The military is well known for producing great leaders, including Army Gen. Matthew Ridgway. He fought with distinction during World War II as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps. As commander of U.N. forces during the Korean War, Ridgway was credited by several historians as helping turn the tide of the war.
Ridgway said leadership requires three qualities: character, courage, and competence. What matters most is character; who you are, as that informs everything you do. This is true in the C-Suite and on the battlefield.
Gen. Ridgway’s insights can be found in the book, “Leadership: Quotations from the World’s Greatest Motivators.” While he spoke from a military context, the ideas can be applied to the business world as well.
In order to speak to the business context, I talked to Jeff Kennedy, a retired, 27-year, U.S. Air Force Colonel who uses many of the principles that he has garnered from Gen. Ridgway to lead operations of multiple regions for a major dialysis provider. Kennedy has also held several leadership positions in healthcare and retail, including overseeing 76 Wal-Mart stores in Tennessee.
Show That You Care
Gen. Ridgway: “A commander must have far more concern for the welfare of his men than he has for his own safety. After all, the same dignity attaches to the mission given a single soldier as to the duties of the commanding general. … All lives are equal on the battlefield, and a dead rifleman is as great a loss, in the sight of God, as a dead general.”
Ridgway proved to be one of the toughest and bravest commanders of World War II. He typically positioned his command near the front lines, parachuted with his troops into action, and stayed cool and calm as bombs fell around him. However, his greatest act of moral courage may have been his fight with Allied high command, which had ordered his 82nd Airborne to parachute onto airfields near Rome for a planned assault on the Italian capital. Ridgway saw the plan as a suicide mission, and his push-back against his superiors put his career on the line. He prevailed likely saving the lives of thousands of men.
Leaders who can balance the goals of the mission with what is best for their people will gain trust and loyalty. “Your people have to know that you care for them as much or more than you care about the mission,” Kennedy said. “It’s important to have that relationship, and I think that’s what Gen. Ridgeway was trying to say there. They know you’re going to make the decision that’s best for them balanced with what’s best for the mission in every single situation.”
Be Present – Lead from the Front
Gen. Ridgway: “I held to the old-fashioned idea that it helped the spirits of the men to see the old man up there, in the snow and sleet and the mud, sharing the same cold, miserable existence they had to endure.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all see advertisements that say, “We’re all in this together.” That attitude is especially true when it comes to the mission of your organization. Executives in the C-Suite work at a more strategic level than managers in the field, but the good ones elevate their organizations when they are physically present.
Even with remote work becoming more common, leaders should understand at a granular level what their people need to succeed. Before the pandemic, Kennedy regularly visited the clinics in regions he directs. Now, for patient safety, he relies on tools like Zoom and WebEx to maintain the personal contact and face-to-face interaction with his people.
“I’m not a nurse by trade. I’m a business guy,” Kennedy said. “There are clinical applications that I do not have the knowledge that they have, nor am I licensed to perform. But I need to understand the basic construct of what they’re doing so, I can ensure they get the tools and the structure they need to be able to provide that great patient care, to help our patients have the quality of life that they want.”
Trust Breeds Transparency
Gen. Ridgway: “It is the basic responsibility of a field commander to anticipate where the crisis of battle will occur, and to be there when it develops. Only in this way can he see with his own eyes what is happening.”
A leader’s physical presence without an environment of trust can be intimidating. Kennedy stressed the importance of regular feedback loops between workers and leaders to allow joint solutions to common problems and promote ownership and buy-in from everyone. If a leader doesn’t foster and sustain open, honest, non-judgmental discussion of ideas, he/she misses the opportunity provided by the intellect and talents of the organization’s most valuable resource.
“If you create an environment of trust in an organization, then your folks feel empowered to make recommendations and not be punished for saying something that may be perceived as against the company’s plan , or for a failed idea, as long as they’re focused on improving what you’re trying to do to fulfill the mission and improve employee quality of life,” Kennedy said.