There are simply no words that can do justice to the example of servant leadership epitomized by Command Chief Master Sergeant James Hotaling. A highly decorated member of the special operations community earning the Bronze Star with Valor for actions during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Jim is a true American hero. I have interviewed countless leaders over the years, and never has so much leadership wisdom been espoused so poignantly, eloquently, and with such authentic humility as what you’re about to read below. Jim’s answers to my questions are nothing short of a leadership manifesto. Please take the time to leave a comment below and thank Jim for his service. On with the interview…
Mike Myatt: What is your first recollection of really knowing that you were called to be a leader?
James Hotaling: From my earliest memories I always felt I had a “calling” to serve. At the age of 13, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. The teachings of this auxiliary of the USAF, was invaluable to me and truly the building block to what I have become today. I was exposed to military discipline, traditions and core values as a teenager and along with solid family values shaped my servant leadership style.
Mike Myatt: Has your leadership style changed over the years, and if so, how?
James Hotaling: Call it maturity, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t learned from my mistakes and frustrations. I have learned to slow my rush to judgment and always understand there are other viewpoints. My biggest change is learning to truly embrace diversity of thought.
Mike Myatt: What was the single biggest “ah-ha” moment you’ve had as a leader?
James Hotaling: It was actually very recent. This February I attended a resiliency conference conducted by the DoD. The premise of the conference was presenting the answers to some of the problems we have been experiencing in the military with suicides and PTSD. The military has come up with eight key areas to concentrate on when supervising for a “Total Force Fitness” approach. These keys to resiliency has changed my leadership style and really was an “ah-ha” moment for me. You see, in order to be effective during good times and bad are to embrace and develop a resilient force. I try to “weave” the eight key points into conversation everyday with my people. In the introduction to the study, the publication states, “We are in an age of sustained conflict. Wars and threats to our security are no longer episodic, but require continuous optimal performance, resilience and recovery. Injury from these conflicts may be physical and mental, social and spiritual. It impacts the service member, their family and community and the nation. If we are to protect the freedom and security of our nation, we must move beyond simply having a sound body to a holistic view of health and fitness that includes both mind and body.”
The eight areas are; Physical, Environmental, Medical, Spiritual, Nutritional, Psychological, Behavioral and Social. We as leaders must work hard to create an atmosphere where everyone has a holistic approach to well-being.
Mike Myatt: Who had the most significant influence on shaping you as a leader?
James Hotaling: I have been blessed with great mentors. My first was a retired Air Force Colonel in his 60’s who gave his time to teach young teenagers who volunteered to be in Civil Air Patrol. He taught me about the power of giving back. I had a supervisor in my active duty days who always understood the importance of providing broadening experience to his people. True story: I was on a downhill slide of being over confident (and young), cocky, arrogant and downright turning into a bad apple. One night he took me out behind our work section and proceeded to beat the crap out of me! After I was the recipient of a good right hook and fell to the ground, he jumped on top of me and was about to hit me again when he stopped and I could see he was actually tearing up. He was so upset at me for failing him and my teammates. He wanted me to know that I had all the opportunity in the world to succeed and I was not taking advantage of it. That one event changed me forever. Never again would I let my attitude get bigger than the opportunities that other people were working hard to provide me. His emotional caring showed me what it was to be a servant leader. My last great mentor was my team leader. He showed love. Love for his country, mission and his team. A grown man many years older than me showed me how to love others.
Mike Myatt: What does the military offer young leaders in the making?
James Hotaling: Our core values sums up what you get in a young military leader. Integrity first, Service before Self and Excellence in all we do. With this simple foundation along with tried and true military discipline, how can you go wrong with future leaders!
Mike Myatt: How do you feel military leadership skills translate into civilian life?
James Hotaling: See the above answer. What corporation would not want to invest in someone who comes to them with these skill sets and leader DNA already built in? Today we have a new term for it and it is being a “warrior-diplomat”. The amount of exposure to various leadership scenarios throughout the world gives a military member a very unique perspective. Whether it’s negotiating with a tribal leader, working with the State Department, leading people in challenging and rapidly changing environments, etc; these experiences allows someone to think critically and lead successfully which would translate to a well prepared leader no matter who you work for.
Mike Myatt: What has been the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as a leader?
James Hotaling: Placing mission accomplishment over friendship. I once stood up an organization from scratch. This was a two year process and cost me many friends and tarnished a bit of my reputation. But in order to accomplish this stand-up and do it right, I had to make many hard choices that were very unpopular at the time. This taught me that it is truly lonely at the top, but as a leader you must always have the integrity to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.
Mike Myatt: What’s been most rewarding to you as a leader?
James Hotaling: Leading men into combat. To lead men who have volunteered to serve their country is unlike anything else I have experienced. To share in a tradition of Service before Self and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country is humbling. Since the days of the Spartan Warrior, men have stepped forward to defend their homeland. To serve amongst special operators has taught me many things in leadership.
Mike Myatt: What do you see as the primary role of a leader?
James Hotaling: A good leader should always focus on taking care of his own (through leadership, management, communication and mentorship), should always know how to analyze the strategic context of the operational environment and always as a leader be able to manage change.
Mike Myatt: What do you see as the single biggest stumbling block for leaders?
James Hotaling: Over management and under leadership
Mike Myatt: What do you see as your greatest strength as a leader?
James Hotaling: Passion. I bring intensity and focus to the job every second of every day. My love of country and passion for the mission keeps me motivated to perform at the highest levels for my people. It is extremely important to never settle, but rather always seek to continuously develop yourself to be better.
Mike Myatt: What do you see as your greatest weakness as a leader?
James Hotaling: I never try to think in terms of weakness. I think of terms of where I need to improve. The area I think I need to constantly work on is having the patience to listen to contradicting opinions. I truly value diversity of thought and work hard at making sure a majority of meetings have diverse players in them. My issue is always learning to sit back and really listening to a counter argument without first trying to jump in and defend myself.
Mike Myatt: Is it more difficult to be a leader today, why or why not?
James Hotaling: I recently transferred into a new organization. After the first 30 days of walking around and talking to people, evaluating their processes and seeing performance levels; I realized there was one vital ingredient missing that would propel them to the next level, and that was good old fashion leadership. I would not say it’s more difficult to lead today, I would say you need to have courage to be a leader. Not a manager, not a process improver, but a leader. It really doesn’t matter if it was 3000 years ago or in present time, people need leadership.
Mike Myatt: What’s the best and worst example of leadership you’ve observed in recent times?
James Hotaling: Best- I have witnessed a senior leader work hard at “looking into the future” and really set the condition to deliberately develop his force. He has tirelessly placed people in key schools and assignments to develop them. He cares more about the future of his organization then worrying about himself.
Worst-I witnessed a leader of an organization care more about himself (image, reputation, amount of friends he had) than he cared about his people and organization. When a person is in it for themselves, he is truly a hollow leader.
Mike Myatt: What should leaders today be focused on with regard to the future?
James Hotaling: Force Development. You must be developing the people below you to succeed. You must do this much earlier than you think. You can’t wait for someone that is only a year or two out from being a key leader to start developing that person. Work hard to provide as much development and broadening experience to as many subordinates as possible. This will create a pool of experience and the true leaders will begin to evolve and rise to the top. You must invest in future leaders now in order to grow in the future. With limited resources we have to rely on leaders to think and motivate their people to achieve success.
Mike Myatt: If you could give our readers one piece of advice on leadership, what would that be?
James Hotaling: A true leader should never be in his position for personal gain. It should always be about accomplishing the mission. That is why you are there. You are to LEAD the organization to better performance. It is a privilege to have the capacity to execute that responsibility every day. A good leader always looks at himself in the mirror first before looking at anyone else for excuses. Responsibility to SERVE in a leadership role has responsibility and reward, be respectful of both.
Mike Myatt: How important is “legacy,” and how do you hope to be remembered?
James Hotaling: Personal legacy is something a servant leader should never think about. It is all about the organization. I would like to be remembered as someone who gave back to his country since the age of thirteen. I am an American Airman and I have answered my nations call. It’s that simple, I look for no accolades only the ability for myself to say thank you to my country for giving me and my family all that we have.