Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. -- (As Delivered)
General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM): This is one of my favorite things to do, to talk about leadership, to talk about people that care about leadership. And it’s a great group of people that we have. STRATCOM Fellows, Lean In Circles, we have STRATCOM, the 55th [Wing], the [557th] Weather Wing, we have the key spouses. We have a broad level of people who are interested in leadership. But I want to talk about just two things this morning. Some of the things I think about when it comes to leadership, how it impacts STRATCOM. And I want to talk about Lean In Circles too, because I’ve had some interesting experience with Lean In. It has a lot of powerful things to talk about leadership when you think about Lean In. And to be honest with you, a lot of people are misinterpreting the Lean In, and so I’ll talk about that just for a little while.
First of all, STRATCOM is an interesting organization. The headquarters across the way has been there for a long time. Curtis LeMay brought the command to this town in 1948. He was the commander for nine years. He has an interesting technique when it came to leadership because he basically scared the hell out of everybody. That was his method of leadership. It was leadership that was probably necessary at the time, but it’s also leadership that doesn’t work today. I’ve actually seen a lot of people try to apply that style of leadership in the world today and that style of leadership will fail and will fail miserably because the people that you’re leading will actually just walk away from you. They will just walk away completely.
So when you look at our headquarters, we have a very interesting headquarters. About 2,000 people work in the building across the street. One-third of those people are retirement eligible today. One-third of those people could retire if they wanted to right now. And we’re getting ready to move right here across the street into this new building, and you’re going to hear from Ms. [Rutland] a little bit later about moving into the new building.
But it’s just interesting to watch the dynamics that happen in the building as you start talking about moving, because fundamentally, you’re talking about change. There’s a significant segment of the population that just doesn’t like to talk about change. They don’t like change, they don’t want change. But the problem is, the world we live in today is all about change. It’s about change every minute of every day. And the people that are retirement eligible have something in common with me. I’ve been retirement eligible for 16 years now. And Laura and I thought we were retiring multiple times. In fact we bought our first retirement house in 2003 ‒nailed that one ‒ and sold it in 2011. Bought our second retirement house in 2015, because both times we were done, but both times, change just comes washing over you and the next thing you know, you’re in another place, another position.
But the one thing I do know about us is that we’re about done. A friend of mine says we’re circling the drain, because it’s about over. And we know it’s over. But the next generation is coming on.
So one of the greatest leaders in Air Force history, Gen. [Wilbur] Creech, said the first job of a leader is to build new leaders, and that’s what we’re doing here today. Figuring out how to build new leaders. And we have to have room for new leaders to grow. And we have to have room for different elements of our population to grow up and to become leaders in our United States military, in our Air Force, in whatever structure you’re in. That’s the goal.
So my style of leadership is I lead through, in the military it’s what we call commander’s intent. I’m a big believer in commander’s intent. So I publish a commander’s intent in an unclassified forum where everybody can pick it up and read it. You can pick it up and read it and it will tell you exactly what I think and exactly how I think and what I want you to do. And in that commander’s intent, it doesn’t say it specifically, but in there are left and right boundaries. What I tell my commanders and I tell everybody that works in this command is that as long as you’re within those boundaries, you don’t have to come back to ask me anything. You just have to execute. You just have to figure out how to do it. If you’re outside those boundaries, then you have to come back and ask me, and then we’ll have a discussion and we’ll figure out where to go. And after we figure out where to go, I will adjust my commander’s intent so now we have new boundaries that we can figure out.
The reason that’s important is because if you have a world that is going so fast, that change is happening so fast, if you try to lead everything from the top of a 184,000 person organization, that organization will fail. It just absolutely will fail. The only way it will succeed is if the people in the organization are empowered to go, and to go fast and do things.
I’ll tell you, it’s interesting to me that as great as this organization is, it’s difficult for people to actually embrace that I really mean that. Because they think there’s a trick. They think there’s some kind of catch in that. That if they actually step out and they go too fast, that somehow I’m going to swack them.
So one of the important things to do is if somebody actually goes fast and actually makes a mistake when they’re inside the boundaries, you just, you can’t kill them. You can’t criticize them. What you can do is mentor them and figure out how to teach them so they can continue to go back and go fast. The first couple of times you do that it’s amazing how people learn that you really mean we have to go fast.
And this world today is all about speed. If you look at successful companies in the world today, you look at Apple, Google, Facebook. What do they all have in common? They’re all going really fast. And if you look at our military today, we have created a bureaucracy that is unbelievably powerful and built to preserve the status quo and built to make sure we don’t go fast.
So we have a world that wants to go fast. We have adversaries that are going fast. And we have a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to go fast.
We have to break that down. We have to break that down by building leaders that will move fast, that will not take no for an answer, they understand the boundaries and just take off and move.
And the other thing that happens when you get an organization like that is that is a fun place to come to work because everybody’s moving. Everybody’s moving at the speed of heat, and that is just a remarkable place to work. And when you work in a place like that, the other thing you find out is there are leaders everywhere. There’s not just one at the top. There are leaders everywhere. Not just the commanders, but everybody, all the way down to the lowest level feels empowered to make a difference in the organization and because of that they take off and the organization moves unbelievably fast.
And I ask you to think about, if you have a choice between organizations that are moving fast or moving slow, which one would you want to be in? I think the answer is easy. I think you want to be in the organization that’s moving fast.
So why is it that we have so many people in our bureaucracy that are structured to force us to move slow? And many people that say you want to be in an organization that moves fast is part of the organization that forces us into moving slow. It really doesn’t make any sense.
So everything that we’re trying to do at Strategic Command today, and we just now announced a big reorganization of our components last week, from 18 components to four. To those civilians in the room, that doesn’t mean anything. But if you have 18 direct reports that you’re trying to integrate all at one time, it becomes very, very difficult. What you want is a very streamlined organization that quickly gets to the people, and you don’t want to be the one place in the world that everybody has to come to, to integrate. If the boss is the only one that’s actually doing the integration of what’s going on in the company or the organization or the command that you’re in, then the command by definition is going to go slow. You have to push that down and you have to push it out. That is a difficult thing to do in an organization of 10 people. It’s a really difficult thing to do in an organization of 184,000 people. So fundamentally, we have to change that.
Let me talk about Lean In for a second, and then I’ll just take questions. I talked to some folks early on, and they want to ask questions.
I got a chance to spend half a day with Sheryl Sandberg just last week. Sheryl Sandberg is the one that came up with Lean In, a fascinating person. And it was a very enlightening, upsetting day. It was enlightening because in the morning she was with all the major commands and commanders in the Air Force. Four stars and three stars, mostly four stars. And she was kind of challenging us, getting in our face a little bit, making us think about how we grew up. Because in that room it was mostly men, mostly white males. So when you think about it, you’re talking about 15 general officers, three women, one African-American out of those 15. And in many cases we look at that and we kind of pat ourselves on the back and say wow, we have three female leaders in the Air Force, we have one African-American. Just about two years ago it was three African-Americans. But if you look around that room and then you compare us to our force, it doesn’t match. It absolutely doesn’t match the force.
So I’ll talk about some of the things that she challenged us on, me on personally. And then I’ll tell you, at the end of the day, you have 10 four star generals, five three star generals, we’re all excited, we all wanted her to sign our book. We’re all thinking that we’ve learned a lot. We have things to do.
Then she went over and talked to the cadets at the Air Force Academy, the entire cadet corps of the Air Force Academy, the best and brightest of the United States of America. And she walks in and she basically gives the same pitch she gave to all the leadership that we were all excited about. And she was actually booed and hissed for some of the things she said. And all she was saying was you know, when she was a young girl growing up how she was always pushed to the side, always pushed to the back. That’s where Lean In came from. Don’t lean back, lean in. And when you’re forced to kind of lean back, that’s kind of the way our culture treated girls when she was young. And in many cases, and she pointed out specific examples, and it caused me to think back to when I was a kid in school. And I was a really good student. I was a really good student. But I always was number two. And number one was a girl named Phoebe Stone. Phoebe Stone was the smartest kid in northern Alabama. There was no doubt that she was the smartest kid. And I was a smart kid. I mean I got into Harvard. I got to do a lot of special things, so I mean I was way above average and I was lucky because of that. I had teachers that helped me and I had parents that helped me and I had all these things, the public school in northern Alabama, all these things. Adm. Richard kind of had the same thing. Our deputy went to a high school 15 miles from me, amazingly. But Phoebe Stone was always the best student.
Phoebe Stone has lived an amazing life, an amazing life. But because of our culture ‒ I couldn’t talk in front of people until I was about 20 years old. Literally, I could not talk in front of people. My parents would go to the school and they would try to get my teachers to somehow just make me talk in public. I could not talk in public until literally, I was 20 years old. But when I started talking in public, I was horrible. Just unbelievably horrible. Phoebe could stand up. They made me do a debate against her in high school, the teachers did, and I got trashed, literally trashed. And I knew I was going to get trashed when I went in because it was Phoebe Stone and she was smarter than me. And I just, I kind of gave up going in, to be honest with you. But she was spectacular.
But I just look at the way lives turn out. She could have done anything, but brought up in Alabama as a young girl in the 1960s and ‘70s, she became Ms. Alabama, and kind of the runner-up in the Miss America pageant. She married, had a spectacular family. But as she grew up, she separated herself from the world and she became a family person. And that was a great choice. It was a spectacular choice. She has led a spectacular life and she’s one of the happiest people you’ll ever see. I see her on the Grissom High School website, spectacular. But I always wonder why was it that the culture we live in pushed me in one direction, and pushed her in another direction?
And oh by the way, neither is bad. They’re just different. And that’s the way the culture was. But that’s the way the culture is pushing.
I look at her and she was the most talented person in my elementary school, junior high, and high school. And everybody knew it. But somehow it just pushed her.
So I’m sitting there with Sheryl Sandberg and she’s going through all of these things and all these things about how we look at women and how we look at minorities, how we look at people that are different than us, and I’m just thinking about all of my biases. I grew up in Alabama and I have biases. The other thing I noticed that I loved, and that’s why all the four stars and three stars got so excited, is that we actually work in an organization that when I come into that organization my biases actually disappear. I have biases outside the organization. As she was walking through what your biases are, and if I walk down the street in New York City I have biases. If I walk down the street in Huntsville, Alabama I have biases. But when I come into the United States Air Force, when I come into U.S. Strategic Command, my biases really do go away.
And all we’re trying to do is figure out how to build up the best and brightest that we have, and it doesn’t matter what race, color, creed, religion, sex, orientation, whatever it is, we just want the best and brightest to come forward, and it really is that kind of structure.
But then Sheryl Sandberg goes across to the Air Force Academy, best and brightest of our nation, and she stands up and talks about the same thing and it’s embarrassing. It is so embarrassing to see that. And I’m thinking to myself have I just fooled myself into understanding what the Air Force really is? Have I fooled myself into thinking that the Air Force is this place that all bias goes away. And it’s not true. The military is not that way. There’s bias everywhere we walk into. That’s why Lean In Circles are so important, because Lean In Circles are not just women. They’re women, men, all walks of life, all trying to figure out how to empower people to actually be the best they can in everything that they do. That’s what it’s all about. And it’s about identifying your biases and making sure that you try to eliminate those biases to allow people to reach their full potential. And it’s really hard, because everybody that comes into this world, everybody is built differently, and everybody comes up with a different set of biases.
If you’ve been in the Air Force or the Army or the Marine Corps or the Navy for any period of time, you’ve seen those biases.
So from my earliest time in the military I’ve had two rules as a leader, rules that I’ve shared at every change of command since I was a squadron commander here at Offutt in 1996 to the four star commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
The first rule is that I can handle any news that comes through my door except no news, because everybody makes mistakes. Bad things happen in our business. Tell me what they are, I’ll help you work through it. But if you choose not to tell me, if you made the decision that you’re going to kind of assume that it’s going to go away, bad news never goes away. So just come tell me and we’ll work through it together. But if you don’t tell me, then when it does come to fruition I’m not worried about you, I’m just worried about working the problem.
The second red line that I have impacts everything we were just talking about, and it’s a red line I’ve had since I came into the Air Force. I came into the Air Force and I told the Air Force I wanted to travel, see the world. I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. I go to school in Boston. I want to travel and see the world, first assignment, four years in Montgomery, Alabama. But what I found when I got to Montgomery was that the Air Force had a lot of overt racism in the United States Air Force in 1981, especially in Montgomery, Alabama. And it wasn’t long after George Wallace had just been Governor. George Wallace was the Governor when I was growing up. And somehow that had pervaded our United States Air Force. So I made the commitment that that would not stand in my Air Force. And every time I saw it, and I probably didn’t handle it as well, but I became aggressive, I guess, whenever I saw that, trying to eliminate that from my Air Force. From the time I was a lieutenant.
So my red line became, and it was that everybody that comes into this organization, at that time the United States Air Force, now United States Strategic Command, everybody that comes into that organization has made a commitment to something larger than they are, and because of that commitment they deserve to be treated with respect. And anybody that doesn’t treat their fellow airman, soldier, sailor, Marine with respect, I have no use for. I say then what is that? Because everybody that comes into our organization deserves to be treated with respect.
So when I first started saying that, it was all about racism. Then it’s morphed over the years to different things. It’s morphed into a commentary on sexual harassment, sexual discrimination. It’s morphed into men and women. It’s morphed into different kinds of pilots versus non-pilots, because if you notice, I don’t wear pilots wings. It’s been a discussion of so many things. But fundamentally it comes down to treating people the way they’re supposed to be treated, allowing them to come into an organization where they feel comfortable and they can grow to their whole potential, and then giving them the capabilities to grow, to reach that full potential, even if they don’t see that potential in themselves. Because if they can find that potential, that’s what creates the next leader, because the first job of a leader is to build new leaders. And we cannot forget that as we go forward.
So today is going to be an exciting day. We’ve got spectacular speakers coming up. I wish I could spend the whole day. The world will not allow me to do that. But this is going to be a fun day, an exciting day.
So I ask you whether you’re a young airman first class in the United States Air Force or whether you’re an old civilian ‒ sorry [Dr.] Leah [Georges] ‒ or an old O6 [military officer rank], everybody’s part of this organization. Everybody is part of this world that we’re trying to create a better world in.
Because fundamentally, when we come to work in U.S. Strategic Command, peace is our profession. That’s what we’re trying to create everywhere we go. We do that with some of the most horrible weapons ever built by man, and we hope to never be able to use them in anger, because if we do, the world is in a bad place. But in order to do that, we have to be the most powerful organization in the world. And everybody has to know that. Which means our people have to be the best people in the world, executing their mission every day, and it doesn’t matter who you are, whether the youngest or the oldest. You’re part of the organization and you have to feel that way. You have to grow into that structure. That’s who we are, and that’s what we do.
So I’m jealous you get to spend the whole day talking about it. I’m jealous you get to spend time with my wife, because that’s my favorite thing to do, and you get to spend the whole morning and lunch with my wife and I don’t, which is not fair. But it’s going to be a good day.
I’ll take a few minutes to answer questions that you may have. I know there were two people that said they had questions, so we’ll see if they’re brave enough to actually ask them in public now.
Question: Good morning, General. Lt. Fischer, STRATCOM Public Affairs.
I’ve only been in the command for three months, and one of the first things I discovered when I got here was how large and unwieldy the command was, even for a global combatant command, which inherently reduces speed and agility.
My question is, you’ve been here six months and with the restructuring coming up, what is your vision for the future shape or size of the headquarters?
General Hyten: The headquarters of the command has got to be a headquarters that matches the rest of the command. In the past, we’ve had a command that tends to say everything revolves around the headquarters. In some circles that’s referred to as the royal headquarters, where the headquarters is all seeing, all knowing, and therefore demands basically that the field do whatever the headquarters says.
The transition that has to happen in the headquarters is we have to transition to a servant headquarters. Some people don’t like that term, but I think the term servant headquarters defines exactly what it’s supposed to be.
That means, if you think about it, and [I’ll use] our son’s quote to make a point. Our son is 27, but five years ago, he was just coming out of college. We’re sitting at home, we’re having a discussion, and he looks at me and he says, I’d been a general for about five years. He looks at me and he says, Dad, I’ve watched you ever since you made general and I’ve realized something. You don’t do any real work anymore. And it kind of upset me because I work pretty hard, at least I think I do. But then he said something that’s most important. He said, you just have people.
If you think about it, at STRATCOM headquarters, unless we get to the worst day in the world’s history, the STRATCOM headquarters doesn’t do anything. Everything is done by the people that are in the field. Everything is done by the organizations that work for it. There’s 2,000 people in the headquarters, 182,000 in the field. It’s the 182,000 that do all the missions, all the work. Nuclear, global strike, space, cyber, missile defense, electronic warfare, analysis and targeting. It’s the people, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, that do all the work.
So the job of the headquarters is to serve those folks and make sure they have everything they need to do their job. And it’s not the job of those 182,000 to support the 2,000 in the headquarters.
So if you watch, and you read my commander’s intent, you’ll see that change happening now. You’ll see us changing from a royal headquarters to a servant headquarters and you’ll see me get a little annoyed sometimes when I see folks in the headquarters that are basically ‒ I always tell, like you’re a lieutenant. So I see lieutenants and captains, majors, commanders in the STRATCOM headquarters that think nothing about just tasking, I’ll just pick one, Air Force Global Strike Command. They’ll just task. So the lieutenant or the major, they’ll just task Global Strike Command. Without even thinking about it.
So think about what that lieutenant just did, nothing personal, lieutenant. I’m sure it’s not you. But you just tasked a four star Air Force general. Because he’s part of the royal headquarters, he doesn’t even think about it. The Air Force major, Army major, Navy commander, will not even hesitate about sending a tasker out, and he’s tasking a four star general to respond to him. That’s when you know you’re a royal headquarters and not a servant headquarters.
When he calls his fellow major, whoever, in Global Strike Command Headquarters and says how can I help you? That’s when he becomes a servant headquarters. And the interesting thing is the most powerful leadership tool that’s in that structure is a telephone, not a computer. Because computers make it real easy to task it out, ship it out, and the next thing you know, it’s on a four star’s desk in Louisiana.
Why not just pick up the phone and call and see what he needs? It’s so much easier just to pick up the phone. But somehow, we forget that, because leadership is about motivating and inspiring people to do a job. Leadership is about making sure people have the right things they need to do their job. And that’s skill sets, resources, equipment, everything that they need in order to do it. That’s what leadership is about.
Leadership is not about tasking somebody to do your job. And holy cow, we like to task other people to do our jobs.
Thanks for that question.
Question: Sir, could you share an example of failure in leadership, whether it was your own, what you learned from it, and how you moved on from it?
General Hyten: This will take me a minute. I’ll tell you my most important leadership story. It’s the thing that sticks with me. And this will run you five minutes over, so I apologize.
But it happened here at Offutt Air Force Base. Laura knows the story because she lived it.
So my first year in squadron command I came into a squadron and it was a historic Air Force squadron. I think it was the first space squadron in the United States Air Force, assigned to Strategic Air Command in 1962, an amazing organization. And I was so excited to be a squadron commander. I never thought I would get to be a squadron commander. I never did. I thought you know, the odds of me being a squadron commander are about zero. I’m a blind kid from Alabama. There’s no way. But I fell in love with the Air Force, and somehow I got to be a squadron commander. I figured this is it. This is going to be my only chance to be a commander, so I want to make the most of it.
So that first year, actually about the first nine, ten months, I was literally killing myself. I was working probably 16 hours days on average. I was never home for dinner at night. I was in the dorms. We had, the 251st Squadron, 100 first-term airmen. So for the civilians in the crowd, that means a lot of people in the organization between the ages of 18 and 21. You have an organization where 40 percent of your organization is under 21. You’re going to have some challenges.
So I was in the dorms on Saturdays and Sundays. And I was playing all the intramural sports. And, let’s see. I broke my ribs twice, one in intramural soccer playing goalie where a young kid ran me over; one where I fell through a hole in a Habitat for Humanity house. I came down with shingles, strep throat, the flu, all in the first nine, ten months. And overall, I made it a point of knowing everybody’s story in the organization. It was my job to know what they needed. It was my job of being the boss. So I was literally killing myself, and I’m not being a good husband and a good father. I’m not being a bad husband or a bad father, but I’m not there. So since I’m not there, I’m not being a good husband or a good father.
So one day we’re having a TQM meeting, a Total Quality Management meeting, and for those of you that remember that in the Air Force, I’ll just say I hated it. I hated it with a passion. I was on a rampage to get that out. But anyway, when we had the Quality Councils, they just never went well because it was about everything besides what was important. So I was frustrated, and I came back to my office and I’m sitting there frustrated, and all of a sudden the three senior NCOs [non-commission officers] of the organization who were master sergeants at the time, E-7s, came in. They knocked on my door. It was Master Sgt. Robby Robinson, Master Sgt. Jim Patton, and Master Sgt. Bill Roquel. That’s the MA [Maintenance] Superintendent, the DO [Director of Operations] Superintendent and the Chief of Plans, so the three leaders of the enlisted force.
They said sir, we see you’re frustrated. Why are you frustrated? I said well, I just can’t seem to get through to the airmen. I’m doing everything I can think of. I’m in the dorms every Saturday morning. I’m out on the sports fields. I’m walking with them. I’m here all the time. And the mission is going great, but man, we just keep having these behavioral problems. We keep having these issues. I can’t seem to get to the airmen, and it’s just frustrating the heck out of me. And they looked at me, and it was Bill Roquel, God bless him, he looked at me and he said sir, why don’t you just tell us. It’s our job to take care of the airmen, not your job. Your job is to be our commander. Your job is not to take care of every airman. If you would tell the NCOs what you want them to do, we will go do that and we’ll do it spectacularly well.
I looked at those three master sergeants, and I realized, and I knew it, because I had two Chiefs who took care of me when I was a lieutenant. I knew that that was the power of the force. I knew that delegating responsibility was important. But somehow when I became a commander for the first time, I lost it, for literally nine or ten months.
And so I made a commitment to myself right there on the spot that I was going to tell the NCOs what I wanted; I was going to tell the company grade officers what I wanted; I was going to tell the field grade officers what I wanted; I was going to tell the airmen what I wanted, all the way through. And then I would let them do their jobs and I would not do their jobs for them any longer.
And the most amazing thing happened. I started doing that that very day, and in the next year I was home for dinner every night unless the world was blowing up. I was going to all the kids’ soccer games. The kids were coming into the squadron and the squadron got to know Laura and Katy and Chris. And the other amazing thing is that that squadron, the next year, set every operational record that the command had ever seen, in its last year of existence. And it won the Richard Henry Award for the best squadron in the command; it won Guardian Challenge, the competition against all the space squadrons, missile squadrons, everybody. It won that. It set the operational record for most satellites, I won’t go into the details for the non-space geeks in here, but it was amazing. And I took a step back, and I realized that leadership is not about doing other people’s jobs. Leadership is about leading and doing your job. And when you do that, holy cow, organizations just take off.
So to this day I will be thankful to those three NCOs who took the time to come into the commander’s office and tell me, and remind me what the most important element of leadership is. And I’ll tell you what, I still see people that think they have to do everybody else’s job.
And here’s one of the hardest things about that. When you let people do their job, they’re going to make mistakes. And when they make a mistake, like I said a while ago, you actually have to use that as a teaching moment and allow them to continue to learn. But when you do that everybody starts taking care of everybody. The officers take care of the NCOs, the NCOs take care of the airmen, and it becomes an organization that is one and the same, and it doesn’t matter how large the organization is.
So I’ve applied that lesson at the squadron, group, wing, major command, and I’m applying it to the strategic command level because I fundamentally believe that’s the most important thing, is to empower people and not do their jobs for them.
And when you do that, a side benefit, which is huge, is you get balance back in your life.
So thanks for asking that question. It’s obviously my favorite question. But I tell you, Bill Roquel, Robby Robinson, Jim Patton, they changed my life. They made me a better leader. They taught me the most important lesson.
So you guys have a glorious day. I know Dr. George is coming up next. I’m sure he’s spectacular. And you have a lot of spectacular people today. So thanks for the time this morning. Have a glorious morning.