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Three Star General Offers Insight on Leadership to Students and Alumni

April 20, 2015
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Pictured: Honorable Frederick E. Vollrath, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Retired, and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management

When a three-star general asks you to stand up, put your hands above your head and clap, you do it. You don’t ask questions.

So it came as no surprise to General Frederick Vollrath (BBA ‘62) when some 250 people gathered at an April School of Business lecture obeyed his orders. But many of the School’s students and executives who came to hear his speech were left wondering why they’d just given a standing ovation to a man who hadn’t yet really begun his lecture.

“The real reason I asked you to do that is it’s a demonstration of leadership,” Vollrath said. “Why on earth did you do that and listen to someone like me?” 

And so began his insights on the practice of leadership, drawn from the lessons learned during 50 years in the military and business worlds, to kick off the inaugural Leadership Lecture organized by the School’s Johnson A. Edosomwan Leadership Institute.

These days, Vollrath said, top-notch leadership is more coveted than ever because success in the information age requires decision-makers who think outside the box. This is in contrast to the industrial age, when corporations needed assembly line workers who followed orders. Likewise, today’s military relies on individual leaders as weapons rather than massive groups of soldiers marching in formation. 

Still, he said, “there is a distinct lack of good leadership in the world.”

One essential quality is the willingness to take risks.

In a demonstration of leadership, General Vollrath had nearly 250 attendees comply with his request to stand and clap before his lecture even began. 

“You have to take risks and put your institution at risk in order to move forward,” Vollrath said, adding later in response to an audience member’s question: “Great leaders make decisions. Bad leaders drag their feet because they don’t want to make tough decisions.”

But not all risk-takers are good leaders, he warned.

“Leaders are created and developed,” he said. “I have never met a naturally born leader. There isn’t such a thing.”

Leaders must cultivate their own leadership philosophy and explain it to their followers. After all, he said, leadership is not abstract but rather a human process that is based on relationships.

“I treat everybody as an adult,” Vollrath said. “I demand complete honesty so they’ll feel free to say they screwed something up. It’s my job as a leader to solve problems other people can’t, and if they don’t tell me about that, there’s no way on Earth I can help!”

It follows that when employees are successful, they feel a loyalty toward their organization.

Vollrath cautioned that leaders must remember to utilize maintenance and change management. In other words, you need to be a dreamer and you need to keep an eye on the small things. “Everybody I have seen fail has failed because they focus on one in favor of another,” he said.

Another common mistake is promoting people who do a superb job in their own area of expertise – say, closing a megadeal with a client – without teaching them how to lead.

“Position does not equal leadership,” he said. “Leadership emanates from the person. Authority emanates from the position. Great success occurs when power and leadership come together.”

And finally, he said, leaders never stop learning. Even CEOs and four-star generals return to school.

For this reason, Johnson Edosomwan (BSIE ‘79, MSIE ‘80), whose donation created the Institute, envisions his lecture series continuing on for decades.

“Countries that are failing, businesses that are successful – all of them center around the issue of leadership,” said Edosomwan, who has observed the crucial role of leadership in governments and businesses on visits to more than 60 countries. “I am delighted that the University of Miami is taking a leadership role in making sure that the future of all our leaders is secure.”

Read Volrath's "How I Did It" story about the leadership approach he honed in the military.

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