Leaders are not born but made, and just as you can teach leadership, you can also teach culture. Centering on this value here at Culture Code Champions, host Bill Higgs brings US Army General Martin Dempsey to share the principles of leadership and creating cultures from the army that made them successful in the civilian world. They talk about what they particularly learned from West Point that is very much still relevant for the next generation of leaders to implement. As the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey is someone who greatly puts in wisdom on leadership; and he lets us in on the experiences he has of leading units and teams not only with what is required of them to do but also in putting importance to continuous learning. Fill yourselves with great life-long nuggets to guide you in becoming the leader that leads your organization to success.
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Principles Of Leadership, Continuous Learning, And Creating Cultures with General Martin Dempsey
I want you to make your culture count. This is another extra special day as we get to visit with US Army General Martin Dempsey. He was the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer reporting directly to the president. He was commanding the strongest military force the world has ever known. General Dempsey retired in 2015 but his sense of duty keeps him involved in giving back by teaching leadership as a 2016 Rubenstein fellow at Duke University. His class centered on his book Radical Inclusion. I think this is a precursor book to reading Culture Code Champions because it’s about being inclusive in pulling people together. He is the Chairman of USA Basketball where he’s helping with leadership and culture initiatives as the NBA develop young men’s social skills around the world. He’s also a singing legend to the children of TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in the Army. This is where they bring the kids together and Martin helps make it a great memory for them with his singing. Welcome, General. I’ve heard that this career almost didn’t happen. As you tell it, you tried to turn down West Point. What was that story about?
Thanks, Bill. I’m happy to be here with you and it’s good to see you haven’t lost your enthusiasm. To your audience, my fondest memory of Bill Higgs back when he was a cadet is he could get excited about a differential equation. I don’t know anybody else that can get excited about differential equations. I tried to go to Annapolis, I’m almost ashamed to say. They produce great young men and women of character. My uncle was a Navy veteran from World War II. When I was a senior in high school, he told me that I should go to the Naval Academy. In deference to him, I applied, although to be honest, I didn’t want to go to any of the military academies. You remember what difficult times those were in our country and we were at war in Vietnam and not that I had strong feelings about the war itself, but I didn’t see myself going to a military academy.
I was enrolled in Manhattan College dating the woman who would become my wife Deanie. I thought I was in a pretty good place, but I went up to West Point to do the mandatory medical examination and physical examination. West Point was the closest military installation to our home. In the process of going through the medical exam and then you transitioned to the physical exam and there were several events as you remember, Bill, you did them in Ohio. I did them in New York, but including the kneeling basketball through, I’ve never entirely figured out how that made any sense, but there we were. The shadow run was a 300-meter event.
If I had my math right, it was 75 meters in a segment. The idea was to take wooden blocks and displace them over the course of time. I did pretty well at that. The individual administering the exam said, “Can you hang on a minute, I want you to meet somebody?” He went in and got the track coach as it turns out, Carlton Crowl, if you remember that name, a legend in Army sports. He said, “Are you here because you’re applying to West Point?” I said, very polite, “No, sir. I’m here because I’m playing to Annapolis.” He said, “That’s unfortunate.” He said, “If that doesn’t work out for you, would you consider an appointment to West Point?” Being the polite Irish Catholic high school student that I was, I said, “Sure.”
I did and I said, “Yes, sir. I’d be honored.” I left there not thinking anything about it. A couple of months later, I got disqualified from the Naval Academy, it’s exactly the same thing that happened to you. They’ve got us both for eyes and then I thought nothing more of it until late in June, I graduated from High School on the 22nd. Deanie and I decided to go to the Jersey Shore. I was hoping I’d meet Springsteen and give them a few pointers on singing because I got some pipes. We went to the Jersey Shore and we came back to Deanie’s house to dry. I came back to Deanie’s house to drop her off and her mother was out in the driveway saying, “Your mother was frantically trying to get a hold of you. Would you call her?”
I went inside. Remember now this is the days before Waze or iPhones. I went inside, used the old rotary dial phone to call my mother and she said, “You got to come home right away. We have great news. You’ve received an appointment to the United States Military Academy.” I said, “Mom, that’s interesting, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are going and I’m already in Manhattan College and got a little financial help so it’s all good.” She said, “Come home, let’s talk about it.” I did. I went home. I said to Deanie as I left their house, “There’s no way I’m going to West Point.” I drove home. My mother and father were waiting there and honestly we had this tiny little house.Leadership gets forced on you, and if you get interested in it, it becomes a lifelong passion. Click To Tweet
They were both on the front steps. We went inside and mind you, I can understand they’re excited because all four of my grandparents are Irish immigrants. This was the son of an Irish immigrant, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who’d honestly never did anything in their lives for themselves and saw everything that they were doing with their lives as an opportunity for their children. I’m absolutely convinced my mother thought this was divine intervention because she was very religious too, but I was pretty confident in my ability to negotiate my way out of this. Among my talking points where I have other options, they’re pretty good options but I just don’t see myself going into the Army at this point in time.
My father was a little more sympathetic because he was more up on the news of the day and the Tet Offensive, it only happened here prior to that. I was holding my own thought, but then at one point my mother said, “This is such a great opportunity. “ I said, “It is mom, but they want me to go three days from now. This is the 27th of June. I’m not going to do it.” She cried. It’s not fair at all, and I thought to myself, “I’m going to West Point.” The end of the story is I get to West Point on the same day as you. I thought it was on the 1st of July. It could have been the 2nd.
We’re all there. We’re in line. I don’t want to be there. I told my mother I’d give it a try, but I didn’t have any intention of staying, frankly. If you remember the upperclassmen, the first time you meet one they generally tell you that you’re not worthy, you’re pretty useless. In fact, you’re useless. They tell you there’s no way in the world you’re going to make it through West Point. I’m thinking, “Yes, I will.” I thought, “Wait a minute, how do I get through West Point?” I put on the uniform on the 1st of July of 1970 and took it off on the 1st of October of 2015.
It’s an amazing career to go from, “What were you thinking?” to being the number one officer in the military.
The Culture Code Champions, I think one of the things that is worth thinking about is that you don’t always know what’s best for you. Nobody does. I look back on several points in my life when somebody told me to do something that I didn’t think was the best for me and more often than not, they were more right than I was. That was certainly the beginning. They could see your potential or they could see something in you that you couldn’t see yourself.
I remember that first day vividly. My parents took my brother and me on a canoe trip and so we came from a canoe trip in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. They came to drop me off at West Point. I’m thinking this is going to be like boy scouts on steroids. I’m a happy camper. There’s a barricade there. I say, “Mom, I’m going to go check-in. I’ll be right back.” I walked across that barricade and I stepped into an alternate universe, people are yelling and screaming. You’re bouncing from one person to next. You drop your bag at one and they’d tell you, “Why’d you drop your bag?” You hang on to it. The next guy says, “Why didn’t you drop your bag?” It’s like you don’t know what you’re doing. He’ll never remember this question I got.
They said, what we call new cadet, “Are leaders born or made?” That’s a good question. You’re thinking on a nanosecond because you’re under pressure. It’s like all the leaders that I knew in high school were either good athletes or they were super smart. I said, “Sir, they’re born.” “Drop, give me ten.” I’m doing my pushups I’m thinking, “It must be the wrong answer.” I get back up he says, “Are leaders born or made?” I go, “Made, sir.” There’d be no reason for West Point if we couldn’t teach leadership. That made such an impression on me and what I’m trying to do with Culture Code Champions is show people leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin, just how you can teach leadership. You can teach culture. If we can get people to understand the underpinning of it, I think it would be great.
We were both the members of the class of ‘74 prior to the corps, probably one of the tightest classes when you look at what’s going on. Our classmates excelled in the Army. You are one of four stars that we had out of only ten four-star generals in the Army. We had 33-plus generals total. In addition, we have over 80 people that are CEOs of companies. In both the military and the civilian world, a lot of the leadership principles that we learned made us successful. I was wondering if you could touch on some of the leadership principles from West Point where they’re building that cadre that goes into the Army and goes into this civilian world, but it’s all about giving back and teaching those next generations. Can you talk about some of those principles?
Yeah, I thought West Point was an incredible opportunity to learn about leadership. To be honest, I didn’t know I wanted to know about leadership, but it gets forced on you and if you get interested in it becomes a lifelong passion. It started out interested in leadership and I think both of us have continued that interest. One of the other funny stories of West Point and you ask, “How do they teach you about leadership?” Do you remember the clothing formations? For the readers, the clothing formation, when you get to West Point, they issue you five or six uniforms in a duffel bag or in these days they put them in a rucksack. You have them up in your room and at a certain point in time, the upperclassmen who are guiding you, coaxing, cajoling, and other adjectives through the process. They’ll tell you at the end of the day when you’re already dog tired and they put all the plebes on the fourth floor of the barracks and they’re not air-conditioned.
The picture I’m painting is they’ll tell you new cadets or they might call you something a little harsher now, it’s now ten minutes to 5:00. You have ten minutes to go upstairs and get in a particular uniform, which is impossible, but off we go, you run up the steps, you get into this uniform, you come back and it’s a disaster. The uniform is on. If you’re wearing it improperly, people are coming back late. The upperclassmen will typically pick out one of the members who is the closest to having it right and bait them and say, “Cadet Higgs, you’ve done a very good job of getting your uniform on in the appointed time. Do you feel good about yourself?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.” They’ll say, “Who’s your roommate?” You’ll say, “Cadet Dempsey,” then they’ll say, “Cadet Dempsey’s uniform is atrocious. He looks like a duffel bag. How is it, Cadet Higgs, that your uniform is almost perfect and he looks like a duffel bag? Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve got this wrong. You have another ten minutes to go up and get another uniform.” You go up and down and you finally at some point figure out that what they’re trying to teach you is that it doesn’t matter whether you succeed individually. What matters is that the group of you, this ten-man or twelve-man squad succeeds as a group because it is an impossible task or if you’re going to fail, you’re going to fail together as a group. I think that idea of if you’re on a team, you’re on a team and you have a responsibility to your teammates in order to either succeed together or fail together, but do it together.
What amazed me is all of the cadets in our class were total stud muffins in their high schools. They were water walkers. They were multiple-sport lettermen. They were valedictorians, salutatorians and within a couple of weeks of being at West Point, they would be convinced that they could not tie their shoe unless a classmate was helping him and believe it to where it was cooperative and graduate. We were welded into a team due to being in an under total duress 24/7, but it was amazing. It almost could be a psychological experiment that they were doing on us, but it was pretty cool.Getting things done using your influence is far superior than exerting your authority. Click To Tweet
One of the things that make me chuckle when I talk to civilians, they say leadership and the Army’s easy. You give orders and people do what you want them to do. The reason I laugh about that is that during four years at West Point and five years that I had in the Army, I can only remember ever giving one direct order that I expected somebody to jump and do it. I was wondering if you could set the record straight on how leaders relinquish control in order to build and sustain power within a unit, essentially the opposite of what our readers probably think a leader does.
I’ve thought a lot about that particular issue. The reason I think about it is that it’s harder to lead nowadays because of a whole bunch of influences. It’s also because problems tend to be more complex nowadays. I personally believe that leaders are under greater scrutiny than they’ve ever been under. If you want to have complete control, the cost of control has become prohibitive. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I believe that the smart thing to do and this is true in the military, when we relinquish some control to our allies so that three things happen. You share the knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise have if you weren’t willing to relinquish some control. You share responsibility and you share the cost.
The energy sector seems to me to be a great example of that. You know this, Bill. You were in the energy sector on the oil side of it but also on the utility side of it. You know that for years the traditional gas and electrical utilities where the disparaging of renewable energy and in fact would Heisman Trophy them, stiff on that. Due to regulation both domestically and internationally, in some cases it’s because the renewable energy sector has become more efficient, therefore cheaper. The traditional gas and electric companies, there are about 900 of them around the country. About nine of them control most of the grid.
They realized that at some point they needed to relinquish some of the control, the stranglehold that they had on energy and invite in these renewable energy companies to use their grid. The important thing was they’re using their grid, sharing the cost, sharing knowledge, sharing responsibility. What we find is that in doing so, the traditional gas and electric corporations, their part still maintain enough control of their future that they are content with that, but at the same time letting this other consent. The way I describe it in my own career is I learned over time that if you can get things done using your influence, it’s far superior to if you have to exert your authority. In other words, if you can convince a group that what you are suggesting is in their best interests, it’s both the most effective and also the most efficient solution. It is far more likely to stick, to endure than if you exert authority and don’t make people part of the process of coming to these conclusions. If they feel like they belong and they contribute and what they have to say matters, they’re going to work harder at delivering.
I call it the setting of win-win relationships. Sometimes it was win-win-win, but so many things in the old patch, when I first started, it was total win-lose and had to look out for yourself. When those power grid people were holding the environmental side, the green ones at bay, they’re setting up contracts and win-lose. Once they started saying, “Let’s bring them in, let’s use their grid, let’s share some knowledge,” we can all rise, lift all the boats in a win-win contracting situation. That’s a total culture change to an industry, not just within a company.
It’s not just true in the business world, in the military. It’s true in our relationships internationally. One of the other ways that I try to articulate is when you’re trying to figure out how to accomplish a particular task, it’s okay to centralize what. It’s okay for a smaller group to decide what we want to accomplish, whether it’s a certain standard for climate change or denuclearization or on the business side and on the military side, what are we going to do with the Middle East? What are we going to do to Pacific? What are we going to do in Europe? It’s okay and in fact probably more than okay, it’s probably appropriate to centralize the what but de-centralized the how. Let the people that work for you, let them have a say in how and when they’re going to be part of the solution.
They’ll own it. One of the drums that I beat a lot is to open up the communication top to bottom in an organization. It’s step one in Culture Code Champions to get every level of top to bottom talking to each other and then also across departments. What do you see as the benefit of that action in what you see both in the military side and now that you’re working with the basketball teams and things like that?
I’ve always said that the best leaders are those who make it a passion of theirs to keep learning. I remember back to when you remember the Command and General Staff College which exists in our military continuing education paradigm about in the middle. Several years in, we take all of our indications of the Army and we take all of our mid-career officers out to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and we keep them there for a year and we put them into a learning environment. To be honest with you, that year also comes at a time when you’ve been running hard so it turns out that what you try to do out there is a balance. You do have to learn certain things to graduate, but you’re also trying to reconnect with your family because it’s at that point in your life.
You can slow down a little bit.
You think you can. I’m sure that they don’t want you to. They want you to work hard on the academic part. What I’m about to do is confess to you that I didn’t do that. Nor did I just mail it in. I worked, but I didn’t kill myself out there. The most interesting thing that happened was at our graduation. It was a hot June day and naturally there’s about 1,000 of us. They had us outside, they didn’t have a facility big enough inside. Do you remember the traditional green wool on our uniform? It must’ve been 90 degrees and 90% humidity. It’s north of Kansas City. Everybody was miserable and hoping beyond hope that they would abbreviate this in deference to the heat, but they didn’t.
I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself, but this guest speaker was a General named Glenn Otis and he was the commander of US Army Europe. I had just prior to that found out we were going to Europe. Prior to that, I found out we were going to Europe. When I heard him announced as the guest speaker at this miserable event and that he was the Commander of Europe, I thought maybe I ought to pay attention now, so I perked up and he gave a brilliant talk both in terms of content and brevity. The one thing he said that I remembered vividly for the rest of my career and I still remember, he pulled the 3×5 card out of his pocket and he said, “I carry this card with me. Written on the card are the following words, ‘When is the last time you allowed someone to change your mind about something?’” I thought, “That’s about as good a graduation speech as I’ve ever heard in the first place.” He was a four-star general in the United States Army Europe at the time. We had 350,000 or so over there. What he was saying was, first of all, you got to keep learning. Secondly, you don’t know where you’re going to learn from and therefore you better listen. You got to be listening.
That’s a super golden nugget right there for everybody reading. I think a golden nugget thing that I push a lot is to celebrate what you want to see more of. To me, that’s a Culture Code Champion mantra. Celebrate what you want to see more of because that has far-reaching organizational effects. How did you and your units implement that mantra?The best leaders are those who make it a passion to keep learning. Click To Tweet
Everybody has their own mantra. For me, it gave them memories. It was my way of thinking about that. Maya Angelou said it probably better than I’ve said it, but she said, “People will rarely remember what you say. They’ll always remember how you made them feel.” From that, I came up with my own little way of describing it to myself and to those around me and that gave them memories. In my case, it was military people. They’ll remember what you say literally because if you’re in a position of authority, they’re not going to entirely discount what you say. If you can do things with them to make them feel what you want them to do, it’s back to the idea that influence is far better than authority. Feeling is better than telling.
One of the reasons the Armed Forces have these big training exercises that are important, but they’re followed by what we call after-action reviews. It’s more important is that we review what happened if we have two forces fighting each other in simulation, that’s interesting, but what’s more important as we bring them out of the simulation or the training exercise. We ask them to discuss what they did, why they did it. We have both forces there, the friendly force, if you will, and the opposing force. They talk to each other about what they did and why they did it.
If you have a good, we call them observer controllers. In the civilian world, they might call it a facilitator. The facilitator will draw out from the people participating, “Why did you do that?” Not intellectually because a lot of what we do in making decisions is instinctive and maybe even slightly more than fact-based knowledge. At some point, you run out of fact-based knowledge and you make decisions based on your instincts. What we want, in the case of the military, we want leaders to do overtime is to trust their instincts. In these exercises we’ll say, “Here’s where your instincts served you well.”
You have to get them to feel that. You just can’t say to them that it was the wrong decision. You have to get them to understand why it was the wrong decision. I don’t mean to bang on this, but I had an example with Gregg Popovich who’s the coach of our men’s national team for the upcoming World Championships. I’m still an eager student of leadership. I’m watching Gregg Popovich who’s the most accomplished coach in the NBA right now. He’s agreed to lead our men’s national team. There was a case on the floor where the five young men in transition and one of them takes a shot and he blew the whistle, stopped the practice and he said, “Was that a good shot?” The young man said, “Yes, sir. That was a good shot.” Pop said, “You’re right. That was a good shot. There was a great shot right over there. What did you think when you decided to take that shot and not look around and feel where your teammates were, trust your teammates to take the great shot?” I thought it was perfect.
These are such real gold nuggets when you’re reading. A lot of times after projects we do it’s called lessons learned and we’re getting a list of things that we were learned, that we would want to improve on the next project. You need to dig in that little bit deeper, like General Dempsey’s talking and understand that feeling that we’re going in and why the people reacted that way and that needs to tie into those lessons learned for it to have an impact going forward. One of the great memories that we have that you and Deanie brought us into is we were at the British Embassy in Washington, DC along with about 75 of your friends and family, including your grandchildren when you were invested as a Knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. It was cool. My wife wanted to see all the decorations. I was a little bit more into the wine, but at that time when you did your talk, you said that you wanted your grandchildren to remember from that evening that you get through life by choosing your friends carefully, working with them on the hardest problems, and trusting them. If you would elaborate on that a little bit more on that being a key ingredient for a leader.
It’s funny that this comes up in the middle of our conversation. If we were to start this blog over and you’d ask me what’s the most important aspect of being a leader and being a follower because the leader-follower relationship is important on both ends. By way of sharing little ways to think about this, we were at a change of command for a protégé in the Navy who was a captain, which in the Army is a colonel, giving up command of Wing of Intelligence PA, they call it, intelligence-gathering aircraft.
In the course of the conversation with the incoming commander, he said something I thought was absolutely profound. He said, “Here’s what I will do. Here’s my part of this relationship. I will provide you the guidance. I will provide you the resources. I will provide you the top cover to get done what we have to do as higher headquarters, wonders how we’re doing. What I need you to do is care.” That’s it. “We need you to care. If you care and I provide you what you need, then I trust you.” What he was saying is, “I trust you to get us the outcomes that we need to get.” Your question about the hardest thing nowadays for leaders is that we live in this era of digital echoes, which means that something can be placed in social media, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whatever and off it goes and it’s almost irretrievable.
As it makes its way through a population that is perpetually connected on the move everywhere all the time, it gets a life of its own. I harken back to when John Adams, our second president said before he became president, “Facts are stubborn things.” I don’t think they’re so stubborn anymore. I think facts are questioned, they are vulnerable. If you think about that, if you think about the universe in which leaders have to lead nowadays where they’re in a competition for the trust and confidence of those who follow them, then trust becomes the coin of the realm. In the absence of trust, people are going to be pulled in directions you may not want them to be booked. Trust becomes the single most important thing that a leader has first of all to earn and secondly re-earn. When they’re done with that, they have to re-earn it again because in every instance, trust is under siege. I think leaders need to think about how they’re going to develop this trust and then continue to earn it.
That was one of the things that I boiled. We were an engineering firm but I boiled it down to all we sold every day was trust. We were trying to build trust bridges with our clients and trust bridges with our suppliers. It was like every day you’re building that trust and once you have that trust, then you can execute because both sides are going to pull their share, but it’s building that and it’s fragile. It’s like it can be disrupted pretty easily. As a leader it’s like the daily dozen. That’s what you got to do.
I used to tell in the Army, I have so many memories. I even take Baghdad for example, where we had roughly 32,000 young men and women controlling Baghdad, but we were on these forward-operating bases, probably 50 of those. I used to travel around to those bases and talk to the young men and women in uniform. It always struck me that they would be absolutely out of their minds if they would walk out that gate or drive out that gate unless they trusted the man or woman to their left or right, the medic, the helicopter pilot who would yank them out if they were injured. There are leaders who are giving them the mission that it’s an important mission and all the way back home to the families, unless that soldier felt had confidence and trusted that they would be cared for if God forbid something happened. Why would you walk out that gate?
That’s the trust environment that the military lives in, but even in basketball. I was talking to these basketball players and I said, “When you’re running these plays,” and there’s a code they use to call it out if they get picked off on a high pick and roll. “If you don’t trust that your teammates are going to have the same instinct you have, the same commitment you have and put the same energy you have into switching and covering down on the space that’s now uncovered, you’re not going to do it. You’re going to hesitate.” It’s the hesitation that causes problems in a basketball game, in the military, in business. Trust is the coin of the realm.
It allows you just to drive through. That’s one of the things with you being the Chairman of USA Basketball. I know you and Deanie are traveling all around the world, but one of the things they’re doing is they’re setting up gyms and training programs to help teach culture and socialization to young men. Can you touch on some of the things that both the NBA and USA Basketball are working on there.In the absence of trust, people are going to be pulled in directions. Click To Tweet
It’s young men and women. The men get most of the notoriety and they’re the household names. Here’s the thing about basketball that I had. I fell in love with the military. I’d fallen in love now with this challenge of using sports to do something other than win games. If you think about it, there’s an ecosystem of basketball. It includes parents. This all starts at about fourteen. That’s the challenge, but it starts with the kids. It starts with the parents. There are youth coaches. As you matriculate further up, there are fans, there are officials, when you get to the NBA as owners. There’s this entire ecosystem and the span of it runs from about 14 to 35. A young man or woman who has professional potential is going to be in that ecosystem from about 14 to 35, but a lot of people are going to be in it early. They’re going to drop out as you go.
What we’ve tried to do is tried to take a deep interest in how we develop them because we need guidelines for how much they should play so they don’t injure themselves. As you get a little further along, we have guidelines about how they should interact with an agent because the agents show up, the apparel companies show up. What we’ve tried to do is, and this goes back to relinquishing control to make things better. It used to be that USAB was a stove pipe. The NCAA was a stove pipe. The NBA was a stovepipe and the stovepipes didn’t care to interact and were suspicious of each other.
We’ve been able to break through that. What we’ve got now is a collaboration with USA Basketball is the national governing body. The NCAA who has a real interest in youth development because that’s the young men and women are going to show up in college and the NBA because that’s where the elite players and WMBA are going to migrate eventually. We now got a collaboration where we share responsibility, we share knowledge, we share resources. We’ll have at these fourteen-year-old youth programs for USA Basketball, we’ll have NBA assistant coaches, we’ll have NBA players come in.
You’re busting a lot of those silos and cross-fertilizing.
What happened with the suspicion and the silos is that the people who don’t have the best interest of the kids in mind who have their best interests in mind and we’re trying to make a lot of money. They’ll find a way to get in the middle of those silos. That’s why you see all these scandals. Not that you’re not going to see more scandals, but I think we’ve established an environment where we’ve got a shot at making the kids matter most, not the agents so they don’t get hurt, so they don’t make bad financial decisions or life decisions. Go to college, don’t go to college, those are big decisions these kids have to make. The number is roughly at any given time, there are 351 college programs.
They have twelve to fifteen kids in every program. I can’t do the math. You’re the mathematician. Let’s say it’s 5,000 MBA. There’s 30 franchises, fifteen players, 450 years, that rhetoric. The numbers are not outrageous, but when you go down into the youth part of it, now we’re talking tens of thousands of kids. What we want to do is by this collaboration establishing trust, breaking silos. We want to make it so that the 30,000 young men and women who think they’re going to be under your clothes, they absolutely think they will, but you’re shooting for a target of 450. We want to make sure that they get the right advice all the way along.
That’s good. One of the things I enjoy, I like talking to you and listening to the way you think. I enjoy reading thoughts on leadership, but one of the things, readers, you might think about doing is following General Dempsey on Twitter. He is an English major and I think Twitter was made for this guy because you have to seem to put a complete thought in two sentences. I’ve talked to a General Dempsey, he says, “ I’ll write something for Twitter and I’ll let it matriculate and think about it off and on for a couple of weeks before I put it out there.” They’re good thoughts. One I’d like to read to you, “We hear words. We see actions. We feel attitude. Good leaders make sure that they match. Good leaders make sure they contribute to a constructive environment. My big thing in creating cultures is creating an environment where people can succeed and feel part of a team and feel something that’s bigger than just themselves. This sounds like a very good basis for building a culture.” I was wondering if you had the chance to elaborate on that, is there anything you would want to add to those few sentences?
First of all, I think the way you’ve captured the idea in this title Culture of Champions is powerful because I do think that leadership and culture are one side of the same coin. I do believe that. The thing about the culture that strikes me is that if we do our jobs as leaders, then culture will persist. In your case, the Mustang culture, if it had simply faded away after you left, then it wasn’t imbued in the men and women that you touched, top to bottom. Gregg Popovich is renowned for the culture that is established in San Antonio. Players want to come and play for him not because they think San Antonio is going to win every championship, but because they’re going to have a shot because of the culture of the San Antonio Spurs.
The USA is a winning culture.
USA Basketball, the United States Military, all of that. I left the military a few years ago, it’s still there. I can’t figure this out. How is it possible? They survived my departure. It’s because of the culture, it’s a drumbeat. It’s a heartbeat. It’s probably heartbeat, is there anything to that? Back to the Twitter thing, you said I’m an English major. Remember Twitter used to have 140 characters. I liked it better that way because I thought of myself as an Elizabethan, the Elizabethan Sonnet, fourteen lines ending with a rhyme couplet. Shakespeare could talk about love in just that. I thought to myself, “If Shakespeare can talk about love or whatever it was he chose to talk about in those 140 characters, I’m going to try to talk about leadership in 140 characters.” I love that.
Now, I’ve got 280 characters. It’s gotten a lot easier, but I love the challenge because truth be told, back to some of the other things we talked about, people remember how you make them feel. Whatever’s in those 280 characters, first of all, for me it’s important that it’s grammatically correct. It’s also important that it evokes a feeling. Nonetheless, I don’t care if people go around quoting me. They’re probably not going to go around quoting me, but I want them to feel what I feel about leadership. What I would say to leaders out there and to those who follow them is pay attention. Words matter, first of all. Secondly, feelings matter more. That trust that exists between leaders and followers is more about how they feel about each other than what they say about each other.
What I like when I read the short things that you write, it’s like when I read it, I feel I can hook something onto it. Some experience that I had, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s taking me back to an experience that I had or a situation that I was dealing with. We also have a saying, “Keep It Super Simple,” the KISS principle. What you’re doing is you don’t need a lot of words to get this thought across. If people can take that and say, “It’s nudges that you’re giving to people to take care of somebody else or take care of a team or treat somebody else right.” All these nudges accumulate to create that culture. I think you’re contributing to that for a lot of people.Trust is the single most important thing that a leader has to earn and re-earn. Click To Tweet
Let me add one thing because it’s something I talked to my daughter who’s in the healthcare industry about a lot. Everything I said about social media, the power of it, the accessibility of it and the reach of it is all true and it’s all positive. When it’s positive, it’s absolutely appropriate to use it that way. I also worry a little bit about when somebody will send a subordinate or appear, a snarky negative email or God forbid post something about them on social media, that’s not helpful. Maybe the way to think about this is when you’re positive, you can be positive and expose it to the world. When you have to be negative, and there are times when you have to be negative as a leader, that needs to be personal. That needs to be eyeball-to-eyeball. It contributes to nothing if you just send an email and I’m criticizing someone because all that does is heighten the negative emotions. What you want to do is heighten the positive emotions and then try to take the negative emotions out of it.
That other thing is to realize that if you could put it in writing, it’s out there to the world. I had to let a salesperson go who wrote a negative thing about a client, but he was doing it through a friend of his in another organization. I ended up tracing where that email went. It went around the world, took 22 days, but he got back to the person he was bad-mouthing. Ridiculous, there’s no way you can think that this would ever happen on this one little email, but if you put it out there and it’s negative, you got to live with the consequences.
I have this thing I call the wisdom of Grandma Bridget, my Irish grandmother. She had a saying that was, “The less said, the less mended.” This is about leaders figuring out what kind of leader they’re going to be, but Grandma Bridget might have something to say about that.
Martin, it’s been fun talking with you. You’re a good friend. General Dempsey’s known as the singing chairman as he would work his magic in almost any environment to make lasting memories with everyone that he touched. He used to and still does work to make heroes of everyone that he touches. Martin, I plan to enshrine you in the Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame for Contribution. You’ve done so much in this world, but what would you want to be known and remember for in that Hall of Fame?
Thanks for asking. When I was in Iraq in 2003 as the commander of Baghdad and we started taking casualties, I didn’t want those casualties to be forgotten. There’s a long story of this, but the short story is I had my officer make this little two-inch by three-inch cards and we laminated them. We had an image of the soldier who lost and we had information about them and their family on it and we started carrying them around. They’re not forgotten. I’d put them in the cargo pocket of my battle dress uniform. It was comforting to have them there, but they’ve got to be too many of them.
The number eventually crept up to that 132. What I did is I got a mahogany cigar box and I started placing most of the cards in there, but I wanted to engrave something on the top. I would always carry three with me or so. I wanted to engrave it with something and one time I was struggling with what I wanted to put on the box and what I wanted to say to soldiers about losing their teammates. In that brief period between asleep and awake, I had this phrase echoing in my head, “Make it matter.” I don’t know where that came from but I’m glad I have it now.
I’d go to memorial services and I would say to the soldiers who had lost their teammate, “Make it matter.” You can’t bring them back, but in the way you live your life, not just here, but when eventually we go back to Germany or the United States, wherever we are. In the way you live your life, you can make their sacrifice matter. That phrase for me has taken on enormous weight, the kind of weight that I welcome though. Because here’s the thing, out of those 132 soldiers, and we’ve lost upwards of 10,000 across both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I always think to myself how many of them would have been elected officials, mayors or senators? How many of them would have been command sergeant majors in the military or generals or colonels? How many of them would have been corporate executive officers?
How many of them would have been fathers? How many would have been mothers? I don’t know what they would have become. They gave their potential away so that we could preserve our potential. That’s another way of looking at it. My goal then and now is to make what I do matter because they didn’t have the chance to do it. I don’t think that works just in the military. I don’t think the, “Make it matter,” phrase is unique to the military. Every one of us can make something matter in their everyday life. Whether it’s writing, you have a coworker who lost a parent or as on the negative side and you console them, you write them a note, you make it matter. On the positive side, if someone gets promoted or has a child, celebrate that. It could be a note, it could be a pat on the back. It could be recognition. When you do that, you make it matter. You’re doing something outside of yourself. Maybe that’s another way to think about make it matter.
I was blessed to make it matter in some big ways because of the jobs that I was privileged to have all the way up to and including influencing the president and his decision-making. I was able to make it matter in a big way sometimes, but most often, to be honest, make it matter happens in small ways, lots of little things. If in the aggregate of your life, you try to do that frequently, maybe even every day, at the end of the process you will have made it mattered. I think that’s the way I try to lead my life.
I appreciate you sharing that with us and some of the soldiers who come back and they feel guilty because they survived and their friend didn’t. If they can take that and make it matter with them, that’s going to help them reconcile with the fact that they’re now back home. Thank you so much for aspiring visiting with you. You’ve provided some real gold nuggets. I think make it matter is something everyone can take with them. All these readers, this is Culture Code Champions: Seven Steps to Scale and Succeed in Your Business and make it work. I want you to remember that you have to assign a champion to each one of those seven steps in order to make it a habit.
A lot of the things that General Dempsey’s talked about became habits across his career and across time. The thoughts and the movement that you’ll create in your organization and some of what you read now are proof positive that working those habits will change lives. You can contact General Dempsey at www.GeneralDempsey.com Purchase his book, Radical Inclusion, on Amazon. A great book to read, mine are all marked up. I’ve written all the sides of it and underlined it, but there are some great phrases in there that you can take to work each day with you. Martin, I’m going to wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with readers at this point on teaming culture?
Thanks, Bill. First of all, I love the title Culture Code Champions and to get there I think it’s probably obvious that every journey starts with a first step and culture in particular happens when you keep making that step over and over again. The culture is what happens when the values of an organization can be sustained over time. Our military is a great example of that. I guess if I were to leave your readers with anyone thought, it’s if you’re not already working on it, start now.
It needs to come from the heart. You can’t just paper over it or try to make it happen. If you don’t believe it and you’re not pushing it to where people can feel it like General Dempsey was talking, it’s not going to stay. I left Mustang in 2008. In 2016, the marketing group went to all the offices internationally and asked people what does it mean to be a Mustang? That was the name we had for ourselves. These people would say in their own language what it meant. The English subtitles at the bottom were the phrases that we had used in year four of Mustang brought me to tears. I could not believe these people in India, Pakistan, Asia, Norway, North and South America in their own language knew what it meant to be a Mustang. It was that culture that was still top to bottom. That can be a legacy that you leave if you do like General Dempsey was saying, “Start those steps, start making it a habit. Bring your heart into it.” This was pretty fantastic. It’s definitely a world-class thought and action leader who puts people first and has strategic leadership vision. Until our next episode of Culture Code Champions, I want you to get out there, make heroes of everyone that you come in contact with and remember to make your culture count. Thank you.
- General Martin Dempsey
- Radical Inclusion.
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
- Twitter – General Martin Dempsey
About General Martin Dempsey
General Martin E. Dempsey becomes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after serving most recently as the Army’s 37th Chief of Staff from 11 April 2011 through 7 September 2011.
Past assignments have taken him and his family across the globe during both peace and war from Platoon Leader to Combatant Commander. He is a 1974 graduate of the United States Military Academy and a career armor officer.
As a company grade officer, he served with the 2nd Cavalry in United States Army Europe and with the 10th Cavalry at Fort Carson. Following troop command he earned his Masters of Arts in English from Duke University and was assigned to the English Department at West Point. In 1991, GEN Dempsey deployed with the Third Armored Division in support of OPERATION DESERT STORM. Following DESERT STORM, he commanded 4th Battalion 67th Armor (Bandits) in Germany for two years and then departed to become Armor Branch Chief in US Army Personnel Command. From 1996-1998 he served as the 67th Colonel of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. Following this assignment as the Army’s “senior scout” he served on the Joint Staff as an Assistant Deputy Director in J-5 and as Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From September 2001 to June 2003, General Dempsey served in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia training and advising the Saudi Arabian National Guard. In June of 2003, General Dempsey took command of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, Iraq. After 14 months in Iraq, General Dempsey redeployed the division to Germany and completed his command tour in July of 2005. He then returned to Iraq for two years in August of 2005 to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces as Commanding General of MNSTC-I. From August 2007 through October 2008, GEN Dempsey served as the Deputy Commander and then Acting Commander of U.S. Central Command. Before becoming Chief of Staff of the Army, he commanded US Army Training and Doctrine Command from December 2008-March 2011.
General Dempsey’s awards and decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with “V” Device and Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Action Badge, and the Parachutist Badge. In addition to his Masters’ Degree in English, he holds Masters’ Degrees in Military Art and in National Security Studies.
General Dempsey and his high school sweetheart Deanie have three children: Chris, Megan, and Caitlin. Each has served in the United States Army. Chris remains on active duty. They have nine wonderful grandchildren: Kayla, Mackenna and Finley by Chris and daughter-in-law Julie, Luke, Braden and David by Caitlin and son-in-law Shane, and Alexander, Hunter and Samuel by Megan and son-in-law Kory.
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