The Gulf War, August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991, was codenamed Operations Desert Shield until January 1991 for operations leading to the buildup of troops and defense of Saudi Arabia and an annexation of Kuwait arising from oil pricing and production disputes. It became Operation Desert Storm for five weeks commencing combat operations, and was a war waged by coalition forces from 35 nations led by the United States again Iraq.
It was also, in preparation for it in Third Infantry Division in Germany, a time of great anticipation and frustration when the troop list of units being deployed was delayed in the decision making process, and was the time I learned a good deal from a great boss about the importance of physical size and presence in the execution of leadership.
I have always been tall, big, loud, direct, and often, I’m told, scary. But MG Dutch Shoffner, my Division Commander and boss, and the dad of recently retired Fort Sill Fires Center Commanding General, MG Al Shoffner was, well, taller, bigger, louder, more direct and scarier. If that’s possible. And on a day near Christmas 1990, in an argument in his offic about what units were to fight (we all wanted in the mix but clearly could not be), Dutch Shoffner ordered me of out of his office angrily, and, rarely reported, tore his office phone out of the wall and launched it toward me. He was no pitcher, he missed, and I quickly escaped. And that was one of the good days.
But through what was to become the best relationship I ever had with a mentor, I learned a good deal about leadership, about signs one can send by being big and intimidating without exercising the downsides of those traits, while still maintaining a firm hand at the leadership of a large organization. Here’s a few things I have learned about leadership while being big and intimidating. And I’m sure the late General Shoffner mastered them all.
1. When you are big and intimidating you are naturally frightening to a lot of people, many who may be your subordinates and the last people you want scared of you, or concerned about your attitude or directness. Being aware of your voice volume, your own mannerisms, and taking a conversational rather that confrontational approach in discussions is likely the way to proceed.
2. Body language matters. Appearing relaxed and open, as difficult as that may be for many of us, is key in setting the condition for discussion, particularly with new relationship and individuals who don’t know you well. I always had to be very self-aware, or I could easily be clenched, and leaving the impression of a cat about to pounce. Being conscious of self is the key element. You must be aware of how you appear to others, and the first impression you create. I could always tell when General Shoffner was about to lose his carefully regulated temper. He would begin to rub his arm. And I knew it was time to leave, or stop talking. His body language gave him away. So does mine. And yours.
3. Where you sit matters. When you are big and intimidating you appear even more so when ensconced behind your desk talking at a person rather than with them. Unless taking a very official role, for instance, the imposition of punishment of some type, I always made it a point to move out from behind the desk, and sit with the other person or persons on a couch or around a table. Far more relaxing and collegial. Easy to do, but often forgotten how important that can be.
4. Countenance matters. Organizations inevitably take on the countenance of the leader. If the leader appears angry and arrogant, the organization and its people will appear angry and arrogant to the outside world. If the leader lacks confidence, the people who are being led will do so as well... So, the leader, particularly one who is big and intimidating, must consciously set the tone for the organization. Relaxed, confident and at ease are what many of us are going for, but getting there is often more difficult than it seems.
5. Tone and volume matter. If you are big and intimidating and loud, consciously turn down the volume, smile, seem as approachable and friendly as you can.
MG Dutch Shoffner became my greatest mentor and one of my best friends. We both fought the demon of being big and intimidating; perhaps he won it bigger and better than I did. But he brought me a long, long way.
Lee Baxter is a former commanding general of Fort Sill.