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National Guard Magazine |
August 2023

Pearls of Wisdom

To be a leader in the military — regardless of service or component — requires devotion to the study of the science and art of leadership.

Besides required professional education to climb the promotional ladder, there are countless books and manuals to read and other training to attend. All provide the kind of tools every commissioned or noncommissioned officer needs in their leadership toolbox.

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Other endeavors where success is often tied to leadership — business, politics and sports, to name a few — also have their formal leadership training infrastructure.

But over the generations, many good leaders have been shaped by the informal advice of a mentor or someone else who preceded them. They offer life lessons that come without having to learn something the hard way.

Sometimes, it’s not a mentor, but a peer or even a loved one. In any case, the counsel proved valuable — maybe even career-altering — because it was simple, easily applied and enduring.

OnlineCollege.com lists pearls of wisdom that have benefited famous Americans. Some could apply to multiple endeavors. Former President Bill Clinton took to heart his wife Hillary’s recommendation to “take criticism seriously, not personally.” Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal got this gem from the legendary Michael Jordan: “You must fall before you can stand.” A former general once advised a young officer named Colin Powell to “always be the leader.”

Of course, this subject of wise counsel has been explored countless times.

“Seeking and giving advice are central to effective leadership and decision-making,” reported The Harvard Business Review in 2015. “Those who are truly open to guidance (and not just looking for validation) develop better solutions to problems than they would have on their own.”

Scientific American in 2014 addressed a misconception about seeking, and presumably accepting, advice. “Fears about appearing incompetent by asking for advice — though extremely common — are sorely misplaced,” its research revealed. “Here’s why: When you ask for advice, people do not think less of you, they actually think you’re smarter. Advice seekers stroke the advisor’s ego and can gain valuable insights.”

Many successful people, including some National Guard leaders, attribute their accomplishments to advice they received years ago. In the spirit of giving back, or maybe to credit the people whose counsel proved so valuable, they are often happy to share.

In leading by example, you set the standard everywhere you go.

—Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau

Some of the words they serve by may sound familiar, but they were offered or repeated at just the right time in just the right way.

Bob and Diann Hokanson encouraged their son Daniel to lead by example, but, “at the end of the day, if something’s going to get done, in many cases you need to do it,” says the four-star general, chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That guidance came while growing up in the remote northern California town of Happy Camp on the edge of the Redwood Forest. “There weren’t a lot of resources, so you really had to learn hard work,” Hokanson recalls. “Basically, you learned that nothing is impossible if you put your mind and your effort into it and work hard to achieve it.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Raymond Rees is another trusted advisor and friend. Both are West Point graduates and have served at the highest levels in the Oregon Guard and at NGB, where Rees was vice chief and acting chief. Hokanson’s first Guard job after active duty was aide to Rees, who was Oregon’s adjutant general at the time.

“He took the time to teach me everything about the Guard and what an incredible organization it is for our nation,” remembers Hokanson, who ticked off three lessons that Rees imparted:

● “You never want to surprise your superiors or subordinates.”

● “In leading by example, you set the standard everywhere you go.”

● “If you can accomplish just 10% of everything you want to, you’ll be successful beyond your wildest dreams and really have an impact on an organization. The key is understanding what that top 10% is.”

Every job, every event, every interaction is an opportunity.

—Maj. Gen. Kerry Muehlenbeck, the adjutant general of Arizona

MAJ. GEN. KERRY MUEHLENBECK believes she was about six years old perhaps in first grade, in the Orlando, Florida, area where her mother Nancy Muehlenbeck was one of her teachers, when the advice and guidance that helped shape her life began taking root.

Much of it came from her Grandma Clement, her mother’s mother, who became a playmate, pen pal and taught her how to play gin rummy, recalls the adjutant general of Arizona.

Grandma Clement could apparently also dish out some tough love when young Kerry Lynn began focusing on “fair.” As in: Well, that’s not fair. That’s just not fair.

“Kerry Lynn, life isn’t fair,” her grandmother told her, uttering a line spoken by many, including John F. Kennedy when he was president. “You have to play the hand you are dealt. So, wherever you are or whatever you do, just simply do your best.”

The seeds planted in the first grade have grown into an impressive tree. A bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she played Big Ten Conference softball, and later for the Air Force; law degrees from schools in Indiana and California, and a doctorate from Arizona State; Air War College; Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps in 1992; Arizona Air Guard since 1997; civilian career as a prosecutor and college professor are among the highlights.

“Every job, every event, every interaction is an opportunity,” is one of Muehlenbeck’s many life lessons. “You may not see it as that, and you may not like the job that you’re given. But do your best because you never know where it will lead you.”

Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry gives credit to retired Gen. Craig McKinley, a former Guard Bureau chief, and Dr. Samuel Betances, a renowned teacher and motivational speaker, for breathing new life into his traditional Guard career that, Berry indicates, seemed to have stalled when he was a lieutenant colonel.

Both men, in their own ways, saw things in him that he had yet to discover, says Berry, who has been Nevada’s adjutant general for three years and the NGAUS vice chairman-Air for two.

McKinley was the Air Guard director when he told Berry to “don’t be afraid to be your authentic self because people will try to change you [to their way of thinking].” He received that stick-by-your-guns guidance, Berry recalls, after candidly answering McKinley’s questions about what the Air Guard was not doing to serve people in the field.

“People first and mission always” was Berry’s challenge to the accepted order of building an organization. “If you take care of people, they will take care of the mission,” he maintains.

McKinley appointed Berry as the Air Guard’s director of Cultural Transformation, which opened the gates to other national-level positions and exposure to the world.

Betances’ guidance focused on self-improvement, including:

● “Your vision of yourself is not big enough. It has to be bigger. You have to have a vision for where you want to go.”

● “You have to be dissatisfied with the status quo.”

● “You have to read books like wolves eat meat. You can only think as deep as your vocabulary.”

Never let them wait on you when it comes to your professional military education.

—Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac (Ret.), former adjutant general of Nebraska

THE GUIDANCE that recently retired Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the former Nebraska adjutant general for 10 years and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, followed was more pragmatic.

“Never let them wait on you when it comes to your professional military education,” one Lt. Col. George Skoudas passed along when Bohac was a young officer. “Get it done so that when opportunities present themselves that you couldn’t even expect, you’re ready to go.”

It’s far better to be prepared for opportunities that never come than to have opportunities that you’re not prepared for, was Bohac’s take-away.

Another pearl came courtesy of Brig. Gen. Mark Musick: “If you can follow and understand the money, you will be successful in this enterprise.”

“That served me well for the first 25 years of my career when I was a part-time, drill-status Guardsman,” says Bohac, who was a clinical psychologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “That was really good advice when I came aboard full-time in 2003 to figure out where’s the money coming from, what you can spend it on and, most important, what you can’t spend it on.”

To most young soldiers, advice from a command sergeant major is guidance from God. It isn’t to be taken lightly or soon forgotten.

Maj. Gen. Bill Zana was so enlightened in the late 1980s by one William Watson, a Vietnam veteran who was the 4th Infantry Regiment’s command sergeant major at Fort Myer, Virginia, when Zana was a junior NCO.

“He told me that as an NCO and leader, I had the easiest job in the Army,” Zana recalls. “I only had to do two things: ‘Accomplish the mission and take care of your soldiers.’

“While we can all understand the complexities and nuance of those two things, the simplicity of it has stayed with me and endured at every level of command,” adds Zana, whose long career has led him to his current position at NGB: director of Strategic Plans and Policy and International Affairs.

“I often look at complex issues through the lens of those two priorities and ask myself to boil whatever challenge I’m faced with down to the fundamentals,” Zana says. “How do I get this done, whatever the task, and how do I take care of those around me? It applies equally well to our civilian lives.”

Zana garnered advice from many other people along the way. “It’s all about relationships” was one piece. “You are responsible for everything your unit does or fails to do” was another.

But to Zana, Watson’s face is all over the advice about doing the job and taking care of the people.

You have to read books like wolves eat meat.

—Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the adjutant general of Nevada

A DECORATED VIETNAM WAR SOLDIER named Matt McKnight enhanced retired Maj. Gen. Terry “Max” Haston’s understanding of command during chaos, recalls Tennessee’s former adjutant general who ended his 40-year career in 2019 but stayed connected to force as a NGAUS board member.

McKnight, who retired as a colonel, advised Haston, then an operations officer, to “trust your gut and not the plan.” Also, to always keep your sense of humor and “be able to fight from the saddle. When things go bad, you can’t stop and redo the plan.

“You’ve got to be able to adapt, adjust and continue to march in the middle of chaos,” McKnight said.

McKnight had leaned on those lessons during two Vietnam tours with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the second as a helicopter gunship pilot. Haston, who became McKnight’s regimental operations officer with Tennessee’s 278th Armored Cavalry, benefited from that guidance while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Haston, however, was already wise to Army ways thanks to his grandfather, who belonged to the Tennessee Home Guard, and his father, Jerry Haston, who put 44 years into the Tennessee Army Guard, retiring as a company first sergeant.

“Both my grandfather and my dad were NCOs, so I knew nothing but sergeants’ stripes,” says Haston, who pinned on officers’ bars in 1979 when he received his ROTC commission.

Still, father knew best about who really leads the soldiers. “Never get in the way of your NCOs unless you absolutely know they’re doing something that’s wrong,” the father instructed the son. “And they will lead you in the right direction.”

Kentucky Air Guard Lt. Col. Allison Stephens quickly got to the point about the best advice that she has followed for about two decades. She was an active-duty 2nd lieutenant, about six months on the job at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, around 2001.

Master Sgt. Mark Sanders apparently didn’t cut this young officer much slack. “Lieutenant,” he said, “you have two ears and one mouth. So, you should listen more than you talk.”

“While he may not be credited with creating the expression,” Stephens says, “it has guided my career.”

Stephens has been doing considerably more talking, and gaining a lot of respect, as the Guard Bureau’s spokesperson for the State Partnership Program, which is commemorating its 30th anniversary this year.

Solid soldiers don’t always follow sound advice.

Recently retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Teresa Domeier, a Nebraska Army Guard soldier for 40 years, is a case in point.

Her recruiter, Master Sgt. Sharon Hilt, advised the then 18-year-old recruit to never volunteer to do anything during basic training and to work hard at any task that was given her — pretty standard stuff. And to cut her long hair, which Domeier refused to do.

“She warned me that not cutting my hair would draw attention because the drill sergeants would label me as defiant,” recalls Domeier. “She was right about everything, and I was given additional duties which never bothered me. Her advice was great during my initial training.”

But Domeier obviously followed other people’s advice thoroughly enough to become the first woman to serve as the Army Guard’s command chief warrant officer in 2018, 13 years after beginning her warrant officer training and earning her first dot in 1995.

Food service was her career field. WOC school leadership positions, an Operation Iraqi Freedom tour in Iraq and selection as the Nebraska Guard’s fifth command chief warrant officer were among her milestones before NGB beckoned her to Washington, D.C.

Her mentors have been many, Domeier explains.

“First and most important, my mom, Nora J. Hunt, always said to treat people as you would like to be treated, and if I didn’t have anything nice to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all. That was instilled in my life.”

Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted via [email protected].