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Master plan Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005, Gen. Richard Myers was the highest-ranking military officer in the nation and principal military adviser to the president of the United States. From that vantage point, Myers saw that leadership was more than just taking charge, making decisions and issuing commands.

“Successful leaders genuinely care about their people — the people they work with and the people who work for them,” says Myers, now retired. “After all, that’s how we get things done, with people. And people figure out pretty quickly when their leader doesn’t care.”

During a more than 30-year Air Force career that included stints as commander-in-chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Space Command, Myers built a deep knowledge base of global security and leadership issues. Today, he serves on the boards of three U.S. companies, including Aon Corp. where he advises on global security and risk management issues.

Myers was in Cleveland in July to address a group of regional executives at a global security breakfast hosted by Aon Risk Services Northeast Inc. After learning how the American national security apparatus works, Smart Business sat down with the retired four-star general and discussed how risk-taking, decision-making and communication are critical components for any strong leadership team.

Q. During your career you spent a lot of time identifying people who had the capacity to be leaders. What methods did you find most effective?

You’ve got to test people and see how they react to the responsibility you give them and how they handle adversity. There is no other way to gauge leadership. You learn more about people from when they have some difficulties than when things are going swimmingly. It’s also getting to know people personally, so you can understand the underlying values that drive them in their life. You have to put all that into the equation when you’re determining who is ready for more responsibility. But you have to make sure you don’t get myopic. They may be responsive to you, but they’re maybe not responsive to their people.

You also need to take input from lots of different sources when you’re trying to figure out who ought to be promoted or given more responsibility. Peer reviews are important as well as what other people think. You have to cast the net wide.

Q. There are different schools of thought on decision-making. Some people say it’s better to be quick and decisive. Others say it’s better to be thoughtful and evaluate everything. Is one type better than the other?

In any organization, you’re going to have both types — some that are more cautious and some that are more aggressive. I think you need both.

What you certainly don’t want is somebody who is so cautious that they’re afraid to make a decision so that everybody under them is just totally frustrated and stewing (in) their own juices because the boss won’t get off his duff and make a decision. And you don’t want somebody who is so quick on the trigger that after a series of decisions it’s pretty obvious that they have not considered everything. Some nice balance is needed.

Q. You serve on the board of Aon and advise the company on risk-related issues. How important is risk-taking in the leadership equation?

You want people who are aggressive, that are going to take risks. Anything we do in today’s complex situations requires that you can’t wait until all the facts are in because that will take too much time. And you will probably never get all the facts and be able to easily say, ‘OK, this is the answer.’ If it were, [the issue] would have been dealt with at a lower level. Dealing with ambiguity and complexity is an important part of whomever you are looking at to give more responsibility. You want to see how they handle that.

Q. So it’s really a healthy balance?

Yes. You need input from both sides when you’re sitting around a table. For example, when I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you hoped that around that table discussing an issue you’d have some people that would be more likely to take risk and those that are a little more cautious. That allows you to hear the arguments on both sides and then come out with a way forward that considers everything.

For any important decision, you need as much of a 360-degree perspective around the problem as you can get. And it’s not always easy. If everybody was a ‘yes’ person, that wouldn’t be helpful. If everybody was aggressive and disregarded the risk part of the equation, that wouldn’t be good either. You want people who look at it from all different angles. When you do that, you can usually come to a good conclusion.

Q. In your new book, ‘Eyes on the Horizon,’ you point out problems with what you call ‘stovepipe bureaucracy’ and vertically aligned communication within an organization. What’s your solution to broadening the communication chain?

You need to have the people who directly report to you be part of this. It starts with how you develop your message and vision. The leader is responsible for developing the vision and strategic direction, but the more you make that a collaborative effort in developing that vision and strategic direction then the more likely that you’re going to have buy-in and the more people you’re going to have promulgating that vision and direction throughout the organization.

A big failure is that some people don’t recognize the importance of communicating that vision down and trying to get alignment within your business or organization. From my experience in the military, trying to get alignment from the private to the four-star (general), you want alignment in vision and strategic direction throughout the organization, and that is not an easy thing to achieve.

But if you develop your vision and direction in a more collegial way, then you’re going to have more disciples out there selling the message. I don’t think any one leader, no matter how good, can do that by himself. You have to have a lot of buy-in from the next level down and the next level down after that, and so on. The strategy is to build champions. They have to have real buy-in because you can’t dictate buy-in. You can only achieve it by working together.

Q. Does trust become a key factor in achieving that?

Absolutely. It’s true in any endeavor that trust and trustworthiness are important. You, as a leader, have to be trustworthy to the folks that are working with and for you, and you have to have trust in them. One is not sufficient. You have to have both to have the kind of relationship that I think you need in order to be successful.

Q. What’s the best way to build trust?

Doing what you say you’re going to do and being open and forthright. Whatever the problems are that you’re working on, you want to make sure that the people you’re working with aren’t worried that you have something that you’re not telling them and that you don’t have any cards up your sleeve that you haven’t played yet.

Be open and honest, and then you start to build that trusting relationship. Yes, the leader is going to have to make the decision at some point, but if people feel you’ve been open and honest with them in the process, they’re going to live with and support whatever answer comes out in the end.

Q. You’ve faced a lot of challenges in your career, including the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, what’s been your greatest leadership challenge?

From a more strategic level, it was that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is a part, but just a part, of the national security apparatus. It was trying to convince others in government that we needed to bring all our instruments of national power to bear to focus on the problem of global terrorism and global security. It wasn’t enough to just focus on the military instrument of power, in say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, we needed to have all our instruments of power — the diplomatic, political and economic instruments — to be brought to bear, as well. The military was being disproportionately used and suffering the consequences. That was a real challenge, working in a bureaucracy.

Q. In the face of a crisis, it’s imperative to remain calm. What tips from your experience do you think business executives could apply during their own challenging times?

I focused on the job at hand. It wasn’t hard to do because we had American men and women in harm’s way, dying and being badly injured. That was a lot of motivation to stay focused. What I did was to make that the No. 1 priority. I relegated some other things to second and third priority.

I said, ‘I’ve got to be physically fit’ — that meant getting whatever sleep I required, I’ve got to work out a little bit, and I’ve got to eat. Also, get whatever spiritual nourishment you need. All that contributes to your mindset to make sure you are prepared for the challenge. I remember telling my wife at the time, I said, ‘Our relationship is going to take a backseat to what I have to do right now. And then, at the end of four years, you’ll be No. 1 priority and the family will be, as well. But right now, it has to be my responsibilities as chairman.’

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Probably two things. First, after a great report by the inspector general on a unit I was leading where we got great marks, a superior officer came to me and said, ‘That’s great, but what have you done for me lately?’ That made me realize how to put it in perspective. It’s like golf. You can have a great golf shot, but the question is whether you can do it again. You can’t rest on what’s already happened; you always have to be looking forward.

Second, no matter how smart you think you are, you can’t do it by yourself. You have to empower people. You have to surround yourself with good, smart people who can be part of a team and help you make sound decisions. This whole notion of not thinking you can do it yourself is important. No one individual can be perfect.