Upcoming Webinar for Admissions Professionals • July 9, 2pm ET



Leading with Compassion and Character with Major General H.D. “Jake” Polumbo

Episode Cover Art: Leading with Compassion and Character with Major General H.D. Jake Polumbo

In this episode, we diverge a bit from our usual discussion around higher ed marketing to talk about leadership, which is a topic relevant to anyone who has to work with and through others.

Joining us in that conversation is retired Air Force Major General, H. D. “Jake” Polumbo. Over his 34 year career in the Air Force, General Polumbo acquired a great deal of wisdom around how to lead and manage others, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Among many other things, we discuss why leaders need to demonstrate compassion for their team, the importance of leaders publicly owning up to mistakes, tips for making decisions with limited information, and why character and integrity are essential for any leader.

Get a signed copy of General Polumbo’s book, Leadership at 30,000 Feet in Two Easy Steps:

  1. Visit us on Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes) and leave a review (good, bad, or indifferent, it doesn’t matter).
  2. Email us at podcast@echodelta.co with your shipping details. Your book will arrive in a few days!

Links in this Episode:

Website: twoblueaces.com

Amazon: Leadership at 30,000 Feet


Jarrett Smith: You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher ed and the broader world of marketing to find actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts.

In this episode, we’ll be diverging a bit from our normal discussion around higher-ed marketing to talk about leadership, which is a topic relevant to anyone in higher ed who has to work with and through others, even if you don’t have formal management responsibility. Joining us in that conversation is retired Air Force Major General, H.D. Jake Polumbo.

Over his 34-year career in the Air Force, General Polumbo has acquired a great deal of wisdom around how to lead and manage others, even under the most challenging circumstances. We talk about why leaders need to demonstrate compassion for their teams, the importance of leaders publicly owning up to their mistakes, tips for making decisions with limited information, and why character and integrity are essential for any leader. Near the end of the episode, I explain how you can get a signed copy of his book, Leadership at 30,000 Feet, for free, so be sure to check that out.

Now, before we start, a few quick notes on General Polumbo’s background. General Polumbo is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and over his career, he served in numerous positions of leadership around the globe. He holds the distinction as the first and only U.S. Air Force general officer to fly the U-2S in combat. He completed 21 missions in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He is the cofounder of Two Blue Aces, a leadership and strategy consulting firm, and he currently sits on the Aviation Advisory Boards for the Business School of Hawaii Pacific University and Southeastern University. He also assists with the Operation of the Advanced Mobility Institute at Florida Polytechnic University.

So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with General Jake Polumbo. General Polumbo, welcome to the show.

General Polumbo: Thanks, Jarrett. It’s great to be back in Winter Haven, my hometown.

Jarrett Smith: Good deal. Well, thank you so much for being here. I’m really excited for this conversation we’re about to have and the book you’ve written, Leadership from 30,000 Feet. Think it’s going to be a fun conversation and a little different from our normal shows where we’re talking about the nuts and bolts of higher ed marketing. But this is really all about leadership and dealing with people, so I think it’s going to be a fun conversation. I guess maybe to kind of start off, and maybe an answer or question maybe our listeners have in their mind. You’ve had a long career in the Air Force, sort of the highest levels of leadership, but now you work with civilian companies in a lot of different ways. So, I’m just kind of curious, what aspects of military leadership apply to the rest of us, those of us in the nonmilitary world? Seems like very different things, but I think there’s probably a lot of commonality there, too.

General Polumbo: Jarrett, there’s a number of overlapping areas that I see every day and that I knew about even while I was still in the military. Look, the military is not just about people taking the beach at Omaha Beach at Normandy. That’s not what the military is. It’s a huge organization. The United States Air Force has hundreds of thousands of people in it, and every day, there’s a new opportunity for leadership. There’s a new way to adjust leadership styles, and oftentimes, either you do or you don’t survive. You don’t promote. You don’t go on, and so you have to adapt in the military, and it’s the same principles. They’re the same characteristics that you see out in business, out in academia, all over the place. You have to be competent at what you do, but you have to care about the people that work for you.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. I know we were talking before we started recording. You said there’s a perception out there that the military’s all push-ups and discipline and just follow orders and all of that, but that’s an overly simplified view. There’s a lot more there because you’re dealing with people at the end of the day that you have to motivate beyond just kind of walking around with a stick and threatening them.

General Polumbo: Yeah. I mean, basic training for all the services in almost every country’s military has got a lot to do with push-ups and marching and drill, but that’s just really to try and make sure people know that they’ve shifted gears a little bit. We put them into an organization that requires a little more discipline, is a little less democratic, if you will.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: But once you get into the day-to-day grind of trying to do your mission in the military, it’s all about people. It’s all about the skills that people have that a leader organizes and ensures that it can work together in a common direction.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: There is a little element of democracy there. There is an element of popularity in the concept of getting others to step up, and come up with new ideas, and actually be willing to talk things over, and to give the pros and cons.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: It’s similar to what it is in a business like yours, and it’s similar to higher education. It’s similar to the faculty, the staff of a university. It’s very similar. You have to encourage people to cooperate, but also to think and really do some heavy lifting thinking about hard problems.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. What I think is interesting about looking at leadership from the military perspective is just you’re still dealing with people. But in business or in education, we’re dealing with what feel like pretty high-stake situations. You’ve got the future of maybe your school or your business and the future of your team or your department. That is stressful, but then, within the military context, you just take that and amp it up to turn it up to 10 because the stakes are legitimately higher. So, it seems like an interesting lens because now you’re seeing people potentially at their rawest or under the most stress, but all those principles, all the things you witness in people there, that’s transferable to the rest of the world.

General Polumbo: Absolutely. Think about it this way, Jarrett. In my military career, especially as I got into the senior ranks, maybe a fourth of the time, 25% of the time, I would give orders. I would tell people what they were about to do, and sometimes they were tough and difficult things that I was asking them to do or ordering them to do.

General Polumbo: The other 75% of the time, I was in a group of people trying to figure out ways that we could succeed or ways that we could improve our ability to operate and ultimately to fight if you had to. But 75% of the time, it was a cooperative venture. Regardless of my rank or the people in the room’s rank, we had to get at what was the new way to do things, and it wasn’t an order given. It was how do we do this, fellas? How do we do this, ladies?

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s super interesting. All right. Want to talk about the book. You’ve cowritten a book, Leadership at 30,000 Feet. By the way, at the end of the episode, we have some directions on … We’ll give away some copies. We’ll tell folks how they can get their own copy, but we’ll save that for the end. But you cowrote a book with four other generals, which is kind of interesting because on of them happens to be your brother. Then, it’s also kind of worth mentioning that two other of the coauthors are also brothers. I guess the first question is what are the odds of two sets of brothers rising to the rank of general and all knowing each other and serving together? Then, I guess my second question is why’d you write a book?

General Polumbo: Yeah, the odds are low. There’s no doubt about that. But it has happened before, and it will happen again. There’s a number of general officers in the Air Force, for sure, who are husband and wife teams-

Jarrett Smith: Oh, wow.

General Polumbo: … believe it or not.

Jarrett Smith: That must make for some interesting dinnertime conversation.

General Polumbo: You have to imagine that one definitely outranks the other by data rank or by numbers of stars. But either way, there’s probably some fun times at home. But brothers in the Air Force or Army or Navy, Marines, it’s happened, and it’ll happen again. These particular brothers … My brother, who I went to school with here in Winter Haven where we sit today, he and I had been close all through high school, sports, all through the academy and all, and our Air Force career. We had a inter-leaving, overlapping set of things that we did through the years that my brother and I have so many stories.

But the other two guys, Rev Jones and Tom Jones, or [Onez 00:08:47] as I call him, they’re dear friends. All four of us have known each other for 30 years, and we all flew the same airplane. We all flew F16s together all over the world, and so that’s just as rare as you can get for all of us, two brothers to be so close and to ultimately end up writing a book. The other fella named Beef … Football player at the Air Force Academy, big, tall, husky guy. Great story. Has some real compelling stories, but he and I have been friends since the United States Air Force Academy in 1977 when we started.

Jarrett Smith: Oh.

General Polumbo: So, he’s like a brother. So, it wasn’t hard for us to get together and chuckle about a book.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: It was hard to actually get everybody moving in the right direction on a timeline. We did it in seven months and self-published it. We’re getting some mildly optimistic reviews of it right now.

Jarrett Smith: Good deal. One of the things I like about the book is it’s kind of broken up into five sort of sections, different themes of leadership. Then, each of you kind of writes a story kind of illustrating that. So, I think it’s fun because you get a lot of diversity, a lot of different takes on a similar theme. Also, who doesn’t love a good story, especially if it involves airplanes and danger?

But there’s a section on competence in the book, which seems intuitive enough that that is a key characteristic of leadership, competence. But you write about sort of a brand of confidence that the chapter that you wrote is called Cowboy Competence. I’d love to hear you talk about it because it really stood out to me, and I thought it was such an interesting model of how to show competence as a leader.

General Polumbo: Yeah. I mean, Cowboy DuLaney was and is today still a very revered aviator in the United States Air Force and, really, across all the services because Cowboy is known by many in the Marine Corp and the Navy as well. He’s probably three years my senior. So, when I was a captain, he was a brand new lieutenant colonel. I was coming out of Korea as a tough assignment on a line instructor pilot over in Korea, and I came to the United States Air Force’s Weapons School, basically, I think, an area where we really take guys and gals and put them to PhD-level training. I mean that sincerely. It’s very extremely difficult training.

Cowboy was my new boss. We were all working on a new syllabus, working on new training that had to be incorporated into the syllabus, new weapons systems, weapons, missiles, et cetera, and we needed, at that time, a strong leader. We needed somebody who was really good at the business, and Cowboy was that guy. Literally, he came out of the F-4. He came into the F-16, flew it for three or four years and became one of the best F16 pilots in the United States Air Force and then went and taught … was the commander of this school that did PhD-level training.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, you can imagine his influence on me as a captain. I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was good. I’d been flying the F-16 for five years all over the world. I’d been through the school myself. Now I was coming back as an instructor in the school. Cowboy was my leader, and he taught us so many things that I never thought I could raise my game that high.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, his competence was huge. He was a leader, and he would listen. He could give orders if he wanted to, and he did occasionally.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: But when he needed to, he listened. Then, he would refine, and then he would improve. Then, he would admit if he made a mistake, and then he would teach again and lead again. It was this iterative process that Cowboy taught us that I thought made that weapons school now what it is today, a premier training program around the world recognized by every military in the world as a premier training program.

Jarrett Smith: The thing that stood out to me is you think about the professional organization you were a part of and sort of the demands placed for performance and a very high level of competence because the margin for error is very slim. Yet, the thing that stood out to me was you said that Cowboy, if he made a mistake, would own up to it. Just kind of reading from the book, you said, “Once younger fighter pilots realized that Cowboy was going to own up to his mistakes, they knew they had to do the same thing, and that calculus made everyone better. When the boss’s competence and integrity are at the highest levels, the rest of the organization will raise its collective performance to previously unattainable levels. Cowboy did not allow for excuses or obfuscation.”

I thought that was such a interesting sort of balance of I’m not perfect, and I’m going to own that. I’m not going to try and put on this façade of invincibility. At the same time, we’re all going to own it. I’m going to expect you to own it, too. Which I think is just such an interesting and unfortunately, kind of unusual way to lead.

General Polumbo: Yeah. When you think about what the U.S. Military has to do today to stay ready to be the best in the world, the have to rehearse. They have to train. They have to practice. They have to try new things. In that process, mistakes are going to be made.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: When you make mistakes, there’s a real important element of this school, and that is to understand whether what you’ve tried, the tactic and technique and procedure that you’ve tried, whether you want to publish that and then tell all the units around the world that’s the way we fight.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Well, before you publish that, you got to make sure it’s really that good. If the results are not that good, you have to figure out whether it’s due to mistakes, or errors, or we call them execution errors, or whether it’s a flawed plan. Because if it’s a flawed plan, don’t publish it. Try another plan.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: So, Cowboy convinced us, Colonel DuLaney convinced us, that you had to first admit your mistakes when you’d done a rehearsal, you’d done a training mission, so that before you really evaluated the overall value of the plan, you knew whether it worked by luck or whether it worked by skill or whether it was something that needs refinement.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, in that debrief, as we called it, people immediately owned up to their mistakes so that we could rapidly get to the value of the plan, the tactic, the procedure. Then, if it was good, we published it in a huge document that was a classified document, how the United States Air Force fights, and we pushed that document all over the world to all our units, forward in Korea, over in the Middle East. All over the world, they would use that document if Cowboy said it was good.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: But you had to admit your mistakes. Otherwise, you were kind of kidding yourself whether it was really good or not.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. Well, tying this back to the higher ed world, I know a lot of times for any team, when they’re under a certain degree of pressure, or they feel they need to deliver concrete results, there can be some fear around making mistakes and doing something experimental that you’re not entirely sure, that’s a little unproven. A lower-stakes sort of scenario would be, hey, there’s this new emerging marketing channel. Should we invest some money in that?

You know what? A lot of that stuff is just going to flop. It’s not going to work either because you made an error in the way you used it, or it’s just not a good avenue. If you’re completely afraid of making mistakes and owning up to that, you’ll never learn as an organization, and you’ll never make progress. You’ll just kind of stagnate in the safety of what you know, which is okay in the short term but isn’t a good long-term strategy.

General Polumbo: Yeah. The phrase trial and error, if it never includes any error, you’re really kidding yourself. You really are. It’s almost like making a batch of Kool-Aid and pushing it around the room and going, “Doesn’t this taste good?” And everybody nods and says it does when it tastes terrible.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: It’s not the way to really do hard things. So, whether it’s a business, it’s a marketing plan, or some of the other areas, you have to actually let the people in the room, the experts that really have experience, or maybe just they have new ideas, you have to let them talk. You have to let them bring out the ideas and tease it out a little bit. But you also have to make sure that people who’ve made an error and an assumption, or maybe their numbers are not right, were not right, their estimates calculations weren’t right, they have to admit that right upfront when we’re in this do-we-like-this-idea meeting.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Because if you don’t admit your mistakes, you might walk out and go, “Wait. We slapped the table. This is the way we’re going to go. We’re going to invest $10 million in this and hope it works.” Yet, you had flawed calculations. People had made some errors, and they knew about it. They just didn’t admit it.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. It’s so interesting. Kind of related to that is this idea of making decisions, high-stakes decisions with limited information. I thought it was an interesting point in the book, General Jones, Rev Jones, writes about a scenario where they’ve got a downed aircraft. The initial plan is we’re going to try and recover this aircraft, but it’s in hostile territory. Ultimately, they kind of have to make a very quick decision to, “Nope. We’re not recovering it. We’re destroying it.” That was based on limited information.

I know in our world … Although this is a pretty intense example of that. In our world, you never have complete information. You never have 100% confidence that what you’re doing is the absolute best, optimal thing to do. How do you as a leader, how do you as a decision-maker avoid the trap of kind of falling into paralysis analysis. Let’s just analyze a little bit more. Let’s just gather a little more information. How do you avoid that?

General Polumbo: Well, a lot wrapped up in that. By the way, Rev is the taller of the two brothers. He towers above me, but he’s about two or three inches taller than his brother, Tom. Rev barely fits in an F-16 cockpit, by the way. But his story there in the book was about his direction and leadership in the op center in Qatar in a base called Al Udeid. Al Udeid, I call it. The operation where the downed aircraft was was over a thousand miles away.

Jarrett Smith: Wow.

General Polumbo: It was a long way away with feeds from predators and different things giving him his information, and he knew that he had incomplete information. So, it’s one of those things. My view is you have to prepare for that. A leader has to prepare for the situation that is in front of him or her to make sure that they’re ready to decide even with incomplete information. Sometimes, the decision point is not yours to make. Somebody’s going to be asking you, the president in this case, or the senior commander back at Central Command in Tampa is asking you, “What are you going to do? I need an answer now.”

General Polumbo: Even though you don’t have enough information, now is now. What are you going to do? So, I call it decision-quality data. I’m always trying to evaluate when I’m in a situation, whether it’s a business discussion, whether it’s a faculty discussion at a university where I’m trying to help whether we hire two or three more, those kind of things that I help out with occasion, do I have decision-quality data? Have I taken the time to look at it, think about it? Because at the point where if I were the decision-maker, can I make a decision?

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: And the answer is yes, because I’ve taught myself. Rev’s taught himself how to make decisions even though he doesn’t have all the data he wants.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, it applies in so many different areas. Your comment about analysis paralysis, oh gosh, have I seen it so many times. I’ve watched it in various combat locations around the world where subordinate commanders were struggling with information and struggling with a decision, and either they were going to make it, or I was going to make it for them. But I’ve seen it in business as well. I’ve seen it in the Pentagon. I’ve seen it in corporate discussions in the Pentagon about budgets and cuts and puts and takes, and people will sometimes just say, “We need more data. Let’s reconvene tomorrow and think again.” I go, “We’re paralyzed, right? We’re paralyzed. We’re going to go for days without making a decision when ultimately, about all the data you got is in front of you right now.”

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ve heard people say things along the lines of a good decision now is better than a perfect decision down the road. Do you kind of adopt that philosophy?

General Polumbo: Well, I’ve never seen a perfect situation-

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, I guess there is-

General Polumbo: … for a decision. I’ve never experienced it. Maybe that’s because I’m a slow learner-

Jarrett Smith: I haven’t either, for that matter.

General Polumbo: … and a slow reader. But I’ve talked to my boss sometimes about the fact that I was ready to make a decision with what I thought was about 80% of the information I need. If my boss were to say, “Well, Jake, what is it?” I’d tell him, and I’d move on. But oftentimes, it’s a little bit harder when you’re going downhill in this regard, i.e., you have somebody who works for you, and they’re expert in an area, in a scenario or a condition, if you will, and you know that they’re on the cusp of a decision that they have the authority to make. But it’s taking too long, and you go, “What are you waiting for?” Sometimes, you can tell that people are reluctant to make a decision because if they’re wrong, they think that they’re going to get fired or something.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Oftentimes, that’s really not the case because if they could get fired over a decision they’re going to make in a company, organization, whatever, likely that decision’s going to be made at a higher level.

Jarrett Smith: Interesting.

General Polumbo: So, they don’t even realize that it’s not as important as they might think. Actually, progress is making a decision, trying something, and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, admit your mistake, change the plan, move on. Again, that’s what Cowboy taught me and we taught others was make a decision. If it didn’t work, admit it quickly, fix it fast, change your plan, give the guidance to your people that are in the organization with you, and move out, draw fire.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: It’s the way the military works, the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corp in the U.S. You have to have people who are empowered to make decisions. When they make one that’s wrong, if they fix it and move on and minimize the loss, that’s what you want.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: That’s what we’re training people to do.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. That’s interesting. As a leader, how do you cultivate that in your people, give them the confidence they need to know, hey, it’s more important to make a call. And if it’s not the exact, right call, we can deal with it.

General Polumbo: I love what you’re talking about, and I wrote a blog about this a year ago on our leadership blog on our website, Jarrett. I said, “Developing your leadership style has a lot to do with how you tell your subordinates, the people in your organization, what you encourage them to do in their leadership style.” But I talk about it as a delegation of authority, and I very rapidly put people in my organization into categories. If they’re new and junior and rookie, I watch them. I help them. I talk to them a lot. I give them a call. I go see them often.

General Polumbo: If they’re seasoned and experienced and really very good decision-makers, I delegate a lot of authority to them with the guidance that I want them to operate under. Three months later, I watch them make decisions that have to do with what we talked about back in December. It’s the magic of really running an organization that’s diverse is that your people who are able to make good decisions, give them the authority to make it. Because you’ll also tell them that if something doesn’t go right, fix it. Admit it and fix it, and I’ll be happy because it’s a diverse organization. Whether it’s the U.S. Air Force, or whether it’s a company that has marketing plans going on all over the United States, diverse organizations require delegated authority. Otherwise, everybody waits on the boss to make a decision.

Jarrett Smith: You make yourself a bottleneck because your involves [inaudible 00:25:10] these super-tactical decisions.

General Polumbo: Yeah. You have to check with the boss before I can make a decision, which really means you’re just letting your boss make the decision.
Jarrett Smith: Right.

General Polumbo: You don’t get big things done that way.
Jarrett Smith: Right. You lose that dire force multiplier of having lots of people who can cover lots of different things.

General Polumbo: Right.

Jarrett Smith: That’s interesting. We’ve been talking a lot about the military, but there is an entire section on the book on compassion, which is not what I expected to find. I’d be curious to know why, even in the profession you were in, is compassion such an important component of leadership. Why does compassion matter?

General Polumbo: Yeah. There’s a lot of ways you can go down this path. But I will take it to the discussion point with my brothers and me, if you will, when we said, “What are the five characteristics we would want to talk about?” and that was one that we could’ve dropped.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: It might’ve been what everybody would expect. A bunch of military guys. They aren’t going to talk about compassion. Why would they do that? But we all to a person said, “Nah, this is actually pretty important.”

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: And the longer we served in the military, the more we realized that people cared whether we cared or not.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: If we didn’t care, they felt like we were just ladder climbers. We had a number of leaders in the military in the Air Force who would step on their people to get higher on the ladder. We watched that. We saw the negatives that it caused in the organization. Sometimes, that toxicity was actually going to lead to mission failure unless we made some changes. Compassion matters. People care if you care. And if you don’t care, they won’t really do the heavy lifting for you, even in the military. A poor leader on the battlefield doesn’t inspire anybody to do anything difficult or hard or dangerous. Sure, they’re going to try and defend themselves and stay alive, but do they really take the hill, the next hill if they don’t believe that their leader cares about them?

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: To tie it back to mistakes, oftentimes, your compassion as a leader in the military is tied to your willingness to give somebody a break.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Beef talks about this, to give people a break when they made a mistake. I won’t even call it honest mistake. They made a mistake. Their discipline broke down, and they really deserve some severe punishment. But because there are ultimately good people, leaders can be compassionate by setting aside some of the punishment and giving them one more chance.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, in the military, we would do that. Then, I talk about compassion with respect to people who are in the combat arms, in the profession of arms, if you will. Well, you need compassion even for your enemy. Otherwise, you get into the kind of stories in history where we’ve seen militaries have committed atrocities in the name of protecting their country or whatever, and it’s heinous. So, compassion even for your enemy …

There’s a story I tell in the book about a Taliban soldier who blew up a American GI who lost his leg. He also injured a woman and her son in that same event, and all three of them were in our hospital at Bagram Air Base in Northern Afghanistan.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: The compassion of our nurses and our doctors that took care of that soldier was incredible.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: But they cared for the human being who had almost killed himself with the bomb he was carrying.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. Such an interesting … Just thinking about that scenario in particular, I mean, the amount of discipline and professionalism you would have to exhibit under those circumstances.

General Polumbo: Yeah. It’s what I admired about our men and women in the military.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. So, you have that really intense example of a particular type of compassion, a really unusual scenario. Then, there are other examples in the book kind of like you mentioned where, in some ways, almost an administrative compassion. There was a comment in the book in one of the chapters that said, “It’s interesting in a large organization. The farther away someone was removed from the people affected by it, the easier it was to not do anything about it.”

General Polumbo: Not care.

Jarrett Smith: Right.

General Polumbo: Yeah. It’s what I think that the five authors, the brothers, if you will, we decided was the farther along we went in this organization called the Air Force, the more we realized that a connection to the people was everything about being a good leader. The people could be the lowest airmen in the room, 18 years old, and if he or she didn’t believe you cared about them, there was an element of avoid between the leader and the people and the people who did the heavy lifting, the mission, if you will. The bigger that divide got, the more problems manifest daily in the operation. So, we realized that it’s almost a … Beef calls it this, and I agree with him. It’s analog leadership. It’s not binary.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: It’s analog leadership.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Binary leadership is sending emails and telling them, “Hey, you will do this, and we will do this. We will accomplish the mission, and we will be victorious.” It’s binary leadership. You’re writing emails to people. You’re sending data to people.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: If you go out, and you talk to your people, you shake their hand, you ask them how their family’s doing, that kind of compassionate leader is the one you want to follow into battle. That’s the leader, he or she, that you want to follow into the toughest situations. And if she decides something that’s really going to be hard for the next couple of months, we’re going to have to do a lot of overtime or work weekends or whatever, she’s a compassionate leader, I’m going to follow her, and I’m going to do as she asks because I believe she cares.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: She’ll give me the time off later on to get back and connect with my family, but right now, we got to ruck it up. We got to suck it up and move out.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. The other piece of that, and I’ve seen this so much firsthand, especially in today’s world where we can communicate via email or, like in our office, we’ve got chat system called Slack. Right? Lots of different ways to communicate. But nothing beats just sitting down with someone in the same room, looking them in the eye, shaking a hand, or even one separate move to giving a phone call, especially when you’re asking a lot, or it’s going to be a tough conversation or something like that. It’s so much more effective. It’s just been my observation. I think so many of us get super busy and fire off lots of emails. We feel like we’re getting the work done, but we’re losing our people.

General Polumbo: Yeah, you’re losing touch with your people. In my last job, I was in South Carolina, and I had bases under my command from Virginia down to Florida, in almost all of the southeastern states. Each time I would go to visit a base, I would collect the mid-level commanders. I’d call them squadron commanders. They’d probably been in the military for 15 years or so. I’d collect them, and we’d have lunch together. We’d do it in a horseshoe format. I’d put them around the room, and I’d sit up at the point so that I could talk to everybody and see their face, and with my senior enlisted command chief with me.

General Polumbo: I would go around the room. I’d ask people to tell me who they were, tell me what they were doing on that base, and asked them to tell me if there was anything that I needed to know. I’d eat my lunch while they were talking so I could finally get a bite to eat, and the most amazing things would come out of this conversation. They would tell me things that were so valuable I could’ve never learned them by sitting up all night and reading emails.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: I had to go listen to what they had to say, and boy, did they come up with some things that were valuable to me.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

General Polumbo: Then, they’d ask me hard questions. I’d have to try and get the right answer to them because sometimes they wouldn’t ask me something that I could answer them in a way they’d like.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: But I’d still tell them, and it was face to face. It made a huge difference, and those sessions, I thought, were really helpful.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There is a chapter on character, and what kind of surprised me was the diversity of examples of character that come up in the book. You wrote about following General Dunford while he was leading a ceremony for a fallen solider. General Haddad wrote about paying a professional price for kind of taking a stand on a decision that his leader did not agree with, but standing firm on that.

General Jones wrote about being a good follower, wrote about followership. Your brother, Rob, wrote about General Walters’ commitment to advancing the team underneath him, kind of getting back to this idea of it’s not just about going out for yourself. It’s about advancing the team underneath you and making sure they’re successful, too. How do you define character and leadership? How do you cultivate character in yourself and others in your team?

General Polumbo: Yeah. It was the final group of essays or chapters in the book on character. We decided collectively that character was the most important characteristic of a good leader, and so we asked the copy editor that helped us with the book to put that at the end. Notably, my brother’s was the last one about a general that all of us know very well still today who we think epitomizes the character that all of us, you, me, anybody should look up to. Todd Walters, just promoted to Supreme Allied Commander Europe, United States European Command. Just a fabulous leader, but his style was to listen. His style was face to face. It was analog leadership. His style was to be a good follower.

All throughout his career, his style was to take care of his people first and really not make it look like he was climbing the ladder, that ultimately, now he’s almost at the top of any ladder in the U.S. and NATO. He’s the Supreme Allied Commander of all NATO forces, and yet we look at him and his character as stellar in a way that you could do.

Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Joe Dunford is the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a marine general who I hold in the highest regard. I’ve worked for a couple of marine generals who are just fabulous. The U.S. Marine Corp develops character. That’s their persona, and I love it.

General Polumbo: We all asked these men and women, “Can we write about you?” before we did it because we didn’t want them to be surprised that they showed up in our little book. But they have integrity. They were followers. They’re good listeners. They aren’t overbearing. In some ways, you wouldn’t really … If you met them at a Publix, you wouldn’t realize that they were the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. They’d be helping somebody get a thing off the top of the aisle.

They’re good people, and so those characteristics, we thought, were so important for people to realize that in any walk of life, you need to have good character. Your integrity needs to be intact. People need to look at you and believe that what you just told them is true. They don’t need to double-check your facts because they need to know that you’re not going to BS them. They need to know that they tell the truth.

We did not coordinate the stories. In fact, we were all kind of surprised at some of the ones that came out, which ones were used. Like you said, Beef’s was about maybe the absence of character and the lesson that you’d take from a boss who really, really calls you out in public and does something that really takes you down a notch when, in fact, you still believe today, Beef still does, that he was right what he was doing, taking care of his crew that day.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: Great stories, and again, I think that’s a good part of the book. Start the book when you get it from back to front. Read the introduction so you know who we are and we were trying to do, but then go to character first if you want the really good stuff.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah. The story from Beef was interesting in that I think a lot of people could definitely identify with that. That’s a scenario, I think, that plays out in a lot of organizations, and you have to do that calculus of, “Okay, is this the thing I take a stand on? Is this really, really it?” I think it’s telling that, even years later, reflecting back on this, he says, “No, that was the right call.”

What was also interesting, and it kind of had a bit of a happy ending in that he pays a professional price in the short term, but then other people recognized, hey, we like that you made that call. He found a new home, kind of a new direction that kind of came out of that because it was other people recognized, okay, there’s character here. This is a guy we want to work with.

General Polumbo: Sometimes you have an initial or a short-term setback in your career that you might feel you were done wrong. It was an affront. It was improper. But calmer heads prevail, and senior people in any organization should take the time to assess what really happened in the heat of the moment.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: If a mistake was made … Going back to Cowboy Competence, if a mistake was made, fix it. Fix it. Move on. We always said in the military, and I think this is appropriate in business, “I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And I follow orders in the military, even if it cost me my life, unless those orders are illegal, unethical, or immoral. Then, I don’t follow those orders.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: I’ll follow my sword of not doing something illegal, an atrocity or whatever else. I think you can do that in business today. If your boss tells you to do something, and it’s not illegal, unethical, or immoral, she’s your boss. Do what she tells you. Assume that it’s going to end up right. If it doesn’t, hopefully, she’ll admit her mistake.

Jarrett Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: But if it’s immoral, I’m not doing it. And that’s the character that we need in all our organizations, in our universities, in our staffs, in how we work. As Americans, heck, we need that. That’s where we need that in our country.

Jarrett Smith: So, you’re working on a follow-up book, Leadership at 70,000 Feet. First, tell us what the … You’ve got an even higher altitude here. Where does that title come from, and-

General Polumbo: Yeah. Jarrett, I was a fighter pilot for most of my career as a leader and as a flight leader and mission commander and instructor pilot. But then they sidetracked me. My boss decided that maybe I ought to go into the U-2 program and work with that for a few years, and I did. I became a U-2 pilot, a mission-qualified U-2 pilot. I flew the airplane as a general officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was a little bit suspect as to whether I was too old for that kind of a mission.

General Polumbo: So, many of the stories, some of the stories in the book you have with you now are about my U-2 experiences, but I have so many more that I want to tell. And not every one of the five authors has flown at 70,000, only my brother and me. So, my brother might do a cameo in the book. But primarily, this is going to be my leadership experiences in the U-2 program with such a high caliber of people, really amazing people across the enterprise from the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence … You don’t realize there’s only one person in the airplane, but there’s a lot of people on the mission.

Jarrett Smith: Right.

General Polumbo: I mean, there’s dozens and dozens of people on a U-2 mission around the world, and that caliber of people, that high-performance team … I wanted to put some 5Cs on those experiences, so I’m going to try and put that book together.

Jarrett Smith: Good stuff. Well, look forward to reading it. It’s worth mentioning the current book that’s out, Leadership from 30,000 Feet. That’s available on Amazon if folks want to pick up copies. But we also have some copies we can give away here. So, if folks would like to get a free copy, can we say a signed copy? Would you sign it?

General Polumbo: Absolutely.

Jarrett Smith: Okay.

General Polumbo: Absolutely. I don’t know if I can get the other four guys to sign it. I’ll try, but we live all over the East Coast, and so it’s hard to get us together. But I’ll sign it.

Jarrett Smith: All right. Perfect. We’ve got five copies that we can give out. It’s a great read. It’s a very concise read. I read almost the entire thing on a long plane flight. A lot of variety in the book and a lot of great takeaways. Some of them we’ve heard here, but a whole lot more. So, if you’d like to get a copy, what I’d ask you to do is go out to iTunes. Look up Higher Ed Marketing Lab. Leave us a review. It can be a good review, a bad review, an indifferent review, but leave a review. Then, shoot an email to podcast@echodelta.co. Let me know that you left a review and give me your shipping details, and we’ll get you one out. The first folks to do that, we’ll hook them up with a book. Then, if you want to buy more, of course, you can go out an Amazon.

If folks would like to connect with you or your organization because now you’re in the private world, consulting with companies and doing some work with schools also, what’s the best place to reach out to you and find you and your organization?
General Polumbo: We have a pretty good website that allows everybody to get in touch with any of us through the website, but I am also pretty big on LinkedIn.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

General Polumbo: So, if you want to interact with me, I do a fair amount of interaction every day with people on LinkedIn. You can find me there, Jake Polumbo. Again, our website is twoblueaces.com. You can get the bios on all of us. We have more than just the five authors that did this book, and we have some pretty neat individuals helping organizations with strategy, with business development, with growth planning. But also, we really have a leadership platform, I think, that can help some of the companies and universities and staffs out there with kind of applying some common sense, experience, and lessons learned to whatever organization you guys are in out there. So, I truly appreciate the opportunity to be with you today, Jarrett. It was fun.

Jarrett Smith: Well, thank you so much for coming down. It’s been a fun conversation. Of course, show notes and episode highlights and some links and all of that will be on our website after we publish the interview, so thank you so much.

General Polumbo: You bet.

Jarrett Smith: The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full-service marketing firm dedicated to helping higher education institutions drive enrollment, increase yield, and capture donors’ attention. For more information, visit echodelta.co.

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. As always, if you have questions, suggestions, episode ideas, or just want to reach out and say hi, drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co. See you next time.

Photo of author

Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.

Related Insights