Business literature and influential minds agree leadership is a meaningful skill in high demand within the business world and well beyond. For digital transformation strategist and retired Two-Star Major General H. Brent Baker, leadership is “observed everywhere and in all facets of life.” Drawing on his 37-year career with the United States Air Force and years in the private sector, General Baker channels his insight into a popular book, Orders from the General – Leadership Advice from a Two-Star General.
Published in 2021, Orders from the General offers a first-person glimpse into General Baker’s captivating USAF career from enlisting in general service and rising to the rank of two-star General. Lessons on leadership infuse with a wide range of personal experiences highlighted by humor, inspiration, tragedy, and drawing from the examples of leadership (good and bad) that inspired General Baker.
Imagine relocating 26 times in 37 years, administering every necessity on a base of 20,000 servicemen and women, and managing the logistics operation for catastrophic natural disasters. Inspired by reading the book, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk in greater detail with General Baker and share our conversation.
Rhoton: General Baker, congratulations on publishing your book on leadership, its popularity, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): Thank you, Bradley! I’m excited to talk about it with you. I’m so pleased and humbled by the positive feedback.
Rhoton: What inspired you to write a book? Why the topic of leadership?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): I’ve thought about writing a book for years. As far as the topic of leadership goes, for me, it was never my fear of trying to write something of value, never the fear of failure, but rather: Am I a good enough leader to share my thoughts? I’ve read numerous books on leadership and found most of them truly helpful. I even thought, at times, “I could do that.” I had to overcome some inhibitors, like time. I’ve always been busy with my career and family, etc. I also wondered, “Am I being pretentious by even thinking that I’ve done enough in life to share my leadership thoughts?” I’m glad I did it, and I’m humbled by the feedback so far.
Rhoton: What was one of your most memorable events during your Air Force career? How did leadership contribute to success?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): Hands down, it would be leading Operation Tomodachi helping Japan respond to a 9.0 earthquake, one of the world’s largest tsunami’s, the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, and all during one of Japan’s coldest winters on record. It was four natural disasters at once. Our team had practiced responding to a contingency like this. We worked 20-hour days with no days off. Under the exhausting circumstances, it would be understandable to get grouchy and worn down. I told my team we would be positive, friendly, and a team that everyone wants to work with. This leadership made all the difference. In the end, my boss said he had never seen a team that was easier to work with. The opportunity to help Japan recover from these natural disasters was an incredible experience and one of the best accomplishments in my career.
Rhoton: In your book, you talk about the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?” How do you answer that question?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): This is such an interesting question! I truly believe it is a combination of both, a balance of nature and nurture. There’s no doubt some people are born with qualities that are more natural for leading. In the final analysis, if you look at great leaders, they have different personalities. Leaders are born with some skills and must learn other skills. Studying leadership is important and one of the reasons I wanted to get my thoughts down in this book. Leadership is a lifelong endeavor. You must be a lifelong learner because leadership does require our leadership style to change and adjust.
Rhoton: How important has leadership been for you during challenging times?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): In life, we all wish everything would be perfect every day, but we all know that’s never the case. To be an effective leader, you must respond to the good and the bad, day or night. I bring out a story in my book. We had a senior member of our team who passed away tragically at night due to a stroke. It was heartbreaking for the entire base. We did everything we could to make this as positive as possible. We reached out to the family to take wonderful care of them, and we got the message out to the entire base. In the final analysis, our leadership during this challenging time meant a lot to the family and the base populace. To be an outstanding leader, you must be prepared for these difficult times that will ultimately come.
Rhoton: With essential responsibilities and so many demands for you and your time, how did you find the right work-life balance?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): Our society always talks about work-life balance. I’ve received many talks about this in my career, which didn’t impact me as much as when I met one very important person in Washington, D.C., during my tenure at the Pentagon. With such a high-stress job, traffic, and demands for your time, this person talked about work-life balance but really lived it. He would say, “Brent, you gotta take care of yourself, you gotta take care of your family, and then I’m convinced if you do those two things, you’ll do a great job here.” It’s true! I saw him live this, and it inspired me to set the same priorities in my leadership style.
Rhoton: Which aspect of leadership was consistently crucial throughout your career?
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): I talk a lot in the book about communication. As humans, we are always communicating, whether we are talking or not. We need to make sure we’re communicating often, accurately, and within the correct organizational structure. One example I use in my book is we had several senior officers removed from their jobs, very qualified and heavily screened individuals. We discovered they were not communicating properly within their organization, particularly with their boss. In some cases, their boss was more comfortable going to their deputy. Most people have played the game telephone and witnessed how a simple message can get distorted quickly into something unrecognizable. It’s a fun exercise, but it is true of communication. To be an effective leader, you must communicate effectively.
Rhoton: Thank you, General Baker, for an excellent book and for sharing your experiences and thoughts.
Maj. Gen. Baker (ret): It’s my pleasure, Bradley.
General Baker is now the Vice President for the Federal Aerospace, and Defense business unit at PTC. In his role, he is responsible for strategic planning and business development in the worldwide FA&D market with a focus on the adoption of smart, connected enterprise technology and solutions.
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