Lessons From Leading 20,000 Soldiers In Iraq To Coaching Corporate America

U.S. Army Brigadier General Becky Halstead shares how lessons learned in the battlefield can also be applied in the corporate world.

Lessons From Leading 20,000 Soldiers In Iraq To Coaching Corporate America
[Image: Flickr user The National Guard]

When Becky Halstead was promoted to brigadier general, she found herself leading the largest logistics command in Europe. She had never deployed to Iraq, but now she would be responsible for 20,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians spread across 55 bases, overseeing both U.S. and Iraqi units in a country where women weren’t allowed to join the military. It was the most important moment in her career. “This is huge,” she says she kept thinking. “How do I let it not overwhelm me?”


It’s a question that’s come up for Halstead more often than not during her career. Over the course of 27 years in the military, she’s taken on 18 new roles. “I only went into leadership positions I had true first-hand experience in a few times,” she says. “Almost every experience I had was new to me.”

Halstead says she had to learn to trust herself. “The way you have led, what you have done, has brought you here,” she says she would remind herself. “Know that you have been trained and prepared for this moment in history and take it on.”

Today Halstead runs consulting firm Steadfast Leadership. She has worked with clients including IBM, Procter & Gamble, and General Electric, dispensing her hard-earned leadership lessons from the battlefield.

Here are six key principles she urges all leaders to embrace:

Forget Work-Life Balance–Find Your Battle Rhythm Instead

Hook a heart monitor up to your chest, and you better hope you don’t see a straight line. Your cardiac rhythm is what keeps you alive, wavering up and down and finding a tempo–never flat-lining. The same goes for your work life, says Halstead. She says she doesn’t believe in work-life balance. “When you hear ‘balance,’ you think, ‘I’m going to spend equal time at work and equal time at home,” she says. “That’s just not reality.”

It’s not reality because when you’re passionate about your work, it bleeds into everything else you do. Great ideas come to you in the shower or while you’re cooking dinner. There’s no way to shut that off. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to find balance, develop what Halstead calls your “personal battle rhythm.” That means taking time to do small tasks for yourself so that you can sustain your energy.


“You better get a good battle rhythm so you don’t collapse before the mission is over,” she says. That could be as simple as going for a 30-minute run or taking a few minutes each morning for quiet reflective time.

Lead With Emotion–Don’t Emotionally Lead

Halstead had around 15 years’ experience in the military when her two-star general approached her. “You’re my No. 1 commander,” he says. “But if I had to give you anything to think about … you are too defensive.”

Halstead says she was surprised at his assessment. She’d never considered herself defensive. Walking back to her office, she asked herself, “What does he mean ‘too defensive?'” Then she understood. “When you become emotional, the perception is that you are being defensive,” she says. “It’s very important to lead with emotion, but it’s not good to emotionally lead.”

The distinction is subtle. It means being able to listen carefully, not only to the people you’re talking to, says Halstead, but also to your emotions.

Take Three Seconds to Think About It

Emotions can run high when you’re making decisions about the work that matters most to you. When Halstead found herself in the midst of a heated meeting, she would remind herself to pause a moment and frame what she was going to say. That means not cutting people off when you don’t agree with their ideas. It means practicing self-restraint, even in times of duress.

“Maybe you just had a unit hit with mortars,” she says. “There’s combat everywhere. You have to pause and think about how you are going to respond. If we all just paused three seconds before we said something, we’d all be a lot happier with what we say.”


Let Yourself Struggle

People tend to think struggling in a leadership role is a sign of weakness, but they couldn’t be more wrong. “If you struggle between your heart and your mind, that is a good thing,” says Halstead. “When you are using both, you will get to your best decision. I’m amazed how many people think that struggle is bad.”

When You’re Confused, Speak Up

Halstead would get two-hour battle updates every morning and evening in Iraq. “They would be briefing me on something I’d never worked on and I’d think, ‘Do I really want them to know I don’t have a clue what they are talking about?'” she says. But the answer was always clear to her. “Not to let them know would be endangering the mission.”

Be honest about what you don’t know. Find the right people to answer your questions. Know that you are never too old or too advanced in your career to learn. At times, when Halstead would admit she needed clarification, she’d find no one actually knew what was going on. It opened up important conversations.

“No one person can know everything,” she says. “The best thing you can do as a leader is figure out your strengths and weaknesses.”

Find Time to Take Care of Yourself–Every Single Day

Halstead was on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Iraq. Still, she had to find pockets of time to take care of herself. Every morning when she put her dog tags over her head, she would look in the mirror and recite the Warrior Ethos:

  • I will always place the mission first.
  • I will never accept defeat.
  • I will never quit.
  • I will never leave a fallen comrade.

She would grab her dog tags and recite Joshua 1:9 from the Bible. The ritual took around 90 seconds, but it set the tone for her day, each day.


Halstead also created a chart each month numbered 31 down and 12 across. She would pick a dozen different activities she needed to do to keep her mind, heart, and body in good shape. The list included tasks like getting on the treadmill for 30 minutes, calling her parents, and writing a thank-you note to a soldier’s spouse. When she completed one of the items on her list, she would put an X under it for that day, checking her chart every few days to make sure she hadn’t forgotten to take care of herself.

“You’ve got to keep your physical tank in good shape,” she says. For her, that meant small things like closing her door to put her head down on her desk for a quick nap, or reading for 15 minutes. “How many CEOs do you meet and they look ancient?” she says. “Many times, it’s because they are not taking care of themselves.”

“What I have learned and loved is that our definition of leadership is always changing because the people coming into our lives are always changing,” she says. “I’m not sure if there is any wrong definition. There is surely wrong execution.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction