A Q&A with General Ann Dunwoody

April 29, 2015


We continue our residency with General Ann Dunwoody by asking her some questions about her book A Higher Standard

As someone with no military experience, I was fascinated by how many of the stories in the book revolve around what have become known as "soft leadership" skills: empathy, understanding, psychology—basically the human element, especially as it relates to what you learned from your first military mentor (outside of your family), Sergeant Bowen. He taught that you have to honor the rigid codes that every soldier must follow, but do so with a lot of humanity and humility. What is your advice to leaders trying to balance adherence to rules while realizing that those we lead are, in fact, fallible human beings? Or, do you really have to approach each case, each issue, individually?

Leadership really does involve the ability to assess individual situations and challenges with the appropriate response. There is no cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution that allows a leader to respond the same way every time a particular situation arises. With a baseline of treating everyone with dignity and respect, leaders need the ability, the instincts if you will, to act accordingly to individual situations. It goes back to doing the right thing for the right reason given the situation. Those who break the rules must be dealt with. First determine if it was an honest mistake or it was a blatant disregard or somewhere in between. Mistakes can and should be forgiven when there is the sincere desire on the offender's part to improve. Breaking the law, on the other hand, is not simply a mistake and there can be no hesitation to deal appropriately in those situations. I found that most leadership decisions involving personnel were never clear cut or easy.

And you're right... the human dimension of these decisions is usually what makes them so tough. But, enforcing standards doesn't mean we have to check compassion at the door, nor does it mean we turn the other way. Rules equate to standards, and standards need to be enforced. Because disciplined units become high performing units and high performing organizations do routine things in an outstanding manner routinely.

I was stricken by your ability to write about the military much like any person would talk about a family with issues—with undying appreciation and love while being incredibly blunt about its shortcomings. Within one page you can write about the Army's transformative impact on soldiers' lives, but two paragraphs later acknowledge the many issues that show up on media broadcasts. I can't help but continue thinking about one of my favorite leadership lessons in the book, which is, "Never walk by a mistake, or you just set a new lower standard." This might sound strange, but it almost seems like leaders need to "walk with mistakes" when there is no easy solution, because as you write, "transformative change is never easy and rarely quick."

Walking by a mistake really pertains to enforcement of known or published standards. Not making a correction sends a signal the standard is not important. We are a self-policing organization. By correcting mistakes, others notice and see that it is not only okay to make a correction, but that it is our responsibility to make sure we make on-the-spot corrections. Transformational changes don't necessarily constitute "mistakes." They usually represent "big ideas' to do things more efficiently and effectively. Transformational changes are hard because the same things that make us good—standard operating procedures—can also become a challenge when the old standard operating procedure become outdated, no longer affordable, or impediments to the way we do business. Change is hard. Strategic visions can help us drive change and explain why it is necessary. Transformational change must be led from the top. It is not easy. As we used to say, "this is hard government work."

I'm constantly intrigued by the path high-level leaders took to get to where they end up. There's a great paragraph in the "Door Kickers" chapter where you write:

When people find out I'm a four-star general they often ask whether it was a difficult ascension, invariably assuming that it was. In other words, how did you do that as a female? Rarely do the questions have anything to do with my job responsibilities or competence. My rise wasn't much different from other successful leaders. I was fortunate that it happened, but it could have just as easily not happened, as there are many opportunities to stumble along the way. For me it never seemed as difficult as people try to make it out to be because it was never anything that I had set out to do. The Army constantly provided me with opportunities to grow as a soldier and a leader.

Becoming a four-star general seems like a very intentional goal, but you're saying the opposite. Not only was it not a goal but, by it not being a stated goal, it was perhaps easier to manage the steps along the way. It's almost as if not having expectations allowed you to simply take on whatever responsibility was put in front of you. Or am I way off, here?

No, I think you are pretty much spot on. When I came in I thought the Army would be a brief two-year detour on my way to being a teacher and a coach. I thought it would be valuable experience, and the opportunity to attend Airborne School was very appealing to me. As my initial commitment to the Army was coming to an end, I was faced with the decision of staying in or getting out. In honest self-reflection I had to admit that I really enjoyed the Army and my job. I liked the physical training and the camaraderie, and decided that I would stay as long as I was enjoying my job and felt like I was making a difference. My mindset from that day forward was to take it one job, one assignment at a time. I half expected to run into a dead end at some point, but that simply never happened. Doors continued to open and women like myself were given more opportunities to prove ourselves and ultimately excel. When I was selected to command a battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division at the 17-year mark of my career, I remember thinking that if I never did another thing in the Army I had reached my own "Nirvana"—I had reached the top. It was my dream job and I loved every minute of it. After that, I just knew that I'd continue to serve as long as I was enjoying myself and still making a difference. There were some long days, tough jobs, and times where I thought I might be nearing the end of the road, but it just never happened.

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges any leader, and any person for that matter, faces is "recognizing their own enemy within and confronting it." Your book is full of both heartbreaking and heartwarming examples of failure and perseverance. You've seen great men and women crumble, and you've had a hand in taking soldiers who, with one wrong step, would have been out of the military, but who overcame early troubles. You're not only a leader, you are a leader of leaders. How do you teach people to confront their demons while still being productive members of a company?

One of the greatest gifts a person can have is the ability to make an honest and accurate self-assessment—awareness of who they are and their individual strengths and weaknesses. One of the most important ways we can help others confront their demons is to be on the lookout for the signs. If someone is stressed out, abusive to subordinates, arrogant, etc., they needed to be talked to (counseled) one on one. A simple talk about what behavior you've observed and what's causing it often causes a change of behavior. Leading through fear usually has short-term effectiveness. Some may not have known until told, and some may have thought the behavior was okay. The cornerstone of leadership is dignity and respect of others, and pride in your unit. It is a rare leader who can rally an Army unit or a commercial workforce to get the job done without establishing an atmosphere of dignity and respect and pride.


Read General Dunwoody's article, "Aspiring to a Higher Standard."


Come back tomorrow for the final installment of General Dunwoody's residence where she answers questions we ask every author.

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