Former Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
… Hire and promote the RIGHT people: character vs. skills. As leaders, we are constantly making decisions about people: who to recruit and hire, who to send for extra education, who do we promote, and who to let go are just some examples. There’s a tendency to focus on skills rather than character and that leads to problems.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Buchanan.
LTG Jeff Buchanan commanded US Army North (Fifth Army), and after a 37 year Army career, he retired from active duty on 1 September 2019. LTG Buchanan was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry under the ROTC program after graduating from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology in 1982. He earned a Master of Arts in Leadership Development from the US Military Academy in 1992 and was the Distinguished Graduate of a year-long international security fellowship at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in 2002.
He commanded at every level from Platoon to Theater Army, and his assignments include tours in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 25th Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division, and I Corps. He served four combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. From 2016–2019, he served as USNORTHCOM’s Joint Forces Land Component Commander and led the operational-level military response in support of FEMA for five major hurricanes (Matthew, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Florence) and in support of the US Customs and Border Protection Agency for SW border security.
Upon retirement, he and his wife moved home to Patagonia, Arizona, where he consults from his home office. In addition to serving as a Senior Fellow for National Defense University’s CAPSTONE and KEYSTONE programs, LTG Buchanan serves as a Senior Mentor for the Department of the Army. He currently serves on two not-for-profit boards: Worldmaker International/The National Resilience Institute, and 360 VA. Jeff also currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Arizona State Parks and Trails, and is an advisor to the Board of Directors for the Autonomy Institute. He recently joined Entrustment Health as their Chief Learning Officer. Jeff and his wife Laura have three adult children (all married) and seven grandchildren.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I spent 37 years in the Army and retired as a Lieutenant General in 2019. I had four tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and led the military response in support of FEMA for five major hurricanes: Matthew (2016), Harvey, Irma, and Maria (2017), and Florence (2018). I also led the military forces that supported law enforcement agencies in charge of security along the SW border in 2018 and 2019. I have always been a student of leadership and I earned a Master’s Degree in Leadership Development in 1992. Upon retirement, I decided to leverage both my experience and education to help others become more effective leaders. I founded Lead By Example Consulting and work as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and executive mentor.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had a great opportunity when I was transitioning from my many years of service in the Army. I really needed to decompress and my childhood best friend stepped up and gave me a shot. Greg Sutter captains a charter fishing boat operating out of Homer, Alaska and his deck hand needed to return to college in late summer. Greg asked me to to come work for him for a month as a stand-in deck hand. We’d take clients out on the ocean every day to fish for halibut and salmon, and as a real benefit to me, the cellphone did not work out on the water. I had a lot to learn. I’ve always been pretty skilled at eating fish, but not very good at catching them. I learned to prep and clean the boat, tie knots, bait the hooks, and help get big fish into the boat with a gaff or a net. I picked up some valuable skills as well. I can filet a salmon on the back of a moving boat in about 45 seconds. Halibut take a little longer, but I got to be pretty good with a knife and did not cut myself every day.
The biggest thing I needed to learn was customer service. The only experience I had in business relationships was as a customer, and I had not ever invested much thought in providing quality service. Homer is the Halibut fishing capital of the world. The techniques we used to hook these big fish was pretty foreign to the experience of most customers. One big afternoon I was getting frustrated with a client because he would not listen to me when I was explaining proper bait and hook techniques for catching these Halibut. I did not say anything but I’m pretty sure that my body language communicated my frustration and impatience. Finally, Greg pulled me aside. He said, “You don’t get it. You’re still trying to knock down targets. They did not come here to kill fish, they’re paying us to have fun.” His admonition caused me to reorient on the client experience and I’m sure that I was a better deck hand after that day. It was a great lesson for me about customer service.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have long believed that the principles of effective leadership are universal. I needed help, however, to translate what I had learned and believed into stories that would resonate with business owners. My agent, Wendy Keller, owner of Keller Media, is a very successful author and agent, and has helped me to become a better writer and more effective speaker. As an example, Wendy directed me to develop three “avatars” to serve as my audience. I designed three fictional characters including demographics, education, work experience, family status, and even political affiliation and values. I put these three individuals in the forefront when I write an article and I try to write in a way that will resonate with each of them. As a result, my writing has become sharper than it was when I was writing for a more general audience.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Lead By Example’s purpose is to mentor leaders toward exceptional outcomes. Many leaders struggle because they don’t understand the central role the people and relationships play in any organizational context.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Many leaders struggle in a crisis because they jump into problem-solving before they understand what it is they are trying to fix. In the fall of 2017, I had just finished leading the military response in support of FEMA for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma when a nasty storm named Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Another organization initially had the lead for military support to Maria’s response, but they were too small to handle the size of the response needed. So just six days after Maria’s landfall, I got a phone call from my commanding general, USAF General Lori Robinson who said: “Go to Puerto Rico and fix it.” She implicitly trusted me to figure out what needed to be done to save lives and prevent further suffering, but wanted to leave it up to me to figure out how to proceed. I thought “What is it that we’re trying to fix?” I took six people with me on a military plane to the island, and on that flight I tried to frame the problem we were trying to solve. I knew that without a good understanding of the problem, our team would get busy trying to fix things, but their efforts may be wasted, or worse, harmful. Einstein once said that if he was given an hour to try to save the world, he’d spend 55 minutes studying the problem and 5 minutes solving it. Defining or framing the problem is a critical first step in successfully leading an organization through a crisis. If you get called to lead a team through a crisis, invest some time and energy to frame the problem you are trying to solve. In the end, you’ll be far more successful than if you don’t.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In addition to working with clients through my consulting business, I serve on boards for two non-profit organizations. The Board of Directors for Arizona State Parks and Trails and as a volunteer deputy sheriff. I’ve come to understand that my core purpose is to serve others. With that as context, it’s easy to stay motivated. If I can get through to even one person in the audience, it is worthwhile to me. My drive and motivation are reinforced when I receive feedback about what a difference I’ve made in helping somebody to become a better leader. The feedback helps to sustain my drive and at times, refine my message so that I can reach an even wider audience.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I am writing a book about leadership and in doing so, I have already interviewed many successful leaders in business, academia, college and professional sports. One thing that they all had in common is that they are all committed to learning. There are two types of learning: reading about others’ experiences and wisdom as it is distilled in books, classes and courses; and paying enough attention to your own life so that you can learn from the experiences you are encountering. Niave Knell, my Chief of Staff during my last two years in the Army, made a suggestion that had lingering, profound impacts on both my own learning and how I connected with the entire command. Niave knew that I read quite a few books, and occasionally we’d discuss them. She suggested that I write and email a short note every month to the entire command (distributed electronically to every member) comprised of two short paragraphs: what I am reading and what I am thinking about. That note became a driver of my own self-development. My reading list expanded and changed. I started to choose titles based on what I wanted others to consume. I increased my consumption to five or six books every month. My team started giving me regular recommendations on books to read and share.
Between my reading list and that monthly paragraph on what I was thinking about, the entire command really got to know me. Now that I am retired from the Army, I’ve gotten feedback from some of our troops who were not based with us in Texas, that they really liked this regular connection. As with every other Army command, we continued to send Soldiers to places like Afghanistan or Qatar for six months or a year at a time, and even while they were deployed they got these monthly notes. The feedback I got was universally positive and these deployed troops told me that it helped them stay connected with home. Because I sent it to everybody, they were all free to send notes back and many of them did. I got to know people in my command that I may never have bumped into because of these notes and their response. I think that system helped others develop, and I know that it helped me a great deal.
One of my favorite books is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (Basic Books, 2015). The story of Earnest Shackleton’s failed voyage to sail to and then cross Antarctica on foot in 1914 is one of the great survival stories of all time. More importantly, it is one of the great leadership stories of all time.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leaders engage in myriad activities everyday from establishing a vision to making key decisions to managing risks. I think that the most important function of a leader, especially during challenging times, is to provide purpose, direction, and motivation. The primary audience for those three components is the organization’s employees, but there are many other audiences, such as shareholders and customers. Purpose is the “why” of what we are doing. It is absolutely critical that others understand the purpose, especially if the leader wants to leverage their talent. The same thing goes for direction, which is all about the “where” we want to end up. The leader should communicate the purpose and the direction or desired end state and unleash his or her subordinates to figure out how to get there. desired end state and unleash his or her subordinates to figure out how to get there. When we allow our employees to draw on their own initiative and innovation to figure out the “how,” they will usually do a better job than if they operated under a great deal of specific instruction from the leader. The last component is motivation. The art of applying the right mix of tools in a certain situation can have a huge impact on employee motivation, and that motivation is critical to sustain employee effort when the challenges are great. I think it is an art because no two employees are exactly alike…one might need a hug to get things going while that employee’s peer may require a swift kick in the pants.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The short answer is to lead by example in everything you do.
I think I first saw “leadership by example” in the Boy Scouts — I spent a good portion of my teenage years camping, backpacking, climbing mountains and caving. I loved the outdoors and still do. One of our scoutmasters would get into camp, take off his pack, sit down against a tree, and order us scouts around like his personal servants. Another one showed us instead of told us what to do. He led us by demonstrating how to build a fire, tie a bowline knot, and apply a pressure dressing. More importantly, he did his best to live by and demonstrate the Scout Oath and Scout Law — our version of values. It was around that time in my life when I first heard and then heeded an old Native American saying: “I cannot hear what you are saying because your actions shout too loudly in my ears.”
I refer to these two types of leadership styles as “pull leadership” and “push leadership.” In that context, the more effective leaders pulled others along toward themselves, while the push leader applied pressure to move others to a place where the leader was absent. In the scouting example, the first scoutmaster pushed and the second one pulled. We all admired the second one more than the first. I saw these contrasting leadership styles thousands of times in my 37 years in the Army, both in combat and in peacetime. The more effective leaders pulled, while the less effectives ones pushed.
Transactional (push) leadership is based on the social exchange theory. To motivate others, a leader should apply rewards and/or punishments. For example, “If you get this new account, you’ll get a raise or a promotion.” The behavior lot the led depends on the pressure (either reward or punishment) being applied to the leader.
In contrast, the transformational style (pull leadership) is characterized by subordinates following a leader because trust, honesty and other qualities, and the stronger these are, the greater the loyalty they have for the leader.
Set a goal to try to transform others into leaders, inspire everyone to do their best, and lead them by example in everything you do — at work and in your personal life. None of us are perfect, but there is always somebody watching what you do and how you treat others. If you start work everyday determined to set the best possible example for others, you won’t let them down.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I think that complete candor is always important, but especially so during challenging times. I may not score very high on an empathy scale when I deliver bad news, because I am always open, direct, and honest. In the short term it may be a little painful, but there is no potential for confusion. In contrast, I’ve seen others try so hard to ease the pain by being indirect that the recipient is often misled about the situation or its personal impact. I also think that face-to-face is the best way to go, followed by a video, and then telephone. The worst possible way to deliver bad news is through an impersonal transmission, like a letter or an e-mail message.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders who lack humility or are extremely arrogant are on dangerous ground in a situation that operates under complex, changing conditions, or has a very unpredictable future. The reason for that is that those leaders tend to think that they know best and have all the answers. None of us has all the answers. This is why I think that diversity is critical. Effective leaders are not afraid to surround themselves with others who come from different backgrounds and think differently. Leaders need to have some sense of personal security to be truly open to input from diverse perspectives, but those different points of view often generate the best available options. Diversity IS critical, but I argue that leaders should embrace diversity as a means to make their organization better, rather than an end in itself. In the end, effective leaders must still own the decisions they make. But in my experience, I make better decisions when I consider a number of options.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Centralize decision-making. During difficult times, some leaders react by centralizing decision-making. They do so because they are uncomfortable with empowering subordinates to make decisions under such conditions, and may not trust them to act responsibly. The bigger and more complex the organization, the more important it is to decentralize. The core leader cannot possibly be everywhere at once, and centralization will necessarily lead to missed opportunities.
2. Isolation. Some leaders react to difficult conditions by staying in the office or staying in the operations center. Those can be good places to collect and synthesize information, but the real world exists out of the office. Management by “walking around” — actually meeting, talking to and engaging with the people you lead — offers three key benefits:
2a): First, it helps the leader understand the reality of what is happening, rather than the assumptions that can be formed inside a warm, dry, and comfortable command post or soft leather chair in an office.
2b): Everything a leader does sends a message: where she goes, who he visits, and what she says. Walking around tells your team, “I’m engaged, I’m here, and I’m paying attention.”
2c): Engaged leaders who spend time with people in all parts of an organization have the best chance of achieving a shared sense of understanding and purpose
3. Assume that theirs is the only valid frame of reference. During my first tour in Iraq, I saw Americans and Iraqis talking past each other. There were complete breakdowns in communication and sometimes dangerous misunderstandings because we had different ways of looking at things. The difference was due to culture. Culture is like a frame of reference that informs how we look at and interpret the world all around us. It includes an underlying set of assumptions for how the world works. Members of a group that share a common culture don’t have to explain in a lot of detail about how things work because they understand the “rules” the same way. Entire societies can share a common culture, as well as distinct organizations. When tensions are high, we tend to fall back on our own frame of reference and assume that everybody else thinks just like us. That assumption can lead to disaster.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Separate the urgent from the important. Most leaders struggle to get everything done, and one reason for that struggle is that we confuse urgent tasks with important ones. In 1995, I was the Director of Operations for a complex organization, and I worked late every night and could never seem to get ahead. We got a new commander and on his first day, he said that if we were not deployed overseas or away from our base for training, we were going to leave the office no later than 6 o’clock every night. I remember that I actually laughed and said there was no way that would ever happen. That first night, he walked back into my area and my entire directorate was still working very hard at 6:15pm. He told us that he had meant what he said and we could all go home. The very next night, I was still working past 6pm, he sat down in front of me and said, “Who’s in charge here?” I knew I was in trouble. He then told me that my problem was that I did not know the difference between what was urgent and what was important. My overflowing in box was filled with “urgent” tasks, but few were truly important. He then said: “I’ll tell you what IS important: eating dinner with your kids every night. I don’t care if you have to come into the office at 2 o’clock every morning but you’re going to go home at 6 and eat dinner with your kids.” I felt convicted and determined to change my modus operandi. It did not happen right away, but over time I learned how to focus on important tasks and delegate or ignore those tasks that were only urgent. Effective leaders focus their energy on the important things.
- Ensure shared understanding, then empower others to use their initiative. If you want to leverage the initiative and creativity of your employees, you need to ensure that you have shared understanding about the purpose (the why) and the direction (where we’re going). They’ll figure out how to get from point A to point B, but if there’s a misunderstanding about either the purpose or direction, there will be problems. We tend to think of reaching such a shared understanding from the top down, but bottom-up understanding is just as important. The leader, in fact, may need to change either the purpose or the direction when he or she gains a fuller understanding of the situation by being open to input from below.
- Hire and promote the RIGHT people: character vs. skills. As leaders, we are constantly making decisions about people: who to recruit and hire, who to send for extra education, who do we promote, and who to let go are just some examples. There’s a tendency to focus on skills rather than character and that leads to problems.
- Know yourself and share with others. The ancient Chinese warrior and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote “The commander who knows himself and his enemy will be victorious in a hundred battles.” Knowing yourself is good, but it’s not enough. If you find yourself building a team in the midst of a crisis, you really need to know yourself if you want to be successful leading others: your strengths, weaknesses, preferred leadership styles, and how you make decisions. You also need to share what you know about yourself with others.
- Anticipate transitions. “Transitions” mean change. Change is necessary for growth and to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Depending on the circumstances, transitions could also lead to lay-offs, buy-outs, take overs, or even a business closing its doors. Individually, a transition could mean a promotion, a move, or even retirement. Regardless of the nature of the transition, we all face them. If we don’t anticipate and plan for transitions, we’ll likely face increased frustration, missed opportunities, and outright resistance to change. Think about transitions from the beginning of any new endeavor. You will definitely face them. If you anticipate those changes, you can prepare for them and leverage the opportunities that arise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The most effective leaders are truly humble. They don’t assume that they are the smartest person in any room that they enter and are instead open to input or ideas that come from others. Effective leaders own the decisions that they make, but at least in my case, I find that I make better decisions when I spend time and energy listening to others. Maya Angelou once said: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” That quote nails it. Humility is “thinking of yourself less,” and the most effective leaders are humble.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow me on LinkedIn or go to my website: jeffreysbuchanan.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Former Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.