Lester Lyles, a retired Air Force four-star general, served as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, as director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, as vice chief of staff at Air Force headquarters and as commander of the Air Force Materiel Command. He is now chairman of the board of United Services Automobile Association and serves as a member of numerous boards and organizations, including the Renewing America’s Civil Service initiative that seeks to build a more effective federal government. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Lyles talked about his approach to leadership, the importance of direct and honest communication, and his love of fast cars. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What were some of the key leadership lessons you learned during your military career?
The lesson I learned over and over was the importance of working as part of a team, not for oneself. You have to know how to get along with people, how to compromise and how to communicate.
How would you describe your approach to leading and managing people?
I have been described as a people person. I listen to other people. I value their input in decision-making and their thoughts about an initiative, a problem or a challenge. Everyone has a contribution or the potential to make a contribution, so you need to give them an opportunity to elaborate on their ideas and thoughts. There are three words that describe my management style: communicate, communicate and communicate. As a leader, you must communicate upward to those for whom you work, communicate laterally to those who you partner with and communicate with those who work for you. Communication also implies receiving. Sometimes it’s just shutting up and listening to others.
Can you give me an example of how you put that into practice?
I’m the chairman of the board at USAA, and often meet with people from different business sectors and the people working here to better understand their challenges and what they’re doing. And I to listen to them. I may just walk around, engage people at their desks or talk to people in hallways. I have lunch with groups of employees and dinner with our executives and their spouses just to get to know them better as people. It’s really just engaging people.
How do you communicate to those above you when your message may be bad news?
When I ran the nation’s missile defense program, I was dealing with a Republican Congress that was very pro-missile defense, but it was during the Clinton administration and the White House did not necessarily support putting lots of money into missile defense programs. Whatever congressman or senator or staffer I went to see, I told them all exactly the same thing—the good, the bad and the ugly. I was open and transparent with everybody. To me, that’s always the secret—transparency and openness, so that you’re conveying the same message. Even though everyone did not agree with whatever position I presented, they knew they could trust that they were receiving clear communication without any fluff or spin.
When you were managing large civilian entities within the Air Force, did you face impediments recruiting and hiring talent, or in some cases dealing with poor performers?
It takes much too long to hire people within the federal government, particularly if there’s a skill base that you need. You can’t just go out and offer a contract and get them to sign it the same day. There’s a process you have to go through. That has always been an impediment. Occasionally you run into the other extreme of wanting to get rid of dim workers, and I use that term very cautiously, because I don’t want anybody to think that that’s the norm in the federal sector. But in case you have some people, a very, very small percentage, who aren’t performing and you need to have them move on, you can’t fire people just like that. There’s a process you have to go through, and there’s good reason for that. But it’s an impediment.
What can the civilian side of government learn from the military about developing leaders?
The military has development programs for young officers. Why not expand those programs to young civil servants? Don’t just wait until they reach 20 years of service and try to make them leaders. Start when they first walk into the door.
If you could wave a magic wand, what are two things you would do regarding the federal civil service?
I would have major awareness programs, whether it’s media advertising, public service announcements or even occasionally a TV show to showcase the work of civil servants. Most of the civil servants I know are proud of their jobs, but they often read and hear about the negative things. I’d like to make the public understand the value of these individuals and what they do on a daily basis and how much we should appreciate them. The second thing I would do is make sure that civil servants know they will be held accountable for getting the job done. And if they can’t get it done, then other actions need to be taken. Hopefully not a negative action like moving somebody out, but at least by giving individuals additional training to do their job better.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I am an avid car guy. I love cars—fast cars and sports cars. If it’s a good day weather-wise, you can find me at Cars and Coffee in Great Falls, Virginia, on Saturday mornings with hundreds of other people looking at everything from a $2 million Bugatti and to hot rods, muscle cars and in my case, a 650 horsepower ZO6 Corvette. I’m also an avid auto racing fan.