The Great Ones Say ‘Thank You’
Professor George E. Reed
Introduction — Judith W. Umlas: Recently, a colleague of mine sent me a link to a National Public Radio story, “Army Takes On Its Own Toxic Leaders” because it is “in line with your mission,” she wrote. And boy, was it ever! I must thank Beth Hand, CEO of Leadership Hand, for steering me to this amazing story which started a whole chain of exciting events. The story begins with:
“Top commanders in the U.S. Army have announced publicly that they have a problem: They have too many “toxic leaders” — the kind of bosses who make their employees miserable. Many corporations share a similar problem, but in the Army’s case, destructive leadership can potentially have life or death consequences. So, some Army researchers are wondering if toxic officers have contributed to soldiers’ mental health problems.” http://n.pr/1hrqJjC
I got so fired up by this that I immediately wrote the NPR reporter, Daniel Zwerdling, and told him about IIL’s antidote to Toxic Leadership—“Grateful Leadership.” He quickly responded with interest, and may be interviewing some Grateful Leaders very soon… so stay tuned! I then decided to contact some of the people included in Daniel’s report, one of which was retired Col. George Reed. As the then director of Command and Leadership Studies at the Army War College, George was interviewing Army officers attending the War College about recent encounters with Toxic Leaders. Based on these (and further interviews), he wrote several critically important papers on Toxic Leadership. I knew I had to speak with him.
George Reed now is Associate Dean at the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego. In our initial conversation, he told me a story that moved me to tears (my ultimate test of importance and authenticity of what I am hearing). Afterwards, I asked Professor Reed to write that same story for all of us.
We are all traveling on the same path, which is to make a positive and palpable difference for everyone. Therefore, may our journeying together and combining “forces” make us realize this goal much sooner! So, here is a deeply moving recounting of a true example of Grateful Leadership by George Reed.
While serving as an Army major at the military’s maximum custody prison, the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I witnessed an act of Grateful Leadership that has had a profound impact on me. I speak of it often when lecturing on the subject of leadership style.
The old prison was in bad shape after more than a century of service. It was largely constructed with handmade bricks stacked five stories high that weathered many seasons of freezing and thawing in the variable Kansas climate. The Army was not inclined to spend a large amount of money on a new prison in the post Gulf-War era, yet many of us who worked at the facility were concerned that a tornado or wind storm could topple parts of the structure creating not only a security risk, but also potentially injuring inmates and staff members. If there were to be a new prison it would take the advocacy of some powerful people.
The Commander of the Training and Doctrine Command at the time was four-star General Fredrick M. Franks, Jr. who ably led the ground forces that liberated Kuwait in 1991. He came to visit the prison to personally witness the condition of the facility and to determine what should be done. A visit to the prison by such a high-ranking official was unusual for us, and as I was responsible for security of the facility I became a tour guide. We were informed that his time was limited so we were to take him to the places that would be most informative and to keep it moving.
Franks donned a hard hat and followed us into the tunnels where he could see the crumbling foundation as well as measures taken to shore up the facility. As we departed we traversed a large open courtyard leading to massive iron doors that served as the main entrance to the prison grounds. Just then the doors cracked open and a lone individual passed through shuffling slowly along the wall. General Franks noticed the activity, turned to me and asked if it was one of our alumni returning to the prison. I said no, it was actually Sergeant First Class George Cooksey, a soldier and correctional specialist who a year earlier had suffered a brain aneurism during training. He was rushed into surgery and barely survived. Over the previous year his brain had essentially rewired itself, and while Cooksey was thankfully recovering, his injuries were too severe for him to continue to serve in uniform. He was returning to the prison on his last day of active duty to say goodbye to the inmates that he was responsible for.
Franks immediately stopped causing a bit of stumbling and consternation in his entourage. “Can I meet him?” he asked. I called out to Cooksey and General Franks set off at a brisk pace to meet the recovering soldier. As we got closer the general waived the entourage back. He clearly wanted to have a private moment. I was close enough to hear most of the conversation. General Franks said that he understood that Cooksey had had a rough time of it. Cooksey acknowledged that it had been a long and arduous recuperation, but that he was grateful for the support he and his family received from the unit. Franks related that he knew a thing or two about long recoveries. Franks was injured in Cambodia resulting in the amputation of his leg below the knee. The general reached into his pocket and pulled out a commemorative coin and pressed it into Cooksey’s hand. He warmly grasped the soldier and thanked him for his service to the nation before resuming the march to the exit and his waiting aircraft. Cooksey was obviously a bit stunned by the encounter but I could see that it meant a great deal to him. I was a bit choked up by it all, that a man as powerful and busy as General Franks would take the time for such a sincere human exchange with a soldier he had never previously met.
That impromptu exchange of gratitude had a profound impact on me. I thought of it often and resolved to try to be more like General Franks—to recognize and appreciate those who might otherwise be overlooked. Ten years later I had the opportunity to meet Franks again.
I happened to see the general walking across the campus of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania one morning on my way to work. By then I was a colonel and a faculty member there. Franks had no stars on his shoulder or entourage in tow. He was just an older yet still recognizable retired general that came to pass on some wisdom to the next generation of senior leaders. I approached him, anxious to relate how much of an impact he had on me. After reintroducing myself and reminding him of his visit to the prison I expressed how much his encounter with Sergeant First Class Cooksey meant to me. To my astonishment he acknowledged the visit, and the Army’s eventual construction of a new prison, but he had no recollection of the meeting with Cooksey. I was momentarily crestfallen that an incident so meaningful to me was apparently not memorable to him.
I later spoke of it with a friend and colleague who had served with Franks on several occasions. He laughed and said that the reason the venerable general had no memory of it was because it was an activity that he engaged in several times a day. It was simply part of who he was, not something that he found particularly memorable or exceptional. The great ones just always seem to find a way to say thank you.
George Reed is the Associate Dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences and faculty member in the Department of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. Prior to joining the faculty he was the Director of Command and Leadership Studies at the U.S. Army War College. He served for twenty-seven years as a Military Police Officer and paratrooper, retiring as a colonel. He has a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University in Public Policy Analysis and Administration and a Master of Forensic Science degree from The George Washington University.
George is a thought leader on the subject of toxic leadership, especially in the military. He has published several journal articles on the relationship between leadership style, organizational climate and effectiveness. He is driven to learn more about why otherwise world-class organizations seem to tolerate and even reward those in authoritative positions who have such an obvious detrimental effect on their members.