A Hero Is An Everyday, Ordinary Person Who Has Done Something Extraordinary
General Ann Dunwoody’s memoir “A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General” is so much more than just a re-cap of a remarkable career. While Dunwoody’s four decades in the U.S. Army would have made for a fascinating read in its own right, it’s the advice she gives that makes this book a must-read.
But don’t just take it from me.
Frances Hesselbein, 1998 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient, said “Dunwoody’s book provides inspiring military philosophy and on-the-ground leadership experience.” Hesselbein states the book is a must-read for all leaders “in every sector.” But Hesselbein is not alone in his judgment. The Roanoke Times in their book review also stated “this book should be required reading for every basic leadership class.”
In the foreword to “A Higher Standard,” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, writes, “What distinguishes Ann is not that she’s a woman, but that she is a spectacular and inspiring leader.”
I couldn’t agree more with Sandberg’s analysis.
Dunwoody inspires everyone – male or female, military or civilian – to hold themselves to a higher standard. Her book reads like a call to arms for men and women everywhere to blaze trails where there are none and persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. More poignantly, her leadership philosophies can be applied to anyone and not just those in the confines of high leadership positions.
Dunwoody presents each of the eleven chapters in the book as a mini-lesson in one of her leadership philosophies.
The book’s first chapter opens with what Dunwoody describes as the basic foundation of effective leadership. She credits the success of the U.S. Army as an organization to the fact that there is a standard set for soldiers from the moment they enlist. The standards for soldiers “are higher than for businessman or politicians.” However, Dunwoody believes that what sets some apart are “those who strive to exceed the standard” showing their commitment and competence. She calls this “A Higher Standard” and notes it is what separates run-of-the-mill businesses from Fortune 500 companies just like it does individuals within organizations.
When Dunwoody received her historic fourth star in 2008 from President George W. Bush, she was responsible for leading the U.S. Army Material Command (AMC). The AMC is a massive sixty-billion enterprise with sixty-nine thousand employees operating in fifty states and 145 countries. In this capacity, Dunwoody observed “one thing is clear to me: there is a higher standard that provides the foundation upon which every effective leadership journey is built. It’s the difference between the leaders who excel and the leaders who fail.”
Other lessons include “Never Walk by a Mistake” in which Dunwoody talks about some of the mistakes she made in her career and the lessons learned along the way. Dunwoody uses the example of having to issue a young captain a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR) for driving under the influence of alcohol in 2005. Dunwoody decided that the official reprimand would remain a permanent part of the officer’s military record to ensure the captain understood the severity of his offense.
Years later, Dunwoody received a letter from that same officer’s battalion commander asking that the GOMOR be removed from the officer’s official file. The reason given was the officer matured and had proved to be an outstanding leader. Dunwoody didn’t hesitate removing the GOMOR from his official file. “Never reward bad behavior,” says Dunwoody but do give second chances when they are earned.
However, the most poignant lesson for me was in Chapter 3 “Leaders Aren’t Invincible – Don’t Try to Be” when Dunwoody discusses the death of a close friend, Major General Harry Greene, who was killed by an Afghan soldier in Kabul in 2014. His death, ambushed and killed by a supposed ally, shook Dunwoody to the core. How could someone she had a close friendship with be killed so violently and unexpectedly? Dunwoody is once again reminded of the military oath of enlistment and realizes at certain times in her career being in the military means “to kill, or be killed in combat.”
But Dunwoody applies this leadership lesson not just to those in the military but to leaders everywhere. Dunwoody acknowledges the most effective leaders “were the ones who knew they were simply human” and describes the enemy within as a feeling of invincibility. This Dunwoody believes is a dangerous mindset and plainly tells readers to not fall for it. Good leaders know they are mere mortals.
It is with this lesson in humbleness that Dunwoody so succulently sums up who she is. While some people might develop an ego or air of invincibility after such a remarkable career, Dunwoody stays grounded. She doesn’t allow her accomplishments or tremendous influence to seep into a sense of superiority or invincibility. Dunwoody acknowledges her mistakes and imperfections and uses them to her advantage while also acknowledging she is “simply human.” It is Dunwoody’s ability to remain grounded in her modest roots that may be the most remarkable aspect of her entire character.
The overall message of “A Higher Standard” can be best summarized by Dunwoody’s own definition of what makes someone great.
“A hero is an everyday, ordinary person who has done something extraordinary. Honor them, praise them, and hope you will stand for what you believe in during a time of need.”