After almost 40 years of service in the Army and the Georgia National Guard, it is clear to me that leadership matters. Positive leadership matters even more.
From my time as a young officer to my final military assignment as the Army inspector general, I have gained key insights not only into the challenges but also the opportunities that all leaders can use to help improve their organizations.
I developed and honed many of my thoughts about leadership during a two-day workshop at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey charged a group of leaders to review the Army profession and the impact of—at the time—10 years of continuous combat on the force.
Here are some of my tips:
1. Be real. It is important to be genuine with your people both up and down the chain of command. The youngest soldier or civilian with whom you interact every day will learn more from what you do than from what you say.
In 2010, in my second general officer assignment, I assumed command of the Army’s 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. These soldiers had not had a commanding general for about two months, and I was eager to get to work.
As I was preparing for the change-of-command ceremony with my boss, Gen. J.D. Thurman, the U.S. Army Forces Command commanding general, I carefully described to him the sequence of events and where he should stand, but he seemed more interested in speaking with the soldiers who were handing out programs. After a couple of minutes, I told him we needed to get the program started. He stopped, looked at me, then continued to talk to the soldiers as we walked down the sidewalk.
From that simple act, I learned a key lesson about the importance of engagement.
2. Be present. Being seen is an important part of leadership, but you do not need to constantly be in view. When you are seen, make sure that you are part of the meeting or conversation rather than simply being present.
3. Be creative; have fun. Rigorous, realistic training is a critical part of soldiering. It is one of the most important responsibilities of commanders and leaders. It can also be fun and build trust. I have seen several ways in which commanders succeed in this field. Competitions among units or individuals are a fantastic way to evaluate proficiency while helping build esprit de corps.
As a young captain assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, I learned about the annual All American Week and the competitions we would participate in, from volleyball to a division run. What I did not realize during my first year in command was how serious these events are—and how important it is for leaders to be present during these events. Just as you train every day, take time to have fun with your soldiers on a regular basis.
4. Be connected. Your network of friends and contacts is there to make your organization, your unit and the Army better. Focus on using the relationships you develop inside and outside the military to benefit your people, your unit, the Army and our nation. This becomes more important the higher you go in the ranks; it also becomes more difficult because there are more demands on your time.
But I cannot count the number of thank you letters and emails I have received for writing what I took to be a simple letter of recommendation. That one letter, the one you pen and sign, can make a difference in someone’s selection for promotion or a school. Use your power to help other people.
5. Be a steward. You have an important role as a steward of the Army profession. We are caretakers of this profession and what we stand for. I know that sounds heavy or unfair, but it only takes one negative incident for the American people to lose faith in our ability to take care of our most precious resource: America’s sons and daughters. This especially applies in this tough time of recruiting and retention.
We have a compelling story to tell and, as stewards, we are all responsible for telling it. Think about the person who told you about what service in the Army meant for them. Think about when you took that big step to serve your Army and your nation. We need that story today. Good leadership begins with that first story, and that’s what we need today.
Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith, U.S. Army retired, is the Association of the U.S. Army’s vice president for Leadership and Education. He retired from the Army in August 2021 after serving over 35 years, with his final assignment as inspector general of the Army. Previously, he was deputy inspector general, and before that, he was commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He has two master’s degrees, one in administration from Central Michigan University and one in national security strategy from the National Defense University.