Leadership lessons from a former Special Operations commander

To many people, Sept. 11, 2001, was the day the world changed. To Adm. Eric Olson, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, it was just the latest chapter in a long story.

The world, he said, “had in fact been changing for some time.”

But the attacks on that day did bring the changes to a new prominence. The world today, Olson told an audience at the FOSE conference in Washington, DC, is “chaotic. It is challenged by factors. I don’t mean to call them all threats. I don’t even mean they’re all negative. But they are factors that affect us.”

Technology has played a role in the changing of the world, although other factors have had as much or more impact Olson said. But he did touch on the rapid rise of social media in world affairs.

“It’s interesting that Facebook didn’t exist 10 years ago and it’s now how nations communicate with each other, [as in] the Arab Spring,” he said.

Facebook can help people understand how other people see the world differently, said Olson. But he also told a much lower-technology story to make the point. Like most Americans, he grew up looking at two-dimensional world maps with the United States in the center top and the Soviet Union split down the middle, the western half on the right end of the map and the eastern half on the left.

During his military career he did a stint with a United Nations organization and worked for a supervisor from the Soviet Union. In his office, the world map had the Soviet Union in the center and the United States divided.

“It just struck me, this guy doesn’t see the world the same way I do,” he said.

Olson has led a long and diverse career, culminating in his command of the Special Operations Command, which was born out of the failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran in 1979. He offered the audience five fundamentals of leadership:

  • Knowledge.
  • Decision-making.
  • Communication.
  • Incentivizing.
  • Vision, passion and energy.

He also offered some tactical tips for leaders, including:

  • Select the right people.
  • Train and educate the people.
  • Present adversity and see how they respond.
  • Show trust.
  • Hold your people to a high standard.
  • Live the life of a leader.

The life of the leader is not easy, he said, because it means never being off-duty and often standing apart from others. “People want to be led by their leader,” he said. “They have their own friends and buddies.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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