What Military Leadership Can Teach a Civilian World

By Jeff Cathey, Senior Military Affairs Executive for Bank of America and former Navy Captain |  Nov 10, 2014


This article was originally published as sponsor-generated content on POLITICO as part of the editorial series, Lessons from Leaders, presented by Bank of America.

This Veterans Day, as we pause to remember and thank the service members who have sacrificed for their fellow Americans, we should also take a moment to draw lessons from their leadership. In a world where intractable problems seems to multiply daily, there are millions of Americans living among us who know what it means to succeed by being dedicated to something greater than themselves.

When our nation calls, the men and women of the U.S. military stand up and answer. They take an oath to support and defend the constitution, and in answering the call, they sacrifice their comfort, safety, and—in some cases—their lives in defense of our nation. In the process, they faced obstacles that seemed insurmountable, but at every step do what selfless leaders do: they commit to do all they can, to the best of their ability, and they support their brothers and sisters in arms as they move forward. In doing this, they learn to set aside petty rivalries and posturing to focus on the common goal, and because they find the strength to do that, our freedom is secure.
I’ve had the privilege to witness these qualities in both the military and civilian worlds, starting with my father, a World War II Navy veteran and then an Army pilot. In 1957, he was killed while making what was supposed to be a routine flight from Governor’s Island, NY to Burlington, VT. I learned later that un-forecasted weather played a significant role in the mishap. I was almost four-years-old when he died and, of course, could not immediately realize his sacrifice. My mother, however, who at the time had four boys under age 10 and expecting twin girls, needed the support only the military can provide, so she settled us near MacDill Air Force Base. I was attracted early on to the speed and noise of the F-4s taking off during the Vietnam War. Inspired by the men and women around me, I served 29 years in the Navy, and during that time learned from many the attributes of a good leader.

In the Navy, you start off as a player. It’s tactical – taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier day and night, performing your mission the best you can. With time and practice you start to coach, and then you lead. The leader defines and lays out the strategy, and just as importantly, trusts and empowers their team to perfect the tactics. The experience I had in the Navy – worldwide management of operations and readiness, safety and administration, personnel development – has served me well in transitioning from a branch of service to the civilian world.

It’s exciting and reassuring to see how our country, and every industry, has rushed to welcome these men and women home and bring them into their ranks, recognizing that their leadership, values, dedication and skills make them an asset to any organization they join. I feel very fortunate to have landed where I am today. I work for a company that I know is sincere in their long-standing efforts to support our nation’s military, and as head of the Military Affairs team, I’m in a position to influence that support. We have more than 7,000 veterans, Guard and Reservists working alongside me as colleagues at Bank of America, and we’re committed to hire 10,000 more over the next several years.

But even as our country reaches out to veterans who are transitioning home, too many still lack the support they need to transition into productive, fulfilling civilian lives. It’s no secret that veterans and military families in the post-9/11 era face complex health, finance and employment challenges after more than a decade of war overseas. According to Army Times, the average Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who files a disability claim lists 8.5 disabilities—doubling what veterans claimed in previous eras. Financially, nearly one million veterans who own homes are severely cost burdened, and veterans aged 18 to 30 are more than twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to be homeless. And while we have made great strides in employment, post-9/11 veterans still have a higher unemployment rate than the national average, at 7.3%.

It’s here where leaders must collaborate. When we reach the limit of our capabilities, whether as a company or an individual, we should support organizations that can do even more on behalf of these brave men and women. That means collaborating closely—through differences in politics or opinion—to provide long-term support to veterans and their families who need it, and empower all veterans to reach their full potential as they continue to strengthen the nation.

These complex problems underscore the need for visionary leadership and for cooperative solutions that don’t just tackle single issues facing veterans, but which build the culture of long-term commitment and support that they deserve. Across our country, veterans are leading the way as they always have: by demonstrating to all that no challenge is greater than our collective resolve. Sustained support by both the public and private sector, will allow their attributes and abilities to shine.

Jeff Cathey is Military Overseas Division and Senior Military Affairs Executive at Bank of America. In addition to its hiring commitment, the bank supports the military through partnerships with organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project, the Military Spouse Employment Partnership and the George W. Bush Institute. With the partnership of organizations like Military Warriors Support Foundation, Bank of America has donated 1,600 homes to veterans and their families. Jeff is also on the Board of Directors for Operation Homefront with which the bank partners with to help provide transitional housing and support emergency assistance programs.

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