In honor of Veterans Day in the U.S., we spoke with retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Becky Halstead to get her thoughts on leadership and the key role it plays in driving transformation across an organization.
Becky spent 27 years in the Army, where she served as the senior Commanding General for logistics in Iraq and was the first woman in U.S. history to command in combat at the strategic level. A 1981 graduate of the United States Military Academy, she achieved a historic milestone as the first female graduate of West Point to be promoted to General Officer.
Today, she uses her skills and experience to help civilian organizations in any area of business improve their leadership capabilities — both through her consulting company, STEADFAST Leadership, and as a faculty member of the Thayer Leader Development Group. She has also authored a book on leadership, 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is YOU.
Why did you choose to focus on leadership training for civilian organizations following your decorated military career?
When I retired from the army, what I realized was that leadership absolutely transcends all borders and all sectors of business. It is the foundation that makes or breaks a team, a company, a corporation, a church or a school, you name it. And what really kept me in the Army all those years was the fact that I loved leading. I loved the people. I loved helping develop them and watching them progress and perform and be promoted.
So I started to develop a leadership model that could be transferable, and I started what I called STEADFAST Leadership. At the same time that I was doing that, Thayer Leader Development Group called and asked if I would be willing to be part of their faculty.
Then I really asked myself, "OK, what's my definition of leadership? What are the leadership principles that I learned in the military that I believe are transferable?" What I think that most people are looking for in any area is leadership nuggets of wisdom. I mean, they're looking for a better way to do things, whether it's in their personal life or in their professional life. I like helping them do that.
Can you share your leadership philosophy with us?
I created a leadership philosophy when I was a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander in the Army. By that time, I had been in the Army 17 years, so I had a lot of time to think about my leadership and my values and what's most important to me.
The word “steadfast” really resonated with me, and I found that many of my values could be applied to use that as an acronym for my philosophy:
S – service
T – tenacity
E – encourage and embrace
A – attitude and approachability
D – discipline
F – family, friends and faith
A – accountability
S – standards
T – teamwork
One of my former commanding officers had his own philosophy, but he called it a “life philosophy,” and I always liked that. This philosophy is probably 80% of how we're living our life and 20% of how we're pushing ourselves to live our life better, so I think it needs to be partly aspirational.
As the workforce evolves and Millennials become the majority, what leadership skills are important for today’s leaders?
The younger generations have a different outlook and expectations than older workers. In general, they don't really care if they're married or if they own a home. They're not necessarily looking to stay at one location, and in fact, they'll be very eager to move if you're in a company that has poor or inadequate leadership.
So I think Millennials can be a great wake-up call to businesses that we better dust off the importance of developing our leaders and putting leadership back into the formula for success. We have to lead by example in order to retain great talent, and we have to listen to what that talent can tell us.
As an example, when I was a general I had an aide de camp, a younger officer who worked with me for a year. At the end of the year, I asked him, "Matt, what was the best part about being the aide for this year?" He said, "Ma'am, the best part was that you asked me my opinion. And sometimes you even took my opinion or my recommendation." And I was floored by that. It was really a wake-up call for me to understand what's important to Millennials — and, more specifically, to ask them what’s important to them.
What leadership strategies are critical for managing cultural change in a global and diverse organization?
In the Army, we went through a major culture change when they opened the aperture for women to go into all branches. I just wanted to be sure that as the army expanded opportunities for women that we were being selected because we met or exceeded the standard.
The point is that our culture changes must be based on standards of excellence. To me, that's the number one most important leadership principle to keep in mind when you’re defining your culture — it has to be based on achieving excellence.
The other important point is, don't let history impede progress. Culture is often based on history — “This is why we've always done it,” is what you’ll hear. Well, does it still have to be that way? If we created our culture, then we can change our culture. So if you’re going to make a culture change, don’t be afraid to actually change!
Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly prominent in many industries. As technology begins to replace some of the work done by people, how do you think this will shape the leadership philosophies of tomorrow?
I think as leaders, we need to be open to the potential of technology. I've always been incredibly impressed with technology and how it can help us do things faster and more effectively. I've never truly looked at it as a negative thing in terms of replacing the human dimension, because I don’t think you can ever completely replace the human dimension. It's still a human that has to operate and develop that technology.
I think we have to realize that we have a different role as leaders because of the introduction of better technology. First of all, we need to discipline ourselves to stop and say, "Wait a second, let me engage with this. Let me be willing to learn something new. Let me realize that I still have more potential that I haven't tapped into."
At the same time, we have to be disciplined to not let technology try to replace the human dimension of leadership. If I can use a military analogy, we don't want a general monitoring the work of a lieutenant and helping them do their job — because we have a captain, a major, a lieutenant colonel and a colonel all in between. We have to continue to develop and train the people who will manage their organization in the years to come.