Episode 235 – The First Person You Must Lead is You!
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today! This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and I am excited about this guest, today. She is a retired Brigadier General who founded her own consultancy company – STEADFAST Leadership – after 27 years of service in the United States Army, and one year as the Executive Director for Leader Development with Praevius Group. We’re really thrilled to have you, and welcome, Becky Halstead!
Becky Halstead: Well, thanks for having me! I’m so excited, Steve!
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good deal! Well, before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Becky. First of all, Becky, thank you for your service to our country!
Becky Halstead: You’re welcome!
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, this is a huge background. She has been honored to be selected to attend West Point in 1977 – entering with the second class of women and being the first kid from her hometown to graduate from West Point. She’s blessed to be the first female graduate of West Point to be promoted to General Officer and she served and commanded in combat, as the first female Commanding General at the strategic level of leadership in Iraq – leading 20,000 soldiers, 5000 civilians from 2005 to 2006 – a first for our Army and our Nation.
Steve Shallenberger: So, let’s get right into this! We have a lot in common! We were just talking about, we’ve spent much of our lives thinking and working on leadership, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. We also have something else in common: we have two sons that have flown F-16s and have been Officers in the United States Air Force, and two that went to the Air Force Academy. So, those are big times, aren’t they, Becky?
Becky Halstead: Absolutely! My dad was enlisted in the Air Force and then he became an IBM engineer, I have a niece in the Air Force, so I believe in the joint team, that’s for sure! So, congratulations to your sons!
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, you bet! Becky, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that’s had a significant impact on you, and especially that influenced you to do what you did. Like, I just can’t wait to hear about this wonderful adventure that you are going through!
Becky Halstead: Well, I appreciate that! I have every steno pad since I went to West Point in 1977. And, in the margins, I have two letters: TP, for Turning Points. So, I have tried to kind of keep track of those over the years – and they’re for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they’re faith-based, sometimes they’re just professionally-based, but the biggest turning point, probably, for me was in high school, to get me started on this journey. I had planned on being a physical education teacher and coach; I loved sports and I grew up in this small town with no traffic lights in upstate New York. I lived in Willseyville, New York, and went to school in Candor, New York – and our kindergarten through 12th grade was in two buildings. And so, I was really into sports and I don’t think I realized that I probably really wasn’t that great of an athlete. It seemed like I was because I was on all these teams and I was always one of the lead players, but when you come from a small town like that, what you discover is everybody gets to play. So, I wanted to go to college for that. And then, in my junior year, my mom said – in 1976 – she said, “Look at this!” She was reading the newspaper. She says, “Listen to this! The government’s approved, the President has approved to allow women to go into the military academies.” And she says, “I think this sounds just like you!” Well, at that point, I had no exposure to the military.
Great! I’m just loving this! Good going!
Becky Halstead: Yeah! I’d seen my dad’s Air Force uniform and I thought it was really, really neat, and I liked learning a little bit about his enlisted time and I had one great uncle in the Navy during World War Two, but the military was the last thing from my mind. And so, I’m made a deal with my mom: if she helps me with the application process, I would try. Part of that process is getting letters of recommendation for your nomination packet to go to your congressman or senator. I know you are very well aware of that, with your sons going to the Air Force Academy. So, the number one person I went to was my coach because, again, I was really into sports. In the spring of 1976, as I got all my packet together, and I was putting it into the congressmen and senators, my coach was killed in a tragic accident. So, about a couple of weeks after her death, I went for my first interview with Senator Jacob Javits of New York. At that point, I’ll be very honest with you, Steve: the light switch had kind of gone off. With the death of my coach, I wanted literally nothing to do with college or anything. It just took my feet right out from underneath me, but my mother and father said, “Please just go. Please, just go and try to stick with this process.”
Becky Halstead: So, I did, and as soon as I went into his office, when I sat down, he said, “Well, I see that you’re from this town where there was a coach that was killed.” I mean, I was really amazed that he knew that. And I said, “Yes. And as a matter of fact, there’s probably a letter of recommendation in that packet from her.” So, I had the interview, went home, and about two weeks later, I got in the mail a packet, and he had had his office send me all the letters of recommendation. Now, in those days, before computers – if you had an IBM typewriter, you were doing pretty good – she had handwritten her letter. And, as I read the words, the light switch came back on because I was able to see and feel how much confidence she had in me, the potential she saw in me. And then, really, very importantly, was the fact that she wrote about that I’m having an opportunity that she could not have even possibly dreamed of as a woman.
Becky Halstead: And so, the light switch went back on, and I decided that I really wanted to try. And then, I got accepted in my senior year of high school, and off I went to West Point. So, it taught me so many things. It’s probably one of the largest turning points in my life that we have a responsibility to see the potential in people, and we have a responsibility to encourage people. Probably, every time I’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation to help someone get to the next step, I don’t know that I’ve ever turned it down unless I felt the person did not deserve it – then I would turn it down. I’ve always tried to put a lot of energy into that because someone very special to me had faith in me.
Becky Halstead: Anyhow, I went off to West Point from ’77 to ’81. It didn’t prevent me from wanting to quit, however. I mean, I did want to quit – it was hard – but I learned a lot of leadership along the way – like from my parents – and there are two rules to life: rule number one – don’t quit! Rule number two – refer back to rule number one. So, even though you know how these things are, there are still, sometimes, a lot of hard days where you want to quit, but I’m very glad that I didn’t. I did learn early on at West Point that if I quit, the person in front of me that is yelling at me that wants me to quit, they’re the ones who win, not me, and if I quit, I can’t make a difference, I can’t change it for men and women later. So, if you want to be part of the solution, you can’t quit. I graduated in ’81 and then I spent 27 years in the military. I moved 18 times during that duration and I had 51 different bosses, so I was in the laboratory of leadership!
Steve Shallenberger: Man, I love that background! That was flat-out inspirational. Thank you for taking the time to really share. It just reinforces how important parents can be, the influence that they can have on their children and others in their lives and also, coaches, what a wonderful story! We each do have that responsibility to see potential in others because it’s certainly there. And so, thank you for sharing that! That was worth the podcast in itself, right there!
Becky Halstead: Well, thanks so much, Steve. The other thing, too, about that is that there’s a lot of people right now that are suffering, they’re having tragedy in their life – it may be a loss of a loved one because of COVID, or a loss of a job – and sometimes when you’re in the present of the chaos, you don’t understand how that’s going to play out for you or why you’re experiencing it. Sometimes maybe people never know, but sometimes it takes a long time to know. And I will tell you that, when I think about that turning point in my life, which was very, very difficult for me to accept her death, probably I did not realize the full benefit of that story. But in Iraq, when I would go visit at the military hospitals to visit our wounded, that’s when I realized that because of that experience, I could listen to my soldiers and I could hold their hand and relate to their families and relate to them because the loss of a battle buddy is really difficult. Sometimes I feel like I didn’t understand the true meaning – I guess that’s a better word because ‘benefits’ is kind of an odd one – the true meaning of that story in my life until I was in combat in Iraq. Sometimes it takes that long but I do believe there’s a purpose for everything that happens in our life.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, totally agreed! Absolutely! We can gain so much and sometimes we just don’t realize it but there is good in every lesson, in every setback, in every challenge, and so, keeping our chin up and looking for that is such a help, such a benefit for us. By the way, I’d love to have our listeners hear more about your experience as the first woman graduate of the United States Military Academy to achieve the rank of General. Now, I might add that we love West Point! The president of one of our companies, Sal Vicaro, his wife’s name is Anne – one of their daughters, Mary, attended West Point about probably eight or nine years ago and it was so fun tracking her experience and how it went. And so, tell us about what was it like to be the first woman graduate who became a general?
Becky Halstead: I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. I mean, it was fun, it was exciting, and it was historical. But I do tell people that if you’re the only then it’s lonely. And so, even though I enjoyed that announcement and I enjoyed that day, the ceremony only lasts an hour, but the responsibility lasts a lifetime and so, I always held myself accountable. But I was very excited when women passed me. Two of my classmates, Heidi Brown and Camille Nichols, both made their second star and they passed me. And then, we had another great lady – Nadja West – who became the Surgeon General for the Army, made her third star. I don’t mind being a first and it is exciting, but I’m really happy when people zoom right on by me and keep progress growing because if you’re the only, then that’s not progress. We don’t want to ever say, “Okay, check that block. We got one! All right.”
Steve Shallenberger: We can’t just gloss over this, either, Becky because I would imagine there had to be some really challenging times in the whole process of your career as you moved along. How did you deal with those kinds of things and keep your chin up, keep moving forward and how did you deal with the setbacks? There had to be some.
Becky Halstead: I usually say I had to have a lot of faith and I had to have a lot of grit, a lot of determination, and commitment. And faith plays a very important role in my life because there are a lot of ups and downs in that journey, for sure. I call them ‘above-the-line events’ and ‘below-the-line events’. And so, just to get to General there’s a lot of promotions involved, and sometimes I picked up an early promotion. And there were many times when you kind of hear whispers in the background or on the sidelines of people going, “She just got that because she was a woman!” And so, there are also a lot of moments where there’s a lot of doubt that’s created within you and I think it was my faith that kept me from letting that doubt be ruling me. Like, you had to say, “Look, I did not select myself for these promotions, but since I received them, what I do need to do is choose to do it to the best of my ability.”
Becky Halstead: I love that your podcast is about becoming your best because it isn’t necessarily about being number one, it’s about being your best. What talents and strengths did God give you to do the best that you can do? So, I did have to do a lot of self-motivation, if you will, self-development to say, “Don’t listen to the naysayers. Just keep pushing.” And I will say that I never pushed myself to be a first. I wasn’t looking to break glass ceilings – some of those things just happen. And sometimes I kind of wish that wasn’t part of it just because I think a lot of people judge you very quickly that “Oh, well. You just did it for whatever” and the only way I can prove that that’s not the case is that, when I retired in 2008 because I was ill with chronic fibromyalgia and I actually had people who encouraged me to stay in to get my second star for another first, right? That I’d be the first for two stars. And I’m like, “Look, I know all my peers that are competing with me and for me to allow myself to compete, and then maybe get a second star, when I know that I’m ill and I know that I need to regroup and get myself strengthened and healed would be criminal, on my mind – to take something that I then can’t fulfill my five-year duty with.” So, I opted to retire to get myself healed from this fibromyalgia.
Becky Halstead: So, I think we sometimes have to be careful with our vision of our own lives, that it does need to be realistic and it cannot be selfish or self-serving. So yeah, I mean, the majority of my life, I was the only woman in the room – certainly the only woman Commander in the room. Even in Iraq, all the division commanders were men on the coalition and on the joint side – you’re kind of constantly sized up. I’m five foot one and a half, so people automatically think I can’t do most of the physical stuff. So, it’s very fun and exciting when you’re able to do it and they go like, “Oh my gosh! I just would have never thought you can do that obstacle or hop, jump out of that, repel out of that helicopter or whatever.” So, it takes a lot of grit. I mean, it takes a lot of self-coaching to say, “You’ve got to keep going!” And you’ve got to have the courage to speak up when things aren’t quite right.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, indeed! Becky and I, to our listeners, had some real fun before this podcast started today in just talking about our perspectives, our study, our lives, and thinking about leadership. We have a lot in common, and we’ve seen it from just different perspectives. Not only have we studied this and researched it, but we’ve also practiced it and we’ve seen it from among the very best in the world. And so, to have somebody that shares this point of view is quite exciting and I’d like to have her tell us more about her perspective. She has written a book about leadership, about her experiences, about her observations, about her practice of it. And one of the things that she’s developed is called the STEADFAST leadership model. Tell us first about your book, and then tell us about your model. How did you develop it?
Becky Halstead: Well, the book came out of speaking, doing a lot of keynote speeches on leadership in the corporate sector, and people would come up to me afterwards and say, “Please tell me you’ve written a book!” I’d be like, “Well, I’m putting one together!” Because you know as well as I do that it’s very difficult to share this passion we have on leadership in just one hour, and you certainly can’t share all the stories. So, you have to be very focused during that time. I was like, “I need to do this.” And so, in 2013 I wrote it, and because I’m faith-based I have always read a lot of devotionals. I mean, I’ve always got a devotional or three or four going, so, the first day of the month – day one to day 30 – and all that kind. I like short, very pointed, principled-type devotionals. And so, when I started writing the book I said, “I’m going to do 30 principles that probably mean the most to me.” And I was doing it kind of day one to day 30. Well, that confused some people, so I just left it as Steadfast Leadership Principle 1 through 30.
Becky Halstead: Every single one is a story. There’s lots of stories and there are stories of failure and there are stories of success and there are stories maybe from high school, all the way to being General because leadership is through your whole life. It’s a life journey. I wanted anybody that picked that book up, whether you’re in high school, or you’re the CEO of a company, to be able to have some golden nuggets to help you lead your life better. The title is, “The First Person You Must Lead Is You” and I did that purposely because we know that accountability is very important when it comes to leadership. And then, in the army, we say, “I will not ask of my soldiers that which I’m not willing to do myself.” And so, I felt like my first book on leadership needs to be about, if you get yourself right, a better me is a better we. But you can’t be leading the team if you’re not the standard. And so, those principles are very focused on individuals finding a better version of themselves when they get done reading the book.
Becky Halstead: The Steadfast leadership model: the army had always given me a leadership model, the West Point model is, “Be, no do.” So, I had such a foundation when it came to the Army’s field manuals and leadership development. But after almost three decades of being in the army, and now speaking on leadership, I thought, I really should share what I think was the most applicable to me as a leader. And about 20 years into the army, my mother gave me a framed picture with the word ‘Rebecca’, my first name, and she put a Bible verse to it. And it was 1 Corinthians 15:58. And in that, it says “Faithful and steadfast”. And so, when I was coming up with my own leader philosophy for the men and women in my commands, I decided I was going to come up with Steadfast Leadership. And STEADFAST became an acronym because we’re really big in acronyms in the army. That’s on my website, but it’s Selfless service, Trust and tenacity, Encourage and embrace, Attitude and approachability, Discipline, Family, friends and faith, Accountability, Standard setter, and Teamwork. And that grew on a life of its own when I was in Battalion, Brigade, and then General Officer Command in Iraq. And so, when I retired, I decided I’m going to keep it. I’m going to keep that Steadfast leadership and then, I’ll try to make very relevant leadership lessons learned from my three decades in the army to the civilian sector. So, that’s the model.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good stuff! That was a great background. And leadership is such a driving force in life! It is both tangible and intangible, but it is what makes the difference in a crisis. It’s what makes the difference in being able to fulfill the visions that we have. And, I wonder if you would speak just a moment – and thank you for sharing the scripture in Corinthians. I’m going to go back and read it! Way to go, Rebecca! Good name. But tell us about the value of both practical and tactical leadership, in being able to get results and do important things.
Becky Halstead: Absolutely! Well, I think there is great value in being practical, and I think leadership must be deliberate. So, when you were speaking earlier about, you know, leadership makes a difference. And it does. It’s the difference between a good and a great family, good and great community, good and great companies – because it takes a great deal of discipline – self-discipline – to be a leader, to be on time, and to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. And so, the value is that you will provide a foundation that’s built on good order and discipline, that’s built on great morals and rules and roles and responsibilities. It still gives everybody freedom of maneuver.
Becky Halstead: But I kind of liken it to what’s going on in our country right now. I get asked often about, do I believe in people’s right to protest? And I’m like, “Well, yes! It’s a freedom of speech. So, of course I do. But I also believe that just because I have the right to do something, does not always necessarily mean that I should.” Now, I have the right to say anything. But should I say? And I have the right to do an awful lot. But should I do that? Or is it the right way to do it? So, I think that practicing leadership and practicing practical leadership at the very tactical level, needs to be very deliberate, very thoughtful, because leadership can be the calming enabler, right? I always tell people: we, as leaders, need to be the calm in the chaos, not create more chaos. But there are many leaders – or at least people in leadership positions – that instead of really thinking through their words and their actions to calm the effort, they stir it up. I have an issue with that.
Steve Shallenberger: Me too! Would you just take a moment and define the difference between practical and tactical?
Becky Halstead: Well, when I think of tactical from just my military days, I think of tactical as being where the rubber meets the road. It’s kind of the making decisions at the lowest possible level, and allowing people to do that because one of the very big challenges of leadership is when you’re making a decision, as a leader, you have to ask yourself, are you the right person to be making that decision, or should somebody below you be making it or somebody above you? And we train our leaders in the military to make decisions at the lowest possible level. So that’s how I describe tactical leadership. It’s really making those decisions at the lowest possible level because the next level up is operational, and then for us is strategic. So, that’s how I would frame tactical. Practical, to me, is, what’s the common sense approach? And to me, that’s really at all levels. It’s not just tactical. Practical leadership should and can be practiced at all levels from strategic, all the way down. And, if more people were practicing practical leadership I think we’d have a lot less friction in our society.
Steve Shallenberger: Indeed! And thank you so much for just sharing that. That’s really great leadership! Highly successful leaders create calm, they create a way forward, they cause people to see the way rather than creating havoc. So, thank you for sharing that! I fully agree with that. And the best leaders I’ve seen, that’s exactly what they do! They’re best in the biggest challenges.
Becky Halstead: Yes, I agree with that. I had a great mentor in the military who said, “Becky, we can never rush to failure.” And that means not only in our decisions but just in our responses. My mom gave me a great book called, “Three seconds.” And the whole thesis to that book is that if we all took three seconds before we said something or sent an email or sent a text or a Twitter – if we all took three seconds to think about the words, we’d be a lot happier with what we said. I think it’s great truth to that.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, amen! Or maybe 300 seconds, sometimes!
Becky Halstead: Yeah, right, right!
Steve Shallenberger: Well, time absolutely flies. This has been a delight! You’ve been a blessing to our listeners, you’ve given them a lot to think about and capture. And before we wrap up today, any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners? Any of the most valuable leadership lessons you’ve had? And then we’ll wrap it up today!
Becky Halstead: Okay. Well, I guess the main thing about it is that leadership is a choice. And so, since it’s a choice, please choose to lead yourself first. So, in doing that, before you act, before you respond, think about what it is you’re about to say. Would you want that said to you? Think about what you’re about to do. Would you want that done to you? And hopefully, people will be just working very hard to make better choices for the betterment of all.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, amen to that! Good job. Well, how can people find out about what you’re doing? How can they find your book and information about you?
Becky Halstead: Well, I think the easiest way is my website: www.beckyhalstead.com. I’m on Facebook, as well, but my website has YouTube videos, it has the book, I’m starting to post the podcasts that I get to do on there. That’s probably the easiest way. It does have a ‘Contact Becky’ tab on it. Sometimes that goes to spam, but if you send me a note on ‘Contact Becky’, I try very hard to respond within a few days to people.
Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s great! Thank you, Becky, not only for being part of our show today but thank you for your wonderful, dependable, faithful service to our country and to helping our country be a better place to live.
Becky Halstead: Well, thank you, Steve! It was an honor and a privilege, so I appreciate that very much.
Steve Shallenberger: You bet! Well, we wish you all the best and all the things that you’re doing. We hope you’re feeling better!
Becky Halstead: Oh, much better!
Steve Shallenberger: Good deal! We wish all of those that are listening today, the very best, as you’re making this day the very best day that it can be, as you’re working on becoming your best. And never forget: never get discouraged! You’re making a difference as you just simply work on becoming your best and doing good. This always has a way to make things better. So, this is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day!