Leadership Lessons: From Kellogg’s General

Bernie Banks (Left) teaches a course at the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

You shouldn’t read Bernie Banks’ resume before you meet him. The Associate Dean of Leadership Development at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Banks’ credentials can leave you feeling pretty intimidated

Start with six advanced degrees, headlined by an MBA from Kellogg and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Then there is the 33-year military career, which began at West Point and culminated with a commission to Brigadier General. Over his career, he has managed thousands of people, along with billions in assets. He has flown Apache helicopters, worked in the White House, and headed up West Point’s vaunted Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership. He even advises organizations as diverse as Procter & Gamble and the NFL. The guy is Peter Drucker and Captain America rolled into one. Who wouldn’t be in awe?


Yet to those who know him, he is Bernie, a devoted husband and father who is still making a career transition, not unlike his many MBA students. He is a deliberate man with no wasted motion, whose graciousness quickly puts you at ease. At the same time, his crisp delivery reminds you that you are in the company of a master communicator, one who respects you enough to convey exactly where he stands.

“First and foremost, I believe in the power of relationships,” he tells Poets&Quants. “Second, I believe in the importance of taking on smart risk. Third, getting knocked down is a good thing because it can help you work through the process of getting back up. You have to have resilience. People like to point at degrees and to the rank and all the other stuff, but those are all functions of investments that others made in me.”

Brigadier General Bernie Banks. Photography by Eddie Quinones.

You could describe Banks’ military and professional career as a concerted effort to pay those investments forward. After retiring from the U.S. Army in 2016, Banks returned to Evanston, drawn by the opportunity to serve as a “change agent” who could share his wisdom, values, and example with the next generation of business leaders. Banks says he was also attracted to Kellogg’s “strategic repositioning,” which is analogous to West Point, where competence and character are forged through a wide mix of experience informed by empirical science.


“We take coursework that is informed by world class scholars and then we provide our students at Kellogg a whole slew of experiential activities, whereby they can take what they are learning in class and apply it in real time in a safe place where they can make mistakes and experiment with different techniques,” Banks explains. “It’s all about learning how to apply that science artfully. One of the advantages that we have at Kellogg is that our set of experiential activities is par excellence.”

Alas, you won’t find Kellogg students giving salutes or parading down Clark Street as part of leader development. Northwestern is still Wildcat country after all. Instead, Banks’ job is to amplify the programs’ inherent strengths in teamwork and experiential learning by delivering sustainable outcomes. “The thing that really distinguishes us, to a certain extent, is this notion of fostering intentionality,” he points out. “It’s starting with the end in mind. So when we go back to competence and character, we’re seeking to ensure that student behavior over time is reflective of our core values. How students approach their activities are reflective of the competencies that we believe a graduate should possess as a result of having undergone the Kellogg experience.”

With outcomes being paramount, it’s no surprise that measurement is another key component of Banks’ efforts. “Measuring actual behavior and comparing it to espoused behaviors is an important part of evaluating the efficacy of our leader development efforts.  Examining “how” someone derived results matters just as much as the outcome they produced.”


This subtle shift, however, isn’t designed to prove Kellogg is better at leader development than peer schools, emphasizes Banks. Instead, it is a means of providing the right experiences to the right students to produce the right outcomes.

“If you’re an applicant,” Banks observes,” you want this to be the place that will afford you the best possibility — because of the ecosystem that we’ve created —to become the person you want to become. You have to start with the end in mind and ask yourself, ‘With the risks I want to take, will this environment provide both the safe and challenging place to do that?’ We most certainly believe that the approach we take and the people we have allow us to do things to a very high standard. But we don’t want to possess the hubris to say we’re better than anyone else. Our environment is different and you have to understand that difference.”

West Point Cadets

P&Q recently sat down with Banks to discuss the leadership questions that matter most to MBAs. How do you manage a transformational change effort? What are the best and worst practices for managing cross-cultural teams? What can you do each day to enhance your leadership abilities? Of course, what advice would he give to applicants and students? Find out these answers (and many more) in our in-depth sit-down with Bernie Banks.

P&Q: You retired as a Brigadier General from the U.S. Army in 2016 and then joined Kellogg (where you’d earned your MBA) as an associate dean. What motivated you to move from leading West Point’s leadership development program to doing the same in a graduate business program?

BB: First, it was an extraordinary honor to have Kellogg engage me in a conversation about becoming part of the senior leadership team here. When I was thinking about my transition from the military, I explored a number of industries, organizations, and sectors. The decision to come to Kellogg was primarily born out of three things.

First, it was the cultural alignment. I knew that Kellogg’s culture was analogous to the kinds of cultures in which I had operated in previously and had flourished. The second thing was the opportunity to be a change agent. Kellogg was in the midst of a strategic repositioning if you would. The opportunity to come here and participate as part of that strategic repositioning was something that was very exciting. Instead of taking on a caretaker role, it was an opportunity to be a change agent. The last thing was the opportunity to help influence those who were going to possibly influence the world. Kellogg is blessed to have an extraordinary student body and faculty. Both of those groups hold tremendous influence over how others think and behave. The opportunity to be a part of that and to know the things you could do here in Evanston will find their way to every part of the globe was something that was also very attractive to me.

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