Who is America's greatest leader?

Longtime readers of my column will remember Six Lessons I Learned at Lunch With the Best Leader in America, where I called Frances Hesselbein the nation's best leader.

It wasn't just my opinion. Several leadership gurus named her the best. She earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more.

But Frances herself will tell you

My historic greatest leader is Abraham Lincoln. My contemporary greatest is General Lloyd Austin III.

If America's greatest leader calls him the greatest, I won't argue.

I've been to lunch with Frances and General Austin. It's like a polite debate of each saying how much more each has learned from the other.

General Austin

Besides Frances' friendship and praise, what qualifies General Austin? Just the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia page says plenty:

Lloyd James Austin III (born August 8, 1953) is a retired United States Army general. He was the 12th commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Austin was the first African American to head the organization. Prior to his assignment in CENTCOM, Austin served as the 33rd Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army from January 31, 2012, to March 8, 2013. His assignments prior to CENTCOM were as the last Commanding General of United States Forces - Iraq, Operation New Dawn, which ended on December 18, 2011, and then Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army. On December 6, 2012, the Pentagon announced that President Barack Obama had nominated Austin to lead the U.S. Central Command.[2] Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 5, 2013, and assumed command on March 22, 2013. On April 5, 2016, Austin's retirement ceremony took place at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. He received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and others. 

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He is also the Class of 1951 Leadership Chair of West Point's Department of Behavioral

Sciences & Leadership. He speaks and leads workshops on leadership at West Point.

He invited me to co-lead three days of talks and workshops at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was honored and flattered that he introduced me as his "wingman."

Below are the most prominent lessons I learned working with him for 72 hours.

Lessons from working with General Austin at West Point

Lesson 1: Prepare

In three days, I lost track of how many meetings and talks we had--in the hotel, at the Academy, at restaurants, with Cadets, Cadet Candidates, officers, faculty, and everyone you can think of.

Yet not once did General Austin hurry. Not once did he not know whom he was meeting and why.

He walked into every meeting prepared. He had brief write-ups for each meeting.

He prepared briefs for me too. In fact, he had started preparing me months before. At any moment, everyone know why they were there, who else was there, and what our goals were.

Lesson 2: Put them first

By "them," I mean the people you're serving. General Austin began each meeting with the others, inviting them to share their identities and stories. He engaged them on what they cared about.

Some of the people we met were Colonels and faculty he'd long known, but some were Cadet Candidates--basically high school students. Whatever their rank, he treated them like human beings.

I can only imagine what it feels like as a Cadet to meet the nation's 200th 4-star General and for him to take an interest in you. I have a feeling they'll remember it. I have a feeling they'll perform better for it.

He could easily have started with his accomplishments. Any stories from one of the first Americans into Iraq and one of the last out would have engaged and excited. But they may not have connected with the others in the room.

The General began with them.

Lesson 3: Involve them and listen

Having others speak doesn't mean you listen. General Austin listened. He showed he listened by connecting with what the others in the room said.

I've been in rooms with corporate CEOs where employees lower on the corporate hierarchy looked intimidated and didn't participate. That's unfortunate, since a CEO can use their perspective and it's hard to get otherwise.

When General Austin involved the Cadets, he asked open-ended questions on complex issues. He supported them in their answers, motivating others to speak.

He was the same with me in the months before. He shared his plans and asked me what I thought of them. He acted on my suggestions. He asked faculty for their input too.

Lesson 4: Be experienced

I wanted to restrict the lessons to what readers could act on. There's not much most of us can do to match working in the White House with the President on global conflicts, serving the nation in uniform for 41 years, and surviving IED explosions.

Nonetheless, I can't help including the effect of experience. His sharing the stories behind those experiences created credibility and garnered respect.

And we can each develop experience in our areas, not shy away from opportunities, nor brag about them, and simply present them as they happened.

Lesson 5: Have a world-class team

Lesson 5 goes with Lesson 1. The BS&L faculty supported the General and me with world-class attention to detail, punctuality, humor, and everything you could ask for. They prepared the briefs, scheduled the appointments, coordinated which Cadets joined us for dinner or whatever event.

As far as I could tell, their dedication and diligence reflected the Academy's culture in general.

Whether he engendered it or the Academy did, it was there. The result was that we could focus on our jobs: the Cadets and our teaching.

Lesson 6: Humility

Despite his rank and experience, I don't remember him appearing separate from others. He seemed interested in serving them, which both enables you to help and keeps you humble.

I saw him as humble and approachable, which I think stemmed from genuinely putting the Cadets and faculty first.

In summary

I don't mean to present General Austin as faultless. I'm sure he has his flaws. I wasn't looking for them, or they didn't arise in those three days or preparing for them.

I'm also sure there were plenty other things others would have learned from him. But my top six are

  1. Preparation
  2. Putting those you serve first
  3. Involve them and listen
  4. Be experienced
  5. Have a world-class team
  6. Be humble