Jack Ouellette shares leadership lessons from the military and American Textile

 

There’s an enormous difference between intelligence and wisdom, says Jack Ouellette, chairman of American Textile Co.

“When you’re first learning leadership skills, you can intellectualize, but over time — and unfortunately that’s what wisdom requires — you take the rough edges off of the ideas,” he says.

Ouellette, who retired from his CEO duties at American Textile in 2013 after 39 years at the company, hopes his leadership style is like a vintage wine that got better over time — becoming more mellow and self-confident.

During his time at American Textile, he increased sales from $8 million to $200 million; oversaw expansion from a 100,000-square-foot facility to four U.S. facilities and one El Salvadoran facility with a combined total of 850,000 square feet; and enhanced brand and product development.

But when Ouellette looks back to his days as an officer at West Point and in the Army, he sees a few leadership lessons that were true then, and even more so now that he’s seen them applied again and again in business. He served for nine years, achieving the rank of captain, and flew reconnaissance aircraft in Vietnam.

Ouellette shared five of these lessons during his keynote speech at the Nov. 10 Smart 50 Pittsburgh event, which recognized some of the city’s smartest CEOs and their companies.

Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you

When Ouellette was a battery commander, he participated in a live training exercise in Germany. He was supposed to lead the six howitzers in his command to a position so they could start firing.

He found a spot, had the guns set up and performed some complicated math to ensure he knew their exact location.

Then, the first sergeant, who had 30 years experience in artillery, came up to Ouellette and said, “Sir, all the guns are facing north. They are supposed to be facing south.”

Ouellette asked for help, and the first sergeant promised to take care of it.

He went to the guns, and called all six gun leaders and said, “Gentlemen, the battery commander was not happy with the way we performed this. What I want you to do is to follow me and the battery commander will get a new target. And let’s come back here like the professionals I know you are.”

Don’t think you’re the smartest guy in the room, says Ouellette. You need to create an environment of credibility and trust so your employees can let you know when something is wrong.

“Take care of your people and they will take care of you,” he says. “The best leadership examples that we’ve ever observed come from the people reporting to you, rather than the other way around.”

Jack Ouellette was only one of the executives at our Smart 50 Pittsburgh event who offered their perspective on leadership. In this short video, CEOs from some of the top companies in Pittsburgh share their thoughts on the role of a leader and how they can create a positive, productive culture.

 

You need to recognize your team for their successes and allow them to breathe in times of failure, Ouellette says.

Over controlling rarely gets the best results

When Ouellette was in flight school on his first time up in an airplane, he had trouble keeping the plane at 4,000 feet as he was ordered. He kept going above and below — porpoising — his target.

His instructor told him: It takes a light touch, several iterative corrections and patience for the corrections to take.

Ouellette has also found that to be very true with people, which is the currency of leadership.

“The best leaders are those who are outwardly focused. And by that, I mean they are not thinking about themselves all the time. They are thinking about two things: the mission and the people on the team,” he says.

People in leadership positions who make it about them all of the time are just not as effective.

“Good leaders always get the best possible result,” Ouellette says “but it’s great leaders who get the best possible result and leave nobody behind.”

You need courage to trust others in your organization, while realizing that some of them are better equipped to handle a certain situation than you, Ouellette says.

There’s a fine line between controlling and over controlling. And there can be adverse effects on your staff when you cross it.

He also recommends learning how to control yourself before you try to control others.

When good enough is good enough

When Ouellette was in U.S. Army Ranger School, he and his buddy finished the final grueling exercise.

They hopped on a truck to go back to base and were finally able to get a little bit warm. But they decided to take it one step further.

They lit a sterno can and fell asleep with it under their ponchos — burning a hole right through.

“Have you found yourself in a situation where you are searching for perfection, instead of good enough?” Ouellette says. “Patton once said, ‘A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.’”