Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Delegate authority and empower subordinates” with Carla D. Bass and Chaya Weiner
Delegate authority and empower subordinates. At one point, the Air Force lacked a formal, professional development program for senior airmen. Again, in the context of “take care of your people,” I asked a team of my best senior enlisted troops to fill this void. They created a ground-breaking, 3-day course that was widely lauded and subsequently implemented by other units. Delegating and empowering was precisely the right approach for 3 reasons: 1) The senior enlisted team appreciated the confidence and trust displayed in their ability, 2) They were, in fact, the experts on training required for the senior airmen, and 3) The senior airmen recognized that our unit was creating for their benefit a program that existed nowhere else in the Air Force. The Air Force ultimately created and formalized a similar program.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla D. Bass. Carla served 30 years in the Air Force and retired as a colonel, one of the few women of her generation to do so. She is now completing her twelfth year with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, composing products sent to Congress and the White House. In 2017, she authored the multiple award-winning and highly acclaimed book, “Write to Influence!” and in June 2019 published a second edition. Carla now offers a variety of popular workshops based on her book and has presented at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of the Interior, National Intelligence University, privately owned companies, George Washington University and Bradley University, public libraries, and local high schools. From powerful writing to banish bureaucratic blather (for the workforce) to resumes, composing input for personnel reviews, and crafting essays for college applications … she covers it all — to rave reviews. From her earliest days composing and presenting daily briefings to the Director of the National Security Agency and throughout her career, the ability to write powerfully has been central to her professional success. Carla composed products for general officers, ambassadors, and congressional staff; hundreds of performance reviews; and scores of nominations for awards, congressional fellowships, and other competitive packages. In all instances, each word and every second of the reader’s time counted. While on active duty, Carla transformed her 480-person unit from the most losing in state-wide professional competitions into the one to beat. She developed her writing techniques, composed a handbook, and taught them to write. So successful was her program, she taught thousands of people for the next 15 years. Her battle cries are twofold: “Powerful writing changes lives” and “Powerful writing is the lifeblood of effective organizations.” Carla’s assignments included Hawaii; Washington, D.C.; Germany; Korea; Turkey; and Bulgaria, where she served as the Air and Defense Attaché. For more info, see www.writetoinfluence.net.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
The story begins with my grandfather, who emigrated from Norway in the 1920s. For that reason, love of country was integral to my family fabric. Patriotism was another dominant theme. My father served 30 years in the Air Force and retired as a colonel. I followed his footsteps, setting that course in 7th grade! Why? The U.S. was then engulfed in the Viet Nam War and Dad worked target intelligence in the Pentagon. Mom perpetually admonished, “Don’t question your father about his work–he can’t tell you!” When “they” installed a secure phone in my family room, I decided join the Air Force to learn what intelligence entailed.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I work for a federal agency as a contractor and have done so for 12 years. As a member of its Supply Chain Directorate, I drafted many products sent to the White House and Congress, relating to that topic and to protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure. Much of what this division accomplished contributed to and is reflected in the Federal Acquisition Supply Chain Security Act of 2018. Working in another division, my colleagues and recently I completed a strategic plan to guide implementation of cloud computing across several federal agencies.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
My Air Force career was a smorgasbord of fabulous intelligence assignments that spanned 30 years. Each was a distinct adventure. I served as the defense and air attaché to Bulgaria, meaning I was America’s senior military representative to our Bulgarian counterparts (the first woman to hold this position). I was selected to command a 480-person squadron and later a 2,700-person group. As Director of Intelligence for operations over northern Iraq, my staff and I provided threat briefings to pilots patrolling the airspace over that area. As an Air Staff division chief, I led a team of analysts, who briefed senior generals on adversary countries’ military capabilities and intentions. As a junior captain, I was the project lead for a prototype, real-time, airborne intelligence system and as a 1st lieutenant, I briefed daily intelligence to the Director of the National Security Agency. The related functional areas were equally and delightfully varied: programming and budgeting; tactical intelligence; strategic intelligence planning; executive officer to senior generals and; overseeing and supporting attaché offices in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. I learned from each of these assignments.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
When I assumed command of the 324th Intelligence Squadron, it was the most loosing unit in the All Air Force Hawaii quarterly and annual professional awards. Deserving members routinely lost because many supervisors could not compose compelling award nominations. I had to resolve this situation because influential writing correlated directly to career progression. I analyzed my own writing, developed my “Write to Influence!” methodology, composed a handbook, and taught the unit to write. We soon began sweeping the awards. Because the need was ubiquitous, I taught thousands of Air Force personnel for the next 15 years. The life lesson, “Powerful writing changes lives!” It correlates directly to success, personal and professional, by opening doors to opportunity that would otherwise remain closed. That realization led me to author two award-winning books and now conduct writing workshops for wide-ranging audiences.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
No, actions described as “heroic” do not always involve life and death, but they do involve risk.
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 have two stories. In the first, I almost died while dining with my husband and two school-age children. A piece of meat wedged in my windpipe. My husband lunged over the table and attempted the Heimlich maneuver … once, twice, to no avail. As precious seconds elapsed, I silently prayed, “Lord, not now, please. I have so much more to give!” The third attempt freed the blockage. Without doubt, my husband was and remains my hero.
In the second story, it is I who responded — please pardon, but this is a story worth sharing. While commanding the 324th Intelligence Squadron, I discovered many musically talented airmen and formed “The Blue Notes,” the only Air Force choir in Hawaii. That year, Headquarters Pacific Air Force (PACAF) planned a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Bob Hope; other celebrities; and 6,000 other people would attend. Our choir, included on the agenda, tailored a program based on music of the Andrew Sisters. Days prior to the event, the colonel in charge deleted the choir from the program. Objecting strongly, I skipped the entire chain of command and appealed directly to the Commander, PACAF. Result — The Blue Notes performed. Added bonus — unaware that Patty Andrews was in the audience, we were stunned when she asked to meet the choir. The Honolulu press captured the moment — Patty Andrews surrounded by the young troops, basking in the glow of her songs performed 50 years later; the troops equally entranced by meeting the legend, herself.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Qualities I associate with heroism: selflessness, courage, initiative, caring for others, and willingness to take risk — personal or professional. These attributes are intrinsic, which explains why people often disavow the moniker, “hero.”
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. Powerful writing is a fundamental leadership skill. The ability to write powerfully … to present a case with focused intensity … is intrinsic to successful leadership. This individual must be persuasive in products relating to a plethora of functional areas, e.g., long-range planning; budget proposals; communicating visions, goals, and objectives; public outreach; working the occasional miracle when “They” say “It can’t be done” and so much more. Powerful, influential writing undergirds them all.
I once needed a standout guest speaker to increase attendance at our Air Force birthday ball and reinvigorate esprit de corps for my 2,700 troops based in a joint military and civilian agency. So, I invited the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a goal many deemed impossible. I composed a one-page note explaining the situation, then rolled and wrapped it in camouflage net. He accepted! Attendance soared from 120 the previous year to 600 (maximum capacity) and a waiting list! They said, “It can’t be done!” … It can if you try and “Write to Influence!”
2. The +3/-3 Survey. When assuming leadership of an organization, ask each member to identify three strengths and three weaknesses of the organization. Anonymous input is fine. Correlate the feedback, noting the frequency with which each item is mentioned. Next, provide that information to the unit, prioritizing the problems you will tackle. Then, get to work! This tool conveys to individuals you value their insight and your sincerity by initiating action to resolve identified shortfalls. This technique paid tremendous benefits! Morale was atrocious when I arrived at one unit. Soliciting and responding to members’ feedback, we launched a litany of innovative people programs and, leveraging that good news, publicized the programs via the parent agency’s monthly magazine issued to its units worldwide. Within the year, our unit was standing tall and others were emulating our programs, benefitting their own people.
3. Delegate authority and empower subordinates. At one point, the Air Force lacked a formal, professional development program for senior airmen. Again, in the context of “take care of your people,” I asked a team of my best senior enlisted troops to fill this void. They created a ground-breaking, 3-day course that was widely lauded and subsequently implemented by other units. Delegating and empowering was precisely the right approach for 3 reasons: 1) The senior enlisted team appreciated the confidence and trust displayed in their ability, 2) They were, in fact, the experts on training required for the senior airmen, and 3) The senior airmen recognized that our unit was creating for their benefit a program that existed nowhere else in the Air Force. The Air Force ultimately created and formalized a similar program.
4. Strike the “write note.” Send personalized note cards to people in the organization to recognize joyous occasions, e.g., birthdays and promotions, and sad occasions, as well. People appreciate this kind gesture, which speaks volumes about the leader. Word about this special touch spreads throughout the ranks with the additional benefit of helping to unify the organization. I learned this technique as a lieutenant from Colonel James Clapper who subsequently retired as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
5. Manage by terror — please don’t! As a junior officer I worked directly for an individual whose management style consisted of screaming and sarcasm. Exposed to this stressful work environment for a year impacted my health, sending me vomiting in the rest room and in hives to the emergency room. The irony — this was an honorable gentleman. Years later, I asked him, “Why?” He replied, “I saw your talent and wanted to develop it.” Hmmmmm. Lessons learned? How not to treat others.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Undoubtedly. The military honed my skills in strategic thinking and writing, which prompted my second battle cry, “Powerful writing is the lifeblood for successful organizations.” Persuasive communication is required to justify additional resources, defend budgets, build support for an issue, attract talented job applicants, win contracts and grants, market products and services, broadcast good news, compete people and organizations for awards, and communicate with senior-level leadership and governance bodies. In each case, a well-crafted message often tips the balance between success and failure. Beyond this, the military taught me to frame a winning argument and to strategically execute a meeting in which competing viewpoints would be fervently expressed.
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?
I retired prior to the dramatic increase in operations tempo and frequent deployments to combat zones. I urge everyone to support those who struggle with difficulties related to deployments.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The second edition of “Write to Influence!” was published in late June 2019. I’m continuing to publicize my writing methodology, exposing it to as many people as possible. That includes giving interviews on radio and podcasts, writing articles for major publications, and developing new workshops as requested.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
I offer the advice my father gave when commissioning his 2nd lieutenant daughter:
- Stay focused on the mission (don’t get caught up in office drama)
- Take care of your people; they will take care of you
- Always keep your sense of humor.
I add to this:
- Learn to write powerfully, this is a fundamental leadership skill
- Empathize with members of your team; consider situations and issues from their perspective
- Have the courage to adjust your position based on new information or subordinates’ input … and thank them for their suggestions.
- Take time to play as a group … celebrate accomplishments.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
1) Communicate! Walk the spaces, sit down and chat with your people at all levels in the organization. Get to know them and visa versa. If the organization has shift workers, visit them on the midnight shifts (bring cookies) and encourage other leaders in that supervisory chain to do similarly. Send an annual or perhaps quarterly message to the workforce, we called this a “Commander’s Intent” in the military, to apprise them of the organization’s recent achievements and your goals for the coming period. Provide venues for the staff to communicate to the leaders, something besides the comment box, which I think is often ineffective. Hold regular staff meetings; but, keep them as short as possible. Less is definitely more!
2) Take care of your people! Hosting events and include people from the lowest echelons in addition to your more senior-level staff. I always invited my supervisors two levels up and some of my most junior airmen. Provide opportunities for professional development. Ensure the most deserving people are promoted. Take time to submit people and the organization for awards and recognize subordinate leaders that do so. Then herald the good news, highlighting accomplishments of individuals and the organization. Everyone likes to be part of a winning team.
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?
Full credit goes to my parents for the incredible foundation they provided. From my father, I learned patience, persistence, attention to detail, submitting subordinates for awards and other recognition, and maintaining focus on topics at hand. My mother instilled the art of entertaining and know-how in throwing social functions, a skill I employed often in chairing large-scale military events. She also conveyed a love of communication (among her many other incarnations, Mom was a radio show talk host, newspaper columnist, published author of two books, and college instructor). Her prevailing philosophy to which I still adhere was “There is no such word as “can’t.” Mom also issued this challenge, “Shoot for the stars then go get them! Anything is possible!”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I authored my award-winning book “Write to Influence!” (two editions) and teach workshops to wide-ranging audiences: government agencies, NGOs, universities, corporations, and private businesses. I do this for four reasons: As addressed above, powerful writing changes lives and is the lifeblood of successful organizations. Third, for students seeking to enter or newly arrived in the workforce, I offer this advice: “The ability to write forcefully is central to your personal and professional success. Employers eagerly seek individuals who write well, a rare skill nowadays. You probably spent years (and significant funds) developing expertise in your chosen field. Spend a fraction of that time honing your writing skills — it will yield lifelong benefits.” And fourth, I strive to help the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics communities. Program funding is often awarded to those who tell the most gripping story, translating job-related jargon into clear language. A winning proposal must be transparent, understandable, and persuasive. Brilliant ideas are often bypassed for want of clear, concise, compelling presentations.”
This journey (the book, my workshops, blogs, podcasts, etc.) is in addition to my “day job.” I still defend our country, working for a federal agency, composing products sent to the White House and Congress. How do I juggle it all? Quite simply, “Write to Influence!” is a calling. I know from scores of testimonials, reviews, and endorsements that “Write to Influence!” empowers people. Therefore, I strive daily to bring it to them.
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 want to see academia embrace my approach to powerful writing. Students in high school through those in advanced degree programs often use word count as a criterion to complete an assignment. They often understandably calculate … a little meat and lots of fluff equates to “job done.” This approach develops precisely the wrong muscles to succeed in the professional workplace. My driving principle is simple, “All authors are constrained by two factors: time and space. The author who leverages those best often wins.” The reader’s time is fleeting, measured in seconds. Physical space is often constrained, e.g., above-the-fold on a web page, restrictions in grant submissions, or space demarcated on government forms for input to performance reviews. The goal is to make each word count and every second of the reader’s time play to your advantage.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mary Poppins! “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find that fun and snap the job’s a game!” I love this for three reasons: 1) It helps retain perspective, 2) It resonates my father’s advice to “keep your sense of humor,” and 3) It reflects my passion for all things Disney. I leverage this quote in my writing workshops to shed new light on writing, a task some consider onerous. Writing is simultaneously a scavenger hunt, a game of poker, photography, and painting!
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 :-)
I would love to dine with Oprah and provide her a copy of the second edition of “Write to Influence!” I perceive her as selfless; audacious; decisive; empathetic; caring; and, despite the global adulation, down to earth. She identifies and evaluates a need and, if judged appropriate, matches resources to help resolve it. Moreover, the meal is bound to be healthy. Why is this important? On the backside of 59 years of age, I crept up to a size 1X and was horribly overweight due to years of long days in the office bookended by lengthy commutes. Rum and cokes and cosmopolitans also contributed to this predicament. Well, I decided “Enough!” So, armed with music by Guaraldi (of “Charlie Brown” fame), a tread mill, and revised eating habits, I dropped 60 lbs in the course of one year. That was three years ago, and I haven’t regained a bit. Finally, I attended Purdue North Central when Oprah was beginning her show in Chicago. I recall enormous billboards bearing a simple message placed along roadsides in northern Indiana, “Oprah’s coming!” Everyone, including myself, wondered, “Who’s Oprah?” Gotta love it!
Thank you for these great insights!