Monday, February 06, 2012

Insights with Eric T. Olson (part II)

Eric Olson speaking with soldiers

October's issue of The Ronin Post contained part one of an interview with Eric T. "Rick" Olson, the 67th Commandant of the US Military Academy, West Point, and former Commanding General of the 25th Infantry Division. As mentioned there, Rick has been a servant leader for more than forty years. He retired from the Army in 2005, but continues to serve what he believes in, particularly regarding ideas, ideals, and human beings. At the present time he directs 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.

We now continue

"Insights with Eric T. Olson"

Rick: ... 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 lead fairly large and complex organizations and groups without any specific mandate. What has been critical to her success has been a tremendous set of interpersonal skills, a natural enthusiasm for everything that she takes on, and the kind of fierce determination to make good things happen that inspires others to get on board. She has also shown herself to be totally selfless in her efforts-her work on behalf of Army children and families is a prime example of where she sacrificed much of herself to the greater good of the community. She also is extremely organized and disciplined in her thinking and in her approach to problem solving.

Allied Ronin. What was it like being the Commandant at West Point? What challenges did you face? What moved you the most about that time in your life? What surprises did you find upon coming into that job?

Rick: Those who have been privileged to serve as Commandant of Cadets at West Point will tell you that it is one of the best assignments that you can have as a general officer in the Army. The unbridled energy of the cadets (sometimes too unbridled) is inspiring, and the quality of the young men and women who attend the Academy says great things about the youth of America. West Point is a superb way to ensure that great people are drawn to the service of the Nation, and the systems, programs, and institutions at the Academy tend to make good people better.

My greatest challenge as the Commandant was the day that four airliners were hijacked and suicide attacks launched at New York and Washington, DC. At that moment the 4000 cadets of the Corps knew that their lives would be changed forever in a very direct and personal way. That day it became incumbent upon us as leaders at the Academy to ensure that graduates of USMA had the best possible preparation to lead soldiers in battle, in some cases within months of graduation.

Allied Ronin. Sometimes I hear people who have never been in the military talk about "the military mind", and often as an expression of something rigid or having a particular political perspective. But in my own life I've found the opposite. In other words, I have found a divergence of life perspectives across the spectrum from people who have served - not only during our time, but before and after. What have you found? How have you dealt with the struggle that sometimes comes with bringing alternative perspectives into an alignment for action that can serve a larger or common good?

Rick: It is true that men and women in uniform think about things and approach issues and problems in a manner that might be loosely classified as "military". Any group of individuals who have a relatively common background, have lived and worked together over time, and have been trained and developed as part of the same system are going to have similar characterizing traits and will react to situations in a similar manner. A "military mind" is correctly viewed by those who see it in leaders who take a disciplined and organized approach to management and problem solving. But that does not mean that such leaders-or any individuals with military experience-should be expected to have a uniform set of views on social, societal, or political matters. Nor should one equate having a "military mind" with a rigid or unyielding approach to problem solving. The best military leaders at all ranks are those who are innovative and, within certain boundaries, prone to do the unexpected. After all, surprise is one of the classic military principles of war.

Allied Ronin. What matters to you? If your voice could be heard by people young and old, of our nation and the world at large, what would you want people to pay attention to?

Rick: That's a weighty question, and one that is hard to answer without lapsing into some pretty tired saws that sound right but don't serve any real useful purpose or function. But, OK, I'll try this: don't make too much out of anything.

Allied Ronin: You currently direct strategic communication for CAF-BHO based in Tacoma, Washington. What can you tell us about this organization - what it does, its importance, the need it fills and why - and your personal reasons for deciding to do this now?

Rick: The Child, Adolescent, and Family Behavioral Health Office (CAF-BHO) was established in 2008 to coordinate the efforts of the United States Army Medical Command on behalf of better behavioral health for military kids and families who are suffering from the effects of multiple and long term deployments of a dad or a mom. The statistics are pretty clear -- about a third of military children have exhibited some sort of stress related behavioral health issue that can be tied directly to the deployment of a parent. The CAF-BHO manages 3 primary programs that support the accomplishment of this mission: Child and Family Assistance Centers that provide and coordinate care for family members at the installation level; the School Behavioral Health program that puts care providers in schools with large concentrations of military kids; and a series of training packages that target primary care providers, parents, teachers and others who experience first-hand the issues that family members are experiencing. My personal involvement in the program dates back the time that I served as the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division when Vicki and I were involved in the setting up some of the first programs specifically designed to care for family members while soldiers were deployed.

Allied Ronin: In what ways can average people from the general public, business leaders, and organizations from outside of the military support or help your efforts, and/or the efforts of CAF-BHO?

Rick: Community leaders -- be they business executives, school administrators, local government officials and the like -- can be of tremendous assistance to the efforts on behalf of military families simply by making an effort to reach out to the installations that are part of their respective communities. There are always activities and events that are designed to help kids and families that installations are conducting. Community support can be instrumental in making these activities a success. In locations where there is no installation nearby, look for the families that include National Guardsmen or Reservists who are serving. Their families need support too. In most cases the problems being encountered by military family members can be solved without a huge expenditure of money or other resources. Understanding and reaching out to military communities and members can go a long way!

Allied Ronin. Looking back over the last forty years of your life, what one or two things in particular do you feel is important that a person should understand about self?

Rick: Develop the ability to bounce back, and everybody does this differently. Know what works best for you, and practice it. Also, in the grand scheme very few of us is as important as we think we are, but we should never underestimate the impact that we have on the ones who love us.

Allied Ronin. Thank you for the time you've given this interview, and thank you very much for the service you've given over all these years. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Rick: Thanks Lance, and good luck as you continue the important work that you do.

© Lance Giroux, November 2011

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