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General Dempsey Delights Audience with Strategies for Leadership, Teamwork, Innovation--and Humility

(10/29/2014) - Lead with a "servant's soul," always be well-informed, select persuasion over force, and strive daily to win the trust of your colleagues.

That was some of the advice offered by U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the highest-ranking military officer in the country, during the keynote presentation at this year's Geno Auriemma UConn Leadership Conference, sponsored by the UConn School of Business. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered lessons from his military career that carry over to the corporate world.

The theme of the two-day conference, Oct. 22 and 23 at Mohegan Sun, was leading for innovation and change. He spoke to nearly 200 entrepreneurs and business executives from Connecticut and beyond.

Dempsey began his speech discussing the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962—exactly 52 years to the day of his presentation. He discussed how President Kennedy was confronted by a series of options and had the painstaking work of determining what course to take. Eventually he decided on a blockade of Cuba, and it worked.

"You make decisions always in uncertainty. There is never enough information," said Dempsey, who is in charge of some 2 million military personnel and is the top military adviser to the president. "You can actually paralyze yourself in the effort to get just one more piece of information. Don't overwhelm yourself and everyone around you with too many options."

Trust is the underpinning of all leadership, Dempsey said, and is another trait that transcends military and corporate success. He talked about an Air Force para-jumper, part of a military rescue team, who 12 times rappelled off the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, while under machine-gun fire, to rescue his fellow airmen.

"I said, 'What were you thinking?' and he said, truthfully, 'I wasn't thinking about much except "I have to go…they're my teammates,"' Dempsey said to the audience, which was quiet with intrigue.

"We are the finest military in the world, not because we have the coolest equipment. And we do. Or the finest uniforms. I think the Marines have those. It's because we trust each other. In the military, you must trust the man or woman to your left and to your right; the chain of command; the medic who is caring for you; and the pilot who will stand a helicopter on its nose in any kind of terrain, altitude and weather to get you out of there.

"As we talk about leadership and innovation… I believe innovation might make you more efficient and effective, but it won't make your team better unless it is built on that foundation of trust," he said.

Other key speakers during the two-day conference included Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Travelers; Bob Diamond, former chief executive of Barclays and currently founder and CEO of Atlas Merchant Capital; Manon Cox, president and CEO of Protein Sciences; Matt Fleury, president and CEO of the Connecticut Science Center; Christine Potter, vice president of Stanley Black & Decker; Karen Munson, vice president of Munson’s Chocolates; and Michael Jackson, vice president at NIKE. Many of them referenced Dempsey's comments in their own presentations.

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