Leadership born of character, general tells Norwich audience

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey speaking at a lecture titled “Leadership of Complex Organizations” in the Plumley Armory at Norwich University on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey speaking at a lecture titled “Leadership of Complex Organizations” in the Plumley Armory at Norwich University on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

NORTHFIELD — You don’t have to be a genius to be a leader, a prominent terrorism analyst said Tuesday.

“The first thing you don’t look at is intelligence, which is overrated,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey told an audience at Norwich University. “The first thing you look at is character.”

McCaffrey, a security and terrorism analyst for NBC News, added that you don’t need to be smart to make decisions. Instead, you need a good team. He said though it helps to be smart, many senior leaders are not.

“They have learned to surround themselves with great people and they’ve empowered them and developed them. If you’re smart and you start assembling a team and developing and nurturing them, you’ll get push up higher than you ought to go,” he said. “Certainly, I’m a living example of that.”

McCaffrey presented a lecture titled “Leadership of Complex Organizations” to Norwich graduate students and the public. The appearance was part of the Norwich’s Todd Lecture Series and was hosted by the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

McCaffrey, who also owns a consulting firm, BR McCaffrey Associates, was a four-star general who served four combat tours and earned three Purple Heart medals.

McCaffrey said leadership is not as simple as setting up a traditional bureaucratic model. Instead, leadership means earning the trust and respect of your employees.

“You’ve got to get out of your office, if you’re actually in charge of your enterprise, and go where the problem is occurring,” he said. “It’s tempting to stay in a heated, lit environment with perfect information on multiple computer screens and believe that you’ve got the point of what’s going on.”

In fact, he said many promotions are made based on an assessment of one’s character and not one’s credentials. In the Army, this means setting an example like eating last and jumping into the helicopter for battle first, he said.

McCaffrey said authority must be decentralized and fluid. He said that sometimes senior leaders must make quick decisions on the ground under imperfect conditions.

Translating that to the civilian world, McCaffrey said modern technology creates the illusion that managers of organizations know what is occurring on the ground from their office.

“You’ve got to get out of your office, if you’re actually in charge of your enterprise, and go where the problem is occurring,” he said. “It’s tempting to stay in a heated, lit environment with perfect information on multiple computer screens and believe that you’ve got the point of what’s going on.”

McCaffrey said that Norwich has a reputation of molding students with leadership skills and good character.

As part of the university’s online graduate degrees in leadership and business, students are offering solutions to businesses around the state. For example, the Special Leadership Summit allows students to sit at a table with business leaders to discuss solutions to their problems.

Daphne Larkin, assistant director of communications at Norwich, said the discussion serves as a mini-think tank of 10 to 12 people and prepares students with the skills to enter the private, public or military sector.

Larkin said the university’s online Master’s of Business and Administration program is preparing students to solve real problems. For the past two years, MBA students have partnered with Fletcher Allen Health Care to help manage Fletcher Allen’s Patient Record and Information Systems Management Program by transferring paper medical files to an electronic database.

Larkin said these programs provide students with the experience to pursue other opportunities outside the military.

John HerrickJohn Herrick

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