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Leaders Sacrifice with Bob Fricke '78

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  • Our Mission: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics (CLE) and VMI.
  • Your Hosts: Derek Pinkham, Conference Project Manager and Emily Coleman, Assistant Conference Planner
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Bob Fricke, VMI Class of 1978, was one of our leadership conference breakout speakers last year. Our breakout sessions of concurrent alumni speakers provided our audience with personal examples where individuals had to lead through or despite the disruption, addressing our theme. Fricke shared his definition of leadership and how that remained fairly consistent throughout his life and the powerful lesson he learned as a young lieutenant that's now carried over into a new teaching career. Said Fricke, teaching has tested his leadership more than any other job he's had from the military, FBI, and government contracting. Hear more of Fricke's insights and advice to new cadets or event new graduates!

Our Center's mission is to enhance the VMI citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leader development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests can share insights from their own leader's journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. In this episode, we touched on the following leadership competencies taught in the mandatory course on leadership in organizations and addressed in the publications VMI Leader Journey publication.


Transcript for “Leaders Sacrifice” with Bob Fricke ’78

ROBERT (BOB) FRICKE ’78: Leaders sacrifice. Leaders sometimes may lose their career to do the right thing and everybody that takes on that job has to be willing to do that. You have to… Everyone wants to go on and be a four-star general, but you might get kicked out of the army for doing the right thing and you have to be ready to do that. If you're not ready, don't put on the bars.

COLEMAN: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey podcast. 

PINKHAM: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics and VMI Post. We're on this journey with you.

COLEMAN: Hey, I'm Emily Coleman…

PINKHAM: and I'm Derek Pinkham… 

COLEMAN: and we're your hosts of the podcast.

PINKHAM: Mr. Robert Fricke, VMI Class of '78, is a former army field artillery officer, a former special agent in the FBI for 25 years, and is now an educator and instructor with a background in federal law enforcement, government intelligence, and compliance in high-risk and complex environments.

COLEMAN: Bob was a guest speaker at our VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics' Annual Leadership Conference in November 2019. And without further delay, we give you Bob Fricke.

COLEMAN: We are sitting down here with Bob Fricke. First, I just want to ask you what led you to VMI, you know, your background, and tell me about yourself.

FRICKE: My family was not really a military family, as in career, but we came from a part of Germany called Prussia which was where Frederick the Great [was from]. Military pride and military and military service is encouraged. My dad was a proud veteran of World War II in the U.S. Army I had relatives also in the German Army, uh but um, we... I just was always interested in military. I was a Civil War buff and I knew about VMI from the battle of New Market and I came through here on a high school trip and fell in love with it.

COLEMAN: Oh, really?

PINKHAM: Cool, that's interesting. Excellent.

COLEMAN: All right, so, what do you do now?

FRICKE: I’m a retired FBI agent. I teach high school.

COLEMAN: Okay, what are you teaching? 

FRICKE: I teach government.  

COLEMAN: Oh, okay. Wow!

FRICKE: Well, the problem is also I know the way it's supposed to be and I know the way it really is, and that makes it even more challenging. 

COLEMAN: Yeah, okay. so, what was your career?

FRICKE: I was an army officer and then an FBI agent. I was a support employee for a while. I didn't get right into new agents training, but I was an FBI agent.

COLEMAN: Okay.

FRICKE: That was most of my 30 years. Then, I did some contract work. 

COLEMAN: Okay 

FRICKE: After, I retired and contracting wasn't really… in Colorado Springs where I lived there's not a lot there and contracts get kept going up and down and canceled and depending on the budget. So, I did I got my teaching certificate and became a teacher. I’m also, licensed to teach German.

COLEMAN: Oh, really?

FRICKE: There are no openings for German so, I’m teaching government.

COLEMAN: How has your definition of leadership changed throughout your career? 

FRICKE: It hasn't changed much. My definition of leadership, it sounds like I got it from a book, but I came up with this on my own. I was thinking what is leadership? To me, it's ethical management of people or assets... and/or assets with a leader who is willing to take logical risks and accept to sacrifice. So, it hasn't changed the only thing that's changed is when I was in the army, it was more direct. I was actually… had troops that were under me 24/7.

COLEMAN: Right. 

FRICKE: In the FBI, [it’s] more like corporate America, where I manage different assets, different people at different times.

COLEMAN: Right. What about throughout your career VMI you know coming in as a rat? What did you think leadership was and then how did that evolve?

FRICKE: It was the same. I had this idea. I knew what… cadets who I thought were good leaders, who were bad leaders… So, I was… became a corporal, platoon sergeant, and my, uh, first-class year I was second battalion S1, which was adjutant. So, I was in leadership positions the whole of my cadetship. 

COLEMAN: Okay so, how did those leadership positions help you develop your leadership skills?

FRICKE: When I went on active duty, I’d already been experienced in being a leader as being the adjutant so, I already had some idea how to give orders.

COLEMAN: Okay. 

PINKHAM: Did VMI give you a little bit of a leg up on others?

FRICKE: Oh, definitely. Yeah, definitely. VMI was incredible. I was with a lot of young officers who didn't have the military school background and were struggling.

COLEMAN: So, what advice would you give cadets about their leadership development here?

FRICKE: Most important thing… there's two things: organization and anticipation.

PINKHAM: Interesting.

FRICKE: Now, organization. This is where ‘do as I say, not as I do…’ I’ve never been strong [at being organized]. It's… I’ve struggled with it. I wish I was better. Anticipation is something I’m better at and give you an example. When I knew I was coming to this conference, I knew that I should wear a suit. So, I also knew that they… that people, they lose luggage. So, I wore a suit. I brought two suits. I wore one. I put one on. That's how you have to think. That's… that's not really… that doesn't translate to a military situation, but that's how you have to anticipate. You have to be ready all the time when you're a military officer.

PINKHAM: So, did you lose your luggage?

FRICKE: No, I didn't.

PINKHAM: So, it worked out? 

FRICKE: Yeah. 

PINKHAM: Excellent. You had the contingency though. So, it's plan B, plan C...

FRICKE: [You] always have to be thinking of that. Always have to be thinking ahead.

COLEMAN: So, what do you wish that you knew as a cadet that you know now?

FRICKE: I remember when I was a cadet and I'd see junior officers, I thought these people are so, they know their job. If I get through VMI, I’m going to be an expert. They seemed so confident and I thought, “I’m going to be the same way.” Well, I wasn't. It was difficult and I almost developed an inferiority complex because I thought I should I should be better at this. Well, turned out, I was above average as my OERs reflected. I just was too hard on myself and…

COLEMAN: Yeah, yeah. So, don't be too hard on yourself. 

FRICKE: No.

COLEMAN: Don't beat yourself up for…

FRICKE: …and to be patient with yourself.

COLEMAN: Yeah, patient.

FRICKE: You have to work hard, but be patient.

COLEMAN: Right. Okay, great, um, so, what is the best advice that you would give a college graduate entering their first job coming out of a military school?

FRICKE: To, again, same thing, be patient. You need to work really hard to learn your job.  

COLEMAN: Yeah.

FRICKE: I think the confidence comes with learning your job. You need to go beyond what you're taught. You need to be an expert in whatever field it is and the training you're going to get maybe good enough for the corporation or for the for the military but it shouldn't be good enough for you should go even further to try and be an expert.

COLEMAN: What are some of some mistakes that you made early on in your career or even at VMI that you learned from? 

FRICKE: Bad temper, losing control, and I when I spoke earlier to the cadets, I mentioned this earlier and it's worth mentioning again… I had a sergeant named Sgt. First Class Bobby Henson who was like a father figure and I can't stress how important it is to have a good NCO [non-commissioned officer] to teach you the ropes…

COLEMAN: Right.

FRICKE: He took me aside one day. The officers above me… I was imitating what I was seeing. A lot of officers were… the military was difficult at that time. People were getting rifted out of the military. Reduction in force. And I was mimicking what I was seeing: losing control and yelling and screaming. He pulled me aside and he said you've got to be… he said, “Lieutenant, I see those jokers above you and how they're acting. Don't let them influence you. Your job as an officer… You have to be the coolest cat on the block. You've got to have ice water in your veins.” And that [advice] I’ve taken that with me ever since.

COLEMAN: That’s very interesting. 

PINKHAM: Do you know why at that moment that made an impact on you? 

FRICKE: Because I realized that he was right. I heard that here. This is, um, a lot of this is common sense, but as I said upstairs, common sense isn't that common.  I was told that here, but I didn't… once I’m in this environment, and people are losing control and yelling and screaming, and I just started doing it myself. [The] major's is yelling at me so, I’m going to yell at the sergeant and I just sort of fell into that and he's the one that sort of slapped me and said, “Don't forget, you've got to be… I don't care what they're doing… I don't care if they outrank you, you're an officer. You've got to be the coolest cat in the block and you've got to have ice water in your veins.”

COLEMAN: So, what are some practices as an effective leader that helped you on your leader [development] journey?

FRICKE: Most important thing is integrity and I think there's… it goes a little bit further than even what we learn here at VMI. I think there's a disease in this country right now of narcissism and people only return phone calls if they think there's something in it for them. People are rude and I’ve never… I’ve always been on time and I return phone calls and I treat everybody, subordinates, and superiors, with the same respect.

COLEMAN: Right. Yeah, that's very important. Kind of like having humility.

FRICKE: Exactly.

COLEMAN: Yeah, I think VMI does that to you, especially as a rat. You know, it's one of the things that they make you think about

FRICKE: It's hard going through the Rat Line but when you've gone through it and you've experienced life right after VMI, it all makes sense.

COLEMAN: Yeah, yeah. Do you think about your Rat Line now… [overlapping]

FRICKE: Oh, yeah.

COLEMAN: …and those things that you went through?

FRICKE: Usually laughing

COLEMAN: Okay, good. Probably back then you were crying... 

PINKHAM: That's good.

FRICKE: I’ve been here with my brother rats and we've been laughing, excuse me, laughing so hard, literally hyperventilating and thinking about some crazy things that that happened. 

COLEMAN: Oh man, I bet. I can’t imagine. I can see it. I can watch it. I grew up here so, I always watched. It was fun watching all the rats coming in and we're like, “Oh man, that's… that's rough.”

FRICKE: Yeah.

COLEMAN: But now, being here, and hearing everything? Like, wow, that really is rough! 

FRICKE: Yeah, oh, it’s rough. 

COLEMAN: But, I mean, it teaches you something.

FRICKE: Oh, it does.

COLEMAN: It's well worth it. Everyone says it is, you know. Nobody really regrets going through the Rat Line… or that they'll admit to.

PINKHAM: Yeah, right.

FRICKE: I think it helped me that my… I mentioned my German background.

COLEMAN: Right.

FRICKE: The Germans… my dad, my whole German family, very strict. Very disciplined. I love them, but they were strict and so it wasn't that hard on me here.

COLEMAN: Right. Yeah.

FRICKE: Getting yelled at was, I thought, this is just like I’m back home again!

COLEMAN: It's funny. Um, so, what military leadership skills translated well for you into the business world?

FRICKE: I think the same. I think being honest. Keeping meetings short. Treating people the way they should be treated and a lot of empathy. Trying to always see where they are. Try and feel what they're feeling. Not sympathy, although sometimes you have to be hard, but just have an understanding of what your subordinates are dealing with, and the more confident you are… a person is in his job, the better they lead.

COLEMAN: What has been the most difficult decision you've had to make as a leader?

FRICKE: When I was a second lieutenant, we had what's called a Report of Survey when damage is done to equipment. That's a second lieutenant, a junior officer investigates. I was in a lance missile battalion and we had a this is all obsolete now, it's… they don't, they no longer have, but it was nuclear-capable missiles and we had what they called a loader transporter. It was an armored vehicle that would come would that have to make the missile that have to put the warhead on the main missile assembly and this had a boom with a cable so that the soldiers would have to mate the missile put the fins on put it on the launcher. Two of my best soldiers were exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. They hadn't slept or eaten and they made a mistake and they forgot to turn the cable off and it cabled out, cabled in and it bent the boom. It did about 15 thousand dollars worth of damage. When I initially did the Report of Survey, the, uh, I thought… well, it was that… they're definitely at fault and this was very technical. I had papers with technical reports and I wanted to try and go easy on them. The brigade commander said you… it's not your… it's not up to you to go easy on them. You have to, if they're guilty, that's… you can't mitigate. You can't feel sorry for them. So, I had to write up the paperwork. These guys… one of them was married with kids. This would have taken two months’ pay. I had to sign that paperwork and, luckily, the colonel was able… I wasn't able to forgive them, but he was and he did. But when I signed that paperwork, I thought these guys were going to lose two months’ pay and it broke my heart. My dad at the time… I remember, I talked to my dad and he said, “That's your job as an officer and you have to do it and if that's what you have to do, that's what you have to do.”

PINKHAM: It's a tough lesson, right?

COLEMAN: Yeah, it is. So, I’m interested to know how does um you know all these leadership skills you have from the military translate to a government classroom with high schoolers? How's that?

FRICKE: I… it's an interesting question. There's more leadership involved in being a teacher than anything I’ve done.

COLEMAN: Oh, really? 

FRICKE: And it goes back to having ice water in your veins because what I’ve… what's… when teaching, I have to be there at 7:45 and I’m there till three. No matter what happens, no matter, what's going on in my life, I could have had my best friend die. I could have had my car totaled. I could have the house, the roof caved in… I have to be 100% on my game. I have to. It's not their fault and it's not their problem and I have to teach the class. Every other… even FBI, military, if I'm having a really bad day, I can say, “Hey guys, I'm just gonna… I'm just gonna sit over here and try and cope with this and I’ll… I’m to take a couple days easy.” Can't do that here. This, 100% of the time when I'm up there, I'm in charge of that classroom and I cannot be moping or sad no matter what's going on. So, that… it's really… this is probably least commensurate with my background, this teaching job. It's like… it's like a… it's like something I’m doing just to make ends meet until my last son is out of college, but it's actually more difficult, probably than anything I’ve done because you have to be… and I recommend it to the cadets. Everyone, if you can be a teacher, anytime, in any capacity, when you're starting out, you should do it because that's where you see. You have to be… that's where you have to have ice water in your veins. That's where you have to stand there and be consistent. 

COLEMAN: Did you learn anything new, leadership-wise, you know, going into the teaching world?

FRICKE: Well, I've had issues with it. Actually, with the… my students are seniors. They're 17 and 18. So, a lot of the issues I had with soldiers were similar.

COLEMAN: Oh, okay. 

PINKHAM: Adolescent problems.

FRICKE: Adolescent problems, yeah.

COLEMAN: I guess so, that's very interesting um so lastly, I want to ask what does leadership mean to you? I know you touched on it a little bit but… 

FRICKE: There's a huge difference between leadership and management. I’ve learned I don't like managers. Managers are leaders that don't take risk. I shouldn't say I don't like them. I don't like the position.

COLEMAN: Right. 

FRICKE: and the difference when you're in a place like the FBI, is night and day because managers are only thinking about doing the paperwork and they're thinking about their career and they're not taking risks for anybody. They're not sacrificing. The leaders sacrifice. Leaders sometimes may lose their careers to do the right thing.

COLEMAN: Right. 

FRICKE: Everybody that takes on that job has to be willing to do that. You have to. Everyone wants to go on and be a four-star general… 

COLEMAN: yeah

FRICKE: …but you might get kicked out of the army for doing the right thing. You have to be ready to do that. If you're not ready, don't put on the bars. 

COLEMAN: All right, well, thanks so, much!

FRICKE: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it, thank you.

COLEMAN: The Center for Leadership and Ethics would like to thank the following Cadet Caleb Minus class of '20 for the intro and backing music finds more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page @mynusofficial that's at m-y-n-u-s official Colonel David Gray United States Army retired director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics and of course as always our podcast guests. 

PINKHAM: Find this podcast and other CLE programming information on the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics website and try our YouTube channel. Follow the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics on FacebookTwitterYouTubeLinkedIn, and Instagram accounts. See you next episode of the journey. Thanks for tuning in.

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