Heroes Among Us: “Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military” with Retired Brigadier General Michael Meese
Have a sense of humor. Leaders do not need to be uproariously funny, but they should have a sense of perspective so that they can see the irony and humor in many of the human situations they confront. Self-depreciating humor is particularly useful because it demonstrates that leaders do not take themselves too seriously and can maintain a sense of camaraderie among their team, even in the most trying circumstances.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned in the Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Meese, who served in the United States Army as a Brigadier General for 32 years. He served in a variety of strategic political-military positions including deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia for a total of 31 months and was the Executive Director of the Secretary of the Army’s Transition Team in 2005 and the co-director of the Department of Defense Panel on Commercialization. He is a graduate of the National War College, U.S. Military Academy, and earned his Ph.D., MPA and an M.A. from Princeton University. Michael also spent a number of years on the faculty at West Point, teaching economics and national security courses and serving as the Director of the Economics program. At the time of his retirement from the military, he was a Professor and Head of the Department of Social Sciences. He now works in the civilian sector as Executive Vice President of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA), a military financial services organization.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in California as the oldest of three children. When it came time for college, I was not sure if I wanted to be a lawyer or an engineer. Since I could not decide, I thought that learning about leadership would be helpful in any case, so I applied for and was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am now the Executive Vice President and Secretary of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA). We are the longest-standing non-profit organization taking care of the military and veterans. We provide financial services, including life insurance, financial planning and mortgages, as well as member and survivor services to ensure that every military family receives all the benefits they deserve.
Just this week, I met with a widow whose husband had died after a career of service in the Army. We were able to assist her with her survivor benefit payments, compensation from the Veterans Administration, life insurance benefits, and by being helpful, comforting supporters through all of the administrative and financial challenges involved when a member of the military dies. It does not happen in just one meeting, but we were patient and supportive over time to be sure that she understood her benefits and received everything that she deserves.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I went to West Point in 1977 assuming that I would be in the Army for the minimum commitment — just five years. I found that I really liked the people that you work with in the military and the important missions that you work on so I remained for a career of 32 years. That included 17 moves and being stationed in or deployed to California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Jersey, Washington DC, New York, Korea, Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the second half of my career, I was on the senior faculty at West Point, teaching cadets and doing economics and national security related policy work, which was a great way to both be involved in policy and teach the principles behind those policies to the next generation of military leaders.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
In 2007, I was one of the leaders of the team that helped General Odierno and General Petraeus develop the “Surge” campaign plan for Iraq. In spite of significant opposition, it was essential to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy to effectively accomplish America’s goals and to stop what was becoming an all-out civil war in Iraq. It took determined leadership, a clear vision, and an effective communication of that vision to everyone involved — both in Iraq and in the United States. When General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified before Congress in September 2007, it was essential that we were absolutely accurate, truthful and effective in everything presented so that Congress and the American people had the opportunity to see directly the hard-won, positive effects that the surge was having. As a result, the surge managed to stem the violence so that control of Iraq could be turned back over to its security forces, leading to an eventual withdrawal of US forces in 2011.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
The military, like other professions, is often a “family business.” Both my son and my son-in-law are in the Army. My son-in-law, Zach, is a Ranger platoon leader and, in November 2018, he was leading his Ranger platoon against significant Taliban targets in southern Afghanistan. In that operation, a rocket-launched grenade exploded near him, blowing off a significant part of his right calf and ankle and impacting his body with dozens of pieces of shrapnel. Even as he was wounded, Zach had the presence of mind to get his Rangers away from the area of danger so that they could continue with the mission.
The medical team put three tourniquets on Zach and a medevac helicopter pulled him out, in spite of taking hostile fire. Doctors in Afghanistan stabilized him with some initial surgeries, then he flew to Germany and arrived at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington 6 days after he was hit. His wife (my daughter) and their two children (age 5 and 2) took a “redeye” flight that night, so she was with him the next morning.
Zach has had over a dozen surgeries including two major ones where the surgeons took parts of his left leg and used it to rebuild his right calf, microscopically connecting the nerves and veins in amazing ways. After a month in the hospital and another month of intravenous treatment as an outpatient, he was able go home to Fort Lewis. He continues to recover there, and his prognosis is good — it’s likely he can recover much of his capability to serve in the Army.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
The hero in that story was not just Zach — it was everyone involved: His Rangers who protected him and applied the tourniquets; the helicopter pilots who pulled him out under fire; the doctors in Afghanistan who saved his life; the nurse in Afghanistan who lent Zach her cell phone so he could call my daughter; my daughter who packed a suitcase and got on a plane in an hour just to be there; the doctors at Walter Reed who pioneered limb-saving treatments; even the Delta airlines reservation agent who heard my daughter’s predicament and gave her the last three seats on the last flight from Seattle to Washington DC.
A hero is someone who does extraordinary actions — not for themselves — but to take care of others. When asked, most heroes say that they “are just doing their jobs,” but the training, dedication, sacrifice, empathy and willingness to act are what make a person a hero.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Not necessarily. There are many extraordinary circumstances where people have stepped in or stepped up to take care of others that did not involve life or death. It could be standing up for injustice, defending the defenseless, protecting those who need protecting or countless other extraordinary actions.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be Kind. When I was the Professor and Head of the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, our motto was “Be kind.” Being kind is not just a good life principle, it is essential to leadership. It does not mean “be soft” or “be spineless,” but to engage with subordinates with an eye toward how they are receiving your instructions, critique or discipline. When dealing with diverse teams with different perspectives, having a kind approach means valuing and maximizing the contribution of every member of the team.
2. Have a “Doctrine of No Surprises.” At West Point, my Department was extremely entrepreneurial and consisted of some of the most-talented, graduate-educated officers and civilians in the Army. They not only taught cadets exceptionally well, but helped address exceptionally challenging national security issues and became better leaders because of it. Since I empowered everyone to take risks, the iron-clad rule was that they would report back to me first, before I found out from someone else that something went terribly wrong. The corollary to the “doctrine of no surprises” is that I did not overreact when I learned that something went wrong. It helped us continue to take prudent risks, but to address issues quickly and head on when they went awry.
3. Listen. Especially as a person becomes more senior, they often talk more and everyone around them listens more. That may not be because the senior person became any smarter — it is just that they are now the boss. As a leader, even if you are the smartest person in the room (and often you are not), you will not become any smarter unless you make a conscious, deliberate effort to listen to others.
4. Have a sense of humor. Leaders do not need to be uproariously funny, but they should have a sense of perspective so that they can see the irony and humor in many of the human situations they confront. Self-depreciating humor is particularly useful because it demonstrates that leaders do not take themselves too seriously and can maintain a sense of camaraderie among their team, even in the most trying circumstances.
5. Leaders eat last. Especially in the field, it is not uncommon for an Army mess operation to run out of some food near the end. When they did, it was because of poor planning, unfair rationing of the food, greedy people eating first, or other problems — usually reflecting poor leadership. By eating last, leaders demonstrate to others that they will share all the hardships and, if anyone is going to be short on food, it will be them.
Do you think your career in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Absolutely. It taught me how to think strategically, lead other people to get the best out of them as a team, help the entire organization focus on a mission, and have a good sense of when and how to follow up to ensure that all important tasks are being accomplished.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I think everyone is changed by all experiences including, and perhaps especially, by their experience in the military. For most people, when they experience trauma, there is definitely post-traumatic stress that is significant and can be debilitating and long-lasting. However, many others experience post-traumatic growth where they learn from their experiences — even traumatic ones — and are better because of it. It is appropriate to recognize the challenges of post-traumatic stress, but also to recognize that there can be opportunities and cases of post-traumatic growth as well.
Having spent 32 months in combat zones, it was always important to me to stay grounded with my faith, family and friends and to focus on what I could learn and how I could grow, both personally and in my leadership duties after my deployments. Most veterans that I know do not think of themselves as victims of their experience, but as people who have had the honor of serving their country. They want to thrive in their personal lives to continue to enrich their communities and, ultimately, the nation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
With AAFMAA, we are working to help provide for the financial independence of every current and former member of the military. We are reaching out to attract more military and veteran families so that they can get affordable insurance, financial planning and mortgages that are specifically tailored to those who have served in the military. We educate those in the military on their benefits and work with every member’s family to ensure that they get all the benefits they deserve.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
The key is to get the right people, train and empower them, and then let them achieve tremendous results.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a strategic leader — that is a leader who is leading through other leaders — the key is to get the “big ideas” right and then communicate those ideas relentlessly through the organization. The larger the organization is, the more simple the concepts have to be so that everyone in the organization understands and can implement them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
General Dan Kaufman was my boss and mentor when I became a senior leader at the Military Academy at West Point. He selected and promoted me when I was much younger than my contemporaries and gave me more responsibilities than were probably warranted at the time. I was working on a particularly difficult organizational problem for the Department of the Army staff and sought his counsel. He reinforced to me the importance of talent management and having a process to select the right people. As he told me, “If you have the right people, the organization won’t really matter. And you can have the best organization in the works, but if you don’t have the right people, you won’t succeed!” He was right — people and effective talent management matter most.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have tried to repay some of the benefits that I have achieved by advising and mentoring military officers. I also have served on the Board of Regents and later as the Chair of Concordia College — New York. Concordia College is a great, small school with a big impact, where over 40% of the students are the first of their family to graduate from college. It is great to see the excitement in their eyes and those of their parents as they get their degrees and are empowered to join the world for a life of passion, purpose and service.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
There are many connections between the two main parts of my life — military and education. I think there would be great benefits if military veterans, most of whom are natural teachers, could seamlessly join education and potentially other non-profit organizations so that they could share their talents. Troops to Teachers and Troops to Education does some of that, but there ought to be a better way to directly connect the next generation of youth with those who have served in the military. Both groups — veterans and youth — would be better-off by understanding and working with each other more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
President Ronald Reagan kept one quote on his desk which reflects many of the leadership principles that I outlined above: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” I think it sums up a great approach that I have used in my life, which others should consider for their lives.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
In 2010, I worked for General Stan McChrystal in Afghanistan and have seen him only intermittently since. I have been impressed with his recent books and it would be great to connect with him again.
Thank you for joining us!