Gen. Halstead on Leadership: Lead Yourself First

February 13, 2009

February 11, 2009 — "Good is the enemy of great."

"The first person you lead is yourself."

"If you have to remind people that you are the leader, you're not."

These were some of the principles of leadership that retired Brig. Gen. Rebecca Halstead presented Monday at the University of Virginia. Halstead spoke during the day to about 170 students in professor Thomas S. Bateman's class on Leadership Across Disciplines at the McIntire School of Commerce. In the evening, she spoke to 100 cadets, midshipmen, faculty, career military and students at Maury Hall.

She had been invited to speak at the University by Col. Chester F. "Jay" Dymek, commander of the U.S. Army ROTC program.

"The students were enthralled," Bateman said. "A lot of them came to her afterward and thanked her."

Many of the lessons she presented were very applicable to business, he said, and he would love to have her speak to his class again.

Halstead, the first female West Point graduate to be promoted to general, said there is no one definition of leadership, because it changes over time, with experience, knowledge and responsibility.

For her personal definition, Halstead said leadership is a fusion of heart and mind to effectively accomplish the mission. At the same time, the relationship between the leader and the led is ongoing, and they should learn from each other.

"You need to listen to your subordinates," she said. "If you stop learning, you stop leading."

A lover of acronyms, Halstead encapsulated her principles in "STEADFAST," which she said stands for Soldier, Training, Excellence, Attitude, Discipline, Family and friends, Accountability, Selfless service and Teamwork.

Leaders need to care about their people and they should communicate with them at every opportunity, because if they know the leader cares about them, they will follow. It was also essential to know each other as people.

"Respect goes up and down," she said. "They respected my rank, but I had to earn their respect as a person."

Leadership, she said, "starts and ends with the human dimension. You manage things. You lead people."

Lead by example, she said, and urged the students not to surround themselves with people who looked like them and agreed with everything they said. That will keep them from knowing what the real problems are and prevent them from finding the best solutions. Know the rules, she said, because knowledge is power.

Leaders must set high standards and never apologize for them.

"If you walk by a mistake and don't correct it, standards are lowered," she said. "People who look the other way when they see something wrong are just as guilty as the person committing the act."

Halstead makes a conscious decision every morning to be as dedicated as she can be that day, to be focused and balanced. And she recites the soldier's code to herself. "Always place the mission first. Never accept defeat. Never quit. Never leave a fallen comrade behind."

"The one thing you can control is your attitude," she said. "The first person you lead is yourself."

She said without the proper attitude, things can spin out of control — and a leader needs to be calm in chaos. "If you have to remind people that you are the leader, then you're not," she said.

She advised the students to learn how to take bad news well and solve problems so as to not make the same mistake twice. She said while she was stoic in public, because people are always watching the leader, she said at night, when she was alone, she would cry and pray.

Leaders need to "train their brains" to do difficult things, such as getting up to go running when they would rather sleep. They need to be physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally fit to "think forward."

And while "good is the enemy of great," she warned that perfection is elusive.

"Things will go wrong," she said. "There is no 'zero defect.'"

Leaders rely on their instincts.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, you know what the right thing is to do," she said. "That's just not what you want to do."

She stressed the importance of family and friends, and talked about how her closeness with her family and friends has supported her.

Leaders are accountable and for this they need courage, integrity and character, she said. She advised the students to be honest and know the difference between a "hard right and an easy wrong."

"Talent is a gift," she said. "Character is a choice."

Leaders serve selflessly, she said, and the higher up the chain of command they get, the more selflessly they need to serve.

"Be humble," she said. "And don't worry about who gets the credit."

She presented another acronym, TEAM, which she said stands for "Together Everyone Achieves More."  "Define your success by how you make others successful."

She urged the students to enjoy the journey of life, live and lead with no regrets, and leave a legacy. She said if their leadership has touched one life, they have achieved something.

"Always remember, there are two rules to life," she said. "Rule number one: Don't quit.
Rule number two: Refer back to rule number one."

— By Matt Kelly