Being a leader has its perks, but when faced with a situation that puts your leadership to the test, you better be steadfast. Brigadier General (Ret.) Becky Halstead joins this episode to share her story about how she got into the military and her ideas about equality. She talks about why you should make your choices based on your strengths and why you should never apologize for being excellent. Learn how she views opportunities whenever it arises and understands what the three-second rule is and its effects on how you communicate and connect with others. Know the importance of discipline as she explains the role it plays in decision making, and why you need to be more selfless the higher you are on the ladder.
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Brigadier General (Ret.) Becky Halstead Speaks About The Importance Of Being STEADFAST In Leadership
My guest is Becky Halstead. She is a retired Brigadier General from the US Army. What’s also interesting about her background is that she was the 2nd class of women to be enrolled at West Point. I enjoyed our conversation so much as she talked about many things that are relevant in regards to leading and reimagining what it means for us to lead. It’s an episode you’re going to want to read. Let’s get into it.
Becky, thank you so much for being on the show. I appreciate it. In this environment that we’re in right now, you bring so much perspective in terms of your experience. I would love to provide the opportunity. First, can you to talk about how did you navigate your career in the armed services and then how does it relate to what you’re doing?
I love the question about how did I navigate my career because most of us in the military do not feel like we navigate a thing. We take the oath and in my case, the army, 27 years where the army sends me and we have a saying that, “Home is where the army sends me.” I did go to West point in 1977 and 1981. I was in the 2nd class of women to be accepted into the Military Academy. That’s always a fun factoid for people because it’s not too hard to figure out. That probably wasn’t a lot of fun. First of all, your first year at any Academy isn’t a lot of fun, male or female, but when you’re the new ingredient, let’s say to the formula, it can be exciting.
I grew up in Upstate New York, a small country town with no traffic lights. I played a lot of sports and I wanted to go to college to be a physical education teacher. I did tease it when I went to West Point. I was 6’ tall and now I’m 5’1/2”. When you grow up in a town with no traffic lights, it’s easy to be a stud or stud at because if you show up, you’re going to be on the team because there’s only so many of us. I thought I was a good athlete and that’s why I wanted to do that. I loved coaching. I knew very young that I loved being part of a team. I loved leading and figuring out how to work together to make something happen.
I love the win. I love working through the loss. How do I control my attitude and how do I get the team to put that aside, rework it and get to the next one? My mother was reading that they were letting women go into the academy and that was in 1976. She said, “This sounds like you.” I’m like, “What? Me?” There’s no other you in the room. “What do you mean me?” I’m like, “I don’t want to go to an Academy. I know nothing about the military.” My dad was an IBM engineer and my mom was a dental hygienist. I said, “If you help me with the letters of recommendation and the whole process, I’ll try.” Sure enough, I made a deal and we tried. For some reason, I got accepted, which is still unknown to me at this point because when I look at my classmates and when I got to West Point, 4.0 GPAs. They graduated 1st and 2nd in their class. I was at the top fifteen but I came from a town with no traffic lights. There wasn’t that many that graduated.When it gets hard, rule number one is don't quit. Rule number two, refer back to rule number one. Click To Tweet
My mom helped. My very strong family values and community went off to West Point. At West Point, as far as navigating my career, I learned don’t quit when it gets hard. There are two rules. Rule number one is don’t quit. Rule number two, refer back to rule number one. The military ended up being perfect for me because we do have this keep it simple soldier. Our leadership model is Be, Know, Do. It isn’t rocket science but it takes a great deal of discipline to be a strong leader. You got to choose the harder right over the easier wrong and to maintain your character, your integrity, and to learn every day and improve your competence. The military worked for me. It was tactical, operational, and strategic.
I loved soldiering, being a soldier, and leading soldiers. I love the whole human dimension. I was a logistician so I get a lot of opportunities to speak to the supply chain management side of the world now about leading in that arena, which you can imagine is very chaotic. When you hear all about the distribution of everything from toilet paper to vaccines, In my 27 years after I graduated in 1981, I became a logistician and I served 27 years in the military. I moved eighteen times. I served in Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot of people say, “What’s that like to be a woman leading a military in those countries?”
I’m like, “They didn’t have any women in their military but there was always an expectation of respect. I always received respect.” Sometimes I tease a little bit. I felt our coalition forces were more respectful than some of the men on my own side or the same team. It’s taken our military a long time to integrate women into all sources fully, all branches and all subject matter skills. As I navigated through my military career, I made the best choices that I thought for me based on my DNA, my strengths, and I wouldn’t change very much of that. It worked out well but I also saw the need that we need to open everything to women. If women can do as well or better, then they had to have the same opportunity.
It’s always been about standards. If I meet the standard, don’t exclude me because I’m a woman. That was one of the hardest parts of navigating through the military. There sometimes wasn’t the same opportunity for a logistician, supply chain manager, or for a woman in that course. Having to navigate makes it part of the challenge. It makes it part of the fun. It makes it part of the, “We were innovative and we did that. We were successful and help others be that way.” I do a lot of coaching now for other people coming into the military, men and women.
The thing that I was thinking about as you were telling that story is that it seems as though your need for the team was satisfied in the environment you were in that you were talking about before you went into West Point. Also, what I hear and what’s interesting with West Point is now they talk about grit and you demonstrated that through your own perseverance.The acronym JOY means, Jesus first, Others second, Yourself next. That’s the perfect model. Click To Tweet
The grit factor is something that a lot of people talk about. Another person you might want to get on here sometimes is Shannon Polson. She’s written the book The Grit Factor. I don’t know how many women are involved with it but there’s a lot of women from a lot of industries and military service that was part of her book and now we were part of the NBC series on TV. I love the way she has captured what is grit. It’s a little bit different in all of us. At the end of the day, it’s a real strong determination to help others realize their full potential not to be successful but to be successful and then to be significant, to understand the value of your life and that you have a purpose.
I do believe there’s a big difference because there’s a lot of people out there who are very successful but they’re willing to enjoy their success for themselves and they don’t share it. That’s beyond me. My dad taught us a long time ago because I wasn’t sure about this whole concept of making money. You don’t make a lot of money in the military but you don’t go poorly, don’t get me wrong. You have benefits and everything else but it’s not like you joined the military to become rich in terms of money. You join the military to become rich inside because you have such a purpose. When we leave the military and we retired from the military, we have new opportunities that now bring on a different financial opportunity. My dad always said, “Don’t apologize for being excellent. Don’t apologize for making more money than something that makes you feel comfortable because the more you make, the more you can give.” I love that.
It’s very interesting too when you talk about happiness versus purpose. They’re not the same thing. I’ll be getting on a webinar to talk about specifically that. In research that’s been done when they looked at people that were happy, the happiness came from stuff that you received. Purpose and meaning were what you did for others. What they found was those that were about others tended to rate themselves as happier.
The way I equate that is joy. You hardly ever hear me say I’m happy. I‘m happy is not a word I use. Joy to me is definitely in the same bucket as purpose. I tell people that the greatest joy of leading is leaving a legacy. That is about to teach, coach, and mentor others. When you see them do wonderful things and even surpass you, I always talk about this one. A gentleman that I grew up in the army with and it happened that in Iraq, he was one of my brigade commanders. I was a General, he was a Colonel but we’d grown up his peers. It happened that that was the timing of things and he was a little bit younger than me. There was always so much respect and admiration for each other and not just for him for me because I was the General.
After I retired, he made General and I was like, “I couldn’t be happier if I was his mother.” He then made two stars. He ended up making four stars and he runs all the logistics for the army. He’s famous because he is the four-star General Gus Perna that they chose to be the one that navigates and does the logistics with the vaccine once it’s out there and everything else. I go like, “That’s my brother.” It’s joy and I’m very faith-based. That’s very personal. I share it when I speak on leadership because it is part of who I am. It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of what I rely on. I had a Sunday school teacher who once said the acronym JOY. It’s Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself next. Isn’t that the perfect model?
As you were talking about the challenges, I have found in my experience when I interview people that have been successful in a wide range of areas. It often comes down to when we talk about the challenges that they’ve had to deal with at some point that helped shape who they become. I would say our past is our power. I’m wondering from your own experience as you look back, what is one of those challenges that you look at now and think, “This helped define or shape who I’ve become?”
It’s always hard for me to choose. I do this one day workshop on personal leadership. What is your personal leadership and how did you get there? It’s a journey. It happens over time. I tell people, put above the line those things that powerfully impacted you. There still could have been a challenge but it was a positive challenge. Those things below the line that what you would put as a downer or a negative challenge and how those shaped you. I put 6 to 8 things on that chart. I have other people do it and then everybody shares a story. The nice thing about that is everybody that starts on the team gets to know each other.
If I think about my mental chart, below the line, the first and most significant event of my life that truly has shaped my path was, I told you I was very much into sports and I want to be a physical education teacher. The reason why was because I loved spending time in the gym. I played nine varsity sports in high school. Again, you can be on nine varsity teams when you come from a town with no traffic lights. When you come from a small town, you have only 2 or 3 coaches. I had the same coach for basketball as I did in softball for several years. In my junior year, my best coach also loved parachuting and she was doing a twelve-person parachute jump. When they all break away from the formation, someone broke away, pulled their chute too early, came up before she even could pull her chute, and knocked her unconscious. She didn’t ever pull the chute and she died. She went through the top of her fiancé’s parachute.
It was a very significant traumatic event. For me, it turned my life switch off. I didn’t even want to live, function, go to school, and go to college. Because I came from a small community, those teachers wrapped their arms around me. Again, team and they go like, “You’d be letting your coach down if she could see how you’re responding to this.” She would expect you to be a leader in this group, pull the rest of the kids together, and say, “Let’s keep winning. Let’s do this.” We started wearing black ribbons on our arms and things like that.
I had already applied to West Point. It was either 11 or 12 days before her death, she wrote a letter of recommendation for me. When I went to the Senator’s office in New York for my interview, he said, “You’re from that town where a high school teacher was killed.” I said, “Yes, she was killed parachuting. As a matter of fact, there shouldn’t be a letter of recommendation in my file.” I don’t know how many days later, a week, two weeks later, his office sent me my entire packet and in there was her handwritten because we didn’t have computers then. It was typewriters or handwriting. It was a handwritten letter from her letter of recommendation for me to go to West Point.
There were so many things I learned about that. Number one, she was saying things about me that I didn’t even know she felt or that she saw. She was seeing my potential. Immediately as a young person you go, “I need to see the potential in other people.” When I read that letter, the light switch went back on. In the letter, she said, “I’m having the opportunity to do things that were not even dreamt up for her in her time. She’s about 8 to 10 years older than me. Every decade, more opportunity arises. What are we going to do with that? How are we going to embrace that and help others embrace that? Anyhow, before that was then I developed a very strong relationship with her mother. I was as tough as she was. I played golf with her into her 80s. She gave me not one benefit. If I went into the water, she’d come over later. She’ll lay her golf club down.”The whole purpose of communication is to connect. Click To Tweet
I stayed in touch with her forever. When I wrote my book on leadership, In my book, I don’t put names of people. That’s not the type of book I write. It’s about leadership, leadership principles, things I learned, stories from my military career. I don’t put any names in the book but I want to talk about my coach because she had such a powerful impact on me for leading myself and others to be part of a team. When I truly felt the full impact of that, it was almost 30 years later in Iraq. In Iraq when I would go to the hospital and I would visit my wounded soldiers and they would already be in that PTSD or post-traumatic stress of why did my buddy die and I live?
I can remember the first time I had that conversation, it was the experience of having gone through that as a teenager asking why of my coach and not wanting to go on myself that I could understand what my soldier was going through. I can remember saying, “None of us will ever know why, ever but what I do is this. Living your life honoring that person you thought so much of. Honor them by living your life with the way they saw you as a friend, as a subordinate, or as a peer. Live out your full potential.” Who would know that that would happen?
That was the whole purpose, for me, of that situation to learn that. I’m not going to lie to you. There were a lot of peaks and valleys but when you can go back now and reflect over all that time, that’s the goodness that you see on such a tragic event. We both know there are so many people who are suffering from isolation and losing loved ones who they can’t even hold their hand and they can’t have a funeral. We can be such a voice of encouragement. It doesn’t matter when that event happened to us, we have to be able to articulate it so we can help people.
Two things that I think about when I hear that, one is empathy. The strong demonstration of empathy there is so apparent. When I think about the letter that you got to see these things that were said about you, it reminds me of the responsibility that we have in terms of what we set for expectations for others. How powerful that is that if we don’t expect much of other people, then oftentimes they will deliver not much, but the opposite is also true that if we hold people to higher standards of, you can do this and you’re better than this. There’s a drive that we have inside of us. I will jokingly say when I speak and I talk about the Pygmalion effect. I will say, “There were teachers that I had that didn’t expect a lot from me and there were others that expected a great deal for me. I didn’t seem to disappoint on either side of that.” The power that it has that we have over other people.
It also taught me the power of a handwritten note. The power of letting people know how you feel like, “Don’t wait.” Throughout my entire career, I was known as someone who wrote a lot of notes and a lot of letters because what was very apparent to me is that there are a lot of people who are not blessed with having a wonderful family as I had. My parents are still living. They’re in their 80s. They’re vibrant. They’re still big cheerleaders. If they could put an email with feedback when I go to speak or somebody read my book, that’s on the refrigerator with a gold star and I’m 61 years old.
Not everybody had that joy. I also always looked at my organization. I would look for those who maybe were sitting alone, walking alone, or falling out of a run in the morning. Why are they falling out? It isn’t because they’re not in shape. This is something that’s up here in the heart that’s causing them to feel defeated or whatever. I was never a yeller or a screamer. You would see sometimes leaders yelling and screaming at people to get back in formation. I never ran faster because someone yelled at me. Instead, even though as a leader, the expectations that the leaders upfront when you’re doing all the running, I started out up front and then I fall back to the wayside and I talked to people and I’d be like, “Can you believe they pay us to do this?”
I have to go back to the back and I’d run. I’d always look for the people that fell out because I want to know why and you found out so many interesting things about people and simple things like sending Christmas cards. I had a whole battalion deployed to Kosovo when I was stationed at Fort Drum. I could not be in Kosovo with them because it was one of my many units but I can reach out to them. I did a Christmas card to every soldier and then I put a red, white, and blue tacky candy in the envelope. I admit I had my driver and my secretary help me lick all those envelopes and get them all boxed up. I signed all of them and then get the candy put it in there.
I can’t remember how many. It was about 400. It’s not like I got 400 responses going, “Thank you, Ma’am.” I probably got four responses but one response is what counted. This young kid sent me a note and he said, “It’s the only Christmas card I received.” It makes you emotional because of how sad that is. On the other hand, you go, “I’m so glad I sent 400 even though only one was this powerful.” You don’t do it to get 400 thank yous. You do it because of your heart and your mind, which I believe that’s what leadership is. It’s the fusion of those two things. That one kid was worth 4,000 cards.
It’s interesting when you tell that story. I think about behaviors and the research that I look at in terms of what are the behaviors that create leaders. One of the things that often comes up is around belongingness. The research that’s out there on belongingness is we’re wired for connection. To me, as leaders, it’s our responsibility to bring people inside the group and not make them feel isolated. When we do that, people want to do more. They’re inspired to do that and you’ll feel like you’ve made them feel part of what’s going on as opposed to you’re on the outside.
When I speak on leadership, I have one slide that I like to show. I’m on the border of Syria and I’m out there talking to some of my soldiers that were one of the bases but I’m also talking to the leaders who were responsible for the physical security of that base. The title is very simple. It says, Circulate, Communicate and Connect. That’s the whole purpose of the communication. I tease and I say I’m 5’1/2”. When soldiers stand in front of you, they stand in attention. They look straight out, which means they’re looking straight over my head. I said, “No, look down here, look me in the eye.” I would tell them that when I look you in the eye, I can see your soul. I can feel your soul and I want to connect. I can also tell, are you nervous? Are you confident? Are you scared? All those things. That is the whole purpose of communication is to connect.If we all pause for three seconds before talking, we'll be a lot happier with what we say. Click To Tweet
When you’re with your eyes, you’re listening with a different sense of reading. It’s an awareness of others that certainly you speak to.
It is. You shake somebody’s hand, is it cold? Is it sweaty? I was known as the Colonel or the General that hugged too because I’m just going to do it. I had 30,000 people in my command, we operate out of 55 different bases, and we did all the logistics for Iraq. There’s no way I could go to all 55 bases and say goodbye to everybody and thank everybody. It’s an impossibility but where I could go, I did and when I could, I did. I don’t even know how many that was but we did send a lot of people home right out of the base where I lived which was Balad.
I told my Sergeant Major, “I don’t care what time of night it is, what time of day it is if we’re available, we’re going to go out onto the tarmac. We’re going to say thank you and put their tired butts in a seat on a plane and let them go home.” There are a couple of pictures of me embracing them. We got all of our gear on. Let me tell you what. When you slap about 300 people in the back with that IVA, it was like your hands bruised by then at the end of the day. I embrace, encourage, and thank people. I went back to my headquarters and a young major who had been a little bit of a thorn in my side. I felt that he was there illegally. It was crazy. He stayed for the whole year. We made him work.
He wasn’t real happy about it but we have disgruntled people sometimes in our organizations. He came to me and he approached me and said, “I know you’re going out and you’re thanking everybody before you put them on the plane. How do you know that all of them deserve a thank you?” If you have not read the book Three Seconds, you need to read it because the whole thesis is, “If we all pause for three seconds, we’ll be a lot happier with what we say.” My mother gave it to me. That’s telling. I was pressing the three-second rule because inside my head, I’m going, “You are exactly the person I would have a hard time saying thank you to.”
I know that you have to give credit where credit is due and where you need to deliver consequences, you deliver consequences. I paused and I said, “I don’t know every individual that I said thank you to, slap them on the back, shook their hand, and put them on the plane. I don’t know every single one of them. I don’t know if they’ve been a great performer, a good performer. I don’t know but here’s what I do know. I am thanking them for their service. They left their families, their homes, they volunteered to be in this military and they were gone for a year in combat. That alone deserves a thank you. Thank you for your service.” He didn’t say anything else which I’m so glad he didn’t say anything else. You don’t want to be rewarding, awarding, and recognizing people for things that are inflated because then it doesn’t have meaning. A simple thank is appropriate for almost everybody.
You thank them for the service which they did do. It wasn’t telling everybody you did the best. It was sincere in that regard.
I was very clear, that was for their service. That was for leaving their families, being dedicated to their country, coming into combat, and I’ll thank you for that. Put your tired butt on that seat, go back home and do great things. When you do an award like a Legion of Merit or a Bronze Star or any of those things, there has to be credibility to that. That has to be researched. You need to know that if I’m coming and putting a Bronze Star on your uniform, you’re going to be sure that my signature means that I agree that you earned it.
As we’ve been having this conversation, Becky, I had STEADFAST up and I’ve been looking at the acronym. As you’ve been going through telling your stories and examples, you’ve hit on about every one of these from selfless, trust, courage, attitude, discipline, family, friends, faith, accountability, standard setter, and teamwork. As we think about that from a standpoint of the environment that we’re in, steadfast obviously is very important to you. Is there one on there that you think is most important at this point?
For me, the most important one is the D, discipline. The reason why is because it takes a great deal of discipline to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. It takes a great deal of discipline to make sure you’re constantly thinking and deliberately thinking or my priorities in the right place. Some days, your family comes first. Some days, your job comes first. When you look at what’s going on, our first responders that are in the hospitals and they’re sleeping in a tent or sleeping at a hotel so they don’t infect their families, they’re putting their job and their family first but their job is first. They’re trying to save lives and they’re taking care of their family by not being there and infecting them.
Now, a family member might think, “You’re not putting me first. You’re putting your job first because you’re not home.” Eventually, they mature and understand. I was putting you first because my job is important because it’s about people. It’s about feeling. The D is for discipline because it’s for the simplest things. It’s for the most profound. Simple like being on time for a meeting, getting your work done on time, or helping a peer when it’s very inconvenient because it’s never convenient when somebody wants help.
That’s about being for others. That’s back to that meaning. It’s the purpose of, it’s not about ourselves. When we’re about other people, there is much more value to it. You also have a book that I would love to have an opportunity now to go back and read that book and have you on again to talk about that. I can have this in the show notes, I’d love for you to tell the audience, what is the book? Where can they get it?It takes a great deal of discipline to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. Click To Tweet
It’s 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is You. I put my dog tags on it because dog tags are very important to us in the military. We put those over our head and neck every day. We commit ourselves to being the best soldier that we can be. The best leader we can be for those that we lead. It has nothing to do with rank. It has to do with service. I put a star in the O in you because I believe everybody out there has star potential. A lot of people think because I was a General, that’s the catch like a good country-western song. You want to catch everybody. Everybody has star potential and that’s part of our leadership responsibility.
It is 30 leadership principles. It’s a quick read. It’s a fast read. It’s mostly storytelling. I give a principle and I tell stories as to how I either lived that out successfully or failed. It’s also about failure. Again, there are no names in it because it wasn’t about naming a bad boss or any of that. It was about situations from being a young Lieutenant to being a General. Where I got it right, where I got it wrong. It seems I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people on how it’s helped them to lead themselves better.
The reason why I say the first person you must lead in you is because sometimes we get caught up in the “I’m a leader, I’m in a leadership position. I get to tell everybody what to do, but I don’t have to follow the rules myself.” I could not agree with that at all. When I first started out in the army, I always had that rank has its privileges. You always wanted to get to the next rank. As I grew up I went, “Rank has its privileges. I hate that saying.” I think it should have been, “Rank has its responsibilities and the higher you go, the more selfless you better be.” That’s the book. It’s on my website, BeckyHalstead.com. Keep it simple, soldier.
That’s our hook to get you on the show again to be able to talk about the book. I’m looking forward to reading that. I really appreciate your time and certainly your service to our country.
Thank you so much. I love your questions and I’m going to go back and try to catch up on all your episodes.
Thank you. Becky’s story, her background is so inspiring. If you listen to the things that she had to say, there’s something that you can take away and apply it in your own life in terms of how you behave and how you lead those around you. I am so looking forward to having her on again to discuss her book 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is You. I’m sure it’s going to be phenomenal. I can’t wait to finish reading it. If you know somebody that would benefit from reading this blog, I would ask that you forward it to them. If you haven’t subscribed, please subscribe to the show. It would mean the world to me as always if you would leave a rating or a comment on this or any other episode because that’s how this message continues to get out there about re-imagining leadership. Do we need it more than ever? Until our next episode, I hope you’re able to go out there and rise above your best. Peace.
- Becky Halstead
- The Grit Factor
- Three Seconds
- 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is You