Retired Gen. Daniel B. Allyn delivered his thoughts on leadership, calling himself a "seasoned practitioner" not an "expert," during an Army Leader Exchange presentation May 14 at the Lewis and Clark Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Army Leader Exchange is a community of practice dedicated to enabling professional conversation on all things leadership and leader development. On a continuing basis, ALx hosts guest speakers from industry, government, education and the military to offer unique insights on leadership.
Allyn, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and U.S. Army Forces Command commanding general, spoke before an audience of more than 1,000 Command and General Staff College students and faculty, as well as virtual viewers via Facebook Live. His topic, "Leading to Success -- One Soldier's Perspective," offered his philosophy on leadership, drawing from a career that spanned more than 36 years.
"There is a universal need for leadership no matter what group you happen to be in the midst of," said Allyn. "And for those of you in the group that consider your next foray to be staff-centric, I would like to offer to you, 'okay' you might be in a staff job, but you are always a leader. And I would ask you to approach every moment of your life with that perspective in mind. "
Allyn outlined what he sees as the seven "primary" roles for leaders: exemplify, create the environment, build shared vision, inspire excellence, communicate, manage time and talent, and balance leadership-management. He also noted that two key attributes to success are self-discipline and hard work.
"If you look at this list you'd say, 'This is pretty straight forward, how hard can that be' and what I'd offer to you is in their simplicity lies the complexity and toughness of fulfilling them 24/7, 365," he said.
Exemplify. The former commanding general of both XVIII Airborne Corps and 1st Cavalry Division defined "exemplify" through both examples and anecdotes. He said Soldiers will always observe what you do and watch to see if those actions align with what you are saying. If your actions and words don't match, you have a credibility problem. Leaders are also allowed "no bad days" in that they must find the resilience and perseverance to weather tough times. Much like an umbrella, when it is raining on "your" formation it is the leader's responsibility to absorb as much of that adverse "weather" as possible. When the sun shines again, that umbrella comes down and the sun gets to shine on those who are doing the heavy lifting every day.
"Bad things and bad times are going to happen to us all. How we respond to them, how our leadership carries through those situations defines our effectiveness as a leader," he said.
Create the environment. Soldiers expect their leaders to create an environment where they can exceed their potential -- where they have a fair shot at delivering positive outcomes through their hard work. Allyn said failing to create this environment of trust, teamwork, and fair play lets down more than the small group one is directly responsible for and can have an exponential impact. Getting this component of leadership right almost guarantees mission success.
Leaders should also look inward first when someone or something in the unit fails to meet expectations. "Ask yourself first what have I potentially failed to do in terms of setting the conditions for that success," he said.
Other keys to creating the environment you want include linking empowerment to accountability and underwriting some risk in the organization. Leaders should also consider "first impressions" -- in this case, not how you present yourself, but rather how the people you choose to surround yourself with represent you in the formation.
"How are you ensuring that the impression they transmit is aligned with your own," said Allyn.
Shared vision. Allyn said communicating your vision is not as easy as it seems. As a personal example he told the story of how as a brigade commander he created a catchy phrase just before commencing what became known as the "March to Baghdad" in 2003. "The Road to Benning goes through Baghdad" sounded good initially, but 20 days later, while on battlefield circulation, a tank commander asked when they could expect to go home. The moral according to Allyn was "As you communicate that vision, be ready for unexpected success and be thinking about can I actually deliver on my part of the bargain?"
Inspire Excellence. "If you refuse to accept anything less than excellence, those who work for you are going to deliver excellence," Allyn said. Understand, however, that excellence requires resources and shortcuts will produce less than positive outcomes. Allyn also noted that the daily grind tends to illuminate the negative in an organization. He advised leaders to commit to finding and highlighting the positive in their organizations.
Communicate. Communication is a skill that must mature with responsibility, according to Allyn. He said he believes listening is a foundational skill that all can afford to put more effort into; also, a leader should never forfeit the opportunity to remain silent. If you only directly communicate when it concerns your specific priorities, it makes it more likely your audience will pay attention. Soldiers need to clearly understand what their leaders find most important.
Manage Time and Talent. Allyn recommended leaders be respectful of peoples' time. Time is a constrained, non-recyclable resource, and time must be aligned with a leader's priorities. In managing talent, he noted that sometimes gapping a position is better than filling with the wrong person. "You've got motivated people working for you, your job is to inspire them, he said.
Balance Leadership-Management. Leadership is people-centric, while management is process-centric. Both have their place, said Allyn, but not if process crushes the spirit and outcomes of the organization. Leaders often default to process when what the organization needs is the leader's presence and direct influence.
Allyn drove home the importance of getting leadership right: "Our responsibilities as leaders to train our formations and to provide the exemplary leadership required, particularly in moments of adversity, is one that only we can bear. And keep in mind that even when you get all of that right, the enemy gets a vote. You want to make sure when that happens, you do not have to fill out the blank in the sentence 'if only I had (_______).' Because that is a sentence and an outcome that only you understand and are responsible for."