What is leadership, and what are the keys to becoming an effective leader? In this third installment of our series on leadership, we discuss concepts of leadership with three members of UMGC’s leadership team who also served as officers in the U.S. military.
Nicole DeRamus, PhD, is a 27-year veteran who served as a U.S. Navy Captain. She currently serves as assistant vice president of veterans programs in Stateside Military Operations (SMO) at UMGC, where she oversees veteran student services and support programs through the Veterans Certification Office and the Veterans Initiatives and Outreach Office.
Major General Lloyd "Milo" Miles (U.S. Army, Ret.) served in the military for more than 32 years in a distinguished career before joining UMGC. He currently serves as senior vice president of global military operations where he oversees the administration and management of the university's operations and partnerships in more than 20 countries and territories in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
James Cronin is vice president and director of the Asia Division at UMGC. Cronin joined the university in April 2000, after retiring from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel. He has focused on expanding enrollment and improving the functionality of UMGC's military portals. He was inducted into the International Adult Continuing Education Hall of Fame in November 2017.
How would you define leadership?
DERAMUS: Leadership is a reflection of character. Leaders with character own their decisions because they know those decisions not only govern their lives but the lives of others. Leaders with character never ask anyone to do something that they are unwilling to do themselves. They lead by example, and they subscribe to an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality. They believe in the collective team.
MILES: Leadership is influencing people to follow. It is not based upon rank or position within an organization. For example, an informal leader within a business unit might have more influence among his/her peers than the organizational leader.
CRONIN: To me leadership always involves people. It is getting a group of people to bond together to achieve goals no matter how difficult. In the military, we like to say, “mission first and people always.” This means understanding that, as we work to achieve our mission, we need to have our people constantly in our thoughts, so that what we do to accomplish the mission comes with minimal negative impact on our people. Effective leaders also don't need to be defined or in a certain position; rather, leaders come from any place in the organization. When things are difficult, leaders will rise to the top.
What do you consider the primary role or objective of a leader, and how would you differentiate leadership from management?
DERAMUS: You lead people and manage processes. Leaders inspire, motivate, engage, coach, and direct. They are perceptive in determining which of these actions is needed based on the circumstance.
MILES: Leaders provide the vision and direction of the unit. They organize for the task or mission at hand, align the activities with the senior leader's vision, provide or obtain resources to accomplish the tasks, analyze and assess the performance of the team, and provide constructive feedback. Renowned author and management consultant Peter Drucker said, "Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things." I agree with that simple statement that differentiates the two terms.
CRONIN: A leader needs to be a visionary—to define to their teams where they are going and how to get there. In the military, you were always taught to take the time to go over our intent with your team, so they knew where you wanted to go and could act in your absence. Leaders also plan the strategic way ahead, so the entire team knows the big picture. Finally, the leader is always taking care of his/her team members, advocating for their success even if it means leaving the team for a better job.
Are there certain personality types or traits that make for good leaders, or can anyone learn to lead?
DERAMUS: Leadership is a privilege. You must earn the right to lead. Moral principles govern a leader with character. Leaders with character are humble, patient, and compassionate. They are also decisive, confident, and trustworthy. They are not self-seeking; instead they are responsible and dependable. They are skilled communicators—knowing how to listen and how to be heard. They know how to earn the trust of their team.
MILES: I believe there are some "natural leaders" who possess certain personality traits that contribute to their ability to lead. However, I also believe most people can learn to be good leaders with the right training, coaching, and opportunities. Some of the most important leadership traits are honesty and integrity, the ability to communicate effectively (orally and in writing), determination, willingness to listen and seek input from others (including subordinates), humility, empathy, and flexibility of the mind.
CRONIN: There are lots of traits that make up good leaders, such as courage, loyalty, integrity, time management, self-awareness, ability to communicate, trust, and empathy. Some folks are natural leaders, but most must work at it and learn over time how to be a good leader. It is when facing difficult decisions and hard situations that someone is able to forge and improve these traits. Again, you can learn to be a good leader, but you must do so by constant practice and self-reflection. It requires a lot of discipline and desire.
Give an example of how effective leadership has had a decisive impact on your military and/or professional career.
MILES: Decades later, I can still recall my first day in the military. I was a young officer, right out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I was responsible for leading a combat infantry platoon of 37 men. All of the noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were Vietnam veterans with 10 to 15 years of military experience. Even the most junior soldiers in the unit had more military experience than me, but I was the officer and organizational leader. From day one, I had to put pride aside and ask the NCOs if they would teach me and guide me in the areas that my officer training did not cover or was insufficient. The NCOs respected the fact that this "know-nothing" lieutenant would ask them and respect them for their knowledge and expertise. They took me under their wing and developed me into a leader that they could be proud of.
CRONIN: Effective leadership, whether it was from the leader or when I was able to do it, has had a decisive impact on both my military and professional career. Whenever my team members could feel that I was right there with them in the most challenging time, they have always risen to the challenge, and we were successful as a team. One recent example is how the Asia division handled the outbreak of COVID-19. We were among first in the world to deal with it in Korea, and I had to use all my leadership skills to inspire and support my team effectively through a lot of unknowns.
Has your approach to leadership changed over your career?
DERAMUS: Yes, now I seek to be in the center of God’s will for my life. That allows me to lead with purpose.
MILES: Certainly. As a young leader, I treated most issues as either/or and black/white situations. As I matured, I realized that the tough issues are never black or white, but many shades of gray. With maturity, I became more empathetic, more humble, and more introspective about the impact of my decisions had on others. I realized that leadership is not about you, but rather enabling your people to succeed.
CRONIN: Yes, completely. Earlier in my career I was much more hands-on and wanted to show I was leading. As I get older (and perhaps wiser) it is a combination of being more in the background but always modeling to my team members the right thing to do. There are time-tested things I learned in the military that I still use today, but I've had to do things in a different way.
What kinds of leadership skills can one learn in a degree program at UMGC?
DERAMUS: Degree programs at UMGC provide knowledge and greater insights in various areas. That insight produces greater accountability and opportunity to apply that knowledge.
CRONIN: I think what you can learn in a degree program at UMGC—a lot of the theory of leadership—can provide a foundation, but one still needs to do it. For example, the Master of Science in transformational leadership program can help students who have military experience to build on their leadership training to fit in that role as a civilian, but much of that theory still has to be put into motion.