Leadership Advice From A Four-Star General

Photo courtesy of Gen. Ann Dunwoody

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hello everyone and welcome to the LEADx show. I am Kevin Kruse back again to help you to stand out and to get ahead. On today's show, I talk to an Army Four-Star General about creed versus values, the open door policy, and playing to our strengths. And you will not believe the free online course we are offering over at LEADx.org today. You're going to love it. And, since we change the free course of the day every single day, and I don't really know when you're listening to this show, I don't know, which course you're going to see, but I still think you're going to love it. Every single day a new free online video course on management, leadership, productivity, and more. You can also get access to our on-demand catalog through the LEADx Academy. Again it's at LEADx.org.

Our quote of the day, I'm going to give you three quotes, given who our guest is and what she has accomplished.

The first, from Napoleon, “An Army marches on its stomach.”

The second quote, “Forget logistics, you lose.” Lieutenant General Franks, U.S.A. Army 7th Corps Commander in Desert Storm.

And finally from General Robert Barrow, United States Marine Corps, “Amateurs think about tactics, professionals think about logistics.”

That brings me to our guest today, she is the first woman in the U.S. military to have achieved the rank of four-star general, which she received in 2008 as a member of the U.S. Army. After 37 years of service, she retired from the Army in 2012. In her last assignment, she led and ran the largest global logistics command in the Army. Over 69,000 military and civilian personnel in over 140 countries and with a budget of over 60 billion dollars. Billion with a B. She also managed the Army’s global supply chain in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today she's the President of First to Four a leadership mentoring company and she also serves on the board of directors for L-3 Communications, Kforce, and Logistics Management Institute. Her book, A Higher Standard was released in April 2015. Our guest is General Ann Dunwoody. General, welcome to the show.

General Ann Dunwoody: It's great to be here, thank you, Kevin.

Kruse: Now, we always kind of have a tradition on this show where it doesn't matter who the guest is, I always start with the same first question because I think failures can be stepping stones. I always say, “There's no win or lose, only win or learn.” So I'm hoping you'll start by telling us about one of your best failures and what did you learn from it?

Gen. Dunwoody: First I agree with you, there is no win or lose in lessons in life. It is win or learn. I would say that probably the best but also the hardest lesson that I learned was that I was not invincible. Leaders aren't invincible. And in the military we like to think that everyone's invincible, that we can do anything, take that hill, jump off that airplane, run 12 miles, rough march and all that kind of stuff. No whining is allowed, just suck it up. As a young captain, I found myself in a position where I didn't like my job, I didn't like where I was living, and my marriage was falling apart. I just sucked it up and pretended like everything's hunky-dory and I started feeling really sick, and so I went to see a doctor. And he did some tests and he said, “Are you under any stress?”

And I said, “Stress? I got the easiest job over here, I don't like it but it's really easy so no.” And then it kind of hit me, that, you know I didn't like my job, I didn't like where I was living, and my marriage was falling apart, here I am from a Catholic family and I hadn't talked to anybody. I just sucked it up.  And he said, “Well you got a bleeding ulcer you better take care of yourself.”

Kruse: Wow.

Gen. Dunwoody: And so, I flew home to see my parents, scared to death that they were going to think I was a failure. And they were the most supportive parents one could ever have expected. And it was like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. And I went back to Germany and I separated from my husband, interviewed for a new great job, and moved into a new house with my dog.

Kruse: Wow.

Gen. Dunwoody: But the lesson is, we're just human beings. You know at the end of the day we're all human. And when the stress in your life is more than your body can take, it's going to react, whether it's your hair falls out. And I can point to hundreds of cases that I've seen where people have either breakdowns because they haven't dealt with it, they suck it up. Find a confidante, find a friend, find someone you can share the good news and the bad news in your life with.

Kruse: I really appreciate you sharing that story and to me that was one of your most powerful stories in the book. And what's interesting to me, there's a lot of things that are interesting, and one is that this time of the bleeding ulcer and having all of this self-doubt about certain areas of your life only really happened when you actually got a fairly easy job in the Army. You weren't thrilled with being in that job, you wanted a more demanding type role, but it's when the job had less pressure that all of a sudden everything else seemed to have bubbled up.

Gen. Dunwoody: In order to be assigned with my husband, I had to go over in my alternate specialty, which was personnel, which is very important, but it's not as exciting as the business I was in, jumping out of airplanes and parachutes. And so, I thought it was the perfect time to have a family actually because I'm in this easy job, and I find out my husband didn't want to have kids, that was quite an eye-opener, marrying a Catholic girl and that's when it all started unraveling. I don't think it really had to do with the job, it was the combination of things.

Kruse: And I speak to a lot of senior leaders in companies but as well as in the service, and it seems like more and more everybody's acknowledging that to be vulnerable and to share the way you just have as an example, is actually a sign of strength. Strong leaders have the courage to share some of what they're struggling with personally. And do you think we're making strides and changing the culture, not just in the service but everywhere in the organization to open up more?

Gen. Dunwoody: Yeah. I do still think there are people that have a coat of armor on them and that they would never open up, but I think we certainly are getting better. And I think it's really important because the consequences of not doing so, and today people start worrying, and self-doubt, and think about terrible alternatives that when we were growing up weren't even on the menu.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: You know, taking lives. And so I think it's so important that when you have issues that it's okay, it's okay. And you deal with them, and you probably do better in your job because you're dealing with the personal side that we have kept so close hold.

Kruse: Yeah, that's right. So, I'm curious also before we turn more to your book, what leadership advice would you give to younger first time manager, she wants to excel as a leader but this is her first time leading people, what would you say to her?

Gen. Dunwoody: I would say no matter what level you are, but particularly for the new ones, that make every person on your team count everybody has something to contribute. And if you can bring the best out in each of your team members then you're going to have a great team, but that also requires you to reward good behavior. So, when you have those folks who are exceeding the standards and doing a great job for your team, that you acknowledge that, that you pat them on the back, you shake their hand, you give them the t-shirt, you give them the bonus, whatever.

And likewise, the harder part of that equation is when you have people that aren't meeting the standard, who are dragging the team down, that you deal with those as well. Either corrective counseling, or try to make them get on the team, get on board, or you have to do something and not let them drag the team down, because what that does…

And I believe this, people want to be part of a high performing organization. They want to make a difference, but they want to be appreciated. And so, when you recognize those people are going to get on that side of the team, they want to be part of those who are getting the handshake and the pat on the back, no one wants to be told they're not doing well and they're not doing their part. And so, in my experience that's really how you build high performing organizations from the smallest level, smallest team, first job, to the highest level, of course it gets harder the bigger the organization.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: But, it's still that necessary evil. So reward the good performance, take care of the ones that aren't carrying their load, and create a high performing organization.

Kruse: And I think that advice, especially about addressing those who aren't meeting the standard, I really struggled with that as a young leader as I look back to especially when I was in my 20's or even early 30's, I was so non-confrontational, I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings or have a fight especially if I was friendly with them. And I think I confused being friendly at work with having friends at work, which made it difficult to give that corrective feedback. Did it come naturally to you to give that kind of constructive criticism? I would think that just sort of comes as just part of Army culture, or is it something you had to grow into as well?

Gen. Dunwoody: I think you get better each time, but it doesn't always have to be a confrontation, sometimes it's just education. We all have blind spots and so someone may not know that they're not carrying their load and here's what the others think of them, or making those on the spot corrections when you see the wrong thing. Some of it doesn't always have to be a chewing out.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: And you're really a poor performer. And I've seen so many people turn around because, one: they didn't know, or two: you say, “You really disappointed me today.” And in my mind, that's worse than anyone name calling.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: If someone tells me they're disappointed in me I'm like, “Oh wow.” And I found that worked for me, so it doesn't always have to be always so negative and something that is a blow, but if you make them feel bad and they still don't respond then you probably have a guy or gal that doesn't really care.

Kruse: Right, and that's a whole different issue.

Gen. Dunwoody: That's a whole different issue.

Kruse: Now, General your book again is A Higher Standard Leadership Strategies From America's First Female Four Star General. And let's start with, why did you choose that title, A Higher Standard?

Gen. Dunwoody: That's a great question. When I joined the Army back in 1975, I thought as a woman 'cause there weren't very many, I joined the Rack Corp matter-of-fact Women's Army Corp and then a year later they disbanded that and started the integration. So, when I decided to stay I just assumed that as a woman in this man's world that I would have to exceed the standards, all of them, in order to be accepted into the ranks and I tried to do just that. But as I continued my journey in the military what I discovered was that all the good leaders that I worked for, all the good leaders that I respected … and I never worked for a woman, I worked for all male leaders, they either did or didn't. They held themselves to a higher standard and they encouraged their subordinates to do the same.

Kruse: Wow, so it's like your very first leadership principle.

Gen. Dunwoody: Kind of, but it kind of took awhile for me to come around to it because it wasn't until I probably retired and got to reflect back on it that… I compare people who don't meet the standards, meet the standards, or exceed the standards. And it's kind of like, if you exceed the standard you got A student, if you meet the standard there's a C student, and if you don't… And if you have a team of C students that are okay with just meeting the standard you're probably going to have an average team.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: But you have a team full of folks, A students that are always trying to exceed the standard, do the best for the organization, you're probably going to have a high performing organization.

Kruse: Makes a lot of sense. Now, I want to ask you a question that I'm pretty sure you've never been asked before in your publicity tours. What jumped out at me in reading your book was how often you referenced ‘creed’. And as a civilian, I kind of paused after the second or third time and I certainly knew the dictionary definition of creed and apostles creed, but I thought, “Huh.” I read a lot of leadership books and nobody's really talking about the importance of creed as much as you do. In fact, you use the word creed 22 times through the book, which is more than twice as often as you talk about values, which obviously there are also U.S. Army values, and that made me think about … Isn't this interesting in the private sector, in the business world a lot is made out of corporate values, or at least coming up with them and putting them on the wall, and whether or not people remember them or live them is a whole separate conversation, but I thought I've never really heard or heard private sector leaders talk about a creed for their company or for their department.

So I'm fascinated by this. Talk to me about creed for you, creed in the U.S. Army, and do you find it more valuable to you then say the universal Army values?

Gen. Dunwoody: Well, I think first values are enduring and that's our culture. On the creed part, of course, everyone in the military takes an oath and that's pretty significant. It's important to defend the constitution of the United States. That's pretty heavy stuff for a little 18-year-old guy or gal or anyone else for that matter. The creeds as you go through the military, what I find is that they're unifying.

When you get a special skill set like getting your airborne wings, there's a creed associated with becoming a paratrooper and that's a unifier for all paratroopers. We are special, we feel special, and we just accomplish something above and beyond the normal Army soldier.

And the same with the Ranger, they have a Ranger's creed it's very unifying, very powerful, and it makes them feel special that they have this unique skill set.

Even as a Quartermaster branch officer we had a creed that made me… When I graduated from Quartermaster school and we recited that, “Proud to be a Quartermaster.” And there were many, many creeds throughout the Army for special skill sets for people who had above and beyond the normal qualifications.

And it wasn't until General Schoomaker, our former Chief of Staff of the Army came up with the soldier's creed. I thought that's really powerful, now you're not just uniting communities within the military, Army, you're uniting all soldiers who live by this creed, it's extremely powerful.

And I'll tell you I just met a very young CEO in a small high tech company, and I was reading about him and I read he had a creed for his company. It was very similar to some of our values woven in. And I asked him about it and he said, “There's a study out that said organizations with creeds actually have higher productivity because people feel united, associated for doing what that creed says that they believe they're doing.”

Kruse: Wow.

Gen. Dunwoody: Yeah.

Kruse: Well, that's great insight and gives me some homework to do further study in that area as well. The other thing I wanted to ask you about, my next leadership book comes out later in the year and its sort of a contrary …

Gen. Dunwoody: Congratulations.

Kruse: Oh thanks.

Gen. Dunwoody: It might be the hardest thing I have ever done.

Kruse: Exactly. General, I always say that “I hate writing. I only like having written.” Once it's in the past tense, right?

Gen. Dunwoody: I'm there. There will be no number two.

Kruse: And one of my chapters is called, Close Your Open Door Policy. And I purposely take a sort of an over the top view of the problems of traditional open door policies, but in my book, one of the things that I did was I stumbled on that the U.S. Army actually has a regulation about open door policy.

Gen. Dunwoody: Of course you weren't surprised by that.

Kruse: But of course leaves great discretion to the commander, to each commander and how to implement it. And so, as I looked at some of what I was reading about U.S. Army implementation, of course, the problem is you don't want people jumping the chain of command needlessly and yet you're also supposed to have access for when there are ethical breaches or you can't solve a problem. So, curious how did you have an open door policy that worked for you during your career?

Gen. Dunwoody: First I don't think it should have to be a policy. I think it should be a best business practice. But of course in the Army, we have policies for everything, and so we have one. And because we are, as you noted, a hierarchical organization, chain of command it is filled with human leaders and you liked to think that every leader at every level is always doing the right thing for the right reason, but because there are humans in there, you're always going to have some bad actors, there's gotta be a mechanism for folks who either see something wrong or felt they've been wrongly dealt with, or want to report higher because they haven't gotten the assistance or whatever they were looking for, and that's okay.

What I would say is that good leaders are accessible. And if I'm in the chow line and I'm talking to a Private whose in the chow line in front of me, “How's it going? How's your barrack?” You get a lot of information, now accessible good leaders make poor leaders below them nervous.

Kruse: Oh right, right.

Gen. Dunwoody: Because they want to know, “What's he telling her? What's he talking about?” But that's how you can minimize I think backbite because you know what's going on. Another thing around the open door is I used to have what I called Napoleon's corporals. Not everyone's going to tell a four-star general what’s bad, you know, or even talk to you at all, but if you have people out there that are sensors for you and say, “Hey did you know?” Or “Here's what I heard.” That's another way without the formality of an open door, but I always had an open door, and I always made time for everyone who came in. And some of them are legit some are not, but you always have to take the time to address the issue.

Kruse: Yeah, and I like as you point out, and it's one of my problems with the traditional open door is that it almost can put the burden of communication down the chain of command saying, “Yeah my door's open. I'm here.” But you've gotta have the professional courage to walk through. And of course in any organization sometimes you could get punished if the wrong person is bringing the wrong … people are nervous about that. You talk about the chow line, I counsel leaders, don't wait for people to come through your door you walk out your door and management by walking around.

Gen. Dunwoody: There you go.

Kruse: And the other thing I was curious about, again similar to this chapter I’ve got, I say, “Leaders don't have rules.” And of course they have some rules, but I talk about how the more policies and things we layer on the more kind of ridiculous the organization can be, and you know out of step with the real world. And that's when I stumbled on doing research, an Army research paper, you know lying to ourselves, dishonesty in the Army profession and where apparently … I don't know if it's still true, but as of a few years ago, if you counted up all the mandatory training that needed to be done it would take more days than there are in a given year. These were retired officers who did this paper said was, it becomes a culture where they said the phrase, “They would pencil with the reports,” saying that things were passed and stuff. And it's been talked about apparently that, “Look this culture has to change. We can't mandate everything or accept that people are going to do this.” What are your own thoughts on this problem, which is in any organization where rules and regulations start to stack up and interfere with the primary task at hand?

Gen. Dunwoody: In any bureaucratic organization, which the Army and the military is, I don't think it's intentional that also they are overwhelmed with more than training rigs, but I do think because it's a bureaucracy that the first and response to any issue is, “More training, more rules, more regulations.” And without understanding the second and third order effects of adding that additional regulation, that additional training, and without looking holistically at all of the requirements now and taking the old ones that don't apply anymore off the table. And so, without doing that, that puts the onus on the commanders in the field to do two things, one: prioritize it because there isn't enough time in the day to do everything that allegedly is being directed. And two: then have to report on those things that you're not doing by a directive.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: And that's a bad situation you don't want to put the commanders in, but you have to. If I said, “I couldn't do that,” you know how that makes anyone feel, no one likes to say they can't do anything, they like to say they do everything. That's the reality of it. And the good commanders have to say and stand up and be counted for and say, “I had to do these things 'cause we're going deployed so these were my priorities and I had to have these kinds of trainings because, whether it was sexual harassment training or whatever. And these are things I just didn't have time for.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: And then it does get the attention saying …You know whoever did this paper and I haven't read it, but I do believe it.

Kruse: Yeah. That's interesting. And lastly you know another thing that's been a hot theme in recent years in the private sector is just sort of this approach of strength-based leadership, helping our team members to identify their strengths, and then to help them to develop them, and to sort of put people into roles where they're going to strive. Do you think there's merit to this? Did you sort of take that approach as a leader in the Army?

Gen. Dunwoody: Yeah. Kevin I'll tell you two things that I think I learned as I was going through the ranks, and one is what the military does best is develop leaders. And when we develop leaders it is our profession, and we do it through assignment, we do it through professional development, we do it through coaching and mentoring, and we do it through evaluations and selection boards. So, that is our core company, developing leaders.

What we don't do well is best business practices. And I've found myself as a leader of a large logistics organization going out to commercial organizations to leverage their best business practice and try to bring them back into the Army. And I think commercial can leverage our leadership methods and development and bring them into the commercial side of the house.

So, there's a lot of things and thinking about your question about how do you play to that and how do you allow people to play their strengths? I think it's two way. One's a self-evaluation and I ask myself, “What do I do well? And what are the things I need to work on throughout my life?” ‘Cause they change depending on your assignment. And I'm a real people person and I leverage that because I like to talk to people, I like to counsel people, I like to encourage people, I like to coach people. And I still love to do that even in my retired life. What I wasn't good at early on as you might have read in my book, was public speaking, and I didn't know that until I actually got thrown into the role and I'm like, “Gosh. I'm never going to make it unless I work on this.” And so, playing to your strengths is one thing but also acknowledging that you have areas for improvement you need to work on to really enhance your portfolio as a leader or a manager, but the other thing I tell folks about playing to your strengths is, find your passion that supports those strengths. And if you ask, “Am I doing something my mom and dad wanted me to do, or am I don't something that I really love to do?” And sometimes those things aren't the same.

Kruse: Right.

Gen. Dunwoody: If you keep the doors open and try things when you find your passion you leverage your strengths and it's not really work anymore, like you're doing.

Kruse: Well, and a follow-up to that. When you were a young woman you didn't originally plan on joining the Army right? Even though for my listeners who haven't read your book yet, even though your father was a part of the greatest generation, served in three wars, career Army, but you didn't plan originally to join the Army right?

Gen. Dunwoody: Right. Actually, I have four generations of West Pointers in my family.

Kruse: Wow.

Gen. Dunwoody: My brother, my dad, his grandfather and great-grandfather were all West Pointers. And that wasn't open to me when I came in, not that I would have gone anyway, but my sister went in, older sister she was a third female helicopter pilot, but since I was five years old all I wanted to be a coach and a phys ed teacher. I was a tomboy I loved sports and I went to Cortland state in upstate New York, which was a top 10 phys ed school, that's what I was going to do. And my junior year in college the Army was trying to recruit more women, this was at the end of Vietnam war. And they had a program that if you got accepted and qualified, they would pay you $500 a month during your senior year in college, with a two-year commitment and a commission as a second lieutenant.

Kruse: Wow.

Gen. Dunwoody: And $500 was a lot of money back then.

Kruse: That's a lot of money now General.

Gen. Dunwoody: Yeah. And so, I signed up knowing that it was just going to be a two-year detour in route to my coaching teaching profession. And when I got in I found I loved being a soldier and I loved leading soldiers. And two years turned into five turned into … I remember telling my dad, “Dad I really enjoy this and I'm going to stay as long as I can make a difference and enjoy what I'm doing.” What I realized at the end, again this is reflection not knowing as I'm going along this journey one job at a time, that I really did end up following my passion, I just did it in a different profession, a different classroom, in a very physically demanding profession, the United States Army.

Kruse: That's incredible. That's a great story and it's funny how we wound into that because I think so many people would have automatically thought, “My dad's going to want me to join the Army,” and maybe you're forced into it from that family expectation, you're like, “No, no, no you gotta find your passion.” And originally you didn't think that was going to be it. That's great. That's great.

General, tell our listeners how we can find out more about your work and your book?

Gen. Dunwoody: I have a website AnnDunwoody.com and that talks about A Higher Standard. And on Amazon.com it's there where you can purchase it. It's still got a lot of reviews and it's still a five star review. You have no idea when you write a book what people are going to say about it. I'm blessed and honored that I get so much feedback from my readers.

Kruse: Well, we will certainly put those links in the podcast show notes and in the articles on Forbes and the other places that this goes out to. And General, again thanks for your service, thanks for an incredible book and for coming onto the LEADx Show.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.