priest serving in Vietnam, received the Medal of Honor for the care he gave to wounded soldiers, moving around the battlefield providing last rites and evacuating the wounded away from fire, but eventually he took a direct hit.

Today, his badly burned Chaplain Kit is on display at the USACHCS Museum. When I saw it for the first time, it was sobering to realize the commitment I was making, especially as a young wife and mother of two young daughters. In that moment, I had to decide if this life was for me. I really was called to do this kind of ministry.

My other experience with heroism was with Chaplain Emil Kapaun, who died in a South Korean POW camp. He was brutally tortured and even as he was dying, he continued to encourage the soldiers around him.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

For me, a hero is someone who does his or her duty, despite the risk. A hero doesn’t have to be brave, just very focused and mission driven. A hero knows what their purpose is and is confident in settling life and death issues before they even face them. A hero is resolved and trustworthy.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

a) I wear the rank I have (or have the position I have), not to tell others what to do, but to have the requisite authority to provide the resources my subordinates need to accomplish the mission/task. As a leader, it is my job to deal with the strategic issues, not my subordinates. So, I fight for the budget, get my work to my leaders on time with the best justifications. This way, my team always has what it needs to do its work.

b) Be humble. Never think you know it all or treat others as if they know nothing. The longer I have lived, the more I realize what I don’t know. I am now in the chair that requires more information, so I have to listen to what others bring to me.

c) Breathe. Before jumping to conclusions, make sure to slow down enough to gather all the data. There is more than one side to every situation. If something can be fixed, then why am I getting so angry about it. If it can’t be fixed, use my energy to find the next solution.

d) The Greater the Assumption, the Greater the Risk. Much of life’s choices and business choices are about evaluating the Risk and whether one is willing to take it. I learned this from Command and General Staff College. It’s easy to make assumptions and think they are facts, but that can be very dangerous.

e) Learn to think Future…what are the possible second and third order effects of my actions. Recently one of my chaplains put his own mental health at risk by being impatient. He entered the residence of a non-responsive team member before the police could arrive. As soon as he and the landlord opened the door, they smelled death but went in anyway. What he saw impacted him for weeks to come.

Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

The military is a superb leadership lab. From the beginning, at least in the Army, every soldier learns that “leadership is influencing others toward a desired end.” It is influence, not manipulation, but personal and moral courage to be direct. It is about being a great follower and putting the mission ahead of oneself. It is also about being a team player; service above self.

All of this is foundational to the military way of life. If you transfer that into a company and the person doesn’t have all of the skills needed, it can be taught. Our values come from our strongest held beliefs. Leaders who value people and manage things will keep priorities straight and be a greater asset.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am in the process of creating four new mid-level chaplain positions that will work with our business units to provide further training to Chaplains. We continue to grow and it is impossible for just the Director to provide this oversight, support and resourcing.

This will help Tyson Food’s 120,000 plus team members by providing them with the highest quality of care. It will also grow our chaplains from the lowest to highest levels of education and credentialing.

I predict that in the next ten years, chaplaincy will become a highly sought-after skill in the marketplace. So, my job is to grow my chaplains who will in turn be able to care for their team members. And once those team members are helped, it will impact countless others around them.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Delegate by giving challenging tasks and opportunities and offering enough guidance to get them started but not so much as to dictate outcomes and stunt creativity. I also think it’s important to underwrite mistakes and praise work. We should reward team members publicly in group settings and individually. Remembering little things can be significant, too; remember birthdays, anniversaries (wedding or death or employment) to thank them for all the sacrifices and support they give.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Know your limits; set up smaller groups of 8–12 with a peer mentor. It’s also important to develop opportunities for growth and leadership and allow each to take turns and assess who follows well and who sabotages.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been so many, so I will name just a few. Besides my mother and father, elders at my home church who took a risk to ordain me had a lot of push back but still allowed me to go through with it.

Additionally, every one of my supervisory chaplains in the U.S. Army who opened doors and were honest with me about what I needed to learn to move forward.

Finally, my battle buddy, Chaplain Mike Tarvin, with whom I served in Korea and who later become my predecessor at Tyson. Without his encouragement, I would never have applied for the Director of Chaplain Services here.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope my influence will make an eternal difference. My goal is to plant seeds, most of which I will never get to see grow. I work hard to be a good steward of my resources, both time and money. I hope to always have a generous heart and live life from that perspective. My husband and I raised three great children who are responsible, civic-minded adults. If that was all I ever did, that would be enough!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would inspire a movement of manners. In the 1960s, people were mostly rebelling and manners went out the window.It hasn’t been until recently when I began to think of all the good things manners can do. Manners can help people treat one another appropriately even if they don’t actively want to.

We are a culture that seems to not have the most control over our emotions. If I was going to start a movement, it would be to bring more civility and civil discourse to today’s society — but let’s first start with simple manners.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it is within your power to act. Do not say, ‘Come back tomorrow,’ when you have it with you today.” Proverbs 3:27–28

It’s a great care quote and puts others first. It’s also about time management and reminding us that there will always be more to do the next day, so procrastination is never the answer.

Lastly, it’s about honesty, integrity and stewardship. It’s important to not put someone off just because you feel more powerful — it inspires me to give back and seek nothing in return.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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