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Retired general George Casey, the 36th chief of staff of the US Army, shared his expertise on strategic leadership with Columbia Business School students, including military veterans, on Tuesday, February 7, at the School.
As chief of staff, Casey, a 40-year army veteran, led one of the world’s largest and most complex organizations — 1.1 million people and an annual budget of more than $200 billion — from 2007 to 2011. He is credited with restoring balance to the war-weary US Army and helping to modernize and transform the armed forces to meet the demands of 21st-century warfare in a post-9/11 world. From 2004 to 2007, he commanded the coalition of forces in Iraq, with troops from more than 30 nations. In that role, Casey led a cultural shift toward more nuanced military operations and built new Iraqi security institutions.
The former general said that achieving these accomplishments started with a clearly defined vision. “The question I always ask is, ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’ Articulating a vision is hard work, and it’s the work of the most senior person in the organization.”
After a vision is established, Casey said, leaders should develop a strategy, then seek to build consensus around it. He described the methodical process of building consensus in any military decision in the Iraq War, starting first by meeting with key staff members in the White House, then the secretary of defense.
“My staff would then push the strategy up from the bottom, and at least they were pushing on an open door,” Casey explained. “Set your people up for success.”
Casey also talked about driving cultural change within an organization, which requires personal effort on the part of the leader. Historically, force was the “weapon of choice” in the army, but the complex combat the United States found in Iraq required more strategic decisions and tactics. In addition, Casey said US forces had a tendency to “do everything” themselves, instead of giving Iraqi security forces enough responsibility to eventually take control. To change these cultural tendencies within the ranks, he made a point of meeting with every brigade as they arrived in Iraq, starting in 2005.
Back home, communicating the right message about a complicated war wasn’t always easy. Casey recalled the difficulty in speaking to troops and the media after an army major opened fire, killing 13, in Fort Hood, TX, in 2009. “The senior leader is the face of the organization in good times and bad,” Casey said. “When bad things happen, [the public] need[s] to see you.”
Stepping up to the podium in that case took courage — something that Casey said every successful leader must possess.
“There was no certainty for me about how Iraq was going to turn out,” he said. “Leadership requires personal courage — stating your convictions even when you know they’re not popular.”
Casey also stressed the need for leaders to give back once they achieve success. He has been an advocate for military families, expanding programs for the wounded, addressing veteran substance abuse and suicide, and reducing the stigma of combat stress and trauma. Today, Casey continues to serve as a board member for Ride 2 Recovery, an organization that uses cycling to assist the recovery of wounded servicemen and -women, and ThanksUSA, which provides scholarships to military children and spouses. He is also chair of the military advisory board of Viridis Learning, an educational software company that works to increase employment opportunities for veterans.
“Leaders with strong values build strong organizations,” Casey said. “When you get to the top, it’s payback time.”
The event was hosted by the Military in Business Association and the Sanford C. Bernstein Student Leadership and Ethics Board.