Q&A: Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey on leadership, living a ‘felt life’

Brian Martin, for NBA.com

May 28, 2020 9:37 PM ET

From 'Radical Inclusion' to 'No Time For Spectators,' Gen. Martin Dempsey shares his experiences as a leader and trusted adviser.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey concluded his 41 years of military service in 2015, spending the final four years as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he served as the top military adviser to President Barack Obama. He now teaches leadership and public policy as a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University and serves as Chairman of USA Basketball.

In his new book “No Time For Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point To The West Wing,” Dempsey calls upon his decades of experience from battlefields in the Middle East to the Situation Room at the White House to examine the relationship between leaders and followers.

Dempsey spoke with NBA.com’s Brian Martin to discuss the key themes of the book, how they apply to these challenging times of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his work with NBA teams and USA Basketball.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Martin: When it came time to write a book and tackle the concept of leadership, how did you approach it differently than the many books about leadership that are out there?

Gen. Dempsey: I had actually written a book right after I retired from the military in 2015. One of the many things the military offers is a unique leader development opportunity; it's one of those professions where you either keep getting promoted and keep accepting positions of greater responsibility or you leave. So I felt I had experiences to share on the topic of leadership.

The title of that first book was Radical Inclusion, which I coauthored with Ori Brafman out of Berkeley. We talked about how important inclusiveness was becoming in a world that had, because of technology and social media, become a lot faster, a lot more complex, and created an environment which put leaders under a lot more scrutiny.

When I finished that book, I felt like I had neglected the other half of the equation. What I mean by that is the best organizations -- whether they are sports franchises, military organizations, corporate America, or academia -- are organizations where there's common expectations shared among leaders and followers.

In the first book, I didn’t talk much, if at all, about how to learn to be a trusted adviser or a credible, reliable follower. Yet, that’s important because if you work on only one end of the equation that end may pull its weight, but the other end will not.

Furthermore, even in the brief period of time between when I published the first book in 2018 and now, I felt like things were beginning to change again and too many people were just content to watch things happen without taking an active interest in them. They were content to “sit in the stands” and and criticize without contributing. It seemed to me that we were at risk of becoming paralyzed by so much information and so much divisiveness. So, I decided that I would write a book that addresses the responsibilities of both leaders and followers and try to get everybody in the game. As Gregg Popovich puts it, I would try to convince everyone how important it is in complex times to get “everybody in the huddle.”

Since everyone will be a follower and a leader at different times during their lives, how important is it to understand that duality and the fact that one side has to understand the other in order for the relationship to really work?

It’s not just important; it’s critical. When I went back and tried to catalog my different responsibilities and roles over the 41 years in the military, I was a follower and a trusted adviser (those terms are somewhat interchangeable) most of the time and only a senior leader a fraction of the time.

Understanding the attributes and qualities that you would want to see in someone senior to you always makes you more likely to be that kind of leader when the opportunity presents itself.

Between your experience in the military and your experience with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, how did you find the right balance of having a strong leader/follower relationship and also be the most productive?

As the senior military officer in the armed forces, I had a responsibility to lead the armed forces. But actually the most important part of my job was to be a trusted adviser to the President of the United States on matters of national security. Those can be competing responsibilities, but the idea was to make them complementary.

In other words, whatever I did, I had to make sure that I could accomplish both of those responsibilities. And that's what started me thinking about the attributes that go into a healthy, positive and productive relationship with leaders and followers. And that's how I came up with the nine chapters of the book.

To be clear though, this is not a book built around a checklist. I didn't want somebody to think you could pull this book off the shelf, look at a checklist, copy it and understand it. I wanted to make sure that I could illuminate these attributes through real life stories and provide readers with an opportunity to compare it to their own experiences.

Is there a real-life story you can share with us that illustrates this dynamic?

As Chairman, there is the matter of negotiating the defense budget every year on a very predictable timeline. The defense budget is prepared by the service chiefs -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines -- based on what they believe they need, and can justify, to do the things that they're asked to do for national security both today and in the future.

Then the budget goes across to the President of the United States. And the President, of course, as the Commander in Chief, has a sacred responsibility for national security. But he's got a lot of other things to accomplish for the country as well. He's got other domestic issues, whether it's health care or education or transportation, or infrastructure. So, there's always going to be some friction when that budget process starts and evolves because the chiefs are unlikely in any year to get exactly what they want. And the President in any year is unlikely to get everything he or -- hopefully someday -- she wants.

So, where the Chairman comes in is to try to make sure both sides of that equation understand each other. And that they trust each other. If I was able to develop trust among the Joint Chiefs, and if I was able to develop trust from the President of the United States, then I could be effective in finding solutions to this friction and making it creative friction, not destructive friction. And fortunately it mostly played out like that actually.

I love that term creative friction. It reminds me of several phrases used as chapter titles that included some great use of alliteration: limits of loyalty, sensible skepticism, responsibly rebellious, sweat the small stuff. Can you talk about these core tenets of the leader/follower relationship that you discuss in the book?

Let's take the issue of loyalty, which as it happens is much discussed currently. I thought it was a good time to share what I think loyalty really means. It’s got to be earned. It’s a two-way street. It has limits. 

It was important to point out in that chapter that disagreement before a decision is made is not disloyalty and should never be considered disloyalty. Because if a leader were to do that, if a leader were to state or imply that if you disagree with me you're being disloyal, then effective communications will shut down. It'll just shut down. And in the absence of those communications, suspicions and fear will take over the organization.

If, on the other hand, the leader makes it clear that he or she wants to have discussion, wants to be challenged, wants to know what everyone else around the table is thinking until they make a decision then that’s what they’ll get.  And followers need to acknowledge that once a leader makes a decision, unless it's an illegal decision, you follow it. I mean, that's just the way it ought to work.

I wanted to use examples in that chapter where I had these issues a few times in my career, up to and including in the Oval Office, where loyalty was kind of hanging in the balance. And fortunately, I’ve had the kind of relationships throughout my career where I could make it clear that not only am I not being disloyal by disagreeing, I'm actually trying to help you be the leader you want to be.

Sensible skepticism came to mind because we live in an age of ubiquitous information, often contradictory, and always with intense scrutiny.  I mean, you just can't escape things, which is a big factor making this current pandemic so overwhelming. You can't escape it. I mean, if you have an iPhone, it's going to populate with news feeds and stories and conspiracies and tweets and Facebook posts. And then you get tired of that and you go turn on your television, and there it is.

So in the absence of clarity and in an absence of trust, people simply go to their respective corners, where they're either completely dismissive of the pandemic or they're completely consumed by the pandemic. And there's very little room for a candid discussion, a fact-based conversation about it because everybody's so polarized.

Well, we’d be better off if sensible skepticism were a habit, where you just don't blatantly accept everything you hear, you apply your own reason to it, you apply your own knowledge to it, you seek knowledge, you apply your own experiences to it. Then you apply that little voice in your head that I call a character, which is also helpful. And with that little bit of sensible skepticism, we become more open minded. And when you become more open minded, the organization benefits.

When you look at how organizations actually innovate, it's normally when somebody pushes on the edges of what's considered the norm. I describe it as a little responsible rebelliousness.  I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “thinking outside the box.”  Well, the box got to be the box because it works. But when you need to innovate, you’ve got to push on the edges a bit. And provided you're doing it not for your own self-aggrandizement or not for nefarious reasons, but rather to innovate for the good of the of the entire organization and within the confines of the intent that's trying to be delivered, then rebelliousness can actually be responsible.

Look, you’re won’t see responsible rebelliousness on a Powerpoint slide describing an organization’s values, but it should be part of the culture.  But it only works if the leader reinforces it and creates a positive climate with and for those who are following. That's what makes things work.

You talk about the three main principles of decision-making being constantly gaining knowledge, learning from your experiences and using your character as a moral compass. I imagine that has to be at the forefront both during your time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as well as your time leading in combat. Can you tell me how you came to that philosophy and how you utilized that throughout your career?

It was first ingrained in me through my education at West Point and then reinforced throughout my career. The Army has a phrase to describe what we need in a soldier.  We want them to “Be, Know and Do.” We say that what the country needs of you is for you to be men and women of character, to know your job, and to do it successfully. And I turned that idea into something that might be a little clearer to civilian audiences, which is always working the three “buckets” you carry with you throughout life for knowledge, experience, and character.

The first of the three buckets is knowledge -- you’ve got to keep filling that bucket as you go, and not just with things that are in your comfort zone or in your particular expertise. I talk with college and high school graduates all the time and one of the things I always try to impress on them is they can't afford to think that their education is now complete. It's really just starting, and it should never end.

The second bucket is experience. For the most part, you seek out experience, and it's given to you in the jobs for which you're accepted. One thing I tell [the graduates] is don't wish away any job or any position, hoping to get to the next one, because you'll be missing out on gaining the experience you need to keep going and keep growing.

The last bucket is character because the last line of defense in making a good decision is character.  For the really hard decisions in life, after you’ve accumulated all the information you can, you're going to have to make a decision based on your heart, which is another way of saying based on the character you've developed over time. Our character is challenged and tested frequently in life, almost constantly. If you have character, consider it important, and keep adding to it, you’re going to be a better person and you're going to be a better leader.

Think of it this way. You really control very little in your life. When you think about the things you absolutely control in your life, you realize it’s not very much at all. But character is one. You actually do control your character. And so you ought not let it lie dormant.

I’m curious about the work you’re doing with the NBA and with USA Basketball and how you've seen this leader/follower dynamic play out in a team sports setting.

I travel around the league and I try to get four, five or six franchises every year during the season and interact with the various parts of each organization. We talk about team-building, leader development, trust, and responsibility. 

I've got a dream second career going because first I’m a sports junkie, in particular a basketball junkie, and what I get to do is to share ideas with high performing people who genuinely want to make a difference in this world. From players all the way through the team staff and coaches, they are all extraordinarily receptive and welcoming. So, it's been great.

If I had to pick a single message that I that I tried to provide to coaching staffs in particular, it would be that in my experience as a military leader, I always found we produced the best outcomes when I was able to influence someone to a certain conclusion rather than have to wield my authority.

It only makes sense. If you can influence someone toward a particular conclusion, then they take some ownership of it, it becomes partly theirs. And then when they go to implement it, whether it's a particular offense or defense or a particular community outreach, if you influence them, persuade them to do it, they're going to do it better than if you coerce them into doing it.  You can always wield your authority, and sometimes you may have to do so, but you're not going to get the same enthusiasm, the same ownership, the same commitment.  Better to start thinking about leadership as influence rather than authority.

There are a couple quotes from the book that I wanted to ask you about. You have a line that you repeat at the end of each of your introduction sections, whether it was deciding to go to West Point, or deciding to continue your military career, or even becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, you say “There are people in our lives who may know more about what's good for us than we do.” I thought it was interesting that someone that has had such incredible responsibility as a leader, seeing that major pieces of your life were determined not by you, but by other people helping guide you.

That's exactly why I put that repeating phrase in the introduction, because one of the things I worried about was that the book would be interpreted as just about me. This book is clearly partly memoir, partly leadership and partly followership. But the memoir parts are pretty prominent because most of the stories are obviously mine. But I wanted it to be clear right from the beginning that I believe in my heart that there is an “every man” quality to my life.

Yes, I ended up as the senior military leader in the country and was given all kinds of accolades and responsibilities, and all that was really cool. But this is not just a story of how to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I really wanted the book to be as applicable as possible -- to a parent trying to raise a child or to a financial adviser who has 10 clients or to the commissioner of the NBA who leads 30 franchises and 30 different owners. I wanted the book to be universally applicable, useful, and maybe even a bit interesting. And the way I chose to try to send that message was with that repeating phrase at the beginning of the book.

Another line that really stood out to me was the quote of “living a felt life.” I was hoping you can explain really what you mean by that, how you have been able to do that and why it's so important.

My publisher and I had a spirited discussion about whether I should use that phrase in the title or subtitle of the book, because it's a phrase that has haunted me in a positive way my entire life. I heard it in on one of my first days at West Point from the head of the Department of English. We were all dozing off while he was banging on about the literature and composition curriculum.  But at the end of the lecture, he said, you know what I want you all to take away from your experiences here at West Point is the quality of a felt life.

And I thought, I have no idea what he's talking about, but I want to know. So, what I believe I’ve learned is that you go through life and you have to know when to be in the moment.  If you're going to be a real contributor, you can't be too distracted by the iPhone in your pocket that's buzzing or by this ubiquitous information era in which we live.

But it's also about not wishing parts of your life away. I tell the plebes [freshmen cadets] that are entering West Point each year that those first years in our military academies can be a pretty challenging experience, even to the point of being an unpleasant experience at times. So, there's a tendency when you're faced with unpleasant experiences to wish them away. Like this pandemic, I mean, everybody is talking about how good it will be to get back to normal. Well, okay, but how long are you willing to wait before you try to actually confront the life you have and feel it.

Life is really short when you come right down to it. But if you can be in the moment and contribute and live the life you have, not artificially speed it up or wish it away, you can and will make a difference.  If you try to life a “felt” life, you’ll do a much better job of building positive, productive relationships.

Yeah, I love that phrase, but I also hope that my answer isn't everyone's answer. I just hope it provokes a bit of thought about what it really means to feel your life.

I wanted wrap things up by going back to the subtitle of your book -- The Lessons That Matter Most from West Point to the West Wing. So, what was the most important lesson you learned from West Point and what was the most important lesson you learned from the West Wing?

Oh, that's a great question. I do think the most important thing about West Point was relationships and learning about the things that contribute to a positive relationship of trust.

West Point is kind of purpose-built to cause you to fail on occasion -- whether it's a physical challenge, a field test, or in an academic setting -- they push you beyond what you think are your limits and help you understand how to make the best use of the limited time available to you. And you figure out that you are much better off with the help of classmates. You develop an uncommon understanding of the importance of trust. So, I would say that at West Point living a “felt” life included a deep appreciation for the importance of the team. 

Four decades later, I think the thing I took away from my time with President Obama was this idea of how to be a trusted adviser, which is now a course I teach at Duke University.  I think it's important to know what it means to be a trusted adviser.  And knowing whether you’re trusted turns out to be as much about “feeling” it as hearing it.

Ultimately, I left the job and my 41 years in the military, proud and optimistic about our country. I mean, you get to see things and you get to do things that really help you understand who we are as a nation. We don't get it right all the time -- I don't know that any anyone or anything gets it right all the time -- but we try, and I felt very good about that.

You’ve touched on the pandemic a few times and I find it interesting that this book seems so timely for the moment we’re in now, even though I know you had to have been working on this long before this crisis was on the horizon. How important do you see these concepts that you've kind of laid out here as being so important and present in the time that we're going through now?

I do feel as though the book -- which I wrote over the course of about 18 months -- is even more relevant now than when I started it.  

About halfway through my time as Chairman, in 2014, a lot of things changed globally as well as domestically. On the international side, you know, we had been focused like a laser beam on the threat of terrorism. But up until 2014 we had the luxury of dealing with it as a single threat.  All of a sudden in 2014, the Russians annexed Crimea, move into eastern Ukraine and start maneuvering on the borders of NATO in a threatening way. China moves into the South China Sea, starts doing oil exploration, and threatens our allies in the region. ISIS rears its head in northern Iraq.  Iran ramps up its behavior of acting out in the Gulf and, of course, Kim Jong un begins to threaten the Korean Peninsula, the region, and even our homeland with ballistic missile testing. And our last encounter with a threatening infectious disease, Ebola, began playing out in West Africa. 

All of a sudden national security became a lot more complex. But so did a lot of other things. Domestically, we still had the economic pressure of climbing out of the 2008 recession. There was an unmistakable feel of the hardening of politics. 

It seemed to me that in the face of increasing complexity, the right answer would be for everyone to get involved, everyone to try to develop a sense of belonging, and everyone to commit to trying to become more open minded and to build a little trust. And that's what this book is all about. 

The book suggests that if you face complex and uncomfortable issues, the answer is not to go to your corners and yell at each other. The answer is to actually try to contribute to finding a solution and try to find a way to trust each other more. And I don’t think I’m being pollyanish. I’m being very pragmatic, actually. That is the only way that we're going to solve some of these problems. You know, our complex and uncomfortable problems are not going to be solved by one political party or the other. They're not going to be solved by just the medical community. They're not going to be solved by just the United States of America. So, you’re right, the book feels a little prescient to me.

Is there anything else you would like to add before we wrap things up?

As I said earlier in the interview, I just couldn't be more pleased about the role I've been given with the NBA. The NBA’s leaders, at the league office and out in the franchises, have shown that they are candid, compassionate, inclusive, and engaged. They exemplify what I believe. That this is No Time for Spectators. 

No Time For Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most From West Point To The West Wing” by Martin Dempsey is available on Amazon


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