Conversation with Richard M Burr

Conversation with Richard M Burr

September 19, 2014

Richard M Burr on the Art of Leadership and Teamwork

People want to be part of a winning team. People want to be the best they can be where they can share their contribution. And the job of leadership it to listen to all those things and agree on a course of action and then point in that agreed direction.

Major General Richard M Burr

Deputy Commanding General, US Army Asia Pacific

At the Leadership Summit 2014, organized by Bangladesh Brand Forum(BBF), Deputy Commanding General, US Army Asia Pacific, Major General Richard M Burr graced the occasion with his invaluable insights on leadership. His hour long interactive session was conducted under the title “Building a Coalition – Inspiring Teamwork among Diverse Partners”

In the modern globalized, interdependent world, leadership challenges are increasingly complex. Despite our preferences for a simple, linear solution, the answers to these challenges often follow a convoluted path. How can leaders approach challenges across increasingly long distances, over ethnic, cultural, and linguistic barriers, while maintaining partnerships and building the strength of an enterprise?

Major General Richard M Burr has lived these challenges all through his military career. After his inspiring session at the Leadership Summit, BBF took the opportunity to get close with this multitalented leader. In this exclusive interview, Richard M Burr shares the true inspiration and traits of great leadership. Follow his learning and conviction on the art of leadership in the compilation below.

BBF:  How does it feel to be a part of this Leadership  Summit 2014? What are some notable observations you have had about this event?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: First of all, I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It shows great vision and leadership to stand up and bring up the best business and leadership minds all under the same roof. There is great potential of this country to continuously seek out new initiatives to make this country even stronger. And that’s a great thing. It’s been only a few hours into the summit, but the presentations have been very inspirational and it shows the great things that have already happened here. BRAC would be a great example. We should all be inspired by what that initiative has achieved and should look forward to what hope it presents for the future.

BBF:  On your first visit to Bangladesh, what are some of your first hand observations about this country in the short while that you’ve stayed here?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: Well I only got here last night. So haven’t had much luck to experience much just yet. But what was clearly obvious to me was this is a fantastic country with a great spirit. Obviously the T20 cricket going on here has made quite the vibe. Everyone’s really passionate about that and I think it’s a great initiative of Bangladesh. The people love sport and sport gives the country a great soul. A great spirit! For the next few days I’m looking forward to experiencing Bangladesh in greater detail.

BBF:  This summit is based on leadership. In your opinion, how do you think Bangladesh had been performing in this sphere?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: Well my experience is only with the army. We have a very strong professional relationship. We have great opportunities to work together. And it’s very clear to me that we can be proud of the leadership in this country in the business sector. Bangladesh does great things around the world. The UN Peace Keeping would be a good example where it demonstrates leadership every day.  It demonstrates commitment to global missions and global peace. That says a lot about a country. And I’m much honored to be a part of that team.

BBF:  Sir you’ve been a leading figure in the Australian Army for a long time. Would you please share with us some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a leader which can be a great learning for other leaders.

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: There’s always learning. From the day you’re born, you’re constantly learning to adapt to your environment. And that has been true throughout my career.

I enjoyed learning about teamwork and leadership. During my school years I played sport, which is a great vehicle for learning about leadership and teamwork. Learning about being part of a team. Learning how to lead and also how to follow. How you depend on your teammates about shared outcome. To learn about both winning and losing. We tend to always win at things we like to do. But learning to both win and lose is a key thing in sport in a friendly environment.  To me that was a great way to learn about leadership and about life.

I’ve had a very interesting military career. I once got two leaves to travel widely and to get new experiences. Working with others, you realize that no one has all the answers and you get better by being part of a team: learning from each other, being receptive to new ideas and being bold and courageous in doing business in new ways. And constantly seeking self improvement but also improvement for the entire organization. Because we are always part of a bigger team and you always want success for the bigger thing in a morally and ethically sound way.

BBF:  In your experience, you had to travel across different countries across various cultures. Would you say that culture has an important impact on leadership?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: It’s critical. If you’re leading in a new environment, the team itself is culturally diverse, even within a team from a single country. There is diversity, be it religion, gender, socio economic variations. So the team is always diverse and it’s about getting the most out of the individual. And the more you deal in a multinational way, in a transnational way, the more important it becomes. That’s why the most important aspect of leadership is understanding your people. Understanding  your  environment. It means working out how you can achieve the best out of both to achieve a common goal. There is an art in leadership, and sensing that is what sets good leaders apart from the rest.

BBF:  Different situations demand different actions on part of the leader and he might not always be able to choose the circumstances. What according to you is the best action for a leader depending on the situation? Do you think it’s the rigid position of leadership as a position of authority or do you think it more involves motivating people into doing what they love?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: Well, the thing about leadership is that there is no template answer on a problem. Every problem is unique in every situation. The art of leadership is about finding the best way forward. Quite often there is no perfect answer. It’s about seeking the best outcome given the environment, given the resources available, the circumstances you’re operating in. The art of leadership is to really find that best way forward. It’s of immense importance to understand the bigger goal. So even at a very local level, understanding what that strategic dimension is would be critical, because everything plays a part toward achieving that strategic outcome. So, acting ethically and morally, understanding what the options are, making the best judgement and then trying to share that vision with your people and letting them act to bring their potential to bear is the best way I think. Ordering people around isn’t always the best way, but sometimes giving them the directive to make things happen in urgent situations. But quite often it’s better to let the team agree on the way forward and let them achieve their outcome in their desired manner. I guess that’s complex answer.

BBF:  During your session on coalition building, you told us about how “it’s not always the captain who’s calling the shots, but how each individual thinks of himself as a team player, is what contributes to the whole”.  But when it comes to practical application, people are unable to respond so spontaneously for various issues, mainly involving personal factors. What would be your advice on resolving such issues?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: First of all, there needs to be a team consent. There are multiple layers of teams that all come together and the arts of leadership does just that. It’s better to establish an environment. Having a philosophy, where everyone has a voice and they clearly understand what the overall objective is. Everyone has a way to contribute towards the objective, whether it’s through a voice or an action. In the army environment, we certainly have very modular structures where there is leadership at every level. That structure we find to be very effective and the incumbent officers in charge make sure the right form of communication is there to ensure everyone understands the intent of an objective. And not just communicated, but is clearly understood as a member of the team. So they can actually have an independent voice to recommend some improvements to solve this particular problem for example.

BBF:  So you’d say independence at every part is an essential feature?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: Well, they need the opportunity to have import. From the bottom of the leadership hierarchy there needs to be unified action to work in a common direction. People want to be part of a winning team. People want to be the best they can be where they can share their contribution. And the job of leadership it to listen to all those things and agree on a course of action and then point in that agreed direction.

BBF:  We were highly intrigued with your interest in sports. I’d say you are a sports enthusiast. So we were curious. You mentioned you were active in sports in college. What made you change your decision about changing sports and entering the army? You could have a career as an amazingly talented athlete or a football player. But you went for a more dedicated and responsible position. Would you please share with us your story?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: The thing about the army is that you can still play sport. I enjoyed playing my football and athletics while I served in the army until my body said that “you should give that away,” and I retired from football. But the army is a very diverse organization in terms of what it can offer: in terms of job opportunities, skills to master, opportunities to do lots of things. Fundamentally, what sport taught me as a younger person is how much I enjoyed being part of a team and the focus and discipline while being part of a team – working towards a common goal. And to me the army was in some ways a natural extension of that. I’ve enjoyed my service and I still have no regrets.

BBF: So are you a cricket fan?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: I think I’m a fan of cricket but I’m not a very good cricket player. But I think it’s a great sport and the diversity of cricket now is more diverse and the tests played now are more deliberate than they were traditionally and now the sportier T20 adds a new dimension to the game.

It’s great for our communities to be passionate about sport. It brings communities together. And in case of countries, it even brings nations together. The championship of cricket that’s being held here in Dhaka right now is great for the world and it’s great for Bangladesh too.

BBF:  We’ve come to our last question. Sir from your experience as a leader, what are the essential traits that you’d highly look for in a leader that can be applied regardless of any boundaries or cultures?

Major Gen. Richard M Burr: I think being a good person is fundamental. You need to respect other people. You need to understand that people are more effective together and working as part of a team. Also understanding and connecting with people on an emotional level is important so that you can get the most out of them. The true essence of leadership is about other people and it’s not about you being the leader. And getting the best out of your people towards an agreed goal. Leaders cannot achieve anything on their own. The more effective teambuilding you do the more satisfying it gets. The joy of leadership is seeing people thrive, seeing people give their best, to realize their potential. That’s where I as a leader certainly get the most satisfaction. To simply watch people realize their potential is an experience to remember.