A high-profile leader whose job revolves around killing lots of people might not be expected to tell an audience of business school students that the soft skills of humility and vulnerability are essential to leadership.
But that’s just what U.S. Army Brig.-Gen. Tammy Smith – who served in Afghanistan for a year and has a Bronze Star medal and a combat action badge – told an auditorium full of U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business students on Sept. 22.
“A leader has to be a little bit vulnerable. You have to put yourself out there. Leadership is a contact sport, it’s a human to human interaction,” Smith said.
“Letting your people know something about you, that perhaps isn’t easy to talk about, that is a bridge to trust.”
For some 20 years of her Army career, however, Smith could not risk talking about a key element of herself: she’s gay. At Haas, she described the personal and professional ordeal forced upon her by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy under which revelation of homosexuality brought termination.
“I hid by living my life in compartments,” Smith says. “I had a separate compartment which was my separate life, and that was the life where I had my gay and lesbian friends. You can’t be fully honest about who you are as a person. It (was) impossible to bring the entire force of my leadership.”
FIRST OPENLY GAY GENERAL IN THE U.S. MILITARY
Now, after the policy’s 2011 repeal, Smith is the first openly gay general in the U.S. military.
Smith uses a “collaborative” leadership style to maximize the human resources at her command. “I don’t think anybody has the best ideas,” she says. “I like to seek input from others, and I do that in a 360 kind of way. I don’t judge the idea on who it came from.”
Even when not in a war zone, Smith, deputy chief of staff for the 205,000-strong Army reserve, works in an environment that shares many qualities with the business world. With the Pentagon planning massive cuts to soldier numbers, and military budgets subject to the vagaries of polarized politics and geopolitical upheaval, Smith must strive to accomplish her goals under conditions of scarcity.
“It creates uncertainty in our resources, but we still have to move forward,” Smith says.
While Smith emphasizes the need to rely on subordinates to bring forward information necessary to decision making, she says that in complex, dynamic environments such as war and business, decisions must be made before all questions have been answered and all risks are fully understood.
BAD DECISIONS COSTLY IN WAR, AND IN BUSINESS
“In my environment, you make a decision, it can be life or death. In a business environment, a decision maker can make a decision that will seriously damage a bottom line or a reputation of a company.
“When you don’t have all the information, what you have to rely on is the experience of your subordinate leaders. You have to bring them together and in some cases their own broad experiences will help fill in the information gap. You don’t have to figure it out yourself. Your team is going to bring you some of the clarity that is required to move forward.”
That’s “some of the clarity,” not “all of the clarity,” and when a leader must make a decision when uncertainties remain, instinct must be deployed, Smith says.
“You bring your experience into that understanding, then you move on intuition,” she says. “Trusting your instincts will improve over time and experience. In some cases when you are new and starting out you might want to do your gut checks with the folks around you who have a little bit more experience.”