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March 30, 2022 | 22 Mins Read

Leadership Through the Lens of a Two-Star General

March 30, 2022 | 22 Mins Read

Leadership Through the Lens of a Two-Star General

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Sarah welcomes General Brent Baker, a retired two-star general with US Air Force who recently published a book on leadership with a collection of personal experiences over his 37-year USAF career who also currently leads PTC’s Federal, Aerospace and Defense business unit.

Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Nicastro. Today, we're going to be taking a look at leadership through the lens of a Two-Star General. I'm excited to welcome to the podcast today, General Brent Baker, who is a retired Two-Star General with the U.S Air Force. He recently published a book on leadership with a collection of personal experiences over his 37 year United States Air Force career. And he also currently leads PTC’s Federal Aerospace and Defense business unit. General Baker, welcome to the Future of Field Service podcast.

Brent Baker: Thank you, Sarah. It's really my pleasure to be here. It's exciting.

Sarah Nicastro: Yes, I'm excited to have you. Okay. So I got approval on this beforehand and I'm going to switch to calling you Brent. So I just want to throw that out there for the listeners that I okayed that.

Brent Baker: Perfect.

Sarah Nicastro: So, Brent, tell us a little bit more about your journey and how that led itself to this new book.

Brent Baker: Sure. Well, I really come from a military family. My father served, I had uncles who served, so I always kind of thought I would end up joining the military and serving my country and I did. So right after high school, I joined United States Air Force. I spent six years as an enlisted member. Then I went to officer training school and became an officer and spent 31 years really doing all things logistics for the Air Force. And I was very blessed and fortunate.

Brent Baker: I was promoted along the way and actually made the rank of Major General. So when you're an enlisted member and become an officer that term is called a mustang, and it's fairly rare to have a mustang officer. And then for those that to make general officer, I think it's even rarer. I don't know that exact percentage, but it's a very small percentage. So I was just really blessed to have an amazing Air Force career. I was a seven-time and commander of different organizations from small units to very large units. I spent a lot of time throughout the country, overseas. Moved 27 times in 37 years. So we did a lot of moving, but it was really a wonderful Air Force career. And then I just transitioned into the private sector as you mentioned, working for PTC, doing really all kinds of the latest technology and software.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So I guess before we even get into the questions that I had planned, how long ago was that transition into the public sector?

Brent Baker: So I've been, I transitioned out of the Air Force little, it's almost seven years. It'll be seven years this summer.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So how would you describe the biggest differences in leadership between the military and the public sector?

Brent Baker: Well, that's actually a wonderful question because before you leave the service, I don't think it's just the Air Force, you hear this in different services. You kind of hear all these horror stories. "Oh, it's dog eat dog in the private sector." And the only thing that matters is making the almighty dollar. But I will tell you, that has not been my experience. I've actually worked, I just did some consulting for a company that I worked with PTC, and it's been in a good way, very surprising how ethical these companies are and how much teamwork matters. And so my transition has actually been fairly easy because I feel like the companies that I've worked for, they're very similar to the Air Force when you talk about being honest, and doing what's right, and the importance of teamwork. So it's been about six years or so, but it really doesn't feel that much different to me to be quite honest.

Sarah Nicastro: You know, it's so funny how of course we all have our preconceived notions. Anyone that says they don't is lying. And it's, that wasn't the answer I was expecting. And the reason is because, now don't get me wrong, of course I would expect that things like integrity and honesty would be a part of the military experience. But to be quite honest, when you said that the impression in the military is that the private sector is more dog eat dog, I would think the opposite. Like I would think that the military experience is very harsh and hard and that's probably because of the perception that's created around a lot of it, but I think that's really interesting. That just wasn't the answer I was expecting.

Sarah Nicastro: So I think we'll talk about that a little bit more as we go, because we're going to talk a little bit about some of the experiences you had with leaders in the military and some of the experiences you had as a leader. And then we can also talk about what that's looked like since you've been on the outside. So when you think about your journey and you think of examples of leaders who had a very positive impact on you, what was it about their leadership styles, or traits, or tactics that left such a lasting impression?

Brent Baker: Well, I think one key characteristic is, I was really always drawn to those folks that I feel like lead by example. They don't just say a bunch of words, "Hey, here's some expectations" and they go do the opposite. I think I was really kind of drawn the leaders that would give you that speech, if you will, here's what we're going to do that then did it themselves. I've had a variety of leaders, commanders, and bosses throughout my years. And they're all very, they're all different, really is night and day. But I think that's one really, attribute, I would say is like this leading by example. A great example is, or another great attribute I look for, I think was kind of drawn to, is those folks that really took care of their people. A lot of leaders that say, "Oh yeah I care about my people. I want to take care of them." And then they don't necessarily do that.

Brent Baker: The leaders that I really tried to emulate, if you will, is the ones that really worked hard to take care of their people. I was very fortunate. I had some amazing bosses throughout my career that really helped me to get to where I ended up. That would've never happened without them, like putting me in for special awards or, recognize me with a decoration, or things like that. And that just showed me that's what I needed to do for my people. And so those are just really a couple examples of things I just noticed. Really in great leaders. And that's either in the Air Force or in the private sector side.

Sarah Nicastro: And I think what you're describing and even going back to the first question I asked just about your journey, you said a couple of times how fortunate you've been. And I think it's really important when someone can reflect on what they've achieved and recognize that it isn't a solitary effort. Okay. So the reality is, there are a lot of people that work hard, that for a variety of reasons, don't achieve certain goals, or objectives, or statuses, or what have you. And I think it's important to acknowledge that. I also think it's indicative of the type of character that makes for a strong leader, because there's this recognition that you can't do it alone. Right? And so when you talk about the attribute of the leaders you most admired, took care of their people, I think it's because really good leaders recognize that they really aren't that great on their own.

Sarah Nicastro: They are as strong as the sum of their parts, right? And so the more they recognize, and value, and nurture their teams, the better they become. It's the ones who are kind of self-centered and power hungry, who you feel bad when you work for them because you hear them talk about an accomplishment and they never mention the 20 people that helped them achieve that accomplishment. I mean, those are the opposite of what you're referring to. And I'm not exactly sure what adjectives you would use to describe those differences, but I do absolutely agree with you that one of the strongest leadership traits of today is this idea of taking the focus off of you and sharing that with the people that are on your team. So.

Brent Baker: Sarah, I agree a hundred percent. A matter of fact, one of the key, I would say one of the lines that kind of flows throughout my book is this idea of servant leadership. Some folks think you're the leader, you're on top. Everybody's serving you. And really the view is really kind of the opposite. Yes, you are the leader, but you're responsible for all these people. And part of your success is making sure they're successful. And so it's kind of taking that old mentality of, I'm in charge, I'm the leader, I'm due everything. Kind of switching that around and say, you're very fortunate, you're very blessed to be the leader. How are you taking care of the mission? How are you taking care of the people? It's just a different mindset. And that's one of the themes that I've tried to weave throughout my book. And the other one is, I think we're all leaders. I tell folks all the time, everybody has a leadership role. You may not consider yourself a leader, but you're leading someone whether it's a church, or a sports program, or your family. And so I tried to really kind of weave that theme in there as well. It's like, everyone's a leader and it's very important that you understand that.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative) You know, going back to the servant leadership thing, I think that's a really good point, but I would say, here's a comment. I want to see if you agree with this. I think servant leadership is important. I think there are a growing percentage of leaders who kind of embrace that mentality because they genuinely want to have a positive impact on people's lives. Okay. But let's take altruism out of the equation. Okay. And let's just look at it in terms of profit and loss, hitting goals, achieving objectives. There's also a reality that anything but servant leadership, anything, but building up teams is a recipe for failure today. And I think that's the nature of the digital age. I mean, the fact that business is not today what it was 20 or 30 years ago. The pace of change is so fast. The amount of data and volume of decision making and the diversity and skill sets that a company needs to be successful.

Sarah Nicastro: The idea of being like the one at the top, it's an impossible goal to have anymore. Which is why the leaders that are most successful are the ones who can curate the best team of talent and then empower that talent to do what it is they're good at. And I think the acknowledgement of that is kind of looking at the role servant leadership can play in helping your organization be successful. That's not to say, don't do it for the right reason. Do you know what I mean? Or do it because it's the right thing to do. But I'm just saying that, this old mentality of dog eat dog and do whatever it takes, at all costs, drive hard, treat people like lines on a spreadsheet type of thing, right. It just is not conducive to thriving in today's ecosystem. So I think there's something to be said too about acknowledging the fact that this idea of servant leadership is really a tool to help you grow your bottom line at the end of the day.

Brent Baker: No, I agree. I think you're talking a little bit about situational leadership as well. I think you really understand those folks that you read. There are times when you have to be very directive. Like if you're in a major crisis, I mean obviously, you have to be very directive in nature, but for the most part, I think you're exactly right. Folks have changed throughout time. Technology has changed. People do a lot more today than they've ever had to do. And I think a successful leader is one that's really understands that and is really a good team builder, that's able to be really good and effective teams. I think you'll get a lot more out of your team if you will, when you operate and lead that way.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Okay. So I asked you about the traits of the leaders that stand out in your mind. When you think about your own leadership, what characteristics or moments are you most proud of?

Brent Baker: Well, some of the moments I'm really proud of is, I talk a little bit about leading by example. I would say that's probably my strategy for leadership. I didn't really ask anyone to do anything that I hadn't done or wasn't doing at the time. Examples, Air Force implemented a new physical training program, if you will. And I was one of the first people to go out, really embrace it, and lead teams, and make sure that people weren't struggling, were able to pass the new PT test. So I've always tried to do that in everything I've done. The other thing I've really worked hard on is communication. And that's another key part I've got in my book about the importance of communication, because I think it's one of the toughest things we do. I mean, we've all played that telephone game where you start a conversation at one end of the room and by the other end, the message has completely changed.

Brent Baker: And I really worked hard on to communicate my message and the proper message. And sometimes I had very large organizations and so I had to be very creative how I did that. And then the other one I would just say is kind of the power of being positive. Which I really learned from my wife. She's a very positive person and I wasn't always positive in my life. And I started kind of, again, looking at her leadership style and I quickly realize that it's really, very powerful, this powerful of being positive. And so I started using that in my leadership style as well. So those are some of the things I'm really proud of. That I was able to be the leader and I think most people really enjoyed working with me. And so those are maybe two or three of the really big ones.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. Now you said you feel like everyone needs to recognize that they're a leader in some way. Okay. However, that doesn't necessarily mean everyone's a good leader. Right?

Brent Baker: Right.

Sarah Nicastro: So if you think about good leaders, like really good, great leaders, do you feel like those leaders are born or made?

Brent Baker: I've really thought a lot about that. And I even addressed that in my book and I really think it's a combination. I do believe there are some people that are just born with natural leadership traits that may, or conducive to leadership. But having said that, even if you don't have those inherit or born skills, I personally believe you can still be a great leader. And so, to me, it's a combination of both these, kind of what you're born with and then also being a great student of leadership. And that's another reason I really felt compelled to take the time to write this book because one thing I tried to do throughout my life and career, is really look for those good and bad leadership examples and to really learn from those. And then I also did a lot of reading. If I could find a leadership book, I would read it.

Brent Baker: And I really tried to make myself a student of leadership throughout my life and my career. And I would also say, even if you're born with those traits that make you a great leader, as we've already discussed, leadership is very situational. Times change. Technology changes. And so to me, if you're going to continue to hone your skill, you got to constantly be a student of that skill, whatever that is. In this case, we're talking leadership. That's why I think it's so important to constantly read and to be a lifelong student of leadership.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. I think that's a really good point. And I would say, the part that people are born with probably is more related to personality. Right. Because I mean, you're not necessarily born with any skills. I mean, you learn those. Right. And from experience. Right. But I think there are people that have certain personality characteristics that maybe make them either, A, more inclined to lead well, and then B, more magnetic where people are drawn to them. Right. And so, but what's interesting, we had an author on the podcast a few months ago, Jack Wiley. And he gave me a statistic from his research. I want to say it was around 70%. I might be off by a percentage point, but it's 70% of leaders have not had any formal training. And so it's interesting because there was a book written in, I think it was 1969, The Peter Principle, I don't know if you're familiar with it.

Brent Baker: Yes.

Sarah Nicastro: But essentially, the Peter principle is for those that aren't this idea that leaders are advanced and promoted to their level of incompetence. Meaning, you do such a good job in a role that you get promoted until at some point you're promoted into a role you're not competent to do. Right. And so I think this point that you're making about being a student of leadership is so very, very important because I think it is a bit different then kind of the older thinking of, "Okay, well, I've achieved this level and now I've earned it or I'm worthy of it, and now I just maintain it." Right. I don't think that that's the way to do it. And I think this idea of being aware that people change, times change, technology change, as you said, and making sure that you're investing in yourself as a leader is super, super important.

Brent Baker: It's a wonderful point. And I'm familiar with the Peter principle. I've heard it throughout my career. And I was always one of those folks where I never wanted to be an example of the Peter principle, if you will. And so to me, that student to leadership is kind of how I summarized that. I've got another part in the book where I talk about learn, grow, move. Because I think another way to make sure that doesn't happen or help prevent it is like once you become skilled in an area and you've really learned it, it's time to move. Some people are really comfortable in a job and they do it for years. But then when you do get promoted, you have to have a new skill set. So I see that as a student of leadership is, once you've kind of learned or mastered an area as best you can, you can't always control that, but the idea is, as soon as you can go do something new, that's the way to do it.

Brent Baker: And just a quick example. So, when I become the Vice Commander of Air Force Materiel Command, that was probably my largest command, if you will. Thousands of people, hundreds of millions, actually, I think billions of dollars. And I found myself pleasantly surprised that I was actually well prepared for that. I think it's because I had been a commander, I'd moved so many times, I'd done several different bases that was inside that command. And so my point is, I think being a student of leadership, that's the mentality that you have to have, that you've always learned, grow, moved. You got to learn more, you got to understand how people think and operate today. And that'll help hopefully make you avoid the Peter principle where you're always ready to lead.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah. So we talked about leading by example. We talked about treating people well. We talked about communication. Is there anything else that comes to mind when you think about leadership traits that are timeless?

Brent Baker: I think, and again, I want to just emphasize, that's really what I try to do in the book is really write something I think are timeless. I even put a small thing in there about email management. I'm not sure that's timeless. We'll probably have email forever, I guess. But the point is, I really tried to write this where these leadership examples and tips that I provide, I think are timeless and I really wanted to make them reflective and not prescriptive. And what I mean by that is, I want people to be able say like, "Well, what is my leadership style? How do I communicate? Am I positive person? Am I negative?" But just some simple things in here about the importance of being a mentor. I don't think that will change. I mean, people are always looking to those they work with and work for. How can they learn from it?

Brent Baker: I think being a mentor is really important. And one point I make in this book is, try to mentor those with a vision. They kind of know what they want to do in life. I was very big on that. Again, I think we talked about taking care of your folks. I don't think that changes. Throughout the years, I think that's going to be a very important principle. Expectations. One chapter I have in there is about setting expectations upfront. Again, I don't think that'll change. I think that's very important. So people understand who you are.

Brent Baker: One thing I always did when I took over unit, I would set expectations upfront. I would tell them about my leadership style because I wanted them to understand really who I was upfront. One thing I would say that I think has changed as a result of technology and I don't think it really should, but as a leader, I think you have to make tough decisions. And I think that's one maybe skill set as in leadership we've lost today. Because it's easy with technology just to push, just keep pushing the idea of the decision up to the next level because it's so easy today with advancement of technology. But to me, a leader has to make the tough calls, has to make the tough decisions. I think that's part of being a leader.

Sarah Nicastro: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Okay. Now, if you think about where you started and some of the leadership experiences you had early on, and then what all of this looks like today, are there characteristics or behaviors or tactics that are, I guess newer, or maybe weren't necessary at one point that had become more so today. Like is there anything different then the traits you consider timeless, that you think are important for folks to be thinking about today?

Brent Baker: Well, I think one that's, maybe a couple comes in my mind. One, is the power of technology. We've kind of discussed that, that's kind of been woven throughout our discussion, but technology and I work with technology today, I'm just constantly surprised at how fast technology is changing. With the invention, like the internet of things, augmented reality, virtual reality, remote service. I mean, we're so connected with phones, and iPads, and computers. To me, you can never get away from this technology. So I think that's one that as leaders, we really figure out. We have to figure out how to use it, to embrace it, and to make it work for us in a positive manner. A great example, for years the Air Force kind of tried to stay away from things like Facebook, and Twitter, and things like that.

Brent Baker: And looking back, that was probably a wrong decision because to me, that's what folks use today. So we need to figure out how to embrace it. So my point is, I think we got to figure out how to really embrace technology. And the other thing too, I think we have to look at the folks that we lead. How, what they respond to. My early generation, somebody they just told us "Hey, go out and do something." We just did it. They told us to do it. But you know, the young folks don't operate like that today. They want to understand why they're doing it, how it fits the mission, how it impacts the environment. I mean, I think they're bigger thinkers. And to me, you have to really be able to understand that if you want an effective leader.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there's more power in understanding it than there is ignoring it or hoping it'll change. Do you know what I mean? Like its, avoidance is not necessarily a good strategy. Okay. So you talked about being a student of leadership and continuing to learn and to grow. And I think that's super important, but I think that requires two parts in my mind. One is inspiration. Right. So, and the other is information. But I think with one, or if you only focus on one or the other, you're lacking something. Right. Because I think to your point, this idea of being positive. Right. And that can look different for different people. It's not about being fake or being a cheerleader, but it's about recognizing the fact that people look up to you and what tone are you setting type of thing.

Sarah Nicastro: I think particularly if you look at, I'm sure some hard circumstances you faced in the Air Force and you look at the fact that we've been in the midst of a pandemic for the last couple of years, there are times where that's not easy to do. And so that's where I think inspiration comes in. And then information in the sense of really learning those new skills, or methodologies, philosophies, the things that are going to help keep you up to speed. So how have you tackled this? What sources of inspiration or information have you found most helpful over the course of your career?

Brent Baker: Well, I think my inspiration really comes from a lot of different areas. And what I mean by that is, I always try to look for really good leadership and emulate that. So that's been the inspiration for me. And I mentioned it earlier, I think you can find that in all walks of life, all different genres. I think you can look for that. And that's one thing that's really inspired me, and I've tried to do the same thing. I've tried to encourage people to really look around for those amazing leaders, amazing leadership models, how did those folks inspire you. Or sometimes we learn more, I hate to say this, but from the negative examples, maybe there was somebody that did not inspire you, or made you feel bad about yourself, or maybe they were a toxic leader, things like that.

Brent Baker: I think you can learn a lot from that. And that can inspire you not to be like that. And the other thing, I've always encouraged folks to learn as much as they can. Read a variety of books. History. Read leadership books. Read whatever interests you, but really try to, even if you're not going to school, really try to expand your knowledge-base. Because, and there's one point I'm make in the book, as you become a really, a very senior leader, you have less time to be inspired, to read, to do all those things. You got to do that to me, as you're up and coming. And I use a diagram of an hourglass, because once you kind of go through the hourglass, that time you had to learn, and grow, and be inspired, now you're the senior leader. You don't have that time. I think there are folks that wait, maybe very late in life to try to learn some of this and it's really too late.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So any other words of wisdom for people related to leadership?

Brent Baker: Well, we talked a little bit about my book. I hope folks will pick it up. And I really want to tell you my motivation for writing the book was, I've been a student of leadership throughout my life and careers, I mentioned earlier. And I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper and I hope people will pick it up and read it. I've got 50 leadership tips in there. I've got 25 different chapters. I think it's very easy to read. I try to use a lot of good examples, a few bad examples woven in to give... And again, I wrote to be reflective. Not necessarily prescriptive. But I would say if you're a student of leadership, even if it's not my book, just continue to reach out, to find things like that, to continue to reach, continue to grow. Don't be afraid to take chances. I think being a good leader, once in a while, you have to take some chances. It's not cut and perfectly dry. Sometimes you have to take chances. And I think to be a good leader, you have to do that as well.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Good. All right. So the book is called, Orders from the General. And where can folks find the book?

Brent Baker: Well, you can find it several places. So it's actually on my website, which is, hbrentbakersr.com. You can find it at the publisher, which is X Libras, X-L-I-B-R-I-S.com. And you can also find it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And so, yeah again, I'd love for people to go out. And I want you to know my motivation is not to make money. My real motivation is, I hope people pick it up, and inspired by it, pass it along to somebody else. Keep it in their leadership library, refer to it now and then, and that would just really make me thrilled. Because that again, that was my motivation for producing it.

Sarah Nicastro: All right. Okay. General Baker. Well, I appreciate that. Everyone go check out the book. Thank you very much for coming and talking with me today.

Brent Baker: My pleasure, Sarah. Thanks so much. Wonderful interview. Thank you.

Sarah Nicastro: Yes, you can find more by visiting us at, futureoffieldservice.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, as well as Twitter at TheFutureOfFS. The Future of Field Service podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more at ifs.com. As always, thank for listening.