Be Tactically Content And Strategically Restless: Interview With Brigadier General John Teichert

I recently went one on one with Brigadier General John Teichert, who recently retired from the United States Air Force and subsequently served as Senior Defense Official and Defense Attache to Iraq and Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force, International Affairs.

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks, or challenges have been the most instrumental to your growth?

John: Adam, thanks for letting me join you today. It is an honor and a privilege to do so.

I grew up on the tip of the country in Washington State, two hours northwest of Seattle. Most people look at me strange when I say that, because they don’t think there is anything to the west of Seattle other than seals, seaweed, and salt water. There actually is a peninsula of land that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean to the west of Seattle, and it was the perfect place to grow up.

My parents were loving and patriotic. They let me watch TOP GUN as an eighth grader in our small Port Angeles theater. It punctuated my desire to fly and I chose the Air Force instead of the Navy. After all, I marveled at the F-15E posters on my bedroom walls growing up, and these aircraft were amazing hunks of aluminum and titanium only flown by Air Force pilots! After graduating from college, I proudly swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and entered the United States Air Force. I have been committed to that oath ever since. 

While I enjoyed my time flying, I really started to love the long-term impact of leadership. Yet, the path of a leader isn’t always smooth. Shortly after I became a Squadron Commander, leading F-22 testing for the Air Force, my boss made clear to me that I wasn’t his choice for that position. I’m not quite sure why he thought that, but it seemed like my leadership career was over as it was really just getting started. 

I remember going home that night and telling my wife about the terminal nature of my leadership pathway. We talked about it, we thought about it, and we prayed about it. My big takeaway was simple: because I did not have to worry about any future promotion, I could be a committed selfless leader for my team without an ounce of self-interest.
As can only be described as a miracle, I was promoted early to Colonel out of that situation. Yet more importantly, the principles and practices of selfless leadership stuck. It was a challenge that transformed into an opportunity and has permanently shaped my leadership style.

Adam: What are the best leadership lessons you learned from your time in the military?

John: That is a great question, and there are so many answers from my 28 years in the military. But, I think there is one that tops them all because it transcends a position or a career.

The impact of a leader, when done right, can have positive, multi-generational impact. By deliberately prioritizing the development of leaders throughout an organization, a leader can create a swelling culture of leadership development and a tidal wave of leadership-minded personnel. 

This struck me most powerfully when I went to my first Wing Commander conference, where all commanders at this level get together for a 2-day meeting with the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. As I looked around, I noticed that there were seven of us in the fairly small room from the same squadron at the same time twenty years prior. As I pondered the reason why, I kept coming back to four leaders in that organization who made leadership development a priority. As a result, 20 years later, their foundation created conditions for the next generation of senior leaders. They had made a positive, multi-generational impact by prioritizing leadership development!

Adam: What do you believe are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

John: A leader is nothing without their team, and as a result, the defining qualities of an effective leader must be specifically matched to the defining needs of their team.

I have been convinced, in my reading of history and my consideration of the lives of people, that there are two fundamental needs in all of humanity. These needs span history and geography, culture, and class. People want to be loved and people want to be a part of something greater than themselves. A leader can be most effective when they target their actions, within the context of their organizational mission, to meeting these particular needs that are innate to humanity.

People want to be loved or cared for, not as a cog in a wheel, but as human beings. The ultimate manifestation of that for a leader is to help each individual on their team become the best possible version of themselves.

People also want to do something with their lives that matter. Thus, it becomes incumbent on a leader to understand their mission as a part of a bigger societal purpose and communicate that persistently and passionately throughout their organization. It ties their teams together and fosters an understanding of purpose and meaning that is compelling.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership to the next level?

John: I mentioned the word “love” in my previous answer, and it probably caught your attention. I often use the phrase “genuine care and concern” in its place, but I always intend for the concept to translate into an attitude of helping people become the best possible version of themselves. Essentially, it is a style of servant leadership that flips the hierarchical leadership pyramid upside down with the leader serving and supporting the rest of the organization.

Doing so sets the stage for the positive, multi-generational impact that I described previously. It also creates the cultural conditions for a motivated and growing workforce that thrives today.

Genuine care and concern doesn’t mean striving for popularity, upholding lax standards, or foregoing discipline. If you genuinely care for someone, then you will refuse to let them stagnate short of their potential. It also means that you will employ a range of leadership tools: inspiring, encouraging, equipping, challenging, convicting, and correcting. By using this range of tools, with the right intent and spirit, a leader can grow people in a targeted way that will resonate with them while meeting the needs of an organization and society.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading, and managing teams?

John: The best way for a leader to unleash the talent and spur the success of their teams is to embody a disciplined leadership style that inspires, guides, and motivates while avoiding overreach that can stifle initiative and hinder growth. It means that leaders should be spending time doing only those things that they can uniquely accomplish. To a large extent, it means the following major categories should almost exclusively guide their leadership activities:

  • Serving and supporting people and building relationships
  • Casting a bold and compelling vision
  • Setting broad limits in the pursuit of that vision
  • Appropriately resourcing the achievement of that vision
  • Breaking down barriers that hinder their teams and block the achievement of that vision
  • Getting out of the way

These concepts should be applied by leaders of teams at all levels, including those in government and politics. Doing anything else squanders time, saps initiative, and strangles talent.

Adam: What are your best tips for emerging leaders?

John: Adam, I encourage people at all levels to be tactically content and strategically restless as they strive for future growth and possible promotion.

The phrase tactically content is intended to remind people to thrive in their current locations and positions. Far too often, people miss out on opportunities for impact now because their gaze is too frequently misdirected to future possibilities. People have a great potential in the present, and they sometimes miss it because they are too eager for the next thing without realizing the benefits of influence by doing the current thing right. Additionally, they fall short of their potential because that future gaze prevents them from excelling in the present and their desired future doors are never opened to them.

The phrase strategically restless is intended to prompt a sufficient eagerness for self-development that should promote a careful consideration of current activities that may open future doors. No one should be satisfied with stagnation, and there are things we can all do now to develop ourselves for future opportunities without hindering current impact.

Adam: What are your best tips for senior leaders?

John: Adam, I will quickly share two of the best tips that have helped me and those senior leaders who I mentor.

First, senior leaders need to take care of themselves to be useful for their current position and for the long term. A senior leadership position is demanding and sometimes grueling, and a leader needs to find a lifestyle pattern that works for them while infusing practices in their lives that make the journey a sustainable one. I have heard it described as “putting your mask on first” from the flight attendant directions on an airplane. If the cabin pressure is lost in flight, and the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, those who can put on masks should put theirs on first. It isn’t out of selfishness, but actually out of a common good. If they don’t follow this practice, they will quickly become incapacitated and unable to help others. They will become a burden instead of a benefit to resolving the situation. The same is true of leaders.

Second, senior leaders need to be experts at gleaning context. As I was transitioning from middle-level leadership to senior-level leadership, I was made aware of a phrase known as “environmental scanning.” It had a huge impact on me because it reminded me of the responsibility of a senior leader to understand the bigger picture in which their organization operates. That perspective comes through the constant and careful consideration of scanning the environment – watching, reading, listening, and studying. The decisions of senior leaders need to be infused with an understanding of these broader considerations that provide context that is likely missing in the perspectives of the rest of the organization.  

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

John: That’s a great question, and I’m going to give you two related ones.

The first comes from Herb Koehler, the founder of Southwest Airlines. He would say that if you want to know the real values and priorities of an individual or an organization, you only need to look at two things – their calendar and their checkbook. How someone spends their money and their time, not what they say, provides the divining rod to what they truly value. As a result, all of us, and leaders in particular, need to be very deliberate about how we allocate these two precious resources. 

The second comes from an old-time book about time management that may have had the not-so-creative title of “Time Management.” This book essentially recommends that all of us create time budgets in our lives just like we do monetary budgets. After all, time is truly our most precious resource and proper stewardship requires the same type of diligence as do our finances. While I’ve never fully implemented that idea, the book did force me to more carefully consider how I allocate my time in reference to my priorities, goals, values, and desires. As a result, it has made me a better steward of the precious, limited resource of my fleeting time.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

John: The mantle of leadership is a massive joy, honor, privilege, and responsibility! When done right, it relentlessly unshackles creativity and unleashes talent while creating an environment of personal growth and development. Our society needs leaders at all levels who are inspirational, innovative, and integrity-filled. It is the key to unlocking shared humanity, mutual interests and common principles that can enable us to solve the significant challenges that we face together.

Originally posted on Adam Mendler, June 30, 2023.

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