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Leadership Lessons from a General

Saturday, I had the opportunity to meet General William Boykin (ret.) at my college homecoming. You may not know him, but he’s had one heck of a career. Now he teaches at my alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College. (I couldn’t resist that free plug).

He agreed to answer a few questions on leadership.

What do you think is the most important leadership trait?

Leaders must possess and demonstrate a willingness to be a servant leader. That includes being willing to listen, empathize, and support subordinates. It means trusting subordinates and delegating authority as well as tasks. It also means holding them to high standards in the interest of the entire organization. You cannot be a servant leader unless you are willing to make tough decisions that are in the interest of the group as a whole regardless of whether those decisions are popular or not.

Who was your most influential mentor?

My most influential mentor was my father, an uneducated WWII veteran who demonstrated a deep respect for the nation and a willingness to stand for his principles.

What do you think young professional need to know to succeed in the federal government? Washington, DC? The Pentagon?

Young professionals today need to understand that public service is not about them but about the nation. They must learn to adapt and recognize that the first priority is about the needs of the nation, and not about their individual needs or desires. Remember that nothing in Federal service is permanent and things will change. Be adaptable and focus on making the best of each job. Realize that your day will come when you become part of the upper echelon and can do things your way. But until that day comes, adapt and contribute without compromising you values and principles. Know what your values and live them.

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Brandon Jubar

Excellent post, Sterling. In my agency, I haven’t seen much servant leadership; but when I have seen it, it’s been effective. I like much of what the General had to say, but I don’t fully agree with his final sentiment, which basically says: Don’t try to change the world until you’re in a position of power. Personally, I don’t see any problem with trying to change the world from wherever you happen to be in the hierarchy.