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7 Leadership Lessons from a Medal of Honor Recipient

American hero Lieutenant General Robert F. Foley offers some wisdom born of experience


spinner image Dave Foley receives his diploma from his dad, Robert Foley, at West Point graduation exercises in 1994.
Dave Foley receives his diploma from his dad, Robert Foley, at West Point graduation exercises in 1994.
West  Point Association of Graduates via Casemate

On Nov. 5, 1966, Captain Robert Foley, 25, led a company assault on enemy machine gun positions in Quan Dau Tieng, Vietnam.

Pinned down by enemy fire and with both his radio operators hit, he grabbed a machine gun and charged the enemy, shouting orders and rallying his men.

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Foley was wounded by a grenade, but the assault succeeded. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and went to on reach the rank of lieutenant general in a 37-year career.

Now 81, Foley — who was 6 feet 7 inches and had chosen the Army over a college basketball scholarship — is the author of Standing Tall: Leadership Lessons in the Life of a Soldier.

AARP Veteran Report asked him for seven leadership lessons. You may not still be serving, but here are some lessons you can apply to everyday life:

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1. Develop moral courage

The ability to do the right thing is paramount. Respect and courtesy is one aspect, but Aristotle was correct when he wrote that character is a habit, the daily choice of right over wrong.

Basing decision-making on values is vital yet more difficult when you deal with more complex issues. Begin by recognizing the existence of a dilemma and then determine a course of action, even if it is unpopular.

If you get an order to do something that is wrong or won’t work, you need the moral courage to say so. In the military, you are dealing with matters of life and death. Doing the right thing is not always easy in the short term, but it works in the long term.

2. Lead by example

Sergeant Major of the Army Julius W. Gates once told me: “Be visible and be accessible”. Soldiers want to see you. Join them for lunch in the dining facility, sit in a muddy foxhole with them, run by their side on a misty early morning.

This establishes trust, confidence and cohesion, which is vital in a combat environment. A positive command environment is created by leaders reaching out to their fellow soldiers or employees who pursue excellence in all that they do every day.

Soldiers and civilian employees take pride in the camaraderie of a professional, upbeat organization in which they can feel good about who they are, where they are and where they are headed in life.

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3. Get into 'receive' mode

You need to carve out time to listen to your troops, cadets or employees, and you can’t do that from an office. Privates and lower-level office workers have great ideas. You want to hear from them, and they must feel confident in being able to speak to you and tell you what they think. Leaders who get it carve out time to listen, ask questions and establish the proper climate for the free flow of information.

spinner image Robert F. Foley shares leadership lessons veterans can apply to everyday life.
Courtesy: Casemate

4. Think outside the box

Don’t be afraid of new ideas or changing the process of doing business. Three important questions to ask are “What is it we do?”, “Why do we do it?” and “Why do we do it that way?” Ask those questions in any organization and you will find you are doing things you don’t need to do or things you are doing inefficiently.

5. Don’t try to do everything

Micromanagement doesn’t work. Delegating authority builds confidence, responsibility and a new generation of leaders. This is especially true in combat, when the soldier on the ground often knows the situation better than the commander.

Soldiers must have the flexibility to make changes and take initiative. In his book The Founding Fathers on Leadership , Donald T. Phillips wrote: “The mark of great leaders, whether they’re founding a nation or running a business is that they have an ability to delegate and trust people.”

6. Say no

In Vietnam, I was told that a rifle platoon was needed right away for an airmobile assault to secure a downed helicopter. I told the commanding general that a routine Vietcong tactic in the area was to ambush reinforcements sent to the aid of a smaller unit.

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Not wanting to take a chance with one platoon, I recommended that my entire company be given the mission. The general said there were not enough helicopters and walked away. I told the brigade executive officer that if he wanted it done, he would have to get someone else.

The plan was changed. We sent the entire company in two airlifts and the mission was a success. The helicopter was recovered, and we returned with no casualties.

7. Be prepared

Prepare in peacetime to succeed in war. Be ready to take bold, aggressive action to render your enemy powerless.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was lieutenant colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg. Confederate forces were expected to attack at any moment, and Chamberlain got orders that Little Round Top must be held at all costs.

The 20th Maine had suffered heavy casualties and was low on ammunition. Chamberlain’s company commanders wanted to move off the line. Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets and charge down the front of Little Round Top.

His men were prepared. The Confederate forces coming up the hill were so surprised they turned and ran. You will find that the more prepared you are, the luckier you are.

Standing Tall: Leadership Lessons in the Life of a Soldier is published by Casemate Press.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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