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Five traits of great leaders and their Golden Key to leading: Gary R. Steele

By Stan Linhorst

Gary R. Steele graduated from Manlius Military Academy in 1965. He went on to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, where he played tight end and was the academy’s first African-American letter winner in football.

In 1993, he left the U.S. Army as a colonel and started a career in human resources. Eventually, he became a director of human resources of Pfizer, at headquarters in New York. He first served as a human resources director at Pfizer’s Animal Health Business Unit in Europe. It helped that Steele was fluent in Greek and conversational in French and Spanish.

At age 70, he’s retired, living with his wife of 45 years, Mona, in Carlisle, Pa. On June 11, he was the commencement speaker at Manlius Pebble Hill, the school created when Manlius Military Academy and Pebble Hill School merged in 1970. Steele delivered three key points to the graduates:

You are standing on the shoulders of people who went before you.

How you deal with your failures defines your life.

You know the right thing to do, so pick the “harder right” rather than the “easier wrong.”

What’s your advice to have a successful life and a successful career?

Success may not be the job. Success may not be a position. It may not be the compensation. Success is measured in a number of ways. In my mind, success is measured internally.

In 1965 as a plebe at West Point, we had so much memorization. We memorized the Cadet Prayer. There’s a part of it that I’ve held on to for all of these years. It goes like this:

“Lord, make me to choose the harder right, rather than the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won.”

I’ve thought about it a lot. Think about it from the perspective of a young high school graduate. Think about it in your job. Think about it in the job of a platoon leader.

“Lord, make me to choose the harder right, rather than the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won.”

In everyone’s life, there are going to be stormy seas, and there is going to be fog. Over the years, those words have been a beacon to keep me from crashing into the rocks.

We’ve been blessed with three children. They heard that phrase from the time that they could understand it. Each of them have said to Mona and me separately: This is how we live our lives. Choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.

So, that’s my advice. The kids graduating now are going to have unbelievable challenges that you and I can’t even imagine. They’re 18 years old. Add 30 years. I’m long gone. But 30 years from now, those words in the Cadet Prayer are still true.

Tell me about leadership influences growing up.

My father was in the Army. He was a Buffalo Soldier, in the 10th Cav, the all-black unit, when he joined in the early 1940s.

We moved around. We all moved to Germany. My brother actually began to speak German before he began to speak English.

In 1953, we came back to Fort Dix, N.J. From ’53 to ’55 we lived on the post. Mom (Mildred) and Dad (Frank) wanted to get a piece of the American dream so we bought a house at Levittown, Pa. Of course, in 1955, in Levittown, Pa., you couldn’t be black and live in a Levitt-built home. So, we had a Levittown address, but we were not in a Levitt home, because that was white, and we were not.

From ’57 to ’60, the Army sent us to Japan and Okinawa. Dad was posted again to Fort Dix, and we moved back into the house that we had left in ’57.

As a child, I can’t really pick out something and say: That was a leadership role. At home, there were leadership responsibilities. Dad and Mom set those things up. You were responsible for the family.

At school, I was co-captain of the football team, co-captain of the basketball team, co-captain of the track team.

At West Point, you have the cornucopia of leadership styles and leadership skills. You saw upperclassmen and said: Well, when I’m an upperclassman, I think I’d like to be like him, because I like what he does and how he engages with people.

There were others that you looked at, and you said the opposite: There’s no way that I will ever treat people like this and expect to be considered a good leader.

Through coursework, you learned about historical, traditional leadership, going all the way back to the Romans.

What’s your advice for anyone moving into a leadership role or aspiring to take on leadership responsibilities?

I boiled it down to five words, and we can discuss the words ad nauseam:





And humanity/humility.

When you see a super leader, I think he or she possesses those things.

Integrity. Will they sell out?

Standards. To what standard are you going to hold yourself or the people that you’re working with?

Discipline. There has to be discipline in anything that you do. I’m not talking about beat-you-over-the-head discipline; we’re talking about bounding discipline.

The fourth was team, teaming, teamwork. You have to decide what kind of team you want. I might ask you a question rhetorically: What’s the difference between a SWAT working together and a golf team working together?

The golfer is doing his or her thing. They wrap everything up at the end, get the totals, and handicap them or whatever.

The SWAT team, they are breathing each other’s breath. Everything that happens must be so interwoven into a tapestry, because that’s what success is. If it doesn’t work well, boom!

And then lastly, humanity or humility. Leaders must recognize that they’re dealing with people. There must be some humility. It’s not all about you. It’s about this thing, which is greater than the leader him or herself.

When you put those five things together, you’ve got something that’s hard to break apart.

One of the things that I think makes a team work is unbelievable trust. They trust each other. They know each other.

You get that kind of trust through effective leadership and working the team, massing the team, going through exercises to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the group.

In a civilian business sense, how can a leader instill that kind of trust within and among team members?

It’s not easy, but it starts with the leader communicating. The leader must have a vision for whatever it is you’re doing. The leader articulates the vision, how he or she might see the roles of the people on the team. Then comes the humanity/humility perspective, saying: I’m gonna hold myself accountable for these things.

People see: Wow, he’s holding himself accountable here, and he said he was going to hold me accountable. Well, he’s doing it, so I might as well do it.

And then you reward. If somebody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, you reward them. You tell them about it. You communicate. You’re talking.

If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, you don’t let it fester like a sore. At the end of, say, an evaluation period, you don’t surprise the individual with the evaluation. That should never happen. The good leader has been communicating and mentoring and coaching that person all along.

In one of the leadership laboratories or clinics at the Academy, you would be put into a situation as the platoon leader, the squad leader. Then, you get two and half hours into a six-hour exercise, and somebody says: OK, Linhorst is now wounded. Steele, you’re in charge.

We can get into some minutia: Am I ready? How might I have become ready with Stan as the leader? Stan said: Well here’s what we’re doing, blah, blah. But did Stan communicate it effectively and in enough detail for me to take the baton and move forward? Or, was Stan not a good leader and didn’t pass enough information along? Then, when the baton is passed, I’m standing there going I have no idea where to go or what to do or who to move with.

That’s an example of leadership – passing on enough information so that people can pick up the baton and go.

That was a learning for me, and I remember that happening. I needed to make sure that the people with me and around me understood enough so that if I got hit, they could carry forward and do the job.

So, effective leadership requires a lot of communication. Listening and asking questions as well as talking.

Absolutely. In the Army, there are a lot of acronyms. I don’t know if I stole this one from someone, but over the last seven, eight years, I’ve done training and consulting. And I coined a term, something from math. What I coined is C cubed.

C stands for communication that is continuous and comprehensive.


You’re communicating, it’s continuous to the extent it can be, and it’s comprehensive.

In training, my closing PowerPoint slide is a Medieval lock with a golden key going into the lock mechanism, and C cubed. Communication that is continuous and comprehensive. That is the golden key.

Any leader has to deal with change. How should a leader effectively lead their people through change?

One of the first things that a leader must do is embrace the change. In the corporate world, you’re on the bus or you’re not. So, if you as the leader embrace the change, that’s the first thing that has to happen.

Once you embrace the change, you have to look out across the organization and see: Who do you have? You have to recognize that there are going to be some people in that organization who say: Oh yeah, let’s do that. And they’ll jump on board fast. Fast acceptors.

Then, they’re going to some people who go: (Snorts) No way, I’m out of here.

Then, you’ve got the fence riders. They want to see how things go before they decide whether they want to stay.

The leader has to recognize that everybody who’s in the race with him is running at a different pace. OK? You want to try to get to the finish line. You may not all get to the finish line at the same time. You have to know your people. The book answer to change has a curve – when change happens, there’s denial. No, No! My god. It can’t be. We’re going to fail.

Performance may drop off a little bit. People are going: Oh my gosh, what does this mean for me? What’s going to happen to me?

So, what does a leader do? Embrace the change. Recognize that everybody’s not moving at the same speed. Some people are never going to catch up, and you have to recognize that. Maybe that’s a discussion you have. And then you have to champion the change. Embrace it, and then champion it.

And you have to communicate it. You have to be able to have them see the vision of what can be.

Leading through change is not easy. People are scared.

But if you embrace it, you communicate it, you champion it and you recognize the humanity of your people, I think you can help them get there.

The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a person for a CNY Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at