Q & A with Col J. William DeMarco By Jason Womack

DeM Banter:  Very much an honor to be interviewed by Jason Womack and the Hesselbein Leadership Institute.

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Leadership is more than just a word to Col. Joseph William DeMarco. It is a way of life. Over a 24 year career in the United States Air Force, Col. DeMarco has pushed to understand effective leadership, develop leaders, and (continually) learn from others. Recently, I emailed him this request, “How can I introduce you to the community at the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute?”

He responded simply and quickly:

“Colonel ‘Bill’ DeMarco, USAF, Commander and leader in permanent beta.”

jason-womack_2012-07-09_13-02-48_webI met Col. DeMarco while attending the 2011 bi-annual reunion of the 100th Bomb Group [WWII Bomber Group]. Representing the 100th Air Refueling Wing, based in England, Col. DeMarco presented the veterans and their families with a beautifully prepared speech on the impact of duty, honor, and excellence demonstrated by “our Airmen Fathers.” His oratory on the importance of legacy made a lasting impact on me.

Over the phone – between detachment visits to the airmen he leads and hospital visits for his young son battling cancer – Col. DeMarco shared his vision of leadership. Here is what it looks like to him.

– Jason Womack

Jason Womack: Do you have a simple way to think about how leaders get better?

Bill DeMarco: Leonardo daVinci once said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” There are two things I know I need to do as a leader; both are simple to understand, yet complex or quite sophisticated in implementation.

Understand that we need to improve. In the Air Force it’s possible to believe leadership is dependent upon a position. Someone who has positional authority does not automatically make them a strong leader. I make a point to let people know that I’m continuing to grow, to study, to learn, to talk to people like you. Another leadership guy, Andy Christiansen of High Capacity Leaders in Atlanta GA, once asked me to help him look at some military leadership issues, and in answering some of his questions, I think I’ve actually learned more from him!

We need to learn more about our own leadership style. There’s a lot of debate out there on what to work on, our strengths or our weaknesses. I interact with a lot of younger people, and I encourage them to really understand themselves, to understand both their strengths AND their weaknesses. When people understand themselves – their motivations and goals – more, it gives them thrust AND vector; it gives them the energy they need AND something to focus on.

JW: What Was Your Defining Moment As a Leader?

BD: I have a very strong memory of how 9/11 attacks changed everything for me, my family and my larger community. That morning I was out for a run, I came home and when I got out of the shower my sister-in-law called to tell me to “turn on the news.” When the second plane hit the World Trade Center I turned to my wife and said, “We’re at war.” She asked, “With who?” I replied, “I have no idea.”

Over the next 100 days I was deployed halfway across the world, and flew one of the first sorties in combat [he flew a KC-10 tanker, re-fueling fighter jets in the air] over the desert.

During that time I reflected back on something I learned as a cadet at The Citadel. When I was a freshman, one of the seniors told me, “The most important people in your LIFE are your classmates.” I had now idea how right he was. So, now I tell people: the most important people are your peers. The second most important, your direct reports, you need to take care of those guys. The third…Your boss.”

I learned who I could count on to get the job done.

JW: What will leaders increasingly need to include that up until now they may not have had to study in great detail?

BD: Leadership is different now. Start thinking about how you serve as a role model. The crew you lead may be 2 people or 13 people. The Airmen of our past – the crews from the 100th Bomber Group – were among the greatest generation; I have the utmost respect, and am blessed to have met and worked with them.

It was a different environment then. Now, I ponder things like the Internet, the instant media, the 24 hour news stream. I struggle with the impact of Social Media. I see some senior leaders avoiding this connection to those they lead. Leaders who want to connect with the next generation have to make understanding social media a priority, they need to jump in and become social media competent.  I’ve been researching how we’re communicating and collaborating and find there are three groups: The Tourists (they know it exists, drop in, and then leave). The Natives (they were born and exist online), and the Citizens (they understand how social media and connect well there).  The problem is—natives tend to avoid tourists who don’t care enough to learn their language or understand their culture.

Our young people are using Social Media to connect and learn about how the world works; as role models – as leaders – we have an opportunity to connect with them in many new ways and social media is their venue of choice…we need to join them there.

JW: What are some of your own habits or routines as an effective leader?

BD: I am at my best when I’m able to do my morning routines:

My wife and I get up at oh-dark-thirty and go to the gym together.

Over breakfast (the most important meal of the day), I read the news, gaining an understanding of the world.

I get in to the office about 30 minutes before anyone else (I told the staff not to come in before me!) and that’s my time for reading the Bible or devotional time.

By the time I start my day, I’ve engaged in mental, physical, and spiritual fitness.

JW: How do you listen so you hear more than what is just being said by those you lead?

BD: I still struggle with something to this day: I need to be more emotionally intelligent and a better communicator. More than ever, I’m looking to identify the influencers; they are the ones who can point me in the direction of where there may be a problem.

In the military we are “Go” oriented; sometimes people try and do too much, manage too much, they say “yes” to too much. You have to know your people; and, when you know your people, their families, and where they are coming from, you have deeper insight about what they are trying to get done. A leader who is connected brings a unique – and important – perspective to all levels of decisions being made.

JW: How would you define your self in just one sentence?

BD: “I am a leader in continual Beta.”

Jason Womack is an executive coach, author and expert speaker focusing on the psychology, sociology and technology of productivity. He has worked with leaders for almost two decades in both business and education sectors. Clients are leaders who make significant differences in life and at work. His extensive background is in leadership education, curriculum design, program implementation, policy research and development of partnerships. 

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