Democracy Is “Messy,” Says American Retired 4-Star General

(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Nov. 8; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

You don’t get to be a four-star general, responsible for defending North American airspace from attack, by surrounding yourself with shy subordinates. Throughout her career Lori J. Robinson, who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2018 and now serves on corporate boards and think tanks, invited brutally honest feedback. “Everybody wants to tell the boss the good,” says Robinson. “Nobody wants to tell the bad and the ugly. At the end of the day, what really is needed is the bad and the ugly.”

Her methods fueled her rise. Robinson is one of a handful of women to reach the four-star rank, and when she served, she was the senior-most woman in the entire Department of Defense. Robinson most recently served as commander of both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command during a tense period when North Korea launched 23 ballistic missiles in a period of 24 months, some with the potential to hit the mainland U.S. In addition to her board work, she is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is an expert on leadership and international security. She recently joined TIME for a conversation on leadership lessons from the military, building diverse teams and the need to push back on the boss.

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(This interview with retired general Lori J. Robinson has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

As a general, you have led diverse teams with people from a wide range of backgrounds. What is the best way to unify a team or a squad or a country, and what lessons from your Air Force background would you share with the country at this point, when there is so much division?

I contemplate all the things that we in the military have done over time. We bring together all these different cultures, and we all focus on a single goal: supporting and defending the Constitution. I was part of something bigger than myself, and I poured my heart into making the institution better.

There is tremendous anxiety in the country now and worry about how divided the nation is. Do you think the country is going to be O.K.?

I’m an eternal optimist. Our democracy is messy. It’s a work in progress. But thank heavens we are in a democratic society. I don’t want to get into politics, but we really do have to talk to each other. And we have to not just talk. More importantly, we have to listen. There is not just a single way of thinking about things. There are multiple ways. That’s why listening is so important.

In the course of your military career, you had the ability to build a staff on multiple occasions. How do you build a diverse team?

It’s about making sure that no matter who you picked—male, female, African American, pick a race or a gender or a background—that they had to be capable. Everybody needed to know that that person wasn’t picked because she was a woman. She was picked because she was the best in the job.

How is the Air Force doing in terms of having a pipeline of diverse candidates for leadership positions?

Over time, we have become much more sensitive to ensuring we have a diverse force, a diverse table sitting around providing advice to whoever is sitting at the end of the table. Diversity isn’t just race or gender. It’s background, it’s ideas, it’s all those things to provide the person at the end of the table the best advice.

How do you develop your staff from different backgrounds?

As important as having amazing candidates is giving them the voice. And in order to give them the voice, you have to set the tone. You have to set the tone that says it’s O.K. for you to disagree with me. Everybody wants to tell the boss the good. Nobody wants to tell the bad and the ugly. At the end of the day, what really is needed is the bad and the ugly.

How do you handle pushback?

As long as somebody wasn’t suggesting something illegal, immoral or unethical, I needed to hear what they had to say because the higher you get, the less of an expert you are. But at the same time, when a decision is made, then everybody has to march to the same drummer.


As long as somebody wasn’t suggesting something illegal, immoral or unethical, I needed to hear what they had to say. 

When you have four stars on your shoulder, is it hard to get subordinates to be candid with you? Have you had to make any adjustments?

Let’s say I’m sitting down to get a “course of action” briefing that I’m going to present to my leadership. Well, I can’t rip their heads off after the first slide. If there’s anything that shuts anything down, it’s that, right? So I had to learn that I had to listen to everybody. I really had to teach myself the patience to do that.

Do CEOs share the characteristics of military leaders? Can you picture them in the service?

I’ll put it this way—I think people are where they should be.

Here’s a typical headline from the period when you were responsible for defending the U.S.: “North Korea Threatens Nuclear Strike on U.S.” What are your most vivid memories of that period?

My deputy and I had to make sure 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that one of us was always able and capable to make a decision if we needed to. If I was coming home on a trip, he could not go anywhere until I was either in the office, in the op center or at my house. That structure of scheduling between the two of us was very important. I remember on several occasions sleeping on my couch with my cell phone so that if the operation center needed me, they could call me on my cell phone first, and then I could get to a secure line.

How much at risk was the U.S.? Did we get close to the edge?

He [North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un] had good capability, and that’s why I had to take every single event as a possibility that it could hit the United States.

If push came to shove, were you the one who would have to make a decision in terms of how to respond?

It would depend upon who was available and the speed with which things happened. But I was definitely in the chain.

Was someone following you around with a suitcase?

Let’s not confuse nuclear with ballistic missiles, but when I traveled, I had communication capability.

That went on for months. How would you unwind?

I don’t think you ever really unwind, especially in that job. To be honest, I think I finally unwound from that job when I retired. And it took me time. I tell people that you don’t know how much stress you’re under until you don’t have it anymore. And my husband was always there for me. I don’t know what I would have done without him. We would always call ourselves Team Robinson.

 There is not just a single way of thinking about things. There are multiple ways. That’s why listening is so important. 

Your husband was a top pilot in the Air Force and part of the elite Thunderbirds, and yet chose to retire as a two-star general to prioritize your career. What are the lessons learned from that situation?

What I try to tell everybody that has two people in a household both earning a living, whether it’s military or whatever, that it’s so important to have that conversation beforehand. How far are you willing to live apart? How long are you willing to live apart? Whose career comes first? Because if you do it when there’s no tension, then you can do that rationally and not emotionally.

What is it with the military and all the acronyms?

I have learned that the corporate world has their acronyms also.

What is the coolest piece of technology that you encountered in your Air Force career?

I’ve always been amazed at our ability to take different sensors and to fuse them into something that’s manageable and usable in real time. We can sense something and project it visually on a screen.

Did you bark orders?

I never barked orders.

What was the angriest you got during your command?

I got very angry one time at one of my airmen. It was a Friday night, and he was on a motorcycle. And he was racing a semitruck on I-40 [in Oklahoma]. I got about five inches from his face, and I asked him, “Why should I trust you? Why should I trust your judgment? Why should I allow you in one of our airplanes to talk to fighter pilots? And I don’t want to have to tell your mother and father you’re dead.” It wasn’t an angry that I threw off the cuff. It was an angry where I knew exactly what I wanted to say to make a point to this young man.

Back to the state of the nation, what is your level of concern about public discourse and how well institutions are standing up right now?

I always said this is about supporting an idea. And that idea is freedom.

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