Stand by your decision. As a military judge, I was charged with making decisions that affected people’s lives and careers. I often had to quickly pull from my experience, my understanding of the facts and my knowledge of the law to make the final decision. I had to be confident even in difficult situations that I was making the right choice and stand by it.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beth G. Kubala. Beth serves as the Senior Director for Strategy and Performance for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. Her role is to provide program management, leadership, compliance expertise and creative effort to support strategic initiatives within the Community Engagement portfolio. Before joining the IVMF, Kubala retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel following 22 years of active service. She served in numerous staff and leadership positions throughout her military service, with her last assignment as a Military Judge while stationed at Fort Drum, NY. Kubala received her commission as a military intelligence officer from West Point. Following graduation, she served as a platoon leader, company executive officer, and battalion intelligence officer at Fort Hood, Texas. Selected for the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program, she attended law school and then transitioned into the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. As an Army lawyer, Kubala initially served as an administrative law attorney, ethics counselor, and prosecutor at Fort Hood, Texas. Later, while assigned to the Pentagon, she served as a legal advisor to the Army Inspector General, and then as a legal advisor to the Army Staff in the Office of the Judge Advocate General. From the Pentagon, she performed public affairs duties as the media spokesperson for the Military Commissions trials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During an overseas tour in Germany, she served as the Executive Officer for the U.S. Army Europe’s legal office. For her final assignment in the Army, she presided over military courts-martial cases as a Military Judge at Fort Drum, New York. Kubala is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point (B.S.), the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law (J.D.), and the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (L.L.M.). She is married to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Kubala and they have three children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was raised in Warrenton, VA, right outside DC. My dad was a federal government employee and Army reservist. My mom also worked for federal government on a small military installation. I have two younger sisters. I was very active in school and enjoyed sports. While I didn’t exactly grow up wanting to be in the Army, I always had an enthusiasm for being part of a team.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am the senior director for programs and services at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). We work on programs that help service members and their families with their transition following their military career. While we work on such a huge scale, I have a number of colleagues from the Army who are taking advantage of the programs we offer. That touch point, of watching those I worked alongside transition successfully, really brings me full circle.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
After high school, I felt compelled to do something more than a traditional college or university. I attended West Point in pursuit of a challenge. There, I was a student and athlete while learning to be a leader.
I commissioned as a second lieutenant and did first assignment at Fort Hood, TX, where I oversaw the mess hall and motor pool. Fort Hood is your typical Army base with Calvary units and aviation so I was fortunate to have a number of assignments. Over the course of my time there, I led a platoon of interrogators trained in different languages and served as an intelligence officer for an Apache helicopter squadron. From there I applied and was accepted into a program that sends military officers to law school. I attended law school at University of Missouri Kansas City for three years and then went back to Fort Hood where I used my newly minted legal skills as an ethics attorney and criminal prosecutor.
My next move was to Charlottesville, Virginia for advanced legal training. After that, I did a truly amazing tour at the Pentagon where I advised the Army’s inspector general on investigations. Then, I served as public affairs officer for the Guantanamo terror trials before heading back to the Pentagon as a staff attorney. After, we picked up and moved to Germany for two years where I managed the Army’s legal assets across Europe.
I finished my career at Fort Drum, NY as the base’s first female military judge where I presided over military criminal trials.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
One of the most surreal moments of my military career was during the Guantanamo terror trials. I was part of the team that helped conduct the trial from start to finish for an Australian member of the Taliban charged with war crimes. For those two weeks in Cuba I found myself on a Navy base in a tropical locale with members of the United States Department of Defense, the Australian government, a judge, prosecutors, defense counselors, members of the international legal community and tons of iguanas all over the courthouse steps. It was a true display of just how seriously our country takes it pledge to ensure justice is served no matter the circumstance.
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.
I had a friend from West Point who in addition to being a fantastic leader and soldier was also a gifted baseball player. After our time at West Point, he was so close to being drafted that even the Army was trying to figure out a way for him to pursue his athletic career while fulfilling his requirement to serve. His dedication to his country however was so great that he chose service over baseball. He went to flight school and became a helicopter pilot. His helicopter was eventually shot down in Afghanistan. He died in the crash but he died as pure a hero as anyone I ever met.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Like him, a hero is someone so intent on doing the right thing that they will forgo all other motives. Fame, fortune, reward — a hero doesn’t care about any of that. A hero instinctively takes the high road and does the right thing without pause.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
No, there are always opportunities for heroism big and small. In fact, taking the high road and doing what’s right even when it may go unnoticed is often one of the most altruistic ways exhibitions of true heroism.
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.)
Always look out for your team
- Any story from my military career supports this. There was never a day where I wasn’t part of a team working toward a common goal. As such, there was never a day where I didn’t feel supported. I know that my teammates knew I was there for them too.
Keep the big picture in mind
- Looking back, the mess hall and motorcade wasn’t exactly where I saw myself when I imagined military service. Remembering though that regardless of my role, I was always in it to serve, no matter the task, gave me the solid ground I needed to grow and achieve.
Small details matter
- Going back to the motorcade and mess hall, I definitely didn’t think at the time that what I was doing was critical to grand success. But, like anyone, soldiers perform best when well fed and you can’t go anywhere unless your vehicles can move. My role then, however small, was important to the overall mission.
Stand by your decision
- As a military judge, I was charged with making decisions that affected people’s lives and careers. I often had to quickly pull from my experience, my understanding of the facts and my knowledge of the law to make the final decision. I had to be confident even in difficult situations that I was making the right choice and stand by it.
Keep a sense of humor
- As I grew in the military and managed more people I found keeping a sense of humor made me more relatable and therefore a more approachable and effective leader.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Of course, learning how to work with different people, lead teams through unknowns, and find the solution that benefits the most people are all skills I honed in the military and continue to use today.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. 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?
Quite the opposite, I so enjoyed the support and comradery of the military that to adjust and thrive I chose to stay connected to the military and continue my passion for service in my current work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At the IVMF, we are always working on new and different ways to best serve military members and their families. Be it through creating a pathway to meaningful employment or helping them set up the bones of their new civilian life, everyone has their story and it is exciting to see our impact individually and collectively.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Keep the good of your people top of mind and good work will naturally follow.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Never let them see you sweat. Maintain your confidence and always show your team how dedicated you are to the path forward. Do that and regardless of size, your team will follow.
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?
Lieutenant General Flora Darpino was the first three-star female general in the JAG core. I worked for her at various times throughout my career and saw her manage the life of a dual military couple with two kids. She and her husband, also a JAG, juggled kids, life and work very well and I always looked to her as a model of how I could build a sustainable life with my husband, who was also serving, and our three kids. She served as an example of what I aspired to achieve all the while balancing competing priorities.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My experiences in the military translated easily to the IVMF. Before I was dedicated to ensuring members of our military were trained and units were ready. Now I am part of an organization that looks to ensure our military members and their families can successfully move from their military life to civilian life.
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. :-)
I would simply ask that everyone take an opportunity to meet someone currently serving. Learn about what they do and how it contributes to national security and protecting our country. Knowledge is power and a better, broader education of the country’s armed forces would be so powerful to our nation’s morale.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Go Army, Beat Navy. Ha! While this simple quote is, on the surface, about a historic rivalry it also highlights being part of a team, fighting fiercely and ultimately working together. Growing up and even today, we always want to beat Navy. Behind the scenes however, when our armed forces need to work together, these rivalries fall to the side and all our weight goes behind a common goal. These sort of rivalries are healthy. They build strong bonds and encourage stronger work.
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 :-)
For me, it would be Lieutenant General Caslen. He recently retired as the Superintendent of West Point and is now the Director of Athletics. During his tenure, he made incredible strides toward increased morale and collective success. He is a great leader and I would love to learn from him.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.