Former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George Casey, discusses the traits of leadership with high school students.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, Alto International School had the honor of welcoming retired 36th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General George Casey to talk with our high school students.

General Casey was the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2011 under both President Bush and President Obama, and the Senior Coalition Commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. He also led U.S. forces in Bosnia and Croatia during the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. General Casey has over 40 years of service and leadership experience, and today gives lectures at colleges and schools across the country on a topic close to his heart: Leadership. 

The students’ discussion with the retired four-star General started with an overview of his military career, which began in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Raised in a military family, he said that at the time he felt a duty to serve his country just like his father had done. He graduated as an officer in 1970 – the same year his father had died in Vietnam. At the end of the Vietnam war, he was sent to Germany, which was also where he started on a long journey learning about what leadership should look like. His conclusion? It always depends on the situation, except that leaders for sure require one skill: Competence. To become and stay competent, one needs to learn new skills continually, a concept that is also at the core of the International Baccalaureate Program taught at Alto: lifelong learning. General Casey explained that competency is the basis to progress further in your career and ultimately make the important decisions expected of a leader. 

Another equally important trait of a leader is, according to General Casey, your ability to be a team player. He shared with the engaged audience examples of his career and how things do not always go according to plan. Even as someone who climbed high in the military ranks, he experienced setbacks in his career and was not always sure where life would take him. 

He shared with students, that, in his view, leaders must recognize that there are only two types of plans: “plans that might work, and plans that won’t work,” and that even the best of plans can fail, especially in the military. Therefore, taking on the responsibility of a leader comes with ever-increasing risks of making a mistake or be seen as incompetent. Thus, being accepting of possibly making mistakes and taking a calculating risk when making a decision is another leadership trait. Another skill he found to be essential in many stages of life is teaching – something rather appropriate for our school setting. Teaching can take many forms, from telling a soldier what his mission was, to explaining to the president what the best military strategy could be. 

Throughout the session, General Casey shared many moving anecdotes with students; for example, about his involvement in coordinating the first free election in Iraq for over 50 years in 2004. He told students how much he was moved by a man who had a purple-stained finger after casting his vote and simply was staring at it in amazement. Finally, General Casey left students with an important message: do not be afraid to pursue your goals and thrive to be a leader, as it can only broaden your horizon.

Felix Weber, Senior Student (Class of 2020)

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