May 7, 2024

Building Leadership in the Digital Age: An Interview with General Bob Brown (USA Ret)


Phil Wagner, MD talks to CEO & President of the AUSA, General Robert Brown, (USA Ret), about empowering subordinates, leveraging team-building activities, and investing time in developing trust and communication for effective leadership in today's digital landscape.

They discuss:

  • Fostering decision-making and cohesion by empowering subordinates
  • Utilizing challenging team-building activities to create shared experiences
  • Investing time in developing trust, communication, and mentorship for effective leadership in the era of technology and data
  • Why human instinct can’t be replaced by AI

About General Brown (USA Ret)

Robert_Brooks_Brown_Sep_2019Robert Brooks Brown, a retired General of the United States Army, serves as the President & CEO of the Association of the United States Army. With over 38 years of distinguished service, he has commanded at every level, from platoon to Army Service Component Command. As the former Commanding General of US Army Pacific, he oversaw 106,000 Soldiers across the Indo-Pacific Region. A 1981 graduate of the US Military Academy, General Brown's extensive assignments include leadership roles in Operation Uphold Democracy, Operation Joint Forge, and two combat deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He brings a wealth of experience from his diverse commands, including the US Army Combined Arms Center, I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. Holding advanced degrees from the University of Virginia and National Defense University, General Brown's leadership continues to shape the future of the US Army and its global mission.

Hear the Interview:


Full Transcript: 

Phil Wagner, M.D.: I'm your host, Phil Wagner and today I'm super excited. We've got Robert Brown, a retired 4 Star Army general last served as the commanding officer at US Army Pacific. US Army Pacific is the largest service components responsible for over a 100K soldiers, and after more than 38 years in uniform, General Brown now serves as the President of the Association of the United States Army, AUSA. He's also a 1981 graduate at the US Military Academy of West Point. We were chatting before, he also played basketball under Coach Kay. Now crucial aspect of leadership we haven't talked about is creating a strategic advantage. And before we introduce and talk with General Brown, I want to read a quote from him: "Material solutions alone will not provide the decisive edge against the complex array of rapidly adapting threats we face. To answer the challenge of this new paradigm the army must invest in its most valuable resource: Its people." So we want to thank and and welcome General Brown to the podcast today.

Robert Brown: Well, thanks, thanks, Phil. It's great to be here, and really appreciate those-- you got me excited, that introduction. There's some great topics. And I always love talking about leadership. Yeah.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah. And I think we got a chance to chat a little bit before I mean, how important is to invest in leadership and to you, just reading through and talking with you. You know the empowering and mentoring subordinates keeps coming up as like a key piece to the success, not only the army, but of any organization.

Robert Brown: Yeah, no doubt. You know, I think it's interesting. People are out there always looking for the solution, the technical solution that will do everything, but the reality is nothing-- I don't care, you know... artificial intelligence... nothing will ever replace an empowered leader on a trusted team. That's unstoppable. And when you have know... I get a kick out of you always read about. Oh, someday, humans won't even be involved. There'll be machines doing everything, and that-- you know, machines will do a lot. Artificial intelligence is important. Don't get me wrong. But all of that leads to really it's gotta be the investment in people and human beings to make those key decisions. And with AI, they can make those decisions faster and perhaps more accurately. But it definitely is gonna all really revolve around leadership and and people being able to come together as a trusted team to accomplish a task in any field. Really, across the board. You know, it used to be, it's interesting -- when I was a lot younger, 20 years ago, the challenge was not enough information. You're trying to get things done, and you only have a few pieces of information. And in some ways that was a heck of a lot easier to take initiative and do things because you could have a more-- you know, a leader who kind of felt like they knew it all and you didn't know any better because you didn't have that much information and it created a a fog of war in any in business and military and sports. That was a lack of information. And so, you know, taking the initiative was not that hard, because nobody's gonna second guess you gotta do the best you can-- you only have a few pieces of information. Well, now, you look today, the fog of war, the the challenge out there is too much information, right? All overwhelmed. And so when you have too much information, overwhelming amounts. You cannot be as effective if you're not empowering others, and if you haven't built that trust in an organization, and then when you do take the initiative it's a lot harder, because you will be second guessed; people will come back and say, 'Well, you knew these 10 things', but they don't realize you had literally thousands of pieces of information. You're trying to find that golden needle in the haystack of information. It's difficult and you've got to empower, have an organization that can leverage technology leverage all the many ways to get that information and then make decisions better decisions faster from that.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah, I think that's great. And you talk a lot about speed, you know, decisions. And all this information, and a lot of times empowering has become kind of a cliched term - empower your people. But when you talk, what I hear is what it means, and correct me if I'm wrong, for you, empowering your people means they're able to make the decisions, right? And if they're able to make decisions, you could move and adapt at a more rapid rate.

Robert Brown: Yeah, you're absolutely right. But also, I think sometimes people will think, I know in organizations I've led, There's individuals that think empowerment means: 'Okay, here you go, Phil, do whatever you want to do. I'm empowering you. I'm not gonna oversee what you do. I'm not gonna like: No, no, no, not at all.' You know you have to know your people and you know some are very experienced, and you can empower them a lot; less experience if you don't empower them quite as much until they get the hang of it. So you have to know your people and you do empower them to do their job and you help them. But however, they're different experience levels, and the trust is key for everyone. But also they need to understand. You know, if you have brand new individuals never been in a leadership position, maybe a little less empowering and a little more coaching and mentoring is required. And you have one who's just superb and so you don't need as much coaching and mentoring. You empower them, and you give them more free rein if you will. So there are levels it doesn't mean, just go do whatever the heck you want to do, you still have using the organization, and you're all moving in the same same basic direction or you're not going to succeed. Yeah.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: So in a way, it's almost like as a leader. You've got to have this decision tree in your head of understanding what level of empowerment or flexibility you're giving your subordinates, you know, to make these kinds of decisions.

Robert Brown: Absolutely. And I do find some individuals find that hard. They're not quite sure. You know, it requires a lot of effort to get to know folks, really, and that sounds funny, but you know, like you mentioned when I had about 126,000 individuals in my last command. I can't know every one of them but the leaders, the key leaders at the right levels below me with the authority I had to know extremely well. And yeah, it's a lot of folks, but you've gotta put in the effort to really get to know them. And in doing that you're working together, and you're building that trust as well, and then you'll have a very successful organization that can work at a at a rapid pace with the speed required to really kind of out think or outmaneuver your adversary, whether that's another competitive business, or whether that's somebody it's trying to do you harm, or whatever.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah. And how do you get to know those people and start to assess what type of level of empowerment you feel comfortable giving them? Cause it's There's obviously some exploration that goes on. And, you know, folks are gonna have to fail a little bit. But you know, you also can't fail -- Talking with Bezos. He calls them type one decisions, one that will sync an organization. You know, you want to be careful of those type one versus a type two decision. Right?

Robert Brown: Yeah, no doubt that's a great question, and it requires your most precious asset as a leader: time. Best time and visiting them, developing them, building the team. No question about it. And what I find sometimes people just take that for granted. Well, I don't need to build a team. We just automatically are a team. No, no, you've gotta spend a lot of time. And of course, building a team you do a lot of activities where you build trust, and you show them they can fail. And I've I've had that situation actually, multiple times in combat, in the most tense situations, critical situations, where I've empowered an individual and what they did not work out. And my superior, boss, I would work for, you know, different levels, you know, they would, they would come down and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Yeah. So and so just failed.' And they wanna take severe action and punish them. And it's like, wait a minute, wait a minute. You know you do that. We won't have any innovation at all. You've got to accept, not anything illegal or moral, unethical. But you know where they're trying to do the right thing, they take the initiative and it doesn't work out. You've got to support that, or you'll stifle innovation. You'll break trust. And you've got as the leader, you know, take the blame when it goes poorly and give the credit when it goes well, give the credit to them. And so you you devote that time, and I do agree with, as you were saying- there are certain things that you can't fail. You know, and that's true, you know, when a lot of lives are at stake, etc. You practice, you train, you do everything you can, and you spend more time to avoid that fail. You fail early when it doesn't matter, not late and if you prepare properly you can usually avoid that. But some sometimes, you know, you'd all you can. You're still gonna fail, because when you're in tough situations, the other, the enemy gets a vote, the adversary, whether it's a company they get a vote. You know, it's not a perfect world, and so you gotta be ready. But failures a whole another thing we could probably talk about for hours of how important it is be able to fail to build trust. But then how important it is to learn from that failure and not not repeat it. But it's not. It can't be a terminal thing. If you fail -- you can't succeed without failing right? Right?

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Right. And are there certain activities you found to be more helpful that you know when you're working with mentoring younger leaders, subordinates, how to put them in a position to fail, but not ultimately put others at risk?

Robert Brown: Yeah, great question. I think, really, team building events are the best way. And you know, it's a it's a fine, let's say, sort of an athletic challenging event that you will do with organizations, and I did it at every level, from the lowest level of when I was a platoon leader, as a lieutenant, with 32 soldiers all the way up to 126,000 soldiers, and you create an event where it's difficult, it's tough. It's not impossible. And, you know, the standard kind of has to be where folks should get done. And you know you can't have it be something that's like life threatening right? That wouldn't work. So you have to be careful. This you have to have the -- But you create an event where it's very tough, and they'll know they've been through a different event. But yet, you know, they can do it. They're gonna fail during the event; they're going to succeed in the end. You learn from it, and you grow together very, very close, and you build that trust and be anything from --I've done like -- They'll have leadership obstacle courses; they have to high wire events where it's just at that height, afraid of heights, you know, and you're up now. You're, you know, it's safe, but you're pushing people on the edge, and you're working it. And those are the type things that I remember going through that with a unit prior to deploying to combat. And every time I would see the individuals that went through the team building event. You'd be in the tough situation. And say, remember, we're having that high wire. We pulled together. We did this and we did it, you know, and they'll go back, and they'll remember that trust built, and they'll remember they were pushed to their limit and they'll appreciate that they've been there and gives them confidence for later. So that's easier to do in the military obviously, with the physical, it's a little harder to do in business, but I believe you can do it in business, and you end up doing a little bit different events, maybe not quite as physically demanding but challenging events and team building. And you just have to think about it and work it to do it right to to develop leaders. Yeah.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Hmm, yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, getting people out of that comfort zone collectively. And and then creating that thing they can draw from looking forward to the future of your current organization and past like, where's where's kind of the future you see as organizations evolve -  And how do we continue to develop and mentor other leaders?

Robert Brown: That's a that's a tough one.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah, there, I'm sure there's a lot of different ways. But are there certain...?

Robert Brown: The army is an amazing team I was very, very proud to be on. I think it's greatest team in the world and other other great teams, of course. But I think one thing that surprised me is on any team I've seen-- business team, sports team, military team -- the leadership principles and characteristics are the same. The outcomes, one may be you lose money versus lives, or some you know, so different different outcomes and stuff, but very similar. It's always surprise me that there usually when I see challenges in an organization. It's a lack of communication, a lack of trust. And it's because the individuals again, in any of those fields they don't take the time to build that team and to build subordinates. It takes time. It's challenging. And I would tell you that, you know sometimes you'd be like somebody busy can be at work, and they've got a challenge. Hey? Can you help this? You know, you know, and sometimes you'll be like, Oh, boy, you know I'm so. But you know, then you gotta realize, hey, wait a minute. I wouldn't be here. Someone hadn't met toward me really have to pay it forward if you will, to the next generation. But unfortunately I don't see that as the norm, kind of the exception, and I so therefore I think if you can look at the best organizations that you see again in any of those fields. They take the time, and they do that a lot of mentorship leader development within the organization and the ones that are struggling don't, don't. And I do fear as we're going forward. I don't have a crystal ball, but again, everybody wants to meet a neat and easy solution. And you find oftentimes the right mentorship. Can it be done virtually? Yeah, it's a little harder if you don't have a relation. Can it be done over the phone. You know? Yeah, if you have a relationship established? But it really takes face to face and a lot of effort. And your time I mentioned earlier. And you can do that virtually. You can do that, you know, in social media and stuff -- but not as well. I just see people are doing more and more, less and less face to face. And you know. So it's it's really, I think that's going to be a challenge. The other thing, I think, is because of so much information and so much access information that people have. And and just take it for granted, you can Google anything now? Right? And you know, because of that, I think we see that that you know, there's this over reliance on it and to the point sometimes of, you know, not interacting with others, and that makes it tough to build, trust and build a team. And so we just, you know, gotta watch that as we move into the future. Everything can't be done by as I was talking about, you know. Yes, you can leverage technology, but smartest computer will never have the empathy of a human being or the judgment in certain situations of a human being. I'm not saying we shouldn't leverage them, shouldn't use them, but you just have to watch. I see this more and more push and trend towards technology is going to do it all. I I don't think so. It's it's not going to build the trust needed in the team and the best organizations.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah. And that's well said, we've seen that same thing in sports with the swing of you know, baseball teams all go into money ball and then realizing, Hey, the data? That's not everything. There's got to be the balance, you know, between the 2 of using information to cut through some of the noise, but then, at the end of the day, there has to be a strong culture of people in place.

Robert Brown: Yeah, no question. And you know- The data is important. But you know, after one of these coaches you'll see with their sheet and the data this analytics tell them, do this, but they often they don't measure the heart aspect of that.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah, you have the intuition.

Robert Brown: Situation, and I think instinct still plays. I just found as a leader in any field: Instinct is really key. You will know what to do, based on your experience before you know why, and that sounds crazy. But I do remember we were at combat at the brigade level. I had about normally a brigade about 5,000, but I had, like 12,000 soldiers a year at least and increasing in size, because we're up in moles of Iraq and tough situation and we were very, very successful defeating Al Qaeda. And you know, the overwhelming amounts of information made it a challenge. But you had to rely on instinct, I think, was 63 instinctive decisions. I made. I tracked them, because someone had told me how to go with your instinct is key, and that's easy and peace time when lives aren't at stake, when lies are at stake going with your instinct. You feel like you almost feel guilty, because, you know it's right. You don't quite know why, but I will tell you. It makes all difference in the world. You go with your instinct and only a couple times I let the staff talk me out of an instinctive decision. Fortunately no lives were lost, but I still wish I'd have done those that they talked me out of now. It's very interesting.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah. And I I think this has been so insightful. I always like to kind of summarize for listeners. At least the takeaways I'm hearing. I mean one is, you know how important it is to empower your subordinates to make decisions and know your people. I think the the second piece is the ways that you found that to be helpful is to build in really difficult team building activities, that allow people to draw from that experience. And then the last one, which I think is, is probably the most important in this era of tech and data. You have to invest time. You have to invest time to develop the trust, the communication, and there's no shortcuts to that piece. You know. You really have to invest the time to create that mentorship, to create those leaders that are going to be able to make those decisions.

Robert Brown: No, that's a great summary. Impressive. I didn't think you were paying attention.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Haha, No, I mean, it's it's fascinating. And I think the instinctive piece again, just to that last point it takes time to develop those instincts right.

Robert Brown: Exactly, I mean. Yes, there are, you know. Sometimes it's frustrating. When you're climbing up the ladder. You're like, jeez, I know I can do this, this guy's job. But the experience helps you a lot, and saying that you know, some people can't get it faster and different ways. But experience helps a lot. Another another piece of that I would think of that puzzle there is that I've just found also that today, over the last 15 years, and continuing to grow even stronger the younger generation requires a buy in like never before. 

Phil Wagner, M.D.: agreed.

Robert Brown: They need a buy in. So that empowerment you talked about that building trust and building the team that all leads to a buy in where you know when they're empowered, you know, and you and you work with them. You don't. Just everything doesn't come from up higher. Here you go. Do this. Don't ask me why that doesn't work so much, you know, when I was younger again a long time ago, just as a lieutenant, I'd be told something. I wouldn't question it. I just do it. I kind of even it was dumb. I'd okay. Must be a reason. They kind of know. And you know. But that doesn't happen anymore. You know, when. Yeah, when I was a 4 Star General, which is the highest rank in the military you can get today, you know, and I wouldn't have talked to a general when I was a captain, younger officer, you know. It's like, you know, just kind of,  I'd listen. I'd I'd learn. But back when when I was serving 2019, I retired. I'd have privates come up to me. General, why are we doing this? You know what's going on here? What's going? You know it is - I welcomed it, and when they did I really quite showed the trust was there, felt they could do that. But I was always amazed because I would never have done it. But yeah that buy in, and you got, if you do it right, inform that team and they're involved and all that, and they're empowered. There is buy in in the mission again, whether that's a military mission or whether that's business or sports- it's gonna make a difference. Buying is very, very important. And I I think you see that. And again, in successful organizations there is a buy in people understand why they're doing what they're doing. Why, it makes a difference. They have a pride and  powered and trusted, and they buy into over the Best of the best  businesses units and teams have that.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah. And I've seen that, you know, on the position side, you know, patients come in with a printed Dr. Google report of their symptoms right? And they want to know why you're coming to your conclusion. And this treatment plan, whereas, yeah, 20 years ago, you know, doctors like generals, you know if if you said it, that's what I'm doing now, it's like, Well, I want to know. Why should we be doing this and tell me why we're not doing that. Yeah.

Robert Brown: Must drive you a little bit crazy.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Well, you just you gotta get used to it. And I think, as leaders, it makes you better, because you know you do have to defend and and you defend the decision and certainly everyone's valuable. But but you know, there's a lot more questioning to your point, because there's more access to information.

Robert Brown: Right, and it and it there's a book out, I think it's Simon Sinek "Start with Why", he stole that from the military there, you know.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Yeah.

Robert Brown: Why. But whenever you can, you explain why. Sometimes you can't, you don't have time, but if you built up the right trust, they understand that when you don't have time you've got to do something very rapidly, but when you can, start with why, and help get that buy in and much better builds that trust - no doubt.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Well said. Well, thank you for the time today.

Robert Brown: Yeah, absolutely. And I said we could talk for another couple of hours. This is fun stuff. And it's - I don't think there's any more rewarding. When you develop and put a lot of effort into mentorship and empowering others, and they succeed, you get more out of that than any success you'll ever have yourself. To see those you worked with and mentored succeed is really better. Believe it.- Gratifying experience. Nothing like it;  kind of goes along with selfless service to others. There's nothing better. And so I feel fortunate to get that in the military and certainly in the warmer you get that I feel very fortunate to had the opportunity to be on such amazing team for such a long time. And now to be able to help them what we can as a nonprofit help and support, educate, inform and connect America with their army. So yeah, it's been enjoyable. Thanks, Phil, I appreciate it.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Well, thank you. And yeah, and hopefully, you feel the impact beyond the army as some of your subordinates are now serving serving in business, and some are on our team, and you know they've been incredibly impactful kind of carrying those values and principles, you know, beyond the army.

Robert Brown: Yeah. And you've got 2 unbelievable noncommissioned officers, senior non-commission sergeant major, that are just amazing leaders and a great example. I'm glad you brought that up because I don't know a business out there that couldn't use incredible leader like you've got. And and our senior enlisted and non-commissioned officers are amazing. And they are what make us the best army in the world and the envy of every other army, because we can so much. And there's so and so, yeah, it's it. The the good news is like more and more businesses are realizing that. And down grabbing these guys as a retire and second career.  Military, and and they're really helping across the board so smart of you to bring them on board. I know you're you're glad you did. I'm sure.

Phil Wagner, M.D.: Absolutely.

Tag(s): Government

Other posts you might be interested in:

View All Posts