As a general officer, I am sometimes asked for advice on how to be successful in the military. Over the years, I have wondered myself, how have I possibly been this fortunate? It is certainly not because I am the most intelligent, most charismatic or the fittest; although I try hard to understand and overcome my deficits. The truth is, the Army is all about people, and soldiers are the reason any of us are successful.
It has been said that humility is freedom from arrogance. As we rise through the ranks, it is essential to maintain our humility. Yes, promotions are based on the demonstrated potential to succeed at the higher grade; promotions and selections for coveted assignments and training are done using a competitive process, so, in theory, our best do rise to the top.
However, we have all seen individuals who abandon the qualities and core values that served them well, out of a mistaken notion that they didn’t need them anymore. There are senior leaders who think the rules no longer apply or who crave the trappings afforded them. If anything, we become more accountable the higher we rise, since increasing authority demands increased responsibility. The rank we wear empowers us to do more for our organization, not more for ourselves.
The humble leader understands their success, throughout their career, is attributable to a multitude of factors, their own talent and abilities representing only a small fraction. The humble leader isn’t afraid to admit “I don’t know” or “I could be wrong.” These admissions don’t reflect weakness; they reflect confidence. Being comfortable with one’s own strengths and shortcomings leads to being willing to allow others to shine without feelings of jealousy. When humility is embraced and partnered with empathy, we can better see what is both right and wrong within ourselves and our organizations.
In “people first” organizations, the ability to empathize enables leaders to conceptualize how our decisions and policies will be felt and experienced throughout their organization. “People first” doesn’t mean we will always have a short workday on Friday since there may be mission requirements that have to be accomplished. Instead, by thinking through a people first lens, empathetic leaders rotate the workload equitably across the force, reward efficiency, express appreciation and are present alongside their subordinates to share the burden. When we engage in empathetic leadership, our soldiers know we care, and we build trust. Good leaders know they cannot expect their soldiers to be more loyal to us than we are to them.
It is also possible, and worthwhile, as military leaders to experience empathy with those outside our organization. Being able to see ourselves through the eyes of the civilian population in our area of operations, or even from our enemy’s perspective, can be quite instructive. Asking yourself “how would I feel if …” questions can lead to “what I would do if …” answers to help mitigate the negative impacts of our presence or predict behaviors that would impact our ability to achieve our mission requirements.
For example, if our community was under attack, our families would be desperate to get to safety. Empathetic leaders ensure the population is informed of where civilians should relocate to, and engage with community leaders and nongovernmental organizations to provide safe passage and protections to the greatest extent possible. Further reflection on our enemy’s thoughts and attitudes can help us predict their behavior. Would I be demoralized if I were them; would I feel inspired or empowered? These mindsets can be the difference between their surrendering or fighting to the death.
The good news is, these are qualities that can be both learned and strengthened with practice. The first step is to assess where you are by engaging in self-reflection and seeking feedback from others. Climate surveys, command sergeants major and first sergeants can be particularly helpful sources. Be willing to accept the feedback for what it is—a gift—because it takes courage for someone to tell you something they know you may not want to hear.
Through the act of truly listening, we better understand ourselves and are able to build the cohesion and trust necessary to succeed as a team.
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Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager, California Army National Guard. concurrently serves as commander of the 40th Infantry Division, Los Alamitos, California, and the California Army National Guard. Previously, she served as commander of Joint Task Force North. She deployed to Iraq as deputy commander of the California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade in support of Operation New Dawn. She holds a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and a master’s degree in psychology from Chapman University College, California.