Growing strong leaders and team champions in work, life and technology


An Interview with
Dr. Steve Duncan
Professor, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Operations, Plans & Programs and
Director of Military Programs, East Carolina University

Question:  As an experienced leader in both industry and the U. S. Army, what do you believe is the most important element of leadership?

DUNCAN:  I believe leaders need to be ready to explain the reason for decisions and to stand behind them.  My approach during my 25 years as a government executive was to default to YES on requests unless I could give a solid basis for saying NO.  Sometimes a NO would be given if I felt we needed more input but I reserved the right to change my NO to a YES.  Sometimes I felt a NO was appropriate and I presented my rationale.  On difficult decisions I would say that “if 51% of the people supported me I was having a great day.”

Question:  Based on the FM 6-22 document on Army Leadership, there are three levels of leadership in the Army – Strategic, Organization and Direct.  In your experience, how does industry mirror this leadership structure?  In any way does it not?

DUNCAN:  Any company worth its salt needs to embrace “the way ahead” or a strategic direction.  ECU has a strategic plan called ECU Tomorrow and the state has an plan called UNC Tomorrow.  I feel a problem with the US automobile industry was failing to embrace the road ahead which was to build better quality cars that got great gas mileage.  European countries have had high fuel prices for years and they have concentrated on good gas mileage and cars that can last a long time.  In American industry we are often “pushed” to change by governmental intervention and our dogged self determination which underpins us all usually presents itself as resistance. Now GM and Chrysler are failing and we are begging the government to bail them out—No Strategic Leadership a while back is coming home to roost.  Organizational Leadership suggests we are aligned correctly to get work done.  Some organizations are too top heavy with leaders, others have too many levels to go through to get approvals and some people are likely in the organizational chain due to politics or favoritism.  Organizational Leadership suggests the right people in the right amount in the right spots.  Hard to do and even harder to do when it requires a downsizing and layoffs.  I feel direct leadership at the industry level deals with one’s ability to lead people toward results. It encompasses possessing the fine set of skills that allow one to require performance without alienating the workforce.  Everyone likes to work in happy circumstances but sometimes circumstances aren’t happy.  Take a marine who has just lost a couple of his closest buddies in a fire fight.  The commander says we now have to go out again tomorrow and do what our country asks of us.  If that commander shows weakness, lack of resolve, or the inability to lead the entire group who counts on the leader will be affected and the mission will be in jeopardy.

Question:  Per the FM 6-22, the Army is a team, and a team of teams.  In your experience, what is the importance of teams in industry?  How is the structure and management of teams similar to that in the Army?  How is it different? 

DUNCAN:  Life is made up of teams.  The home is a team of a nuclear family or if a single parent then that parent and the child(ren).  People get assignments, and are expected to perform.  Social institutions, churches, sporting events are all made up of teams.  Teamwork says “I’ll not let my teammate down”. “I’ll finish the task.”  “I’ll honor the code of ethics that treats each teammate with respect and values each as a member.”  There is not a single individual living that does anything on his own.   Short of one moving to a deserted island and eating coconuts and drinking from the flowing streams the world is a team based place.  Same with industry and when one breaks with that approach that agency is just waiting until its demise.

Question:  What are your experiences with “Shared Leadership” (3-58) and the keys to its success?

DUNCAN:  I believe firmly that you have to “power down” to “power up”.  Send as much responsibility as you can down to the subordinates and let them know they are critical to the overall success of the operation. Empower them to own a piece of the solution and let them know where the company/operation is going.  I use a teaching method called “whole—part- whole”  I let folks know where we are heading at the beginning of my course and then break down the pieces in separate instructional components.  At the end they then put the whole back together in a form of a final paper, proposal, etc.  If you do this you have shared the learning leadership.  Some people believe in hoarding leadership and keeping people in the dark since there is a sense of personal power in being the “Wizard”.  Then everyone has to come to the “Wizard” and ask what to do next.  People who are empowered with responsibility enjoy the same piece of the power and I’ve found they make better workers.  In my own little world at ECU I let my Secretary/Assistant know everything I’m doing so that when she answers the phone or receives a request for an office call she is aware of what is going on.  That gives her a bit of the power and provides the requestor with informed service.

Question:  What approach do you suggest that a new engineer take as he or she starts a new job in relationship to the concept of serving as a responsible subordinate, or good “followership”?

DUNCAN:  I believe people need to learn as much as they can about what is going on, and then have the “guts” to make themselves vulnerable enough to ask about those things they do not know.  This can lead from ridicule (“you don’t know that”) to gentle ribbing (“wow, where have you been”).  You should also be very cognizant of what works in leadership and what does not work and then vow to lead based on what works.  Good leaders come from good followers and good followers understand that someone has to give orders and someone has to execute them.

Question:  What advice can you offer to a new engineer in dealing with “leadership without authority” when faced with having to take “initiative to alert superiors of a potential problem or predict consequences if the organization remains on its current course?”  Can you provide an example in your career where you were faced with this? 

DUNCAN: AA critical component of leadership is called “situational leadership”  In the US army there is a descending level of leadership.  When the leader is disabled the next in line takes over and so on until the last individual is standing.  Leadership in the military teaches this situational context.  Trying to “assert” leadership when there is not a clear reason to do so can be viewed as a “hostile takeover”.  Still if one is practicing something that is illegal, immoral or unethical I feel it is the subordinate’s’ responsibility to bring it to the attention of the next level. This is a very tough call to make and requires the “whistle blower” have his/her facts accurate.

Question:  How do you believe the seven Army values translate to industry?  

DUNCAN:  I believe industry hires people for two reasons:  demonstrated competence which is a compilation of skills and experience and a strong value system.  What business would not want a person who is loyal to the corporation, performs his/her work even when not being watched (duty), treats customers with respect (works toward a solution—the Sams model or Lowe’s model), believes in selfless service (puts the needs of the business above own (this is a hard one for many people.  One who does this will come in to work to help the company when someone else has missed work for possible questionable reasons), has a strong honor code (would NOT even consider shop lifting, stealing, embezzlement), has proven integrity—would do the right thing even if they knew they would not be caught (the person who would not take the $20.00 bill from a table in an empty room because they know it is not theirs.) and personal courage—a component that seldom has to be demonstrated but when is needed makes lasting heroes.  Reaching these goals is not something all people can do but when you ask people if they could work for or be served by someone with these characteristics the overwhelming answer is YES.

Question:  Character development is an important part of an Army career as “becoming a person of character and a leader of character is a career-long process involving day-to-day experience, education, self-development, developmental counseling, coaching and mentoring.” (4-55)  In your experience, how does industry mirror this career process?

DUNCAN:  Industry does not place nearly the emphasis on character development as does the military.  Character (you are your nation’s representative) is embedded in every instructional requirement from basic training to the final classes taken by the generals.  That is why our nation gets so exorcised when even a lowly service member (Iraq) causes a poor reflection on the government.  With the fact that a service member’s acts can be on the front page of the internet in 30 seconds character is not only a calling it is a daily responsibility of the military.  I feel industry is lacking in character development in the broadest sense.  Some industry leaders may attend a pricey get away and have a motivational speaker but day to day character development is not something that is emphasized.  Industry could do much better and the result would be better service and quality.  American industry lags in both.

Question:  Resilience, competence and knowledge lead to success on the battlefield (5-15).  How is this mirrored in industry?  Can you provide an example of an experience in your career that resounds this?

DUNCAN:  The major difference I have found in the military versus industry is the military are focused much more strongly on the mission (and some ain’t much fun) and service members respect the military competence of their leaders all the way up to the commanding generals.  They know what certain experiences mean (battles, assignments –deployments) and that the very nature of having completed assignments prove resiliency, competence and leadership acumen.  In business it is more about the stockholders and when a new leader comes in the fact that he/she has served previously at Company XYor Z means little to the line worker and does not necessarily prove much.  Resilience is also borne of the intangible of call to service.  If not why would Rhodes Scholar General David Petraeus sit before congress and be called General Betray-us and still go back and do what was asked of him for less than some industry leaders make in a day?  By the way he was right !!!

Question:  What are your methods for motivating and inspiring those with whom you work and lead in industry?  How do these compare to Army methods?

DUNCAN:  I’ve already touched on this before in my belief that you power down to power up.  This is similar to giving responsibility to service members.  Some never consider that high school graduates work on 80 million dollar aircraft and keep them in top condition.   They know they are part of their nation’s calling.  Not sure businesses consider their employees as critical “members of the family”

Question:  What is the most effective means of assessing the performance of a leader? 

DUNCAN:  Results !!! What did you start with, how long did you have, how much did you have to spend and did you bring your project in within cost and on time?  Did your output achieve its stated intent?  Now if you did all that and kept everyone happy that is icing on the cake.

Question:  The Army has a body of knowledge in CALL in which they document mistakes as “lessons learned”.  How important is this in industry and can you provide examples of how this is done?  Do you feel there are additional opportunities to those processes that are already in place?  How can an engineer help in such opportunities?  Can you provide an example of a lesson learned in your Army career? 

DUNCAN:  Lessons learned is vital to all of industry and even life.  When the first person learned the right way to mix acid and water to avoid an explosion it needed to be captured to that the next person did not have to learn by mistake.  I believe knowledge generally advances by documenting mistakes.  When you learn what not to do write it down so we know what to do correctly.  Education is a simple process of someone sometime learning how to do something by experimentation and “tinkering”  Some genius later said let’s write that in a book, and then book after book puts us where today’s student can use the internet to find out in minutes what it may have taken others centuries to discover.  Industry should have a lessons learned component for sure but I suspect most of these would be proprietary as industry secrets are closely guarded.  We get into ethical issues when we learn a lesson and do not share it for the wrong reasons (study the exploding gas tanks on Ford Pintos).  A number of people are dead or maimed for life because Ford Motor Company did not share that lesson learned during testing.  I the military I learned a valuable lesson.  Carefully assess the reading and comprehension level of students who will have to use training manuals to ensure they can understand and be able to use what they have read.  If I write a manual as a college professor and the user is a high school graduate, GED or even a drop out there is a good chance the learner can miss some vital stuff.

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