Colonel Chuck Waggonner’s Leadership Lessons

Fort Knox, Kentucky- May 2003

In May 2003, I got a strange mission. I assigned as the Infantry’s School liaison to work at the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) at Fort Knox’s Unit of Action Maneuver Battle Lab (UAMBL). A long title for a weird job.

Armed with three-dimensional goggles and a computer mouse I helped design how the army would look in the future. We mapped new ideas by using virtual environments, called constructive simulations. It felt like the set of a Star Wars movie.

The army is a platform-oriented service. To get a new tank takes years. The idea behind the UAMBL was for the FCS development process to be sped up by using cutting-edge technology.

You need an unconventional leader for such a radical idea. Colonel Chuck “Roy” Waggoner was it. He looked like a soldier: tall, rugged, broad-shouldered and solid-looking. He had brown hair going gray and a permanent smile.

A native of Jackson, Tennessee, Waggoner was a West Point graduate. He had the résumé to lead a strange and tough mission: he gathered a small band of soldiers and contractors and formed them into a team to figure out what the future army will do and look like.

Ranger Roy

The infantry is the center of the army’s fighting strength. Everything the army does and plans for centers on the infantry. Infantry leaders led from the front, setting the example.

America’s premier light-infantry force is the 75th Ranger Regiment. It is on alert status 24/7. The men in the unit volunteer to go into harm’s way. Their mantra, “Ranger Lead the Way,” is not just a slogan, it’s a way of life.

Waggoner grew up in the 75th Ranger Regiment.

As a platoon leader in November 1978, he led his Ranger platoon into northwestern Guyana. They were the first to arrive at the mass suicide of Jonestown.

In December 1989, he led a Ranger Rifle Company that parachuted into Panama. His mission was to neutralize the Panamanian Defense Force companies and seize General Manuel Noriega’s beach house.

He commanded a light infantry battalion, ranger battalion and an infantry brigade. Waggoner was smart. He knew soldiers and how to lead a team

In those different he planned and prepared his soldiers for combat. He acted as a lay psychiatrist learning about his men, their problems, their needs and getting them to work together.

He said, “I learned to command by doing the boring work of being on a staff.” He brought what he learned to the UAMBL.

Leadership Style

By the spring of 2003, Waggoner was an “iron colonel.” He’d put in enough time to retire and he knew he would was never going to be a general. He was going to be working staff jobs as a colonel for the rest of his career. He served at his own pleasure and had nothing to lose.

He made the most of it. “No matter where you are, there is always an opportunity to lead,” he said.

Waggoner enjoyed a challenge. He got it at the UAMBL. He and his staff cranked out slides and wrote briefing papers for the Pentagon on the FCS.

He developed a checklist for best practices he thought would speed up the process. Every month he submitted a fifteen-page report on how the project to the Chief of Staff of the army.

His staff was small and inexperienced but Waggoner trained them. Waggoner told him that his top priority was finding the right people for the project. He set a restless pace with his staff and trained them by “…assembling the airplane while in flight,” he said.

He sometimes felt he was getting a lukewarm response from the Pentagon bureaucracy. He fixed this by hand delivering the fifteen-page report every month personally.

His bosses at liked his candor and vigor.

There was a little of the academic in Waggoner. He enjoyed hashing out his ideas on paper and puzzling over problems and finding solutions. He did this by asking pointed questions.

The Director

“Director” not “Commander” was in the job title but that didn’t matter to Waggoner. He cared about people. “I want to make this place something that people are proud to be a part of,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner had an ambitious approach to his leadership style. He would spend time face-to-face with all 60 members of the UAMBL- contractors and soldiers at least once a week. He wanted them to understand the dynamics and importance of the FCS.

He would come to their desk, on their turf, to make them feel comfortable. He would personally brief each new member of the team so they understood the dynamics of the UAMBL.

He leaned heavily on his staff in the initial planning of the UAMBL, but first he had to explain it to them.

It’s a tough sell trying to explain the dynamics of a theoretical program using space age technology. This was like trying to explain Star Trek to cave men.

He would ask open-ended questions: What were their priorities? What did they need? What were their biggest concerns? What was keeping them from succeeding?

He once told me, “I want everyone in the organization to be moving in one direction.” “I want folks to come to the UAMBL without thinking this is a dead-end job. Come here and you will be successful,” he said.

He kept his word. Each soldier that left the command got a school or assignment of his choice as he left. Many times Waggoner had to call in favors to help, but he always kept his word.

One soldier got airborne school and I got an assignment to Fort Drum, NY. “We made the UAMBL a place that people wanted to be a part of,” he said.

Body Man

I went with Waggoner on four trips as his aide and body man. As “body man” to Waggoner my job was to stay one step behind the colonel, but think and act three steps ahead during a typical eighteen-hour workday on these trips.

He made me responsible for balancing his schedule and drafting presentations on the trips.

As Colonel Waggoner’s personal aide during these busy trips, I sat yards from the offices of the Chief of Staff of Army and the Secretary of the Army. I spent time with Waggoner getting ready for these important meetings. After the meetings I would work on the “due outs” from his conversations with these important men.

My experiences were unique, the lessons I learned during my tenure with Colonel Waggoner are universal. He taught me the importance of “staff work.”

Staff Work

Colonel Waggoner showed me how to do good “staff work.” He managed his time and set priorities. He didn’t waste time in meetings. He used an aggressive agenda to solve problems by making decisions, and communicating with his team.

He showed me the value of good writing and how to conduct briefings. The most important lesson was the part ethics plays in being a good leader. “You need to set the example and people will follow,” he said, “sometime just out of curiousity.”

After a meeting with the Commander of Fort Knox, I saw him completely drained like a marathon runner who just ran long race. Yet, he could turn right around and recall names, and places he met new folks.

Watching him up close and seeing him perform in tough circumstances was impressive. He knew the importance in what he was doing. He showed up to give his best.

Once I saw him get a PowerPoint presentation from his staff. He opened a copy of the slides. It wasn’t what he wanted. He said, “Too much technical jargon, not enough of why the UAMBL is important.”

So he started editing. I made the changes as he talked. We emailed the new draft back and forth late into the night. He was up until almost three o’clock in the next morning doing PowerPoint triage.

I thought he must have something better to do with his time than edit a PowerPoint slides. He said, “The devil is in the details. You get the small stuff right, the rest will come.”

He was able to outline and lay out goals of what needed done by working on-on-one with his staff.

Most staff assignments like the UAMBL were a stepping-stone in the career of an army officer. Waggoner turned it into a place where people wanted to work.

He made us exceed our planning mission goals because he made us love him by the example he set.

Mentor

Waggoner had plenty of personal advice for me too. He urged me not to focus so narrowly on my job as an infantry officer. He urged me to think outside of the foxhole. We talked about history and strategy.

He made me think about the relationship of the military and our civilian bosses in Washington. We talked about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He talked me into going to graduate school. “Dom, you need to be in a place with people with different ideas and experiences. Making yourself uncomfortable makes you grow.”

Lessons Learned

After almost six months of working for Colonel Waggoner here is what I learned:

1. Write Well, Make Slides and Coffee

My tactical experience as a Rifle Platoon Leader in Korea and at the Joint Readiness Training Center didn’t mean anything. No one cared about my tactical experiences. What they did care about was my ability to write well and to make coffee.

2. Contractors are important

Due to the nature of the UAMBL green suiters (soldiers) came and went. The contractors- all retired senior officers and noncommissioned officers- had seen it all and done it all. They had as much “skin in the game” as the green suiters. They were the continuity of the place. Their institutional knowledge was essential. They cared and they saw being a contractor as simple being an extension of their military service.

You can never going wrong with treating people with respect. My dad used to say, “The best compliant you can ever give someone is to have good manners.”

Waggoner talked to everyone the same. in his office he always came out from behind his desk to greet who ever came into the room. He did this for privates, generals and contractors. He made everyone feel valuable and the people who worked for him would have followed him to hell.

3. Being mentored is important

I was lucky to know and work for such a generous boss as Colonel Waggoner. The job as his “body man” was an amazing opportunity. Over the past 13 years his advice has paid off again and again. I was only a small cog on an important team- As a captain I carried bags, made coffee and did PowerPoint slides, but I was in the room when important decision were made. It was an invaluable experience.

Colonel Waggoner taught me that being honest and transparent makes great relationships. This is important to any endeavor, whether you’re building the future army concepts or a business. He led by personal and physical example in everything he did. He showed trust to his subordinates. He made you proud to be part of the organization because he was proud to have you there.