A General's Advice on Personal Leadership with Gen. Dennis Via


Dennis Via was the Center's 2019 Leader-in-Residence. Via is an Executive Vice President and Defense Fellow with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Virginia, where he is a member of the Global Defense Group Leadership Team. He joined Booz Allen following retirement from the United States Army as a 4-Star General. In his final assignment, he led the largest global logistics command in the US Army and Department of Defense (DoD), comprising 120,000 military and civilian employees in 38 countries and 41 states, with an annual budget of $50B. 

Capt. Catherine Roy, Center Communications and Marketing Specialist, sat down with Via to capture his insights on leadership thanks to his wealth of experience. In one of our longest episodes, Via shares a few anecdotes relating to leadership interspersed with great instruction and advice for anyone interested in understanding the qualities of a strong leader as well as the strategy for becoming one.

We hope you will hear and follow along with the transcript to take in every word and refer back to this resource time and again. If you prefer, you may view this interview on YouTube. Via was also a panelist during the 2019 Business Leadership and Innovation Summit. Hear those remarks from the panel presentation on transitioning from a military to a civilian career.  

In this episode, we touch on the following leadership values from our publication titled "VMI Leader Journey:" vision, goals, positive attitude, responsibility, empathy, mentoring, inclusion, commitment, and character.

Transcript for A General's Advice on Personal Leadership with Gen. Dennis Via

CAPT. CATHERINE ROY: Welcome General Via thank you for being with us today to talk about your insights on leadership and ethics!  


ROY: We have a few questions that we'll ask and then and give you an opportunity to interject some of your own words of wisdom  

VIA: okay  

ROY: So, we'll just start off with, you know, the broad question we like to ask everybody is what does leadership mean to you? Just in a general sense. 

VIA: well, leadership to me is all about setting a vision establishing an environment for an organization and for the members of that organization to be able to achieve their goals and ambitions in life and being able to provide the environment that's supportive for them to be able to reach those goals and objectives that they would like to achieve and so to me leader has a responsibility to ensure that that environment is positive that it's caring that it's inclusive and that it's rewarding and rewarding in that it doesn't limit someone in their ability to be able to achieve what they want to achieve other than their God-given talents.  

ROY: How long is your career?  

VIA: I served 36 years.  

ROY: 36 years. And so now that you look back, how has your understanding or theory of leadership maybe evolved over your career? 

VIA: Well, certainly evolved from the time I was a second lieutenant where I was platoon leader leading probably 30 to 40 soldiers that were in my platoon to the end of my career or the pinnacle of my career where I commanded a global organization with 70,000 people from that standpoint, but even though my leadership style may have changed over time I think it was all about focusing on other people in my organization always invested in people always invested in understanding as I said as a lieutenant look my soldiers in the eye each and every day so understood where they were the challenges that they were facing the type of training and development that they needed so we could be able to achieve the mission that we had I think as I expand it was how would how to be able to do that at a higher scale a larger group organization how to message with that organization in a senior leader role and as I continue through my career at the company level you know 600 or so to the battalion level where we had over a thousand and then up to Brigade level where you've got about 3,000 soldiers that you're commanding and and at that time some civilians on up until the time that I come in at a very senior level but I found that the requirements to be able to lead an organization are the same and I always talked about command climate, the culture in the environment that's there, and that your soldiers your civilians they understand that you are committed and you genuinely care about them and the mission, that you're going to fight for the resources for them, you can provide them the division and where you want them to go, and you're going to be there to support them, and be on the frontlines with them as you go through and accomplish that. I think that to me is what was critically important. So, at the very senior level as I had organizations that were throughout the United States and overseas it required me to travel quite a bit and I visited those organizations so that I could better understand the challenges and issues and concerns in that location where it happened to be where when I was platoon leader I could do that right in front of my soldiers each day in the unit and so those pretty much stayed the same throughout.  

ROY: So you mentioned that you like to look your people right in the eye.  Would you say that you did more travel maybe than your peers for that reason or...?  

VIA: I don't know if I did more than my peers I think because I think my peers were doing the same but I felt that you could not command at your headquarters you had to go out and be on the ground and understand 1. the messaging or the guidance that you're providing at headquarters is it really reaching to out into those formations or out to those organizations you had to be able to articulate your message what they may hear and see and read about coming from a headquarters is much different when the commanders on the ground you can add that personal touch you can answer those questions that they may have you can make that connection with them and they very much appreciate because you have an opportunity for you to be real to those who may not have an opportunity to see you and so as when I commanded the army materiel command I had locations in almost all 50 states and it took me about two years to visit all of those locations but it was important for me to do so because I wanted to understand and know and get to know the people who were actually doing the work performing the mission performing the task it was very informative for me I learned from that I grew and understood the things that work that did not work I was not one shoe fits all so something that may work in an overseas location may not necessarily work in Fort Hood, Texas or at Fort Bragg North Carolina so was it allowed me to be able to have… to grow as a leader and have a better understanding of the guidance that I was providing as well as with my staff and the support that they were providing to the commanders on the ground.  

ROY: Where did you draw your inspiration from? Would did… would you say that you had a model or an exemplar or maybe a couple of them that you said, “I like that leadership style and I'm going to borrow this or that tactic from?”  

VIA: I was very fortunate to be able to observe and work with hundreds of leaders there were some leaders our work with that they just had they were born to be a leader they had those leadership traits that they were just  born with, but for the majority, you have to work at it I don't think I was a  natural-born leader so I observed traits from very effective leaders and their leadership styles and not so effective leaders and oftentimes I would say I learned more from the not so effective leaders of things not to do or style not to implement but I had great mentors along the way probably the first was, he's now, a Lieutenant General Bob Gray who was a  commander of the 82nd Signal Battalion. I met him when I was a second lieutenant he was a lieutenant colonel and as I watched him I said one day I'd like to be like Colonel Gray. that was at that time and he went on I had the good  privilege of working for General Hugh Shelton who was the division commander  and observing him and his leadership role along the way I was an aide-de-camp  to a Lieutenant General by name of Harold Davis and I learned from him how  to treat people his connection with people regardless of their rank he would  spend as much time and focus when he was speaking to a private and a corporal as  he would if he was talking to a major-general and so I learned so much  from him as well I learned from women leaders like general Ann Dunwoody who  was just a phenomenal general officer and leader the first woman four-star in  department of defense and she just had a very effective way of being able to  analyze a mission, build a team and a coalition, put some guidance in place, and  just really build morale to be able to accomplish also learn from great  soldiers and so not all were just general officers senior leaders I  learned from my platoon sergeant who taught me how to become a good leader  from warrant officers who taught me about supply and logistics and maintenance and  so there was just so many that I was picking from to put in my toolkit to be  able to utilize and grow as a leader and develop as a leader as I  go along what I found was common across all as first they were very competent in  their craft and their career field and so at every rank I wanted to be the  absolute best at that rank and that position no matter what the position was  even if it was an assignment that I didn't really desire well I didn't think  I did I wanted to be the absolute best. Commitment. You have to be committed to whatever you're doing and to the mission to be loyal to the command and the organization. I always said you are either doing something to help the organization if you're not you're not adding to the organization and then most importantly of all of all those is character integrity trust just upstanding committed professionals and so that was common across all those that I was able to serve with and observe and learn from.  

ROY: So, you mentioned three powerful character traits of a good leader and how you observe people over the course of your career from all of your role and positions. I also like the fact that you said no matter what the job or the assignment was you wanted to be the best in that position.  

VIA: Absolutely.  

ROY: As you talked about the three character traits that you most valued in leaders that you observed across the board that were common amongst the people that you served with or served under, what would you describe as your strategy for implementing those techniques? In other words, how do you how do you get in the mindset of saying this or that skill is something I want to add to my toolkit?  

VIA: well first make sure you have a clear understanding of what that what that skillset or that that style would be. You have to be yourself. You have to be genuine you have to be authentic and I never attempted to be someone I was not and as I mentioned they're natural-born leaders that I would look at and admire and say wow I'd like to be like that person but I understand there are limits in you know what I'm gifted to be able to do so one study, second I would read certainly a lot about leadership and leadership style, and then practice that in just a daily as you went about your daily tasks whether I had a staff when I was a staff officer in a battalion where I had only three of us four of us in the office to where I've got a large group and I would practice and see what was effective and I would do so in different audiences you know so if I happen to have a group of specialists that I'm talking to a private specialist I'm talking to from that standpoint or as I became a little bit more senior to lieutenants and captains majors and so I would leverage and utilize those different styles that I would see in practice until I could find my own what what worked for me what was comfortable for me and what seemed to be effective for me and as I continued to rise in more senior-level positions I would emulate that and so emulating what I saw was very positive as I mentioned some of the negative things that I witnessed as well I was very mindful not to allow that to take place and so I never would allow toxic leadership of toxic environments or subordinate leaders to have that kind of environment because I knew and I learned over time that that would impede the progress of the unit and its ability to accomplish its mission and it would lead to not have an account environment that I desired to have for the soldiers that I was privileged to lead.  
ROY: So, you talked about observing some people whose style you would not like to have you also mentioned the desire or the approach of not allowing a toxic environment. What would you say has been the most difficult decision you've ever had to make as a leader and then maybe as a follow-on what was the first issue that you ran in as a young officer?  

VIA: Okay, so I'll take the second question first. The first issue I ran into as a young officer I came into the army I was commissioned in May of ’80 and I was delayed entry until September and my platoon that I had that I was assigned at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was in signal and at that time my soldiers weren't some some were not of the best type of soldiers especially that we see today many had come into the army as a last resort of having done something in society and I told you but an army you've heard that before and so I had my first platoon was very challenging and the first challenge I faced was insubordination where there was a lack of respect for me for my position I was a second lieutenant and I was a platoon leader and I thought I was a pretty good lieutenant and many of the soldiers were disrespectful and I attempted to correct through normal means of addressing what's considered to be right and wrong behavior and what's acceptable and not acceptable behavior and working with my platoon sergeant but eventually we separated those soldiers out of the army and so I held the line to make sure that that was just not something I was going to tolerate so that was very challenging for me. Later on, probably one of the most and they were always challenging decisions that you have to make and you want to make sure you're making the right decision probably one of the most challenge was I had to relieve a brigade commander from his position and it was because of a toxic command climate and environment.   

ROY: And in a situation like that he's like relieved of duty and relieved of duty and has to leave the army?  

VIA: well not necessarily the army but had to leave that command and and so that was a very challenging decision it was the right decision based upon everything that had been investigated and substantiated but it still was very challenging because the impact of something like that on a unit is is very difficult when the leader has to leave and the unit continues on of course but that was one that I learned a lot from as well but I felt it it was the right decision at the time.  

ROY: So, transitioning now to something maybe a little more personal for the cadets. What are some mistakes perhaps that you made early on in your army career that you learned from and that you could share with the cadets as to here are some things or pitfalls you might avoid - learn from my mistake kind of thing? 

VIA: Overconfident you know there's a tendency that you've done so much especially if you've been in an ROTC program you're graduating from a university you happen to go on active duty and now you have a group of soldiers sailors airmen Marines that you're responsible for and so you can be overconfident that you you you certainly have your degree, you've gone through some very difficult courses and curriculum, but you don't have experience and so being overconfident you can go in and begin to make decisions and give guidance and actions without having to really have done the preparation. So, overconfidence first.  Take time to listen and observe before you act. There's a tendency to come in and act on something out of instinct and it may not be the right decision it may not be the right guidance, you may not have all the understanding the background I always talked about when you assume someone's position that let's say if you serve long enough you become the company XO or you become the company commander and right away you want to make changes because you're the new person and you direct changes and everyone's supporting you in implementing those changes but then you find out a month later those probably weren't the right changes the person before you had a plan in place maybe because of previous guidance they had received from the higher headquarters. An example is you may want to have your staff meeting on Tuesday morning as opposed to Monday morning and you change it to Monday morning I mean it changed it to Tuesday morning and all of a sudden you find out your first sergeant's not there why because the battalion command sergeant major has his or her meeting on Tuesday morning that's why the previous person had it on Monday morning. So, it's things like that is is maybe take more time to observe get a feel for the organization's the things that need to be corrected will jump out at you right away and you'll have time, but take time to learn to observe to listen to walk around a little bit and see what what are the conditions on the ground before you begin to direct and implement. Third is take time to grow and develop into a leader and and I'm not saying after you receive your commission or whether you going into the corporate world wherever you you're going to after you have been commissioned there's... take time to grow into that profession and to learn it doesn't stop the day you receive your Commission or you receive your diploma that's just a start as you go. And the last is judiciously guard your reputation. Your reputation I and when I would speak at commencement exercises,  I would say your resume will get you your first job mail and you your first job or your first position your first assignment but it'd be a reputation that will land you the rest and throughout my career I think the opportunities that I was presented and to either to serve or to be pulled into other types of organizations or opportunities that are opened to me was because of reputation that I had of being a team player, working well with others, being able to think analytically about problems and challenges, and being able to work hard and be committed to to the task at hand  

ROY: and you kind of answered already the the next question that we wanted to discuss which was advice for cadets in their leader develop me talked about of course observing, emulating, reading, study,  

VIA: yes  

ROY: then you also mentioned you know is there the one thing we haven't specifically addressed is what do you wish you knew as a college student that you know now that would have developed helped you better develop or more quickly develop your leadership journey  

VIA: Sure. I think to recognize and I put in these terms to know when you're in the moment there is so much that you're exposed to when your matriculating through college or through ROTC exposed to leaders at that point in time you may not think about it exposed to various conferences things that I’ve observed even at a time that I've been here the investment that's made by the faculty by the Institute itself and the various events is to recognize and take advantage of being in the moment to slow down enough to take in what's all there I think when you leave and when you depart and look back you know oftentimes you may say I wish I'd paid a little bit more attention in that particular class or I should have attended that opportunity to hear someone talk about whatever the topic happens to be. I often remind myself when I was in the Pentagon as a major working on what was called their army battle command systems it was a program when we were beginning to think about digitizing the army with all these different systems and capabilities and I worked hard in the Pentagon in that program for about a year or so but I remember when I left. I said,  "Thank goodness I'm gonna be away from that I have to worry about that again." and lo and behold about five years later I was assigned in Fort Hood Texas and guess where they're filling the first army battle command systems and I found out their third Corps was going to be the first unit and the 4th Infantry Division to field the army battle command systems and while I did certainly work hard in that position I found myself saying I wish I'd taken a little bit more time to learn about those programs and because I'm on the receiving end of it now and so so I would say just, again, recognize the opportunity to leverage the people that you have available to you in this type of environment, slow down enough to be able to realize and enjoy the moment that you're in recognize that it's a tremendous opportunity, it’s a unique opportunity that's truly a leadership laboratory and you learn so much that provides a great foundation for you so that when you do go out into whether your commission or whether you go out into your career field you are very well prepared for the start of the journey and I'll always say emphasize the start you really have just gotten a foundation and be humble enough to be able to go out and know that there's much more you have to learn to develop and grow and to be successful.  

ROY: So, you talked about... what I'm hearing you say is you observe people getting your feet wet basically in the organization, enjoying where you are... I think it sounds like observing and getting information from your surroundings understand the environment seems to be sort of essential wherever you're transitioning.  

VIA: Wherever.  

ROY: So, one of the classes wanted to know what role then does diligence and discipline play in improving yourself and others around you?  

VIA: well I in any career field profession you have to be diligent and what you're doing you have to be committed and you have to dedicate yourself and so the discipline part it comes into that is that that allows you to make sure you maintain focus on what you're attempting to do what you're attempting to achieve they're always going to be distractors out there you've always got to balance that'll get worse when you leave a structured environment. When you have a structured environment, you know point A to point B what time and that's pretty much laid out for you but when you leave here and when you when you leave college and you're at a first assignment or you at the basic course basic officer course or you're at that first job that you're going to the discipline be able to commit yourself to learning about this new profession that you're going into and build that competence that you need because competence will build your confidence in what you're doing and once you have the confidence then of course you're going to be recognized and noticed as contributing member of the team and so I found that every position that I moved to from the time I was commissioned - every assignment I had to have the discipline to learn about that new position and become very good at it, understand the right questions to ask the right data to look at and to be able to develop a strategy or plan and be able to have the discipline to execute that plan and so I think that's where that comes into play and so the discipline here I think I was speaking to a cadet about uniforms but the discipline don't pay attention to uniform is small things matter and paying attention to details oftentimes is the difference between success and failure and so discipline has a critical role into that I and it will for the rest of your life.    

ROY: How did your position or outlook change after the U.S. began to withdraw troops and minimize their presence in Iraq?   

VIA: OK. Well, I think part of this where we found some challenges within leadership is that leading in a combat area of operations in conducting operations there, which is a different environment than when you come back to a garrison environment, and so here you've been accustomed to being deployed downrange you know you conduct and you're given a task, say, to conduct a weapons range or firing range where the tasks that are different when you in a garrison environment how you handle the weapons ammunition. Again, attention to detail task conditions and standards that you have to follow and protocols and so I think that's a change as we've had less and less now at the end of combat operations in Iraq still conducting course operation in Afghanistan and other parts of the middle east and other contingencies around the world but it is a different environment under garrison environment so how do you sustain that how do you maintain that level of readiness the standards of discipline that you must have in place to continue to have a safe environment for our soldiers and civilians to be able to operate in. So, I've seen some of those changes take place not certain that gets it to the question that you're asking but I've seen that as part of the challenges of adjusting to a different leadership environment than one where your forward deployed with troops in a particular combat zone and when you're back in a garrison environment or standard training environment that has different conditions and in the way did you have to have to operate.  

ROY: Ok, do you have any other thoughts regarding you know what maybe a cadet would need to hear about you know good advice or words of wisdom?  

VIA: You know, I'll just close and just say that you know I think reputation is key and essential.  Reputation, relationships, investing in people, ensuring every member of the team is allowed to be a contributing member of the team. Work hard to guard you your reputation. Integrity is your watchword it has to be. Trust is the foundation of leadership. When you depart and you commission or you move out into another career field it's no longer about you, it's about the people that you're entrusted to lead and to serve with and so take time to get to know those that you serve with you never know the impact you could have on someone's life. You may not see it manifests itself for years in the future but you never know the impact that you have and remember the three points I made about competence, commitment, and character. And character being the most important - to maintain that in mind at all times because character is who you are and what you believe in and you know to continue to nurture and develop that character as you go along in your career I think it's critically important for you to be very successful in whatever endeavor that you choose. 

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