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As someone who earned two Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Crosses for valor and who was also tasked with developing a drug control strategy as a White House cabinet member, retired four-star U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey knows how to tackle complex problems and lead in high-pressure situations.
A soldier by training who now manages his own consulting firm, McCaffrey offered “Lessons on Leadership” for Auburn University faculty and students that apply to corporate boardrooms as well as battlefields. His interactions with students at an open campus lecture, classroom, and small group visits hosted by the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business focused on crisis management, organizational change and mentorship. But, naturally, students wanted to know what it’s like to lead amid the chaos of combat.
“When people ask that, I respond, ‘It’s like being the star of a horror movie,’” laughed McCaffrey, who retired from the U.S. Army in 1996. As a three-time Purple Heart recipient having served four tours of combat duty, he’s seen his share of crises.
“Don’t ever let the bastards see you sweat. That’s rule No. 1,” said McCaffrey, founder and president of his own consulting firm, BR McCaffrey Associates, and a national security and terrorism analyst for NBC News. “Crisis management requires a cool head. When there’s a real crisis, people appreciate somebody that can control their emotions, think through it and be objective. One of the biggest things I prize in looking at people for either hiring them or developing them is to what degree are you characterized by objectivity, emotion, ideology, or behavior.”
McCaffrey, who served as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1996-2001, said experience and expertise are key components top managers need to handle any situation. “If you’ve been there for five years and they (subordinates) say, ‘We’ve worked for her for five years now and she really knows what she’s doing. The last three times there was a crisis, she told us what to do and we came out OK,’” he noted.
But what if the top manager is new?
“Now you’re in trouble,” said McCaffrey. “You’ve just arrived. You’re the CEO of a company with 180 employees and you’re on the verge of running out of cash. The other way you get legitimacy handed to you is be having the right credentials. Training or being an expert is a huge deal. If people think you know what you’re doing, that’s a big help.”
Serving for 32 years, from private to general, from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm, the West Point graduate has seen his share of change. He offered lessons on how to properly deal with it.
“When you’re dealing with change, you’ve got to see the long-term and not the first incremental steps.”
— Gen. Barry McCaffrey
“All change – both bad and good – is met with equal intensity,” he said. “It makes people uncomfortable. But when you’re dealing with change, you’ve got to see the long-term and not the first incremental steps. The first steps are pretty painful. You’ve got to say, ‘The new people are coming in. We’re going to greet them warmly. We’re going to listen to them carefully. We’re going to be honest in our feedback.’”
McCaffrey said the most difficult change often occurs within an organization that’s already successful. He noted that changes in a company’s environment – technology, demographics, politics, tools of the trade, etc. often necessitate some change.
“The first thing that you’ve got to do is listen to the new team coming in, particularly when they write something down and say here’s where we’re going,” he said.
Another important aspect of successful leadership, McCaffrey said, is nurturing subordinates to reach their potential.
“If I identify smart, young people and develop them, I’m going to make more money, I’m going to be more successful and I’m going to go home earlier at night than if I’m totally in charge,” he said. “I want to do better – so I better empower and develop younger people.”
Then there is altruism. “If you’re on faculty at Auburn, you want Auburn to do well,” he continued. “So, you’re going to look out there and see who is talented, devoted and effective, and you’re going to be nurturing them so your leadership cadre will continue to develop. I think all business organizations are the same way.”