Are you leading or ‘just out taking a walk?’ An Interview with LTG (Ret) Benjamin C. Freakley

Ben Freakley, Lieutenant General (Ret), is the first military leader I’ve had the opportunity to interview for this bold leader series, and boy did I get lucky. Now Special Advisor to the President of ASU for Leadership Initiatives, a Senior Advisor to The McCain Institute for Benjamin C Freakley ImageInternational Leadership and former Eagle Scout, one of the first things Ben said to me when I asked him about his path to bold leadership was, “I think it started when I was about 11 and joined the Boy Scouts. I have learned to be a leader, and by your definition of bold leader, yes, of course I have gotten things done.”

As we discussed development of leadership skills, Ben commented, “I once heard someone say, ‘If no one is following, you’re just out taking a walk.’” That set the tone for our whole enjoyable conversation.

“In the military, we do encourage people to be bold leaders. Not gamblers. You’re dealing with the treasure of the nation. You need to respect that, understand and have empathy for those in your command.”

Ben and I discussed what he called “e-leaders.” Men and women that “lead through email or PowerPoint” are examples. They may have the role or title, but they are not the kind of leaders that build meaningful followership. What I concluded, listening to his examples, is that the kind of bold leadership we are discussing is personal, present, hands-on, ears and eyes open leadership. I asked him about his approach.

“So if I take Afghanistan as an example,” he responded, “brutal heat, extreme conditions. We have to get the most out of each person. You can only do that by getting out with them. Know them. Be with them. Look at them, check their environment, understand them.” You have to get personal.

Through this Aveus series of interviews, we have confirmed that bold leaders, the way we have described them, are rare. I asked Ben if he agreed with that.

“I’ve thought about this a lot; these rare leaders,” he said. Here is a summary profile that Ben shared of the bold, rare leaders he sees:

  • First, they are self-disciplined. You cannot lead others if you are not disciplined yourself.
  • They are values-based. They may not stand on a soap box, but they have integrity, loyalty, and they behave based on those values. Respect is one strong value in all of them. Ben cited Sara Gavin as an example. She builds successful relationships with the people she leads by serving them and giving respect to each of them.
  • The essence of bold leadership is trust. If people trust you they will do their very best for you. Non-commissioned officers, Ben offers, are some of the best in the military at building trust. They are people who know what they are doing and have developed the ability to build followership.
  • Bold leaders are confident, not reckless, with an incredible work ethic.
  • They are optimists. They believe in what they are going to do.

Ben reflected, “I’ve known a few defeatists. People want to be around people that believe we can get it done. I’ve never understood what a leader gets out of being grumpy all day!”

I didn’t have to ask – Ben made the translation from his military experience to business and his work at Arizona State University. “Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with made the complex simple. Too many want to show how smart they are by demonstrating how complex things are.” In Afghanistan, Ben’s approach to making the complex simple was to ask, “Well, how is this going to help the people of Afghanistan? How will it make their lives better?” In his current role he focuses on “How is this going to help the students at Arizona State University?”

We talked about leading boldly during times of positive versus negative stress.

“I definitely think an authentic leader is an authentic leader under either positive or negative stress,” he said. “It is easy to be innovative, aggressive, bold and risk taking as long as you have resources. When you’re under huge constraints, or the bottom line is getting very flat, that is when you need to be even more bold, active, and engaged.”

Ben coined this phrase: “responsibility-based versus excuses-based leadership.” He said, “Responsible leaders, when they climb out of a difficult situation, are even more resilient, more capable, more competent than they were before the challenge. We are in adverse times. We have to accept that we all are facing adversity. People seek out the leader who can see through the adversity and help their team see how they are going to get to the other side.” These leaders also have to be the shield for their organization. Instead of transferring the pressure down, they must hold that adversity themselves. Ben described the worst thing in the military: losing a friend in combat. He said, “It is horrible. But you have to keep going. You can’t run home. You have to find ways to pick yourself up, your unit up and keep them going.”

As we ended on this notion of responsibility-based leadership, we discussed a recurring theme in these bold leader interviews: loneliness. “Absolutely this is true. The military actually codifies it: it is called the ‘Loneliness of Command.’ Even with peers, you often are called upon to make a decision. You’re the only one. All the work you’ve done, training and trusting your own instincts makes you ready. Bold leaders have the confidence to make the ‘what is right’ decision.”

My hunch leaving the conversation is that Lieutenant General (Ret) Benjamin C. Freakley hasn’t “just been out taking a walk” since he joined the Boy Scouts at 11 years old. And how fortunate we are that he shares his bold leadership so broadly in service to our nation.

Thank you, Ben.

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.