SAN DIEGO — It takes guts to stand up to the president of the United States in a room full of advisers, but that’s just what General Peter Pace had to learn to do when he served as the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush. Bush, says Pace, relished the challenge. Would you feel the same when challenged by subordinates in your hospital, he asked the assembled audience at the American Hospital Association's 25th annual Leadership Summit.
Pace, who led a storied military career spanning some 40 years, fighting in Vietnam, earning four Defense Distinguished Service Medals, often speaks about “leading up,” instilling employees with the knowledge and virtues to be able to help lead their own boss and organization to a better place.
In his remarks, Pace shared seven specific leadership principles from his time in the military. He believes such principles are universal, whether you’re piloting a hospital or a squadron of warplanes, but their application differs in different situations.
Pace tells young folks to look at those they admire. Emulate their leadership traits. "And if it works for you, keep it and do it,” Pace said. “But if it doesn’t work for you, put it aside. You don’t have to do every single leadership thing. Just do the ones that you’re comfortable with. That’s all you need, as long as you do it with sincerity and with the right purpose of mind.”
Here are Pace's seven tips for leaders:
1. Do your homework
“So, when I talk to young folks, the first thing I say is, ‘Pick where you’re going to work.’ It sounds simple, right? But with the internet, with the age of Google and everything, why wouldn’t you, as a young person, research the companies that you’re thinking of becoming a part of? Do you want to be in that company? Do you want to be part of the process of the product that they’re producing or the service that they’re producing? When you look at the senior leadership, did you want to grow up and be like that man or woman?
“If the answer is 'yes,' then by all means, go apply for that job. But if the answer is 'no,' then run away. As a new employee, you’re not going to be able to change the ethos of the company. Maybe a new CEO who parachutes in on top can, over time, change the company. But for most of us joining an organization, the longer we are in that organization, the more we are going to become like that organization. So why wouldn’t you do your homework? See whether you want to grow up to be like the people in that organization."
2. Grow where you’re planted
“We all believe that we want this job right here. But your organization doesn’t always have that exact, precise job. Often, an organization needs you to do this thing over here. By all means, tell your boss what you’d like to do and then embrace what they ask you to do like it was your first choice. Tell them, ‘I would rather be doing this. I’m actually going to do what you asked me to do, but if the opportunity comes about, I’d like to be able to do this job over here.’ ...
“If I’m your boss, I love it because you’re being honest with me and you’re telling me you’re a team player. As the boss, though, have we made it possible for the young executive coming in to understand that we understand their desires? If I know that my boss knows what I want and is trying to help me get that job eventually, I’m feeling much better about this."
3. Make decisions
Pace demonstrated this principle with a story from the Vietnam War. As a second lieutenant, he kept radioing a superior to ask questions. The first time, the superior answered. The second time, he seemed to be getting annoyed. The third time, Pace recounted, “If you take out the curse words, he said nothing to me, but I got the message, which was, 'Lieutenant, make a decision.'
“So, I encourage you folks, make decisions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you’re a young executive and you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying. And when you do make a mistake, don’t make the same mistake twice."
4. Set your moral compass
“Now, obviously, everything is not black and white. It’s not on the battlefield. And what I had to learn is that these things don’t just present themselves as moral challenges. No, they’re more clever than that. What happens is you become challenged, morally, when you are least prepared, emotionally, to deal with it. So, it’s a regular day, you’re coming to the office and somebody throws a sweat grenade in the room. Something happens. ... All of a sudden, everybody’s pants are on fire trying to solve the problem. That’s when it’s most dangerous because the boss is moving fast and the subordinates are trying to help the boss move fast, and people don’t take enough time to think through that maybe there is going to be a corner that they wouldn’t cut if they just took a little time to think about it. ...
“And for leaders on the flipside, it’s about setting your moral compass, transparently, and telling subordinates that you plan to operate in a moralistic fashion.”
5. Be courageous
“It won’t surprise you that I admire courage, but I’m not talking about courage on the battlefield, though I do admire it, of course. I’m talking about the courage in a conference room or in a small group. People are sitting around their cups of coffee in a meeting. The boss is saying this is what we’re going to go do, and this is how we’re going to do it. And somebody has the temerity to say I see it differently and this is why. Those folks are worth their weight in gold."
“It takes enormous courage for subordinates to speak up,” Pace said later. “We senior leaders need to set the stage for what we expect of them, and especially when they challenge us directly, to be able to thank them to have the temerity to speak up. And then educating them if you believe they’re wrong or taking their advice if you believe they’re right. Either way, we set the tone for folks.”
6. Have integrity
“Somebody once told me that, if you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you do not have integrity, nothing else matters. And I truly believe that’s all you need to know about integrity. I tell the young folks, you have your name and you have your integrity, and only you can give those away.
“To those of us who are senior leaders in the room, show by our example. Lead by example. Lead up and down the chain by example with desire and integrity.”
7. Take care of your people
“How do you take care of your people, especially if you’re more junior and have not yet established yourself as a caring leader? What I tell the young folks is, hey, listen. Take five minutes a day, talk to one of your subordinates about themselves. Not about the job, just who are they. How did they get here? What are their aspirations in life? Just talk to them like the human beings they are. ...
“In an organization that believes I care about them, what happens? I give them guidance, they start to execute. Things happen that nobody thought about, and now those individual subordinates will take personal and professional risk, they will not come back to me for guidance, they will change my orders on the fly to accomplish the intent that I set out because they know that this is what I needed to have them do in the first place, and if it turns out that they did it wrong, I’m not going to beat them up for it. The reason to take care of your people is because that’s what good leaders do. The result of doing the right thing for your subordinates is that they will execute whatever your mission is, they will execute that better than any of us has any right to believe we could possibly lead other human beings to accomplish. It’s just a lot of work.”