Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “ A nation without a vision perishes, and it is the same for businesses, too.” with Dr. Charles L. Stuppard and Marco Dehry
Have a vision. Everything is mental before becoming physical. It all starts in our mind. A nation without a vision perishes, and it is the same for businesses, too. Leaders need to know and understand where they want to go in order to create or discover the path.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Charles L. Stuppard, the General Manager of Canopy Defense, a subsidiary of Bambu Global, developer of electromagnetic solutions that ensure the safety and efficiency of military personnel and assets, enabling our military personnel to return home, uninjured and safe. Dr. Stuppard, who served more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy, had command of the first joint Navy and Army base — Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, VA, home of the Navy SEALS and one of only 12 Joint Bases in the nation. Dr. Stuppard began his professional career as an Aerospace Design Engineer prior to joining the Navy. He subsequently served on six warships including USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) as Commanding Officer, deploying to the Mediterranean as Surface Strike Group Commander. He also served in various positions of leadership prior to completing his military career as a Navy Captain as part of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. He was in the Pentagon on 9/11. Dr. Stuppard holds a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering degree from Cornell University, a Masters in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and a PhD focusing on leadership and technology from Salve Regina University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born and grew up in Haiti during the Kennedy years. We used to get a lot of tourists visiting the country back then. Of all people I remember seeing as a child, the Americans were the friendliest. Never did I dream that, one day, I would grow up to be one!
In 1977, after graduating from high school, my family and I emigrated to New York to pursue greater opportunities. I attended Rockland Community College and was elected president of the student union before graduating. I then transferred to Cornell University and graduated with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. I am now the president of the entire Cornell ’82 alumni class. Thirty years after graduating from Rockland, I walked across the stage as that year’s main commencement speaker following Senator Chuck Schumer’s introductory remarks.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
At Canopy Defense, I oversee a team that develops solutions that encompass six broad technology areas: signature management coatings, heat reflecting cool paint, high efficiency biofriendly LED lighting, photoluminescent technologies, SafeSightTM for light conversion into IR and dynamic camouflage.
My experience in the Navy prepared me well to lead Canopy Defense. It is important to me to find new technologies that can make life safer for our military personnel. My experience managing a military installation with more than 20,000 sailors and my years sailing the world’s oceans, led me to understand the infrastructure and operational needs of our military, ranging from planes and ships to land-based facilities to the electronic devices carried by personnel while on missions.
My focus now is to discover challenges and applications that our technologies can solve. We were recently awarded a fast-track contract by the U.S. Air Force during their first ever “Pitch Day” to further develop our SafeSight light conversion technology. SafeSight can save lives by eliminating visible light from digital devices and headlights when not required. That technology converts visible light to a tuned Infrared Red signal visible only under advanced night vision technologies.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
It’s hard to believe that only seven years after leaving Haiti, I was in the cockpit of a U.S. Navy jet as a student naval aviator. After serving on several warships, I worked in the Pentagon and on 9/11 was serving on the Joint Staff as an action officer working European Politico-Military affairs. I served as Captain of the most technologically advanced warship, the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), deploying to the Mediterranean Sea to prevent terrorist operations; and later served as a Task Group Commander serving a force of 10,000 sailors fighting the global war on terrorism.
I spent over 30 years in the Navy, retiring as a Captain, having had four commands: the lead Aegis class destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51),The first Joint Army/Navy base, a Special Task Group during the Global War on Terrorism in the Middle East, and the Naval Forces Division in Saudi Arabia. I finished up as a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
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 my favorites is that of Seaman Wilson. I was captain of the ship, and Seaman Wilson was a young man who had enlisted in the Navy. After his first time underway at sea, he requested to get out of the Navy because he was getting seasick and missed his family. I spoke with him personally in the presence of his chief and then denied his request to quit.
A few days later, I picked up a phone call in my cabin; it was Seaman Wilson’s mother telling me the young man was afraid for his life and requesting that I let him come back home. I said, “Ma’am, we have several young men on this ship, and they are all doing well. I promise you that, as captain, I will take good care of your son, if you only allow me to teach him. And, if at any time, I feel that I am failing him, I will call you to discuss options.” She agreed and Seaman Wilson continued to learn and move forward.
Months later, after our deployment to the Mediterranean, I detached from the ship, and Seaman Wilson was still doing well. A year later, I was on my way to the Middle East and was having lunch at the Navy Exchange in Norfolk when I saw a young man walking towards me. He said, “Captain, captain, do you remember me?” It was Seaman Wilson. He said, “I finished my first tour on the ship, was made Sailor of the Quarter and I am now heading to another ship as a third-class petty officer,” a more advanced rank. I congratulated him, and as we departed, he said “Captain, if it was not for you, I would not be here today. I made it because you believed in me when I did not even believe in my own self.”
I wished him the best as he went to his new ship, and I to the war zone as we both continue to protect and defend our Constitution, the one document that has allowed us to be one of the greatest nations on earth!
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.
Yes, I saw and met heroes all the time. I just told you about one: Seaman Wilson! To me, a hero is not only those who are killed in combat like Medal of Honor Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez (who was killed in the Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War) whose mother I know personally. A hero is not just someone who rises above the occasion when the going gets tough and jumps on a grenade. A hero is also one of the countless unknown soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen; our first responders who perished in New York City as they ran towards danger to save the lives of others; and the little girl who emerged out under a slab of concrete after four days during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and told CNN’s Anderson Cooper “I was not afraid!” For me, those are examples of being a hero!
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero is a regular person who does or says something that is above and beyond what others in similarly difficult circumstances cannot even dare to do or say. Most heroes remain unknown. Heroes are common people doing uncommon things.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
That may make great in action movies but, based on my definition, the answer is: NO!
There are small and big acts of heroism every day, with people choosing to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult, without expecting recognition.
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.)
The five leadership lessons I learned during my military service are:
1. Cherish every moment. You never know if you will live to see tomorrow. I was with Fireman Anderson (name changed to protect his family) on a Friday in 1987 just before he left to see his girlfriend. Unfortunately, he was struck by a car while on a motorcycle that evening. I had ordered him to clean his work area before he departed. I feel horrible that was my last interaction with him before he died.
2. Give thanks for the little things in life. Without the little things, there would be no big things. I remember September 10, 2011, a day like any other in the Pentagon, an ordinary early fall day. The next day changed everything. I lost friends in the terrorist attack. Memories that remain are the seemingly insignificant moments we had together, maybe going out for a cold beverage or a meal somewhere in a foreign port.
3. Have a vision. Everything is mental before becoming physical. It all starts in our mind. A nation without a vision perishes, and it is the same for businesses, too. Leaders need to know and understand where they want to go in order to create or discover the path.
4. People are the backbone of any organization and the secret to success. It is all about people. As Captain of a ship, I learned that if you take care of the people who report to you, they will take care of the ship and of each other. You can’t lead like Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty, whose crew famously mutinied and expect to be able to complete your mission at 100 percent.
5. Take care of yourself and your shipmates.
If the Captain (or CEO) is sick or mentally unfit, then the ship (or the company) suffers. To take care of others, one must be physically fit first — go to the gym, exercise! On the spiritual and mental plane, “principles” are the guiding lights for a leader. Be true to your principles and disregard naysayers. Leaders must find ways to handle distractions and detractors and protect their direct reports from interference. We need to stand firm and believe in ourselves and the mission.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Definitely! During my time in the Navy, I learned universal principles of leadership, coupled with people skills and technological expertise. The military places its leaders under stressful situations as they develop allowing corporate leaders with military experience to withstand the high stress of the job.
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?
Some people are scarred for life after their experience in the military, and it is the heavy, and sometimes tragic, price that we pay to protect and defend a most special gift left by the framers. The various military services and the Veterans Administration are addressing the issues with the budget and the various priorities and options they have. Most of us struggle after deployments and certain operations, and we see it as our sacrifice for a grateful nation. The services have several venues to help those in need. My transition to civilian life has been greatly enhanced by the support and help I have received from mentors and friends. The importance of having a mentor or being a mentor cannot be overemphasized — what goes around comes around! It is also important to give back by volunteering time, efforts and energy to various organizations dedicated to helping our veterans and others in need.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m excited to work for Canopy Defense, a high-tech company in Greater Boston. Our solutions are based in the field of signature management reduction. We create technologies that ensure the safety and efficiency of our military personnel and assets. Our approach has been validated by the U.S. Air Force’s fast-track contract, which will directly advance the commercialization efforts and provide in-field samples to the Air Force to test in real-world situations. We are focused on the next phase and dedicated to getting these life-saving technologies into the hands of our military markets and beyond.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Leaders must recognize that technology, processes, and regulations exist in order to make a more perfect union and enhance the quality of life on earth. Without people, there is no technology, no process, no regulations — therefore, we should all tend to the people first. Train your team, believe in your team, give your people clear responsibilities and authority to make good decisions and most of all, hold them accountable and your team will thrive.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
A large team is made of individuals — so you have to make contact on an individual basis; that’s the lesson I take away from Seaman Wilson. You also must account for team dynamics; with the right dynamics, a less talented team can win a championship while a team loaded with talent may not make it to the championships.
My best advice is to provide appropriate training to each new team member on expectations and deliverables and hold them to point. Treat team members with respect and dignity. Provide valuable feedback and trust them — until proven otherwise.
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?
I have so many that I do not know where to start. I will start with my mother. When I first came to America, my first job was to clean a movie theater. My older brother was supposed to take me to work for my very first day and I reminded him of that the night before. He went out to party, stayed out late, and when I woke him up at 0400, he said he was too tired, he was not going. I had been in this country only for a week or so and did not know my way around. I woke up my mother; she got up and together we walked about a mile or so to the theater. I was on time and finished up as she waited for me and we walked back. That was before Uber! From that experience I have learned about dependability and trust, and the value of our words.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have tried to bring goodness by taking care of the thousands of people the Navy had put under my charge, ranging from 325 personnel in a warship, to 10,000 in the war, and to 23,000 on the Joint Base; not including the various friends and families that I came in contact with on a daily basis.
Tweaking a quote by Garrison Keillor, my philosophy has always been “Be Good and Do Good Work!” These are five simple words and a powerful concept, one I shared with my command and people I know. I have tried to zap everyone I meet with positive energy. I am particularly proud that several friends have asked my permission to use that same philosophy for their own commands.
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 want to provide education so there’s 100% literacy for everyone — because prejudice will be conquered only when everyone is freed from ignorance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is “Be Good and Do Good Work!” I believe that people want to be good but sometimes we all need encouragement. I also believe in the power of being proud of the work you’re doing. The organization will not be very effective if people do not feel good about their role.
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 :-)
That person would be Bill Gates because he has realized his full potential for himself and his family. With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has become a legend by going above and beyond to help others realize their full potential. He is a hero — he is my hero!
Thank you for joining us!