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From Battlefield to Boardroom: Leadership Lessons from an Army General

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We recently had a chance to chat with Major General Patricia Anslow, Chief of Staff at the U.S. Southern Command. In her role at U.S. Southern Command, General Anslow also serves as an ex oficio member of the Center for Leadership at FIU’s Board of Advisors.

U.S. Southern Command is a Miami-based staff of 1,200 military, civilians, and contractors that oversees upwards of 7,000 military personnel from all branches, operating in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Before reporting to her current post in July 2018, General Anslow’s deployments had her leading thousands, from Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Kosovo.

As a second lieutenant a year out of the military academy, Patricia M. Anslow, then 23, found herself leading 44 troops during Operation Desert Storm. She quickly learned the value of the leadership skills ingrained during officer’s training.

A student of geography, she knew how terrain and systems deliver impact events, how strategic and tactical planning can create or mitigate “second and third order consequences to everything we do,” she recalled. It’s all part of the leadership training gained from her time in the Military Academy at West Point.

“Learning at the tactical [skills] level helps you become a better strategic- and executive-level leader because you see situations play out,” said now-Major General Anslow, Chief of Staff at the U. S. Southern Command.

Drawing on the U.S. Army’s mission command philosophy of six interdependent principles she learned in her first year - to build cohesive teams through mutual trust, create shared understanding, provide a clear commander's intent, exercise disciplined initiative, use mission orders, and accept prudent risk - her leadership belief system today is clear.

“I had all that baseline foundational experience I needed to be successful later,” she said. “Going in with the mindset that, ‘You can influence decisions, but things will come at you that you can't fix and control.’ How you react to them, how you roll with those punches, is what matters.”


Q: You've led military operations around the world. How has leadership training made you a stronger leader?

GA:  An advantage of military training is that you're taught at a very young age that nothing is certain other than uncertainty, and there is no constant other than change. As a young impressionable leader, you learn you can't control everything. You're not going to be able to have the exact outcome you want going into a situation. Training teaches you about adaptability and flexibility, teaches you to think through multiple scenarios and how they might play out, to make a decision based on the facts, and how that might introduce branches and sequels that take you down a new path. But you always keep the end in mind - how do I get back to the main objective that I'm trying to reach?

Q: You studied geography in the Military Academy. Is there a correlation between what you studied in the sense of having that broader feel and what executives should understand about their environment?

GA: One of the mandatory courses before you can become a second lieutenant is terrain analysis. It’s about knowing the physical environment and understanding how humans interact with that terrain and how the weather might affect your operation. It’s about how those pieces come together, so you can make good tactical or strategic decisions about how to move from point A to point B. These are places where the enemy might be located and it gives us the insight on what their reactions might be. Whether you're doing it at a very small unit level, like a squad, or you're doing it at a very large level, like a brigade combat team with thousands of people, each element says, how would both the enemy's actions and my actions interact with all the facts around me? What are all the possible outcomes of that?

You typically put it in three buckets: What's the best-case scenario, what's the worst-case scenario, and what's the likely-scenario? That gives you a range of options. You want to know where the initial plan might take you, but what are those trajectories that you might have to react to? As a leader wanting to manage risk that's associated with the unknown, you say, ‘Let me live in this world that’s the worst-case scenario, and have in my pocket the ability to take advantage of when it's turning into the best-case scenario, and drive to the end goal. That's exactly what business leaders are trying to do. Anyone who’s trying to reach an outcome wants to know the range of possibilities that can occur as I implement my philosophy, my plan, and my business model. And then can I make sure I have flexibility, adaptability, and the capabilities to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. 

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Q: What lessons can be learned about delegation from military-style leadership?

GA: That’s something that evolves in any leaders’ capability. It comes down to how well they delegate, and what depth do they have to delegate, especially as you move up through a hierarchical organization. I think business leaders do this very well. They give you the bottom line and concisely tell you what the objective is. If everyone in a large organization knows very clearly and concisely what the commander wants, they can all mutually work toward that objective.  

The other half becomes about how do you empower employees. In the military we do this, because every subordinate’s a leader. We let our leaders exercise disciplined initiative, we expect them to step up and to make those choices along that path. One of the things that's great about the military is they have processes. It can be a verbal order, or it can be a written one, but it follows a unified standardized format. Everybody knows what the five paragraphs of the orders are, and everybody can quickly develop and execute the order with that understanding. It creates that quick sense of standardization - a unifying effort that puts everybody on the same page. I think this is the most important piece of successfully delegating in a larger organization. You accept prudent risk. You have to understand that things are going to change. You say, I'm willing to allow my subordinate leader to analyze the situation and accept risk when necessary. We have to empower them and tell them to accept prudent risks, as long as they're on track to meet the end objective of the commander's intent. 

Q: As a leader, what keeps you up at night?

GA: I will borrow from General James Mattis, who later became Secretary of Defense. When he was asked that question, he would typically say, “Nothing keeps me up at night. My job is to keep the enemy up at night.” There's some Zen logic to that. A good leader worries, a good leader is nervous sometimes, or they at least contemplate those risks and uncertainty. But they mitigate it, so they can sleep at night.

Q: What can corporate executives learn from military leaders about facing uncertain times whether, day to day business challenges, or macro-economic or global type issues?

GA: One absolute common denominator with any leader, whether they're business leader, military leader, or a pastoral leader, is people. It all comes down to people. It's how they build those relationships, how they're supportive, and how they provide that servant leadership. At the end of the day, it’s understanding what people's needs are, what their requirements are, motivating them to achieve mutual goals, and then really taking care of them. The kind of leader that at the end of the day is ready to put a hand on somebody's shoulder and just make sure they're okay, make sure they're doing well, and make sure that their families are well taken care of.

Q: Your resume is lined with education and training. How important is continuing education to military leadership?

GA: Education structure is an important part of the military. It is both formalized classroom teaching, as well as experiential. You hear about a military organization conducting exercises. There's a continual learning process that occurs throughout the military at every rank, from our privates all the way up to general officers, with the concept being that you're never done, you're never finished, and you're never complete. You have to constantly learn, relearn, practice, and not pigeonhole yourself into just one way of thinking.

Q: I’ve read about the role of humility among military leaders, how “it’s the team that got me here.” Why is that important?

GA: It is absolutely essential to be a successful leader. You have to be thinking of others first, you can never think of yourself first. The army in particular is putting that term, humility right back in the forefront of what we're trying to build with our leaders. Thirty years ago, it was about courage and fortitude and strength, and you'd never hear the word humility. Now, they're starting to talk about it as an important characteristic of being a great leader. Recognizing that a team can build a leader up and strengthen a leader is important at the end of the day. We're moving in the right direction and it's only going to make the world a better place.

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About the writer

Jeff Zbar
South Florida native Jeff Zbar has enjoyed a 30-plus year freelance career as a journalist, editor, author, and marketing copywriter. His portfolio of print and digital work appears in media outlets and for corporate clients across all areas of business and industry.