Monday, February 06, 2012

Insights with Eric T. Olson (Part 1)

Eric T. Olson

Ours are revolutionary times. Not so much for the extent of turbulence
and disruption as because of the emergence of a significant number of thoughtful and aware people who see more clearly the world as it is and are not satisfied with it. - Robert Greenlean, (The Servant as Leader, 1970)

Eric "Rick" Olson has been a servant leader for more than forty years. Most of these years have been in the military and in places such as Germany, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2000, as a brigadier general, he became the 67th Commandant of the US Military Academy, West Point. Two years later he received his second star and moved on to command the 25th Infantry Division and all Army forces in Afghanistan. He was selected for promotion to Lieutenant General, but in a surprising move, he opted to end his career and move into civilian life. He served as Vice President MPEG LA (China) where he was responsible for the initiation of the first-ever effort to promote intellectual property rights and a patent license model in China. August 2006 to August 2007 found him at the US Embassy, Baghdad providing guidance and coordinating activities for provincial reconstruction. He then served as Chief of Staff and Special Advisor to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Currently he is the director of strategic communication for the Child, Adolescent, and Family Behavioral Health Office (CAF-BHO), which manages and develops programs supporting military kids and families for the US Army.

Our path's first crossed in 1968, when we stood above the Hudson River and were sworn in as new cadets (plebes) at West Point. Following a three-month initiation (then called Beast Barracks) to the rigors of the Academy we were assigned as company mates. Over the next four years we became friends, and ever since then we've stayed in touch. Recently, I asked Rick if he'd be willing to be interviewed for The Ronin Post. His reply, "I'd be honored."

He should write his autobiography, a sentiment shared by a number of our classmates. If there's a stand-up guy, a person who is not only solid and smart but someone who takes time to examine the practicality of principles and perspectives, including those vastly divergent from his own, a person who cares about people and at the same time understands how to move decisively forward in the face of fear - then this is Rick Olson.

Join me now for Insights with Eric T. Olson.

Allied Ronin: You've had an incredible career. My guess is that there is still plenty in your future. But to begin with I'd like you to look back through the formative years that were your 1950's and 1960's. What was it like for you as a young person growing up and living in the family, the school and the community that you did?

Rick: I grew up in a "normal" community and had little exposure to the Army or any kind of military way of life until attending West Point. That said, my family was a stable one, I was the beneficiary of a solid public school education, and the whole community where I spent my formative years was characterized by a commitment to the importance of values and the notion that each individual had a responsibility to make a contribution to society-- that "growing up" involved embracing that responsibility and preparing to meet it.

Allied Ronin: On July 1, 1968 you stood on a grassy field, swore an oath, and became part of the West Point Class of 1972. What other college options had you considered? What influenced you to eventually decide on attending the Academy?

Rick: In high school, I ran in a circle of high achievers, and when it came to applying to colleges we all pretty much targeted the same small circle of schools-the Ivies as a first pick and local state universities as our "safe choices". Our high school had a few alumni who had attended the military academies, so it occurred to some of us (two in my HS graduating class) to take a shot at West Point.

In the end a high school classmate (who was also a lacrosse and soccer teammate and a good friend) and I chose West Point for pretty much the same reason: we wanted a challenge that went above and beyond the normal college experience. Speaking for myself, I had also begun to formulate in my own mind some vague notion of what selfless service to the Nation entailed and a belief that fulfillment would involve more than just rising in the corporate world, starting my own business, or making money. West Point just seemed like the right thing to do.

Allied Ronin: How would you describe cadet life of the late 60's and early 70's? On the one hand as one guy living inside a very peculiar system; and on the other hand as a young man living during a unique time of the United States - Woodstock, Apollo 11, Watergate, the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, and what is known as "The Cold War" - how would you summarize this for you? What lessons did you learn about life and leadership from the experiences of this time?

Rick: I think too much can be made of the contrast between the life we lived at West Point in the late 60's and early 70's and what was going on "outside the gates". True, we didn't grow out our hair and put on bell bottoms, but we were not isolated from the ideas, political or societal trends, or spirit that characterized the larger American society at the time, and isn't that what that era was really all about? However, many of us who had chosen to attend the Academy at that time were probably naturally predisposed to challenge and question the direction that our civilian counterparts seemed to be choosing. Our view was that much of what was happening seemed negative and destructive-perhaps long on highlighting problems but short on solutions. If anything being at West Point at the time seemed to harden our resolve to look for constructive ways to solve problems, and perhaps to lead for positive change.

Allied Ronin: I believe that if we look we find that we all have had profound personal experiences, some large and others small, that we could call "most influential." What were a few of yours in your early career? Why were these so influential? And now, looking back, what would you say about these experiences and what they have meant to your life and the lives of others?

Rick: Rather than citing a specific incident let me give a brief description of a general situation. My first assignment as a young second lieutenant shaped an attitude and underscored a set of principles that prevailed through my entire career. The early 70's were hard years for the Army. The "hollow force" presented a wide range of challenges that we young officers and noncommissioned officers had to deal with: the shadow of Vietnam, draftee soldiers who wanted nothing more than to finish their careers and get home, broken and worn equipment, inadequate budgets that resulted in scarce training opportunities and the like. The lesson that we learned as we dealt with these challenges was that strong leadership and teamwork were essential to overcoming even the most difficult obstacles. Innovative and dedicated leaders who built, motivated, and led strong teams proved to be successful in even the toughest situations. That lesson proved to be useful to me at every level as my career continued over subsequent years.

Allied Ronin: There was a time when you had a horrible bicycle accident. I heard that during surgery you flat-lined. Is this so? Can you talk about that, how the accident happened, what your experiences were at the time and the hospitalization, and during your recovery afterward? What you've learned as a result about yourself, about life, about people and about relationships.

Rick: Well, not exactly flat-lined, though that makes for a better story! Nonetheless, there were periods of difficulty during the surgery after the accident and the subsequent recovery that the doctors considered life threatening. One lesson I learned from the experience is that you should always wear a helmet while bike riding! In all seriousness, the principal remembrance that I have from this experience is the care and concern that poured out from relatives (especially from my wife, Vicki), friends, colleagues, and West Point classmates (you were one, Lance). Times like these tend to remind you that you are not alone in the world-that people out there care about you, what happens to you, and what you do. There are lots of implications that flow from that realization.

Allied Ronin. When we were new cadets we had to memorize a lot of stuff called "plebe knowledge". One item in particular, "Battalion Orders" addressed the need to take a stand against favoritism. Another was "Schofield's Definition of Discipline". I remember being eighteen and reciting these to keep upperclassmen off my back. But then years later, as my life unfolded, these two became beacons that guided many of my decisions and actions. I've seen conflict, but never to the extreme that you have. I've had to make decisions, but never with the obvious immediacy of life and death consequences that you have. Can you speak to Schofield's Definition, its relevance to your life as a leader, and then to your understanding as to how it could be good advice for the average woman or man, boss or employee, father or mother? So that our readers can view this one themselves, here is a

Rick: Thanks for the link-I had to refresh my memory (you were always a better Plebe than me!) It's actually kind of ironic that this definition was such an important part of cadet life at West Point in our time there because we saw up close and personally several examples of how NOT to do things. Really Schofield was writing about respect. Respect from a leader for subordinates inspires respect from them for that leader. In combat these days, respect for a junior officer's or non-commissioned officer's abilities, knowledge, and skill is essential because leaders at the lowest level must be empowered to make decisions that can have strategic impact. Leaders who respect those who work for them and who will have their back in cases where events don't go as planned are the ones who achieve the most success and for whom people want to work. There is no room in the military for "harsh or tyrannical treatment". The same can be said for leadership in the office, boardroom, the halls of academe or wherever teamwork is a requirement.

Allied Ronin. I think it would be an understatement to say that, Vicki, your bride now of thirty-nine years, is a powerful leader. What have you seen in her? What have you learned from her, the examples she has set and the stands she has taken over her lifetime?

Rick: She is an interesting example of a special type of leader. In most instances she had to ...

© Lance Giroux, September 2011

No comments: