WASHINGTON (Nov. 3, 2020) — The Office of the Army Surgeon General and the U.S. Army Medical Command hold regular leadership seminars to support their Leader Development Program. The goal is to build agile and adaptive leaders for today's environment by sharing the learning, teaching, and personal development experiences of senior leaders.
On Nov. 3, 2020, the leadership series featured Under Secretary of the Army Hon. James E. McPherson, who discussed his perspective on leadership. As the Under Secretary of the Army, McPherson is the Secretary of the Army’s senior civilian assistant and principal adviser on matters related to the management and operation of the Army. The lecture was delivered virtually.
Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, The Surgeon General of the Army, welcomed McPherson and thanked him for taking the time to share his thoughts on leadership.
McPherson started his career as a military policeman in the Army with duty at the Presidio in San Francisco, South Korea and at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Then, McPherson jumped the Army ship, so to speak, and had a long career in the Navy — 26 years. He says he received a graduate degree in leadership while standing duty on the bridge of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt.
He eventually became Judge Advocate General of the Navy and retired in 2006. After a decade at a non-profit organization, he got an email from the Pentagon asking if he could meet with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Soon after that, he is appointed General Counsel of the Army and in less than two years the Under Secretary of the Army.
“Leadership,” said McPherson, “is more art than science.”
His preferred definition of leadership is an academic one from James McGregor Burns. Burns says leadership is influencing others to act toward goals that reflect the values and motivation of both the leaders and the followers.
There are four critical elements of being a good leader, McPherson said.
The first is a leader “must know his or her people.” How can you be a good leader if you don’t know your people, he asked. Leaders should listen to their people very carefully and talk as little as possible. Leaders get to know their people by listening.
The second is that a leader “must be a person of character,” and character is made of honesty, integrity and ethics. Leaders of character have “far reaching implications for the leader and the entire organization.” Dishonest leaders sow discontent and mistrust, McPherson said, and “create a dysfunctional team.” Subordinates always want to know if they can trust their leaders, he said, “As a person of character, what you do is far more important than what you say.”
Most leadership crisis come when personal desires overtake moral responsibilities, he said, always critically evaluate yourself and do it often.
McPherson had learned two things: be forthright, honest and direct with everyone in every situation. The second is that ethical standards are more important than legal requirements. “Keep those two things in mind,” he said, “and you will be a leader of character.”
The third element is leaders define the vision of the organization. Values plus motivation equal vision, he said. Even a supervisor of one or two people should have a vision for his or her unit. Your vision must be concert with that of Lt. Gen. Dingle, he said, but you still have to define for your people what the mission of your unit is. That’s your vision; write it down. Explain what it means. That is your responsibility.
And finally, leaders communicate. Leaders make complex issues understandable for every person in the organization. That can be challenging, McPherson said, but that’s your job as a leader. Give clear concise direction based on the vision you have developed. Work on your communication skills.
McPherson concluded with this thought. “As a leader you have an unwritten exchange of promises with your organization and the people who work for you,” he said.