Practice, Training and the Three PhDs

Part 1: A Q&A With Rush University Commencement Speaker Christopher Howard

Christopher B. Howard, DPhil, MBA, president of Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, will be the honorary degree recipient and speaker at the Rush University Commencement ceremony May 25.

Howard graduated with distinction from the United States Air Force Academy, earned a doctorate in politics as a Rhodes Scholar from the University of Oxford and received an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School in 2003.

Howard’s service to his country began as a helicopter pilot in the Air Force after earning his doctorate. Then he served as an intelligence officer, assigned to the elite Joint Special Operations Command. After 9/11, he served in Afghanistan in the Air Force Reserve and was awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry in battle.

In addition, Howard won the Campbell Trophy, the nation’s highest academic award for a senior college football player, at Air Force. He is a member of the Verizon Academic All-American Hall of Fame and was recently named to the College Football Playoff selection committee. Learn more about his accomplishments.

Howard recently talked to us about several topics, including leadership and making decisions under pressure. This is Part 1 of a two-part series.

You have established yourself as a leader throughout your life, whether it’s in higher education, the military or athletics. Tell us about your leadership philosophy. What are some of the qualities you believe a good leader must possess?

Christopher Howard: It starts with integrity. You say what you mean and you mean what you say, and you’re straightforward with people. It used to be our motto in my class at the Air Force Academy: “Integrity first and duty always.”

In addition to integrity, I like to refer to the three PhDs. The first PhD they have to get is a PhD in themselves. They have to be self-aware. They have to know what they do well and what they don’t do well. They have to be very, very honest with themselves.

Number two, they get a PhD in the world around them. They’re contextually aware. They recognize a couple of things: One, when they start work at an organization, if they treat that organization the same way on Day 1,000 as if it was Day One, they’re probably doing something wrong. Because the world changes, the organization evolves, and your leadership has to evolve, and has to remain fresh and contemporary for the moment.

To use a military example: You were a captain and had a company of 120 soldiers, and you were very good at leading that group. Then you ultimately become battalion commander, leading 1,200 troops. If you try to lead 1,200 troops like you led 120, you’re going to have 10 times the problems. Contextual awareness allows one to be aware of that and do better and to adapt.

And finally, leaders get a PhD in leadership. Leaders are constantly studying other leaders. Jeff Immelt (chairman of the board and chief executive officer of General Electric), when I worked at GE, used to always say, “I don’t think a leader is worth his or her salt if they can’t see around corners a little bit.” And the way you see around corners is to study other people who have been there before you and did it in other ways. So it’s not just someone who’s an academic leader looking at other leaders in academia. There’s leaders in academia looking at leaders in business. Leaders in business looking at leaders in athletics and sports. Leaders in sports and athletics looking at leadership in government.

So those are the three PhDs: yourself, the world around you and leadership itself. All that underpinned by integrity. And at the top of the sandwich is authenticity. Leaders are authentic, and they try to put themselves in situations where there’s a fit. If they go to a place where there’s not a fit, they’re going to crash and burn.

In turn, what are your thoughts on the importance of developing leaders and giving people a chance to grow?

I’ve always been in the human capital development business. I was developing airmen and lieutenants in the Air Force. Now I’m developing vice presidents and junior faculty here at Robert Morris. I think leaders have that gene that says, “I want to improve the organization.” The most important form of capital is not financial capital; it is actually human capital.

Your organization will only be as great as the people that are in it.  And if you’re not making your C players B players and your B players A players, what are you doing? But I think the best organizations that I know — people grow people, and they’re proud of it.

And just because you like to grow people doesn’t mean you have to be cuddly. People mistake being a CEO or a president of a university or a general officer or a leader, a senator or governor —the only ones that want to make people better are those who want to give everybody a hug. I like to give hugs. But by the same token, sometimes the best way to develop people is to actually lay down the marker and close the door and say, “Hey, you know, you need to step up.”

You were awarded the Bronze Star for your military service, so you must have been faced with some pressure-filled decisions. Similarly, in health care you need the ability to make choices under strained circumstances that will impact people’s lives. How do you hone that ability to process stimuli and be counted on to make fast, sound judgments?

Practice and training. You do things over and over again the right way. My old football coach said that practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.

There was an F-16 — actually my friend was one of the pilots — that had to eject at Pope Air Force Base near Fort Bragg.  Meanwhile, there were a bunch of airborne troops who were going to do a jump, and they were down on the airfield. Debris from the F-16, as it hit the airfield, cut through the troops, and it was a very, very disturbing scene. The soldiers I talked to who were on the ground said they — they’re probably in shock for a moment — and then they just started soldiering, which is an interesting verb. It means taking care of your brother or your sister. They started administering first aid, assessing the situation, getting people to safety, figuring out if there were fire hazards. And they just did it. They’re trained to deal with stress and to follow procedures.

In the medical profession — I’ve not been a clinician but have been around it during my time at Bristol-Myers-Squibb — the clinicians and the people in the medical profession go through hours and hours and days and days and months and months and years and years of training. So when that moment arises they know what to do.

One of my classmates from the Air Force Academy is Dr. Brian Williams, we called him Willie. He was the clinician at Parkland Hospital when the fatal shooting of the police officers in Dallas happened a few months ago.

So Willie, we had our class reunion, he talked about this at length. But he just said, “You know, everything kind of went in slow motion,” even though everything was going 100 mph when he was dealing with all of these wounded officers. And his military training kicked in. His medical training kicked in.

In the military, you knew that at any moment you might have to really step up and execute a tough mission in the most difficult situations. When I was running human intelligence operations in Afghanistan, I would think about that as I hit my bunk at night, and I would reflect on what I might be called upon to do in short order. So when I had to make a couple of tough decisions and tough calls, I felt prepared and ready to do that. So a combination of training and practice, a combination of knowing that’s part of your job, I think allows you to be successful when the moment hits.

Read the final part of our Q&A series with Howard.