“Leadership” is simple yet complex — it is about putting others before yourself, establishing and promoting trust and loyalty, and being a lifelong learner, because no one does it alone. It is a 24–7 type of dedication — it does not mean that you cannot enjoy life outside the office but life is better when you work at something that you are passionate about.
And, it is easier to put down words on paper about “leadership” than to actually practice and improve every day. But you have to — it’s like brushing and flossing your teeth.
You need to do it everyday.
When I first joined the Missile Defense Agency as a Presidential Management Fellow, my first rotation did not go so well. Within three months of arriving there, I raised my hand and asked HR for a new rotation assignment.
HR gave me one — it assigned me to the department of the late retired Rear Admiral David M. Altwegg.
I had heard quite a bit about Mr. Altwegg, that as a retired 2-star admiral, he was demanding, direct, and forceful. When I entered his office for our first meeting/interview, I maintained a pleasant, noncommittal expression.
Our relationship with a short conversation like this:
Mr. Altwegg: So I have not read your resume.
Me: That’s ok. There is not much to read on there. You’re not missing anything.
Mr. Altwegg (arched an eyebrow): Oh? And you’re a lawyer?
Me: I just passed the bar. That does not mean anything. I am still learning.
Mr. Altwegg (with his hands and arms raised and clasped above his head as he leaned back in his chair) Well, you’re a PMI (presidential management intern — which was what the program had originally been called), so you need to learn and to follow me around. I will take you to every meeting. And I will be your mentor.
Me: (very politely but not believing him) That would be great. Thank you. I will stop wasting your time and I will work with your assistant to figure out your schedule. Thank you for the opportunity.
And just like that, our first conversation ended.
I think about that conversation to this day, especially during troubled moments.
Mr. Altwegg opened every door for me. As he promised, he took me to every meeting, including ones with all the senior officials, and made sure that I sat at the main conference table rather than on the sidelines. He treated me like a colleague rather than an “intern” or “fellow,” and asked for my perspective. He also ensured that I had the opportunity to serve at The White House Office of Counsel to the President.
Before I even believed in myself, for some reason, Mr. Altwegg believed in me, and encouraged me to explore every avenue possible. He opened his contact list to me and made introductions. Those introductions led to my later positions at various law firms and my current position at a large corporation. And he did not do this just for me, but for anyone he believed in.
Mr. Altwegg demonstrated by acting and not just with words.
I strive to do that for my team and others around me who seek opportunities and counsel. True leadership is recognizing the talent around you and doing everything to help that talent grow, even if that means that they leave you.
I cannot ever repay the late Mr. Altwegg, but I can pass on his boundless generosity to others.