Army’s Top Officer Visits HKS Forum


By Ted Zagraniski

Not for the first time, the Army’s top officer paid a visit to the JFK Jr Forum here at HKS last week. General Raymond T. Odierno, presently the United States Army Chief of Staff, is no stranger to our Forum; he has been here before. What made the general’s most recent visit different was its format. Instead of a keynote address, Gen. Odierno sat down for a conversation on leadership with David Gergen, noted CNN political analyst, HKS Professor of Public Service, and Director of our own Center for Public Leadership.

Significant among the many points covered by Gen. Odierno in the one hour and ten minute event were six keys phrases. These phrases do not apply only to the Army, or only to the military, but could be valuable take-aways for any current or aspiring leader in the public sector. Gen. Odierno is, after all, a public sector leader with 37 years of experience and a man who was once the personal military advisor to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

The first three phrases, all beginning with “c”, might be thought of together as a framework upon which great leadership is built. First is competence, which Gen. Odierno explained meant not just knowing your own job, but knowing your profession, your organization, and your operational environment broadly. Second is commitment, namely the ability to orient one’s vision towards the public good (above the self) as well as the will and perseverance required to see that vision through to achievement. Third is character, into which Gen. Odierno poured the personal attributes necessary to live one’s professional life to a high moral, ethic, and legal standard, and to which one’s peers and subordinates can aspire as a positive example of not only leadership but also humanity.

The subsequent three phrases were less alliterative, but no less impactful. These phrases came as a response to an audience member who asked the general what lessons he had learned from nearly four decades of service to his country. Gen. Odierno reflected briefly and then listed the following: learn from others, challenge assumptions, and lead change. Learning from others is vital, he said, because you are never in a position to know everything about a situation. Challenging assumptions, he continued, meant not only challenging your subordinates’ assumptions underpinning their plans and recommendations, but also challenging your own assumptions about yourself and the world around you. Healthy challenges to assumptions leads to mindfulness and curiosity, which in turn drive continuous self-improvement. Finally, Gen. Odierno explained, to lead change meant to develop your own agility so that you as a leader are prepared to drive your organization to pivot off of opportunities presented by circumstance. Leading change also meant being mentally ready to gather up your organization and bring it into the future.

General Raymond T. Odierno, a native of Rockaway, NJ, has served as the U.S. Army’s 38th Chief of Staff since September 2011. He has leadership experience at every level in the Army over the past 37 years, including five combat tours in Iraq and Kuwait.

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