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“I see so many paralyzed by risk, but business is risk and failure is part of the game,” said General Peter Schoomaker, left, with Kellogg student and veteran Jeffrey Helfgott ’12. “That’s the baggage of leadership.”

Jeffery Helfgott

Leadership lessons from the military

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker shares the importance of ‘dropping ego, committing to others and busting through problems’

By Daniel P. Smith

12/16/2011 - General Peter Schoomaker knows a thing or two about strategic leadership.

The Army chief of staff from 2003-2007, Schoomaker built a career around brave, decisive leadership with a long-term view. He commanded U.S. forces in every major military action since 1980 and earned the respect of rank-and-file officers along with that of national leaders.
For Schoomaker, strategic leaders have the courage to make decisions and the ability to consider the value proposition as well as the nature of the problem at hand.

“Strategic leadership is all about context, not just content,” Schoomaker said.

The former head of U.S. Special Operations Command and retired general delivered his message to about 150 Kellogg students at the Donald P. Jacobs Center on Dec. 1.

Sponsored by the Kellogg Veterans Association, Schoomaker’s presentation, titled “Leading through Ambiguity,” put a spotlight on strategic leadership, a practice as critical to Schoomaker’s military world as to Kellogg students’ entrepreneurial ambitions.

“I see so many paralyzed by risk, but business is risk and failure is part of the game,” he said. “That’s the baggage of leadership.”

While Schoomaker provided a brief introduction laced with folksy anecdotes, he spent much of the hour-long presentation tackling student questions about issues such as the difference between leadership and management, spotting high-performance individuals, dealing with stress and the ability to turn failure into a better future.

In discussing the successful elements of military leadership that could be transferred to the business world, Schoomaker pointed to the Army’s ethos:

  • Place the mission first 
  • Never leave a fallen comrade behind 
  • Never quit 
  • Never accept defeat

“That’s about dropping ego, committing to others and busting through problems,” Schoomaker said.

When asked to assess decision-making as a byproduct of data or instinct, Schoomaker said both play a critical role.

“Strategic leaders look ahead to solve the problems they cannot see based on the info they can,” he said. “Yet, you want to arrive at the end result intact, so you can move forward again.”

Schoomaker stressed that strategic leadership varies significantly from other leadership roles, such as tactical or operational. As a result, strategic leaders cannot be bogged down by minute problems or focused on tactics with a short-term impact. A big-picture focus must dominate.

“The top leader has to have his head outside of the cockpit, looking laterally as much as forward to make sure the best decisions are being made,” he said.