General George Casey: Bringing the lessons learnt in military to business

In this special podcast, we talk with General George Casey, the former Commanding General of the multinational force in Iraq. The Head of the U.S. Army, the head of the U.S. Chief of Staff: General Casey, it’s fabulous to have you here in South Africa. Is it you first visit?

It is my first visit and it’s wonderful to be here.

How long is it since you retired from the military?

I retired in April of 2011, so it’s been just about four years.

You’re here in South Africa and indeed, much of the work you’re doing now is looking at the leadership lessons that you learned from running the biggest company on earth. How many people does the U.S. army employ?

Right now, over one-point-one million people and when I took over in 2007, it had an operating budget of about ¼ of $1trn. That’s changed quite a bit over the last few years, but it’s a significantly large global organisation. In fact, when I talk to business people about it, they would say, “How big is the United States army?” and I’d say, “one-point-one million +”. They’d say, “Almost as big as Walmart”.

Well, in a South African context, your budget is twice the size of this country’s national budget – just to put that in context. Before we go into leadership lessons that you learned there, just your own background…your father was also a general.

Yes, I’m an army brat. My dad served in the military. He was commissioned at WestPoint in 1945 and he wound up missing the Second World War, but he served in Korea and he served in Vietnam. In fact, he was killed in Vietnam while he was commanding the First Cavalry division in 1970.

That didn’t turn you off; the fact that you lost your father in the war.

No, it’s interesting. I’ve thought a lot about it but if he stayed, I probably would have done my two-year obligation and got out of the service but since he couldn’t stay, I felt like I had an opportunity to make my own career.

One-point-one million people. The competition to become the overall Chief must be intense.

Yes, but you don’t think about that. I never thought about that. In fact, when I was a Second Lieutenant I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I would wind up leading that army. I always tried to take on the jobs, to do the best I could at them, and let the chips fall where they may.

You moved on from there to become the Head of the overall armed forces in the United States, serving a couple of Presidents.

No, I didn’t. I was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the army Chief of Staff, I provided input to both presidents – Bush and President Obama.

Are there any differences between the two?

They’re very different personalities, but both very committed to their jobs. People say people do things for a lot of political reasons, but I’ve seen three Presidents make the decision to put men and women in harm’s way and they take their responsibility very, very seriously.

As an American, you can be proud of the presidents you had in office. One a Republican and one a Democrat.

You can. I believe we should be a little more tolerant to our presidents. Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of them and the jobs they’re doing are very difficult in a very difficult environment. What I saw over time was by the time the issue got to the President, an awful lot of smart people had done their best to try to solve the problems, so these are insoluble problems to which, there were no good solutions that finally get to the President. It’s not easy.

Getting back to the area that you did run, which was in Iraq, many might have thought that was a poisoned chalice – very difficult. As we would say in rugby parlance, “You were almost given a suicide pass there”, but you came through it well.

As a general, you don’t get to pick your wars. The President asked me to go in there and I accepted the challenge, went in, and I thought we advanced the ball as far as we could under the circumstances we were dealt.

How do you get the different nations who are part of that force, to work together?

When I got there, there were 33 countries. There were soldiers from 33 different countries that contributed to the operation. The best way I found to bring them all together was through transparency. Everybody had to feel like they were an integral and contributing part of the overall mission and that they had access to me and anything that we had going on. Often times when you get into multinational environments, people try to compartmentalise things and when you do that, other people feel like they’re being left out. That creates anxiety and mistrust, and once you have mistrust or distrust, there’s nothing but problems.

Doesn’t that raise the risk though, of leaks to the enemy?

Sure. Well, I wasn’t worried about the multinational force leaking to the enemy, but when we were working with Iraqi leaders, we had to be very conscious of that. In fact, in one instance we had a very difficult operation where we were getting ready to kick off and the Minister and I told everybody that we were going to start two days before we were actually, going to start. The only ones who knew that were the multinational force, the Prime Minister, and I.

Leadership (generally) that you would have learned in the 41 years you served. How do you get to the top in such a competitive environment?

As I said, I took hard jobs. I pressed myself but I always tried to do the best job I could in the position I was in, and a lot of hard work went along with that. What I learned in Iraq was that the U.S. military was thrust into a really, (for us) a fundamentally new environment. We hadn’t been involved in an insurgency type of environment since Vietnam and there weren’t many (if any) people around that had that experience – certainly not at the senior leader levels. We had to come to grips with a fundamentally new environment while we were trying to figure out how to succeed in that environment, simultaneously. What I saw when I got there was that the environment was so complex that people became flummoxed by it and when they were flummoxed, they wouldn’t act. In those environments, if nothing else, you have to act to succeed. The second thing I saw was that we had raised our generals in training them for conventional war (to be too inward looking) and they tended to look inside the organisations rather than outside the organisations where they could identify things that could help the organisation succeed. What I found was the higher I got, the more time I had to spend outside my organisation, setting the conditions for its ultimate success rather than inside, managing the efforts of my subordinates, which they didn’t particularly like either because they were pretty confident people. Those were the big takeaways, which I had and when I got back to the army, I said to myself, “I need to revamp how we train our generals to make sure that they better prepared to operate in 21st century security environments”.

How were they being trained at that point?

We were being trained for conventional war. We were trained to fight other armies. In retrospect, comparing fighting other armies to comparing fighting insurgencies. The level of complexity probably increases four or five-fold and so, even though we thought training to fight the Russians was hard, training to operate in the 21st century environments was much harder.

You mentioned complexity but you still have to take decisions in a complex environment. We live in a very complex world, not just in the military but also in the economy in general. Do you embrace that complexity and just try to find the right way out or do you simplify it by unpacking things?

What you’re saying is interesting about the business environment being similarly complex. We used to say that our environment was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – Vuca. I’m told that in Zulu, Vuca means ‘wake up and pay attention’. Well, Vuca.

Good word. It’s a good anagram.

It is.

Where did it come from (before we get into that)?

I was a little embarrassed because I had forgotten where it came from, but I had to Google it. I had to look online and found out that it was a term coined by the United States Army War College in the late 90’s to describe what the world would look like after the demise of the Soviet Union. As I thought back to Iraq, Iraq is as Vuca as it gets and what I found, talking to business audiences about my experiences in Iraq was that they related to them. At the senior level, the types of things they had to do – developing visions and strategy, building teams to execute division and strategy, setting conditions internally and externally for the success of preparing for the vision… Those are all things, which business leaders have to do. What I found was my experiences in Iraq and leading the army resonated with them and they drew key insights from our discussions.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguity is something that I think most people who work in any business environment, would relate to. Getting back to that question of the complexity of it, do you embrace it or do you try to simplify it?

I find that you have to embrace it but you have to build and in-depth understanding of your environment and you don’t get that by reading a book or taking a briefing. I’m struck by the great story about the competition to get to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott. Both of them were seasoned Arctic explorers. They both did the kind of research you’d expect them to do. Amundsen went a bit further. He went up and lived with the Eskimos for a period of time and while he was up there, he found a nugget. What he observed was that the Eskimos never exerted themselves. They never pushed themselves harder because their environment was so uncertain. They always had to have an energy reserve. When he went back and was framing his strategy for the push to the Pole he said, “We’re going to go 15 to 20 miles/day” and they weren’t ever going to go beyond that. They were going to try to meet that goal every day. He got to the South Pole 30 days before Scott and as you know, ultimately, Scott and his team didn’t survive.

That ’15 to 20 days’, how does it compare with what Scott might have done? Was he trying to go a little bit harder?

Scott didn’t have a set parameter to go by and so on good days, they pushed hard, tired his crew out, and in bad days they wouldn’t do anything so they had to push harder on the next good day.

Amundsen therefore knew more about his environment.

He did. I guess the point is he got there by going the extra mile – by delving deeper into the complexity to find the nugget that ultimately paid off.

You’re now teaching business school classes – leadership. Is that one of the thrusts of what you’re saying to them? “Get to know your business better.”

Absolutely. In fact, I use that example with my business goal. I teach at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell. I do a two-week program, called Core Leadership Skills for a Vuca world. One of the skills I talk about is coming to grips with your environment and building a very deep understanding. The leader is the one who will have the ‘leap ahead’ insight for the organisation. Leap ahead solutions don’t bubble up from inside. The leader has to look outside the organisation and many different places and he or she will be the one that comes up with that ‘leap ahead’ insight.

Going back to Iraq, which is a highly complex area, we heard some of the that Muslim community don’t like the fact that you’re even in South Africa – the man who perhaps, was interpreted in their way as doing a disservice to people in that region is being celebrated in various parts of the world. How does that hit you?

I can certainly understand it but the way I look at it is we gave 25 million Iraqis the opportunity for a better life by removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator who, by most records, is said to have murdered over 300,000 of his own people. We created the opportunity for them and unfortunately, to this day, they haven’t taken full advantage of that opportunity and built the vibrant country that Iraq can become.

What about the Middle East, generally? You’ve had this immersion into Middle Eastern affairs. We see what’s going on in Libya. We see the Syrian situation as well. For centuries, people have been trying to solve these problems. Are they?

The fundamental thing that I learned in Iraq (and that we all could learn from) is that people of the Middle East have to come to grips and solve their own problems and challenges. The idea that any Western/outside power can come in and help heal the divisions within Islam is just not practical. I believe we can and should assist them, but the fundamental resolutions and challenges of the Middle East has to come from within the Middle East.

Is this what you tried to do when you were there? Did you try to get the Iraqis to take responsibility?

I did because I felt that only the Iraqis could solve their challenges and build and Iraqi state. We couldn’t do it for them. We couldn’t want them to succeed more than they wanted to succeed themselves.

Similar to Vuca I guess, as well, within a business environment. If you can embrace all of those issues such as volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and understand better where you are, then you as a business might be able to thrive.

No doubt. The better you can see and understand your total environment (not just your internal environment, but also your external environment), your competition, and the relationships outside of your organisation that can help you succeed… If you have a comprehensive understanding of that and you go deeper than everybody else does, you can succeed in a Vuca environment where others don’t.

When you’re in a lecture hall, you have young men and women who’ve seen you on television, read about you, and heard about you. What do they ask you? What’s the thrust of the questions they want to know from you?

They want to know what my biggest challenges were. They want to know how I dealt with specific situations. Everything is evaluated so you always get feedback from your students. Overwhelmingly, the feedback is that they like the stories that I tell about how I practically resolved/attempted to resolve different situations. They get the theory in business school. They said, “We got the theory, General. Just tell us how you really do it”, and so that’s what I try to focus on.

That’s what resonates and that’s what stays.


General George Casey, our special guest here in the Biznews studio.

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