Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines: Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School Veterans Share Their Stories from Iraq & Afghanistan

I was privileged to be in the audience last evening for a remarkable event, hosted by the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics. The purpose of the gathering was to pay tribute to those who have served our nation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to learn leadership lessons from their deployments there. Attending on the campus of Harvard University an event that began with the Presentation of the Colors and the singing of the National Anthem was for me a surreal event. This is the same university that, during the height of the controversies over the Viet Nam War, expelled ROTC from the campus.

The evening began with opening statements by the Dean of the Kennedy School and by David Gergen, Director of KSG’s Center for Public Leadership and former Editor-at-Large for U.S. News & World Report and White House advisor to four presidents. Gergen moderated the panel, along with Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, a current Kennedy School candidate for the Master in Public Administration degree and 1987 graduate of West Point.

The focus of the evening was to educe lessons on leadership from experiences the panelists encountered while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The audience was an interesting mix of active duty military personnel in uniform, former military, current students at KSG and HBS, university undergraduate students, members of the press and community residents. The room, named in honor of John F. Kennedy, Jr., was packed to overflowing with this eclectic gathering of individuals who had come to hear first hand about life on the front lines.

Panelist Lt. Col Oscar Hall talked about leadership by example. “You have to show your troops what ‘right’ looks like by going with them on patrol and leading by example.” Hall talked about the principle that the leader must be willing to expose himself to danger by not remaining safely ensconced in the Operations Center. Clearly, Hall put those principles into action every day of his deployments, leading 387 combat patrols. Lt. Col. Hall also talked about the multiplicity of demands placed upon today’s military leaders: “It is important that we train to develop proficiency along a wide variety of competencies – medical skills, diplomacy, negotiations, cross-cultural understanding.”

A common theme that kept being repeated and developed in numerous variations throughout the evening was the theme that these soldiers and Marines continued to serve and to do the right thing under dire circumstances because of their commitment to their fellow combatants – those “to the left and right of you.”

United States Marines Corps Reserve Captain, Maura Sullivan, a current MPA candidate at the Kennedy School, reiterated the importance of leadership by example, and added “selflessness and commitment” as two other key components to successful leadership on the battlefield. She talked about a Marines Corps officer for whom she developed the highest level of respect, because he would consistently place himself in danger in order to better protect his Marines. Capt. Sullivan talked about one of her most difficult moments in Iraq – a leadership challenge that involved ordering a Marine to go on an arduous assignment, one on which she herself would not be able to accompany the Marine. An explosion had occurred nearby the Operations Center, and a Marine had been killed and another grievously wounded. Sullivan recounted the experience of assigning the task of going to collect the dead Marine and bring back the wounded comrade: “I was scared, but as a leader, I had to convey confidence that this Marine would be successful in undertaking this difficult assignment. As I gave the order for him to proceed to the site of the explosion, he was struggling to mask the slight trembling of his right hand.” It is this kind of granular detail of life under duress that we noncombatants seldom get to hear about, and which begins to paint a clearer picture of the challenges of combat.

Major Joseph Ewers is a current MBA candidate at HBS, and upon completion of his degree, will return to his alma mater, West Point, to teach leadership. He responded in the following way to the question: “How do you continue to lead in the field when you are aware that political and popular support back home for the war is crumbling?” Ewers replied: “Well, you continuously communicate the mission to your soldiers. You point out successes. You point out the ways in which you are making a positive difference in the lives of the Iraqis in your sector. And, ultimately, it all comes down to each other. You continue to stress the commitment to those on your left and on your right.”

Ewers spoke passionately about what it has been like for him to leave combat for a position at a prestigious school like HBS. “There is an enormous sense of guilt in coming to a place like HBS, and not doing what my comrades are doing in Iraq.”

USMC Reserve officer, Lt Col. Dan Wagner, a 1991 graduate of Annapolis and KSG MPA from the class of 2002, gave his own take on leading by example, and being aware that as a leader, you are constantly being observed for your reactions and attitudes: “How do you react when one of your soldiers is killed? How do you respond when you learn that your unit is being extended and not going home as expected? How do you act when you make a mistake and everyone in the unit knows that you have made a mistake?”

Wagner was wounded while serving in Ramadi. He discussed the fact that a good leader is always preparing his troops for the eventuality that the leader may be removed at a moment’s notice, and each member if the unit must be prepared to continue with the mission at hand. While Wagner did not use this term, he seemed to be talking about the Marines Corps’ concept of “the strategic corporal” - the notion that each Marine, enlisted and officer alike, must have a comprehensive enough view of the mission to be able to make instant strategic level decisions on the battlefield, decisions that in previous wars would only have made by senior officers operating behind the front lines. Lt. Col. Wagner also discussed his observation that the most effective leaders were those who were adaptive and are able to look at problems form a variety of angles.

In responding to a question about what keeps a leader going under duress, he talked about a sense of duty. “You have to be able and willing to do the right thing under the worst of circumstances and under duress. You have to be radically honest – with yourself and with your Marines. This job demands a sense of calling – a sense of vocation. You have to have a keen awareness of what you bring to the table that perhaps someone else might not bring.”

Towards the end of the evening, microphones on the floor were opened to allow questions from the audience. One military spouse spoke about the behind the scenes work done by the wives and husbands of those sent into combat. “Just as the ‘green suiters’ develop a sense of family, those of us left behind do the same thing. I spent much of my time handling a flood of communication- e-mails, phone calls and visits to those in need of support back home.” In response, Lt. Col. Hall offered this comment: “These ladies are the unsung heroes – they are the epitome of selfless service.”

One of the most riveting moments of the evening for me occurred near the end of the Q&A session. An “insurgent” approached the floor microphone. OK - he identified himself as a reporter from The Boston Globe! He lobbed towards the panelists a verbal IED – a question about why the U.S. Department of Defense had not yet entered the 21st century and integrated gays openly into the military. The question was totally out of sync with the tone and content of the rest of the evening, and it was clear that he had chosen to be present because he had an ax to grind. The panel members were deft and very moving in disarming this potential bombshell. After Lt. Col. Wellman pointed out the obvious fact that this kind of policy was set at levels far above the ranks held by the panelists, Capt. Sullivan added her own response, which I will paraphrase: “If the time comes when the policy changes and we are told to welcome gays into our ranks, I will not look at those who join us as gay or straight, male or female; I will welcome them as Marines, and I will stand and serve proudly with them.” The audience erupted in spontaneous applause. David Gergen capped off the discussion of this issue when he said: “And when that times comes, perhaps Harvard will then welcome back to campus the ROTC program.”

I was moved and inspired by the evening. I did a quick survey of those I know who have served. As the proceedings were wrapping up, I turned to a friend who was sitting behind me – a current HBS student who served with distinction in Afghanistan. His initial reaction was: “I wish it had not been so focused on Iraq, and I wish there had been more talk about the humility needed to serve as an effective leader. I did not hear a lot of talk about humility tonight.”

A few minues ago, I received an e-mail from the friend who had invited me to attend last evening’s event. He is a West Point graduate who made the following observation: “[It]
made me feel guilty that I'm a civilian and not serving any more.”

All in all, it was a memorable evening. The icing on the cake was that all current KSG and HBS students who served n the military were honored guests at a dinner at the Charles Hotel. Kudos to the Kennedy School and HBS for leading the way in doing the right thing in honoring the men and women who have served, and for offering a forum for reflecting on the lessons of leadership they have learned the hard way.


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