Leading Through Uncertainty
The Solutions Exchange
By: Katy McCreary
Empathy is essential, and effective leadership requires clear communication and delegation. Those are among the many lessons from Nadja West, retired Army Lieutenant General who served as the 44th Surgeon General of the United States Army and as Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command. From decades of leadership experience in crisis management and disaster response, she has a finely honed lens to offer effective tactics for difficult times. Learn more from West before she presents as one of three NACUBO 2021 Annual Meeting keynote speakers. (*The following interview has been edited for length.)
As a three-star general, you clearly know what it takes to lead effectively. What leadership quality would you encourage higher education leaders to focus on?
I would encourage the leadership to focus on empathy. I think that’s an extremely important quality of leadership–to try to understand those that you lead, who may be people who are different from you.
It’s really important, especially when you’re leading a diverse group of people, to take the time to understand them, to learn about them, to see what their motivators are and if there are any challenges they might be going through, so you can understand their ability to engage and participate. It also might identify some issues where people might need help but don’t want to say anything. If they see a leader who is approachable and exercises empathy, that may help.
In times of crisis, people look to leaders for guidance. What skills are necessary to successfully lead amid uncertainty?
Again, you must have empathy, and humility. Understand that you don’t have all the answers and that you have to rely on others. Be optimistic. It’s easy to devolve into dismay depending on what’s going on, but you have to be there to motivate others. Agility and adaptability are other really important skills that a leader needs in the midst of uncertainty.
Is leading with empathy a skill that came naturally to you, or is that something you honed over time?
I think some people are more “people-people” – but empathy can be learned and acquired. You really don’t have to be an extrovert to be empathetic. Empathy is more an intent and a volition to try to learn about someone. You can learn empathy; it’s an act of the will. You need to want to learn about someone.
Throughout your career you’ve broken barriers and continue to blaze trails for others. What strategies can people use to break barriers in their own lives?
First, make sure you’re not constructing barriers yourself. Sometimes people get in their own way. They say, “I don’t think I’m good enough. This isn’t possible. No one’s ever done this before.” Don’t be self-defeating. You’re going to lose the race if you don’t even start because you don’t think you’ll win. You may not win the whole thing, but you might do better than you thought if you just try.
Another barrier is placing too much emphasis on what other people think. In our society, and especially on social media, people are always judging others. As much as you can, try not to give credence to the naysayers. My mom used to always say, “Consider the source when someone says something about you.”
You have extensive experience leading large groups—as many as 130,000 people. What skills are most important for this?
The most important thing is to effectively delegate. One of the ways I could lead that many people was having good leaders at the next echelon down. Before you can effectively delegate, you have to pick people who understand your mission, your vision, and your tone. You must communicate your vision – and first make sure you understand it yourself.
Treating everyone with dignity and respect is the tone I have always tried to set. I want to make sure everyone in the organization—even though I may not be leading them directly—understands that they are important, and they belong to the team.
How can leaders motivate themselves and others to tackle challenges head-on?
You can motivate yourself by understanding what you’re for and keeping that in front. So many things can happen that can distract you, but if you never forget what your core mission is and what you’re for, that keeps you grounded and motivated as challenges come up.
As medical command leader, my role was to make sure we took care of our soldiers. God forbid, if war broke out, we had to be prepared to deploy to support our units wherever they were. Remembering that that’s what we’re for – as a leader, I could never forget that. Everything I did had to trace back to supporting that mission: saving lives and taking care of soldiers. That’s what keeps me motivated.
Among your many leadership roles, you’re a trustee of Mount St. Mary’s University. How has that experience shaped your view of the role of higher education?
I’ve really learned a lot. It really is a learning experience having been on the other side as a student at West Point and George Washington University Medical School.
At Mount St. Mary’s, the president is really committed to the students. He’s very concerned about their education and making sure that the school has the latest offerings to attract students. It’s also value-based – the goal is to educate students so they will lead lives of significance. They make sure they’re giving students the background not only educationally but also in values, so when they graduate it’s not just about making money in a job – which is important – but also to have an emphasis and a heart for giving back.
We need to prepare the next generation to ensure we have the right skillset, the right character to take our nation–and the world, since we educate international students–to the next level.
When you were at West Point contemplating medical school, did you expect your career to meld your experiences together so well?
Not as well as it did! I knew I wanted to do something in the sciences, and I liked people, and I wanted to serve my country. I got to take care of people and serve—and take care of people who volunteered to serve their nation. That’s just a really special group.
Katy McCreary is director of public relations at NACUBO and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.