The Legacy of Leadership with Major General Craig Whelden

Major General Craig Whelden retired after 30 years in the US Army. He became the youngest general in the United States Army and then combined with another nine years, As a senior executive  with the SES within the U.S. Marine Corps. Now he’s a fortune 500 global speaker and an international bestselling author of Leadership, The art of inspiring people to be their best. In this episode we hack in to Craig wealth of leadership experience including:

  • The parallels of leading in the military to any other organization
  • The importance and power of Virtual Mentorship
  • The characteristics of Character
  • Humility is not thinking less of yourself – It’s thinking of yourself less!

The Leadership Hacker News

When as leaders, when we make decisions, it’s really important to consider the impact before taking action, right? So not just focused on what you could expect to happen, but also scenario planning and using the Kickstarter of what if to think about the other possibilities and other things that could happen. And I now think that was the case for a sushi restaurant in Taiwan, when they were setting out on their latest marketing campaign, a two-day promotion offered free sushi for the customer, along with five of their friends. If they arrived at the restaurant and then name contained the characters of G U that’s, G-U-I Y-U, which translates in Chinese to salmon.

Its left Taiwanese officials completely unamused. Taiwan allows people to change their name officially up to three times. So now officials in Taiwan, as urge folks not to change the name to salmon after 150 people took the unusual move to get free sushi.

Dozens of people have flocked to the government offices this week to change their name in a phenomenon dumb, salmon chaos. It comes after a sushi restaurant chain offered an all you can eat menu for any customer whose official ID card contain the name salmon. New salmon theme names reported in local media included Salmon Prince Meteor Salmon King, and Salmon fried Rice. Officials at the interior ministry said this kind of name change only a waste time and it causes a necessary paperwork. Chen Tsung-yen said that he’d earned the public to cherish these administrative resources. And he hopes that most people will be more rational about it. One college student jumped at the chance for free sushi, and now has a name that roughly translate to explosive good-looking salmon. Except I changed my name this morning to add the characters so that I could eat for free.

He said we already ate more than 7,000 Taiwanese dollars, which is about £176 (pounds sterling), and another woman has changed their name to salmon and two of her friends did the same and therefore, we just change it back the following day and bizarrely still the Daily News reported that one resident had decided to add and record 36 new characters to his name. Most of them were seafood theme and these included characters for crab, lobster, mussels, just in case that restaurant run another campaign. So, the leadership lesson here is be careful in your communication and marketing and be careful what you wish for. They may have real severe unintended consequences, but one thing is for sure, they certainly got some publicity from their marketing campaign. The things folk will do for free meal, huh? That’s been The Leadership Hacker News. If you have any interesting stories, please get in touch.

Start of Podcast

Steve Rush: Joining me on today’s show is Major General Craig Wheldon. His leadership career started out as a boy scout and then 30 years later was a youngest general in the army. Further nine years, he was a senior executive with the Marine Corps. Now retired, He’s a fortune 500 guest speaker and international best-selling author. Craig it’s a super pleasure to have you on The Leadership Hacker Podcast.

Major General Craig Whelden: Thanks Steve. I’m happy to be here.

Steve Rush: So, for those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to read Craig’s book, Leadership: The Art of Inspiring People to Be Their Best. It’s a real story of how Craig developed and evolved his leadership thinking and career across his army and his executive Marine Corps World. But Craig, for those that are listening in today for the first time, tell us a little bit about how that kind of came about and how you ended up as a Major General?

Major General Craig Whelden: Yeah, as you said, at age 14, I was an Eagle Scout, which is kind of the top level in boy scouting. And it was an interesting climb for me. It was more about the journey than it was the destination, but when I got to the top and again, I’m at age 14, they said, okay, you’ve now reached the top of scouting. You need to start leading. And I really didn’t know what they were talking about because at age 14 I hadn’t really led anything. So, it was kind of a cold water on the face. And over the course of the next years into high school and to college, and then 30 years in the army, in the private sector for a while. And then back with the Marine Corps, my leadership journey evolved over many, many decades and about two and a half years ago, when my wife said I’m ready to move from Hawaii back to the Mainland, somebody asked me, what are you going to do next?

And I said, well, what I’d really love to do is to give back to the next generation, those things that I have learned in the past four or five decades. And they said, well, you need to write a book. And I said, a book, are you kidding me? I was 67 years old. I’d never written a book before. And I thought I was a pretty fair writer. But this was a little bit intimidating, but to make a long story short, I wrote a book, I got the manuscript done and I then didn’t know what to do with it. So, I hired an editor and I said, hey, I’ve got the outline of a book here. It’s a 14-chapter book. And I’d like you to take a look at it and tell me what you think. And he did, and he said, nobody’s going to read this. And I said, wow, that’s another cold splash on the face. Why is that? And he said, that’s because it’s a memoir. It’s the story of your life. And you are not famous and you are not infamous. You’re not Boris Johnson. You’re not Jack the ripper. If you were one of those two people, people would buy your book because of who you are, no matter how good the book was or isn’t, wasn’t. So, I said, well, that was not my intent. I did not intend to write a memoir. What do you suggest? And he said, you’ve got wonderful leadership nuggets buried in these stories that you tell, find them, pull them out, make them chapter titles, and then fold your stories underneath the support each one of them. So, I went through the manuscript with a yellow highlighter. I found all those leadership nuggets, as he liked to call them, I pulled them out and made them chapter titles. And then I folded my stories underneath them. After I did that, he said, all right, now tell me what the most important leadership trait is. And I said, well, I think it’s a having strong character. And he said, well, then that should be chapter number one. And that’s how character, the basic building block of great leaders became chapter one.

Steve Rush: Awesome, I love that story. And how wrong was he? In so much as people weren’t buying it because it’s now an international bestseller. Available all over the world, and what I found when I read the book, Craig, is I felt like I was going on the evolution of your leadership career with you and also kind of experiencing some of the things that went alongside it.

Major General Craig Whelden: Yeah, I saw it. I’m a storyteller. And I think storytelling is the best form of communication that one can have. It’s time proven over thousands and thousands of years. That’s how history has been recorded. And so, I wanted a book that made the leadership points that people could put in their pocket and take with them. But I also wanted them to get to the end of each chapter and want to start reading the next chapter, like a Tom Clancy book or a John Grisham book or a James Patterson book, something like that, something that was fun, fun to read. And so, I wrote it in that vein.

Steve Rush: Great. So, throughout your military career, you’ve developed and learned and pivoted away, lots of different leadership experiences and leadership lessons. And we’ll get into some of those in a moment, but I guess one of the things I want to kick around with you first of all, is that after having such a successful career in the army and retiring as Major General, you then moved into the Marine Corps as an executive director. How was that transition moving from an army general to, I guess, a public sector role?

Major General Craig Whelden: Yeah, so I was a senior civilian. I was part of the, what they call in the United States, the senior executive service, which is kind of the civilian equivalent of being a General or an Admiral, but the Marine Corps is a special kind of culture. And it probably is for you all, the Royal Marine Corps. They like to think of themselves as a cut above the rest. There’s a certain pride, but there’s also a certain arrogance, I think, think of the Royal Marine Corps, think of the SAS. Think of the United States Marine Corps, think of a Delta Force and the Navy Seals and Army Rangers. Those are what most people think of as elite forces. And I would tell you that the United States Marine Corps thinks that they are an elite force. And I have to tell you that my nine years of experience with them, I would agree.

I would not want to meet a United States Marine or even a Royal Marine on the battlefield if I was an adversary, because they are a very, very special breed. Someone once asked the question, how does an ordinary American become a United States Marine? And the answer is there are no ordinary Americans in the United States Marines.

Steve Rush: Right, yeah.

Major General Craig Whelden: But I found that, you know, the fact that I was a retired two-star Army General, almost didn’t matter when I joined them, it took me about six or seven months for them to get comfortable enough to accept me as a member of their team. I had to demonstrate that I was worthy of their trust and that I could stand in their ranks. And I did that, but the first year was not rough, but it was an interesting ride. And from that point on, I felt like a good part of the team. I worked for six different three-star Generals and every single one of them were very, very different, but they were all magnificent leaders.

Steve Rush: What was the most-stark difference from a leadership perspective between your experience in the Army and the Marine Corps?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well, I like to tell people it’s the same church, just a different pew. So, there’s not a lot of difference between, there are some supered army leaders and a number of them. I referenced in my book because that’s where I had most of my experiences obviously in 30 years in uniform, but the Marine Corps is small. They have less than 100 Generals and a about 25 senior executives. Everybody knows everybody else. There are a couple of major bases, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast. And one in Japan that most Marines have been to, they are very adaptable to about any mission anywhere. They take great pride and being the 911 force for the nation, meaning that when the president of the United States says, I need somebody tonight. Then the United States Marine Corps says, send me.

And the army is a little bit slower by design a little bit more ponderous. And oftentimes through history, the Marine Corps were the first ones in. Followed by the United States Army. And then they relieve the Marines so that they could go back onto the ships and go somewhere else. There are Marines floating around on amphibious ships all over the world. We have about 30 amphibious ships in the United States, Navy whose only purpose is to carry the Marines and their equipment to hotspots around the world and to take care of Americans and their interests.

Steve Rush: Pretty interesting. Isn’t it? And the fact that you probably are one of the very few people on the planet, that’s got that lens from both perspectives. And I wonder, do you see that kind of transference between the armed forces in the U.S. a lot or not?

Major General Craig Whelden: Yeah, you know, I don’t know that. I mean, I don’t know anybody who has had the kind of experience that I’ve had with two different militaries at the senior level. I had seven years as a General Officer in the Army and nine years as a senior executive for the Marine Corps. That’s very, very unique. And again, I can’t think of a single person that I’m aware of that has had a similar experience. So, I also was the chief of staff of a Navy joint task force when I was an Army General. So, I spent some time at sea in support of a four-star led Navy Admiral. And that was very interesting too. Again, they’re all in the same church, they’re all just in different pews. And each one of them brings a unique capability to the nation’s needs just like your military does for you.

Steve Rush: Hmm, and I suspect it’s fairly similar in any military function across any jurisdiction in country across the world, but I’ve wondered what the reason is Craig, from your perspective, that armed forces don’t share their leadership talent pool more?

Major General Craig Whelden: We actually do that now. Back in the eighties, we didn’t, and I tell a quick story, that’s not in my book, but it’s an interesting story. We went into Grenada, your listeners may remember when the United States went into Grenada, a little Island in the Caribbean because we had the Cubans. Back then in the eighties, we were concerned about the Soviet Union, the expansion of Communism. And obviously the Soviet Union was trying to get into Cuba in a big way in any Island that they could influence in the Caribbean. But Cuba was a proxy for the Soviet Union. So, we had the Cubans going into Grenada. We had an American University there that was at some risk. And we used as the pretext for the invasion of Grenada. The security of the American students at that university.

And so, we went into a Grenada. It was a 1984, I believe. And an army ranger found himself on the outskirts of this university, looking for indirect fire, artillery fire in support of the attack that they were just about to do on this Cuban position. And he didn’t have any artillery, but as he looked over his shoulder, he saw an U.S. Navy ship with guns on it, sitting out about two, three miles off the shore, but he had no means to communicate with them. So, he went to a payphone and he called Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he had been stationed. And he said, I’m in Grenada. This was on a payphone. I’m in Grenada, I need some artillery fire. I can see a Navy ship with guns on it, but I can’t communicate to them. They then called the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia who contacted the ship.

They gave them the grid coordinates and they got the Naval gunfire on the position. But that very strange way of getting the two services to work together made very, very clear to the United States, Congress, that we had something that was very broken. So, they passed a law called Goldwater Nichols Act in the mid-eighties that forced the military to work together much, much more closely. And I can tell you today, the joint forces we like to call it. The combined forces of all the services and maximizing the strengths of all of them and making them interconnected has been time tested since desert shield, desert storm, just five years after Goldwater Nichols was passed. And I’m very comfortable that all the, at least in the United States that all the military services work together. Today, you cannot become a General unless you have had a joint service job working with another service, you have to have that in your background, in your experience, or you are by law, not allowed to be selected for General.

Steve Rush: That makes loads of sense. Doesn’t it? So, one of the things that struck me when I read your book was you have this really clear and very thoughtful approach, which I found really quite deliberate to how you set your stall out and to lead others. And I wondered if that’s something that came natural to you, or did you learn that from somebody else?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well, I’ve got a chapter in my book about mentorship and I talk about four different kinds. Assigned, and what that means is, hey, I’m going to sign you to be John’s mentor. The next one might be sought after, which is you seek to be the mentor of somebody else, or you seek to be mentored by somebody else. The third one would be self-appointed where I self-appoint myself to be your mentor. And the last one I like to call virtual. What does virtual mean? Virtual to me has been the most important. The one I have learned the most of. So, I want your listeners to imagine you’re walking down a path, it’s a dirt path in the woods. And on the path, there are rocks. The path represents your journey in life. The rocks represent the experiences that you have in your journey in your life.

As you see each of the rocks, those that represent the good experiences and those that represent the bad experiences, pick them up, put them in your backpack and carry them with you on your journey. So that when you get to a personal experience of your own, that is similar to one you have observed in the past. You can apply the good things that you learned, and you can avoid the bad things that you observed. So, I call that virtual mentorship. And for me, that’s been the most valuable means of learning about leaders, about leadership and about life that I can imagine. Walking down a journey, pick up those rocks along the way, put in your backpack. I’ve had more than a few experiences where I’ve said to myself, after observing a senior leader, do something, wow. I really like what I just saw.

I hope that if I ever get into a position like that, that I’m just like that. On the other side, I’ve also had experiences where I’ve said, wow, if I ever become a senior leader like that, I hope I’m never like that. And I think it’s important for people to remember those kinds of stark situations so that when they become, they have a sense of self-awareness when they become more senior, when they become older, they can say, yep, I’ve got a lot of ground that I’ve covered in my life, and I’m going to apply the techniques that really worked well. And I’m going to avoid the ones that did not work out so well.

Steve Rush: I love that metaphor of the dirt path and the rocks, by the way, because I think we can all have an experience where we’ve collected rocks, that as serve us well, and also, we’ve learned from other people that have maybe done things not so well.

Major General Craig Whelden: Absolutely.

Steve Rush: So, one of the tools and techniques that you have in your kitbag as you were one of the early adopters of using psychometric tools in the military, such as Myers-Briggs and so forth. And I remember from reading in your book, you did that quite early in your career. How did that additional lens help you and the teams that you had provided different perspective on things?

Major General Craig Whelden: For your listeners, Myers-Briggs is a personality test that you can find online. It’s a M-Y-E R-S-B-R-I-G-G-S. You just type it into Google and you’ll find it. It’s a test that you can take in 30 to 40 minutes, it’s very easy. And it gives you a sense for what kind of person you are, what is your personality? And they assign you a score that is a cluster of four different letters. I happen to be an I-S-T-J. Those are the four letters associated with my personality. And each of those letters stand for a component of my personality. I, as introvert S is sensing, T is thinking, J is judgmental. And when you look at the definition of what an ISTJ is, you get a very good sense for what kind of person this is, what kind of leader this person is and what their personal quirks might be.

So, the value of taking Myers-Briggs and having your team take Myers-Briggs is that there are 16 different profiles in this test. And you want to make sure that you understand how other people on your team conduct themselves. And you want them to understand how you are. So, every time I went into a new organization, I would explain to them that I’m an ISTJ. And let me tell you the definition of an ISTJ. Now you know, you have a window into my soul.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Major General Craig Whelden: You kind of know how I operate. And I would do that on a very, very first day that I was there and that if people were unfamiliar with Myers-Briggs, I’d set it up, so everybody could take the Myers-Briggs. The military uses that tool frequently. I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs in the military, probably half a dozen times over the past 40 years. And every single time I’ve taken that test, I turn out to be an ISTJ and it’s a very useful tool. If everybody in my organization was just like me, it would be a very boring organization. I have to tell you, and we would not be able to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of everybody on the team. So, understanding how everybody’s made up is a critical skill I think for leaders

Steve Rush: Now as a Major General, you also would have led other Generals in the Army, and I’m interested to know whether or not as your leadership career progressed and the seniority of the people you were leading changed to having leading more senior leaders, if that dynamic for you changed dramatically, or was it just in yours, same church, different Pew?

Major General Craig Whelden: So, when I was interviewed to be the executive director for Marine Corps forces Pacific in 2010, I went before a board of three people, two Generals, and a senior executive. And it was about a 30-minute interview. And when they got done, they asked me a question, which I’ve never forgotten. They asked me if you had just 30 seconds in an elevator to convince the selecting official, why you’re the right person for this job? What would you say? And I thought about that for a moment. And I said, well, first of all, I would not go over my qualifications because I would have assumed that the individual would have read my resume and would understand my experiences. And I would know that I was technically capable of doing the job or otherwise I wouldn’t be interviewing with them. So, what I would do is I would tell them the following, you can go out and find anybody.

And I mean, anybody that has worked for me, worked with me, or I have worked for, and they will all say the same thing about Craig Whelden. That’s what I said, now, why did I say that? I said that because over the course of many decades, working for other people, I found that some are near bipolar in their approach to leadership. They treat their seniors one way and they treat their subordinates a different way. And so too often, we discover that too late. And I wanted to make sure that the board understood that I’m an open book. What you see is what you get. And when you hire me, there are no surprises. Go talk to anybody in the planet. I have the confidence to be able to tell them that, hey, everybody’s going to tell you the same thing about me. I don’t treat, you know, a private one way and a General a different way.

Steve Rush: You being your authentic self also means that you get authentic responses back, right?

Major General Craig Whelden: That’s exactly right. Having a great sense of self-awareness, who you are, where you came from. That’s the reason I put character in the first chapter of my book. Character is this umbrella term, which encompasses a lot of characteristics like ambition, perseverance, self-awareness, empathy, humility, honesty, trust, integrity, charisma, and always taken responsibility of being a leader often while subordinating your own personal interests. I don’t know if there’s a Webster definition for this word, but there’s an element of what we call grit, having grit. And I talk about that in my first chapter as well, when times get tough, you double down and you get focused to accomplish the mission.

Steve Rush: And there’ve been many of those in your career, haven’t there?

Major General Craig Whelden: Had a few.

Steve Rush: So, you were actually a Stone throw away from the Pentagon in the 9/11 tragedy that happened in the U.S. and I recall in reading that the amount of grit you had to pull out of the bag on that day, what was your experience of leading others in and around an environment of absolute chaos at that time?

Major General Craig Whelden: For your listeners and for those who have not read the book. I was actually the Deputy Commander of U.S. Army Pacific in Hawaii on 9/11, but I was attending a conference in Washington DC, and it was a Stone’s throw. It was right across the highway from the Pentagon. You could actually see the Pentagon from my hotel room window. We were in the basement attending this conference, basement conference room. And when the first plane hit the first tower somebody came in and told us that. And we didn’t think a lot about it. Obviously, we were sad that an accident occurred, but we didn’t know what the weather was like in New York City. And we assumed that it was an accident just like everybody else did. And then when the second plane hit the second tower, we all knew that something was amiss.

So, we asked for the hotel where we were having the conference. We asked for them to bring a television into our conference room, so we could monitor the events in New York city. And we established contact with the Army operation center and the Pentagon, so we could keep track of what was going on, but it wasn’t very much longer. In fact, it was only about 18 minutes after that second plane hit the tower, that there was a huge explosion over at the Pentagon. And we couldn’t hear it because we are below ground. But when somebody ran in the room and said, hey, there’s been an explosion at the Pentagon, we all ran outside. We saw this big black plume of smoke. My first instinct was to call my wife in Hawaii to let her know that I was okay. And I couldn’t get through on a cell phone because everybody was trying to use their cell phone at that time.

So, I ran upstairs. Obviously, the conference was over. I got on a landline from my hotel room. I could see the burning wreckage of the Pentagon from my window, and I called my wife. It was four o’clock in the morning in Hawaii. And I said, there’s been an attack on the United States. Two airplanes have hit towers, the world trade center in New York. And something has occurred over at the Pentagon at the time. We didn’t know it was an airplane and please call the Pacific Army Operation Center. Let them know that I’m okay. And then call my parents in Indiana and let them know I’m okay, because everybody thought I was in the Pentagon attending this meeting. But the host for the meeting was at ground zero. He had probably 45 people in the hotel as part of this conference, that would be dead today.

Had they not scheduled the meeting on that day because his offices were right at the point of impact. And the two secretaries that he left there to man the phones were both killed. After I talked to my wife, I went over to the Pentagon. There was a chaotic scene. There were first responders coming from all corners, Virginia, Maryland, Washington, DC, Federal, State, Local. There are many, many people showing up to try to do what they could to help. And I went to the fire chief for Arlington County who appeared to be in charge of putting the fire out. And I said, what do you need? I was a two-star General and I was in uniform. So, he could see that, and he said, I could use blocking and bracing material to hold the sides of the building up so that when we go in there to either rescue people or recover bodies, that building doesn’t collapse on us. For your listeners, the Pentagon is the largest business building in the entire world.

And it’s five stories high, but it covers quite a bit of ground. There’s 25,000 people that work in the Pentagon every day. And there’s another three or 4,000 that visit the Pentagon every day. So, you could have upwards of 30,000 people in this one building at one time. I called the nearest Army Unit, which was the third infantry regiment nearby at Fort Myer, Virginia, again, for your listeners, that’s the ceremonial unit for the army that puts on all the parades and so forth for the President of the United States. But they also have a wartime mission and they are very, very good at what they do. They have an engineer company in their organization, and I said, the Fire Chief can use help. You have an engineer company; can you bring down material that he could use for blocking embracing material? And they said, yes, they could.

And about two hours later, I remember standing out on the grass in front of the hole, in the wall, the fire burned for almost two straight days. It was so hot and so spread out. So, it took a long time and I was standing next to an FBI Agent and Army trucks started rolling across the grass in front of us, headed towards the fire Chief and the FBI Agent turned to me and said, what are those? And I said, those are Army trucks bringing in block and embracing material for the Fire Chief. Why do you ask? And he said, because they’re driving over my crime scene. And I thought a moment. I said, wow, what a different perspective we have? The Fire Chief is trying to put out a fire and save lives. The FBI Chief or the FBI guy wants to basically tape the area off and make it a crime scene. That nobody disturbs his crime scene. Very, very different perspective. Later in the day, it appeared to me that they didn’t appear to be any one point where everything was being coordinated. And so, I found myself standing next to another FBI Agent, and I asked him if he was aware of any place where everything was being coordinated. And he said, no, but there is the Arlington County Sheriff Department has a command van up at the Navy Annex. That’s about half a mile from here. I’m going up there. Would you like to go? And I said, sure. So, I got into his black SUV, tinted windows, radios, everywhere, antennas coming out of the top. And I said, what is it that you do? He said, I’m the Chief of counterterrorism. And I said, okay, that explains why this thing looks like a James Bond car.

So, we get in the car, we start heading up there and he turns to me and he said, nobody knows this yet. And it’s very close hold. So, don’t tell anybody, but we shot an airplane down. And I said, really? He says, yeah, it was headed to Camp David, which is the retreat for the President of The United States. And one of our jets shot it down. Well, in fact, we didn’t shoot an airplane down. Passengers took an airplane down. It crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and that airplane was headed to Washington DC, but it took me about a week to 10 days to convince myself that there wasn’t a coverup going on at the highest levels of Government to avoid the fact that we had shot an airplane down. It became very aware to me through all the evidence that evolved in the coming days that we didn’t shoot an airplane down. We had some very, very brave passengers that prevented that airplane from flying into the U.S. Capitol.

Steve Rush: I should imagine there were many leadership lessons learned on that day from lots of different perspectives, right?

Major General Craig Whelden: Yup, yup, absolutely.

Steve Rush: So, when you look back over your varied career, Craig, has that been maybe a real standout lesson that you pull on throughout your career?

Major General Craig Whelden: I think the biggest lesson, if I was going to take one as a story, I already told about virtual mentorship. As you go through life and you observe the actions, the activities, the personalities, the leadership traits of other people, take notes, figuratively speaking, or literally, but take notes and put those in the back of your head and say to yourself, wow, that’s a great tactic technique or procedure to use that I can carry with me and use myself. I have borrowed from many, many people, dozens, if not hundreds of things that I’ve observed and seen in my lifetime and tried to replicate that because I thought so highly of it. But as I said earlier, also take note of the things that you want to make sure you never repeat. We’ve all seen them, your listeners have seen them, you say to yourself, wow, that is disgusting. I hope I never do that myself. So, I think if there was one thing that I would reflect back on and over the past 50 years, it’s the journey that I’ve been on and it’s the rocks that I’ve picked up and put into my rucksack and carried with me. And I’ve got many of them.

Steve Rush: It’s being conscious about that though. Isn’t it too? And making sure that you are deliberate in collecting those stories and those rocks for your rucksack, I think that’s the main thing that I’m hearing from you.

Major General Craig Whelden: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Steve Rush: Yeah. So, this is part of the show where I get to turn the lens a little bit and we’re going to hack into some more great ideas and tips and tools that you’ve maybe used throughout your career. And the first place I’d like us to go is for us to try and distill maybe your top three leadership hacks, tips or nuggets, what would they be?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well, there’s an old saying that treat others as you would like to be treated. I think that’s one of them. I have always imagined myself on the receiving end of a communications that I have with others and I treat people as I would like to be treated. So that would be number one, secondly, that when there are successes in your team, you should give the credit to your team. And when there are failures in your team, if you are the leader, you should take responsibility for those failures as well. Now that’s not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes there are obvious reasons why something failed and it may be directly attributable to somebody on your team. But generally speaking, give credit to others and take responsibility, give credit to others when things go well and take responsibility of yourself when things don’t go well.

And the last thing I think, particularly with senior leaders is to show humility. Humility is one of the most important character traits for a senior leader that you can have. I’m reminded of two quotes about this that are, and I’ll repeat them twice for your audience in case they want to write them down. CS Lewis once said, humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. Let me say that again. Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.

Steve Rush: I like that.

Major General Craig Whelden: And the other one was said by John Wooden. Most of your listeners probably don’t know who John Wooden was. He actually went to Purdue University, the same University I went to and he was in the fraternity that I was in, several generations before me. He’s passed away, but he won more collegiate basketball games and national championships than any basketball coach in us history.

Steve Rush: Wow.

Major General Craig Whelden: And one of the reasons he was such a winning coach was the way he developed his players. Not because of the skills that they had necessarily, but to make them better people and to make them better teammates. He said one time, and this is in my book. It’s at the very front of chapter one, John Wooden said, Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man given, be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

Steve Rush: Very neat, like that a lot. So, the next part I show Craig. We call this Hack to Attack. So, this is where something in your life or work hasn’t particularly worked out well. It could have even screwed up, but in the experience, we’ve used that as a learning and it’s now a positive or a force for good in your life at work. So, what would be your Hack to Attack?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well, I have a chapter in my book, chapter 18, actually your listeners can go read it for free. That’s on my website,, if they go to the book tab and then look down at a sample chapter, they can find it. It’s called light at the end of the tunnel. And the metaphor applies to you finding yourself in a dark place where you think things are not going well. And my experience over many, many years has been that many times it turns out just fine. I’ve got the story that I tell in light at the end of the tunnel is a personal one, about a divorce I had. Very early in my life and how I got through that. But let me tell you a professional iteration of that. I was in the army for 30 years. For the first 20 years. I was a tanker.

I was a cavalryman. I was training to fight America’s Wars. And that’s what I did for 20 years. I was in an all-male macho environment. Everybody that worked for me were soldiers. They were all men. And when I got to the 20-year point and I became a full Colonel, the Army said, we want you to be a Base Commander. And I said, a Base Commander. And for your listeners, that’s like being a town Mayor. I then was responsible for the quality of life of all the soldiers that lived on my base and all their family members. I had probably 45,000 constituents on my base, and it was in Germany. One of my many tours in Europe. And I said at the time, I don’t know anything about running a base and I don’t care to learn. I’m a tanker, I’m a cavalryman, that’s what I’d like to stay. And the good news is that I didn’t get out of that job. They put me in that job and the environment was so starkly different from anything I had experienced ever. And I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I was a Battalion Commander a few years before that I had a thousand soldiers, I had 58 tanks, another 50 vehicles. I had howitzers, I had infantry fighting vehicles and I was training to go to war. When I became a Base Commander, I had 3000 employees. 95% of them were civilian. 50% of them were women. 50% of them were German. Some of the Germans didn’t speak English. And I was charged with leading this very different and very diverse group in a very different mission set.

And when I went into that organization, I said to them, I know very, very little about running a base, but what I do know something about is judging people’s character and their capabilities. And so, I am counting on you to help me become a better Base Commander, become a better Commander for you and to help you when you need it, you need to tell me when you need help and what kind of help you need. So, I can bring those resources to bear. Now, the good news is that I had been a customer on that base for 18 months before I took command of the base itself. And you kind of know what good looks like as a customer. So, it was relatively easy to see when something was broken and not working well. You could have town halls and have people come there and complain about, you know, the electricity or the water or the life support or the food and beverage operations or the hotel or the childcare center or whatever it was that they had a complaint about.

And then I could attack that and do what I could. So that actually at the time I thought, wow, that’s a career ender. I’m done. It’s been a wonderful career and this’ll be the last thing I do. Well, I actually came out of that job and got selected to be a General and then carried from that point on, on a very different career path than I otherwise would have done because of the fact I was a former Base Commander and all the successes that I saw in my life, not just in the Army for the remaining 10 years, but also in my post civilian career and in the Marine Corps, all of those, I can wind back to the experience I had as a Base Commander. A job that I didn’t want when I first went into it, turned out to be the very best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. I learned more about myself. I learned more about leadership than I ever would have in that very different environment, that uncomfortable environment than I would have. If I’d stayed in the same old path. I was at a fork in the road. I thought I should go, right. And circumstances took me left. And I’m glad I did.

Steve Rush: It’s a great story and proves doesn’t it that sometimes the lack of comfort that discomfort creates more learning in this than if we are in a routine.

Major General Craig Whelden: It sure does an opportunity.

Steve Rush: Yeah, definitely. Craig the very last thing that we want to do today, Craig is to give you a chance to do some time travel. You get to go all the way back and bump into yourself at 21 and you get to give yourself some advice. So, what would it be?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well, I’m pretty comfortable with the leadership journey that I’ve been on. And I don’t know that I would change any of that, as I said early on, kind of started when I was 14 years old, when I became an Eagle Scout. So, your listeners may be surprised, but I think what I would say is that if I were to back at 21, the one thing I would start doing is to save money early. I would put away 10% of what I make. You won’t regret it. Your listeners won’t regret it. If they’re in their twenties now, I would say, start saving now because nothing is more valuable in terms of capital accumulation than time.

Steve Rush: It gives you choices.

Major General Craig Whelden: So, with that lesson learned, because I didn’t learn that lesson until I was in my forties, and that’s when I really started saving. With that lesson in mind, I have a five-year-old grandson that two years ago, I started an investment fund with, and I’m now putting a regular amount of money into that investment fund. And by the time he’s 21 years old, I’m hopeful that he’ll have a million dollars in that investment fund.

Steve Rush: Awesome.

Major General Craig Whelden: And I will probably say to him, assuming that I’m still around, his name is Jack. I will say, Jack, here’s the deal. As long as I am still alive, I will continue to put money into this fund. If you will, one, match it and to two, leave it there, leave it there for when you grow up, because you will not regret when you are 40 years old that I started this when you were two

Steve Rush: Wise words, Indeed. So, Craig, if folks are listening to us talk today and they want to continue the conversation with you, find out a little bit more about the work you’re doing now, and maybe get a copy of the book. Where’s the best place for us to send them?

Major General Craig Whelden: Well,, W-H-E-L-D-E-N. You can get a window into my soul as I said earlier on, there are podcasts there, there demo tapes of me speaking, there are blogs there, there’s reviews of my book, there are testimonials about me. There are all kinds of information you can find out, plus a link to Amazon. You can get it in print, in digital form or audio book. So that’s the best place to go. I think.

Steve Rush: Awesome. I loved every moment of being part of your journey through your book, through the conversation we’ve had before today. And indeed, talking with you today Craig. You are a really inspirational guy and I wish you every success of what happens next in your new chapter of your work and your career. And thank you for being part of our extended community here on The Leadership Hacker Podcast.

Major General Craig Whelden: Thanks, Steve. It’s been a wonderful discussion with you today. I’ve enjoyed it.

Steve Rush: Your very welcome.


Steve Rush: I genuinely want to say heartfelt thanks for taking time out of your day to listen in too. We do this in the service of helping others, and spreading the word of leadership. Without you listening in, there would be no show. So please subscribe now if you have not done so already. Share this podcast with your communities, network, and help us develop a community and a tribe of leadership hackers.

Finally, if you would like me to work with your senior team, your leadership community, keynote an event, or you would like to sponsor an episode. Please connect with us, by our social media. And you can do that by following and liking our pages on Twitter and Facebook our handler there @leadershiphacker. Instagram you can find us there @the_leadership_hacker and at YouTube, we are just Leadership Hacker, so that is me signing off. I am Steve Rush and I have been the leadership hacker.

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