Episode 91: “Clear Vision, Values, and Hope are Essential to Leading in Challenging Times” featuring Retired Major General Randy Manner

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 91: “Clear Vision, Values, and Hope are Essential to Leading in Challenging Times” featuring Retired Major General Randy Manner

Do the challenges of a global pandemic and extreme polarization seem insurmountable? Retired Major General Randy Manner shares how clear vision and values help in navigating difficult terrain by engendering unity and hope.

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Do the challenges of a global pandemic and extreme polarization seem insurmountable? In this episode, Retired Major General Randy Manner shares how clear vision and values help in navigating difficult terrain by engendering unity and hope.

Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is retired Major General Randy Manner. Major General Manner is also an executive coach with many clients in all arenas. Our focus for this podcast is leading during times of change. General Manner, I’m so excited that you are joining us today. I’m glad that you will be a part of our podcast. I am really looking forward to this conversation and getting an opportunity to learn from your experiences.

Randy Manner: I’m excited as well. Thank you for asking me to participate.

Douglas Powe: I would like to begin, Randy, with you sharing a little bit about your background. You’ve worked in a lot of different arenas with several clients. So, if you can just give a little background on yourself and some of the work you’ve done, I think it would help our audience.

Randy Manner: I would be honored to do so. I’ve had a very, very blessed life. My background is military. My dad was in the Army, Vietnam, career soldier. My grandfather was in the Navy during World War II. In fact, my son is in the Air Force on active duty right now. And I served 36 years in the U.S. Army. However, I had a somewhat unusual military career. I had 10 years of active duty as a regular officer, typically what you think of — jump out of airplanes, airborne ranger, going around the world, all those kinds of things. Then I picked up a master’s degree, based on my undergrad of computer science, a Master of Business Administration in decision sciences. I was a technical person, so I decided after 10 years of active duty to get off active duty, and instead I joined the part-time National Guard in the state of Virginia. During the next 16 years, I started as an analyst and I worked my way up to chief information officer and a general business unit manager responsible for several hundred million dollars of revenue in an international IT consulting company, a multibillion-dollar company.

Then 9/11 happened and, as it changed all our lives, it changed the life of my family and myself as well. I was recalled to active duty literally in September of ’01 and my unit and I reported to the Pentagon to augment the Army Operation Center in the basement of the Pentagon. The building literally was still smoldering. We were there within days. It was surreal, as we all recall, since it’s about 20 years ago this month this all occurred. I served on active duty for the one year, and then as you can imagine the military asked many of us if we’d like to continue to serve. So, they cherry-picked some of us to continue on active-duty tours and I did so. And one year turned into 11 more years. So, I actually retired from the military in December of 2012. And it was a great honor to serve in many capacities around the world to help take care of not only our citizens at home but also to bear that responsibility to safeguard all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, the daughters, the sons, the husbands, and the spouses of our great Americans.

After that, I went back to school to Georgetown to pick up leadership coaching as a postgraduate certificate. I joined Korn Ferry as a senior partner. Korn Ferry is the largest human capital company in the world. They’re known best for their executive search. I worked on the side on leadership and talent development. I did that for several years and then I decided at this point in my life I wanted to work a smaller number of hours and for just the clients and customers that I wanted to work for. So, for the past three years I’ve been working with Fortune 50 Companies, for executives and executive teams, and then doing a lot of pro bono work for both retired and active military from time to time and, of course, doing things like this to help other people, such as the great ministers and chaplains and pastors that are trying to help so many, many hundreds of thousands of our families across the United States. And that leads us to today.

Douglas Powe: Well, I appreciate that, and I learned some things. We’ve talked before, of course, but I learned some new things when you shared this. And I want to pick up and connect a couple of themes. So, one of the things I just learned, I didn’t realize that you were called back right after 9/11 which, of course, was during a time of dramatic change in this country. And of course, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, which has been a time of dramatic change. And our topic today is change. How we lead during these challenging times of change. And you obviously have experienced two challenging times of change just within this time frame. I’m sure there’s been more in the military. But I want to start there. Can you just share broadly, how do we lead during times of challenging change?

Randy Manner: Change is hard for everyone, especially whenever they have no control or direct influence over the change. When people start to lose hope or they lose direction, they typically fall back to be afraid or to be fearful. And that can show itself in many different ways. So, the challenge for leaders is to be able to replace that fear, that frustration, that anger in many cases with feelings of hope, with gratitude, thankfulness, and with action to make something happen. So, what is needed during times of change is for all the people that are listening to this, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be able to step up, to provide that feeling of hope and that feeling that it is going to be better and to turn that into action. So, it’s not just preaching. It’s also taking the action to back up the words.

Douglas Powe: Let me stay with this theme. I know that at one time you led the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for the Army. First, for those in our audience who may not be familiar with this, can you share what it is? But then, to the question, based on what you just said, how working in that particular agency helped you to face these sorts of challenges. Especially given some of these challenges we now face with the pandemic, in your work with that agency, how did you learn to give hope and to navigate some of the challenges?

Randy Manner: The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is actually not the Army; it’s for the Department of Defense. It’s for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. It’s for everyone. So, it is probably the quietest organization that has the most impact on our country without ever even knowing it. Some of the things we were responsible for — first of all, big picture, it’s for helping to ensure that we manage and handle all of our nuclear weapons safely, that they are inspected, that the handling of them and maintenance of them is inspected. At the same time, we had treaties with the Russians where we would go and inspect their nuclear facilities as an openness and helping to increase trust. And they would come and inspect ours, as well. I have to admit it was very, very surreal to be at a Russian nuclear base outside of Moscow, sitting there talking to my counterpart, a Russian two-star general, about hopes and fears and so on. And the reality is, they’re just like us. And it helps to understand that and to spend some time with people.

In addition to our talking about nuclear weapons and safeguarding them and helping to keep the world safe so hopefully we never have to use them, we’re also responsible for doing research and development in how to develop prophylactic vaccines. The bad guys can create, without a lot of laboratory assets, things that can do great harm to us. And so, one of our missions was to be able to do research and development on identifying potential threats and to develop vaccines not that went through the entire FDA approval — as we know from COVID, that can take a year or more by itself, and it’s very expensive — but just to have things on the shelf in case of an emergency. You can imagine, something as simple as creating an airborne variety of rabies would be devastating because rabies without treatment has literally almost a 100% fatality rate. So, if you went from it being transferred from the saliva of rabid animal to being airborne that you can breathe in — well, this is bad, this is really bad. COVID has a fatality rate of one-third of 1% in the United States. Now, it varies by group, we know. However, it’s one third of 1%. What if we were presented with a problem of 100% death rate, mortality rate? So, it was our responsibility to help protect our American citizens and to help protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that might go into harm’s way, to examine ways to help safeguard us.

During this time, I was also responsible for, of all things, pandemic planning exercises for the Department of Defense in collaboration with the whole of government, not just federal government. But because of my experience in the National Guard, I also was responsible for coordinating with state and local governments as well to practice what would we do with different types of diseases that had varying levels of mortality rates. It was an eye-opening experience. It was a great honor to do it. And I learned so much that can help make us all safer.

Douglas Powe: Let me stay with this theme for a second. As you were thinking about the preparation for something like a pandemic, which of course creates a huge challenge, as we all know, how do you help people stay calm during this sort of situation? It seems to me, where you began a few minutes ago about fear and distrust, these things create a situation where people can panic and that’s when things can start to deteriorate. So how do we create a situation where we know it is challenging but if we can really create the hope that we can make it through this situation — not saying things will be perfect but we can come out on the other side. So, were there some things that you’re allowed to share that can actually help create that hope?

Randy Manner: So, a couple of things. First, things over the past four years changed dramatically because the whole concept of dealing with facts has been politicized. It used to be information published by a renowned science-based organization or research institute or university that had been peer reviewed and where there was supporting evidence to back up that research would be generally accepted into society. Regretfully, that’s no longer the case. So, the threshold of truth depends on where you sit and how you feel about the source. Now back in 2010, 2012, it was much, much easier. Because we would rely on proven research areas. When I say proven, nothing is black and white. Nothing is zero or one, no matter what the situation is. Measles vaccine, for example, is 97% effective. But there’s 3% where it doesn’t work. However, for 97% of population, there is no harm to them. But if it happens to you as part of the 3%, it doesn’t mean it’s something bad. It means you may get measles. And then there are actually eight cases a year where there are substantial side effects. But that’s eight out of 300 million in the United States. It still hurts if it happens to your own son or your daughter.

Now pulling us back for a second, in today’s environment, it’s really very important that leaders in the church do the very best you can to listen to the concerns of your parishioners and to be able to ask them “What are the sources that you might believe in?” and “How can you find out what the truth is?” I know it sounds very simple to say those words. But it actually is very important. Having a balanced perspective with multiple sources of information will always yield a better result or a better answer. Anytime we rely singularly on one person or one source you potentially could fall victim to either propaganda, misinformation, or misguided beliefs. The same thing is in the Bible where there are many people who speak the truth but who do you believe? So, it’s along that same line. You have to look from your head and from your heart. And you have to question the sources, and I mean all the sources, to be able to get the best information you can. As a leader in the church, of your parish or your congregation, it’s very important to challenge everyone. First of all, give them hope. It will get better. Because guess what? It will get better. It will get better. I hate to say that the science shows it but the science shows it will get better. That’s number one. Number two is to challenge them to look at multiple sources to make their decisions and upon which they believe.

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Douglas Powe: Let me have you share a little bit more about bringing people with diverse views together. In many congregations, there’s not a singular view. You have people with different theological views, different political views; people sit on different sides of the fence with a range of views. You talked about multiple sources. One of the challenges is that even looking at multiple sources, we may still end up with different perspectives. So, part of the challenge for leaders is how to navigate when I have diverse individuals with different perspectives who are trying to move together in one direction. You shared with me a story about some work you recently did — I think it was in Vegas — of how you tried to help people shift the conversation so that those with different perspectives could at least be on the same page in terms of the mission they were trying to accomplish.

Randy Manner: I believe that the question is, how might we bring people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives together to be united in some manner and to be respectful of others?

Douglas Powe: That’s right.

Randy Manner: Whether it is in business or the military or in a university or in a congregation, there are three things that the leader must do. And it all falls under the umbrella of creating a vision. The vision has to have three parts. The first one is: it’s got to have the purpose or the mission. What is the purpose of our congregation? And, by the way, I’m only going to allow you one sentence. It can’t go on and on. In one sentence, you have to define and agree, what is your purpose of your congregation.

The second one — and I know this can sound a little weird — but you’d have to come up with the half dozen values of your congregation. What are the values? What’s an example of a value? Using some of the military values, which I’ll talk about in a few moments, it’s things like integrity, honesty, courage, accountability, duty, loyalty, respect of others, discipline, teamwork. These are examples of values, but there’s many more values, too. You can Google them and find out — or top 10 religious values, if you so desire, but the point is, you have to come up with the values that your congregation believes in. This is going to be very, very important as a litmus test about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior after you define in writing the five or six values your congregation stands for.

The third thing is to come up with the key goals for the congregation. So, you have your purpose, you have your values, and then you have the three or four things you’re there to do. It could be to have a school. It could be to serve God in the Church. It could be to serve the community in some way. It could be a food bank. It could be education. I don’t know what it could be, but the point is, every congregation has something that’s important to them. And so, you basically come up with these together. Use a give-and-take. What are the three or four goals for your congregation?

This purpose or mission statement in one sentence, the values that represent the congregation that everyone agrees to live by, and then the key goals that the three or four constructive actionable things you want to do — these three things create the vision. It’s the responsibility of the leader to help create the vision and then do two more important things: communicate the vision and inspire others to actually live that vision and to help achieve it. By the way, it’s not once. It’s not twice. It’s every week. It’s every day. So again, you have to create the vision and then inspire others to do it. All the while of doing this, you have to be open to tweak it, to change it a little bit as time goes on. It doesn’t mean that you come up with a whole new set of values next week, based on last week. That’s too much change. But adjusting it to fit and to grow into that vision is a very, very, very important part of being open to accept feedback and change and to come together. The whole concept of being a congregation is you come together for some purposes. You come together because you share a basic belief in God according to either published or personal beliefs. You come together in a community because you enjoy each other’s company. There are reasons why congregations come together. Well, I’m basically telling you “just write it down” and then stand behind it. And that can be also that hope and that feeling that you can give your congregation that we can move forward, we can grow together, and we can be inclusive with people who also want to live by our mission, by our values, and by our goals.

Douglas Powe: You promised to share the story from Nevada.

Randy Manner: So, one of the things that I was asked to do was — some people may have heard that the Secretary of Defense put out a guidance to examine and to root out extremism in the military. Speaking freely, since I’m a retired major general and as long as I’m respectful I can say anything I want to, I was a little bit perplexed by this approach and the style of this. The intent was good, but extremism means different things to different people. Because quite frankly, some people on the far left or the far right or even the moderate left or moderate right could be very offended. Like, “Are they coming after me? Are they speaking about me? Because I don’t know where this line is and the training is not clear, either.”

So, here’s what I did. I conducted a series of small workshops with well over 100 people, and I basically said, look, the litmus test for you, whether you are Army or Air Force or whoever you are, you have service values. (These are the same values I’m advocating for a congregation to have.) They’re well defined and they are really taught nonstop when the person first enters basic training in the military. The concepts of respect for others, integrity, truthfulness, honesty, and courage — and courage not just on the battlefield but courage to do what is right and speak to truth. I hypothesized with the teams that all these values that we were given should really be the litmus test of what is extremism. Extremism in a Facebook posting, extremism in a verbal interaction — you apply your service values as the litmus test of that posting. It isn’t about the concept of extremism because where’s the line? Instead, the question is “What is commensurate with our values and what is not?” If a person was posting something hateful about a particular type of people by color or race or national origin, that is 100% not acceptable by the military values of treating others with respect and treating them as you would like to be treated. And that falls whether anybody wants to call it extremism or not. I’m not going to use that definition; I’m going to say that doesn’t line up with our values. And you have two choices because we don’t do mind control here. However, you are part of our organization (It’s kind of like you’re part of our congregation) and that statement is counter to our values. So, you have two choices. You can either not post those things and not express them — you can think what you want but you cannot express it because you are a member of the military — or you can say, “Nope. I feel too strongly about this. I’m going to leave the military.” And then, of course, being no longer a member of the military, you can say what you choose in your community, no longer bound by the same values of the military or, taking it to your church, no longer bound by the values of your congregation.

The feedback I received was shockingly positive. “Wow! You have given me confidence that I can have a courageous conversation with one of my friends or one of the people who works for me or a member of my team that I was very nervous about before because I didn’t want them to think I was attacking either Biden or attacking Trump or any of their supporters or anyone in between. Instead, that’s irrelevant. We’re talking about are you living and speaking by the values of our service.” And 100% of people felt empowered. They felt that “Now, I know how to have the most courageous conversations and I can stand up for myself and for my team and the values against which we have committed.” So, I would offer that you can do the very, very same thing in your congregation if you create this vision of the purpose, the mission, the values which are important to you and your congregation, and the key goals; and then you communicate and inspire others.

Douglas Powe: I thank you for that. I appreciate that. I do think that’s helpful. And the way that you shifted the conversation, I’m hoping, people will learn from that as they try to help people to move to a different place as we deal with some of the challenges, particularly of difference in our congregations and in the country as a whole. As we get ready to draw to a close, I want to ask what might be a challenging question but one you probably have some great insight in is what are some common mistakes the many clients you coach have made in trying to lead change and how can people avoid those mistakes?

Randy Manner: Well, the number one mistake is not having the darn vision and communicating it because if you don’t have that, you are wandering through the wilderness. Literally, right? You’re just going through a routine every day, the same old same old. In fact, I would actually challenge everyone listening to this podcast that if you are doing the same thing every day, you’re not serving God and you’re not serving your congregation and you’re not serving yourself. You need to challenge yourself, you need to challenge your team to do more, because life is too short on this planet. You need to do the best you can with whatever your vision is. So, number one issue is leaders sometimes think they don’t need it. They can just say do this, do that, do this, do that.

You know how they are they’re saying right now that people are quitting their jobs everywhere and they’re not always joining new firms? Because it’s far more than the money. Money is not the issue. Because you can get employment almost anywhere. It’s finding what you believe in, where you can say “I can be part of this. I can be inspired by it. I like that leader. I like that product. I like that company. I like the culture. I want to be part of that.” People have choices now.

The same thing goes for our congregations in that you can either attract people and keep them or, quite frankly, no offense, they’re going to leave or die off and you have an ever-shrinking congregation. Neither which is good, of course. So, that’s the first thing. If you find yourself going through the motions, you need to inject some passion and some energy into what you believe. Because the same old same old does not work. It might feel good. But it doesn’t really work very well. It’s mediocre, at best. Do you want to be called mediocre? No. None of us likes to be called mediocre. We want to be viewed as making a difference in people’s lives, in their souls, in their hearts, and in their mind. And the way you do it is by having a vision, by using values as the litmus test to bring everyone together. Because then you’ll find that you have far, far more in common of gratitude and things to be thankful for than you can ever imagine about the tiny number of things that quite frankly divide us. And it’s important to remember that.

I’m a big history person and I frequently watch documentaries from the time of World War II and thereafter and even quite frankly in Afghanistan right now, with the plight of so many people. What we have in the United States is unbelievably great. And I’m not talking about politically great. I’m saying that most of our country is safe. You are not going to be hunted down and killed in the middle of the night because of what you believe in terms of your religion, and I mean hunted down in the night. Lots of people. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people not one or two people. Thousands of people. We’re not living in absolute fear the way that people in Afghanistan are. We’re not living in incredible, incredible poverty, such as following World War II in Europe where there was no food for anyone, and children, women, men were dying because they just had no food to eat.

At least we have an infrastructure to help people in our country, in literally every state and every county. I agree it does vary and it’s never enough. But there’s something. There is hope. There are things to be grateful for. And we really need to embrace that which makes us strong that we all believe in. So, in terms of what doesn’t work: not having a vision, not having agreed upon values, not having actions that help move the congregation forward to do great things in your community, for your parishioners and for and, obviously, for in service of God.

Douglas Powe: Major General, this has been fantastic. I wish we had more time to talk and listen to the stories all day long. But I appreciate the time you’ve given us and really appreciate the insight you’ve shared.

Randy Manner: Well, thank you, it has been an honor and I hope you invite me back sometime.

Douglas Powe: Absolutely.

Randy Manner: Okay, thank you.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Theresa Stewart shares how to craft amazing worship on a small-church budget.

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About Author

Major General Randy Manner, U.S. Army, retired

Retired Maj. Gen. Randy Manner is an executive coach in George Washington University's Center for Excellence in Public Leadership. Previously, he was a senior partner at Korn Ferry and vice president at American Management Systems, both international consulting firms. For over three decades, he served in the Pentagon and around the world, including as a deputy commanding general of the United States 3rd Army in Kuwait, as the acting vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, and as the acting and deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.