Present Value: General George Casey, Jr. reflects on his career and leading in a VUCA world

By: Present Value Podcast Team
General Casey

Contributing authors: Serena Elavia, Michael Brady, and Harrison Jobe

Present Value, an independent editorial project produced and hosted by Johnson students, had the pleasure of interviewing General George Casey, Jr., distinguished senior lecturer of leadership.

Present Value can be streamed on the Present Value website or you can subscribe through iTunes, Apple Podcasts, and other popular podcasting apps by searching for “Present Value.”

General George Casey, Jr. is a distinguished senior lecturer of leadership at Johnson and teaches the popular graduate course Core Leadership Skills in a VUCA World. As the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army under both President Bush and President Obama, General Casey is known for restoring balance to the war-weary U.S. Army in the Iraq War and for leading the transformation to keep the Army relevant in the 21st century.

What is VUCA?

The Army War College first introduced the idea of “VUCA,” meaning volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, to describe the state of the world after the Cold War. The concept is regularly used in military education but has also gained popularity in business management instruction. General Casey explains in the podcast that he has experienced VUCA throughout his career in the military and that VUCA is not just a military issue. In the public and private sectors, the world is getting increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and “it’s the type of environment we need to prepare people to lead in today.”

Drawing from his 41-year military career, General Casey has adapted his experiences in VUCA environments to teach Johnson MBA students how to be better leaders. To illustrate the importance of learning how to lead in a VUCA world, General Casey retells a conversation he had with the CEO of a major U.S. multinational corporation. Frustrated that strategic plans rarely materialize as intended, the CEO remarked, “Why bother planning!? Why not just react?” Casey responded to the executive with a famous quote from the 19th century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Entering into the Iraq War: “The most VUCA time I’ve ever experienced”

When General Casey was appointed to command the Multi-National Force — Iraq, he had only six weeks to familiarize himself with the region’s state of affairs. “We had 160,000 troops from 33 different countries all operating in an environment that we hadn’t seen since Vietnam,” Casey says. He refers to Iraq as “the most VUCA environment I’ve ever seen.”

He cites an example during the beginning of his command, just days into Iraq’s new government: “We were thrust into a major countrywide battle because a young Marine, who’d been on the ground for less than a week, made a wrong turn, drove too close to a militia leader’s house, a gunfight broke out that quickly spread around the holy city of Najaf […] and then across the southern part of the country.”

In the podcast, Casey explains that the military was learning on the fly and that this kind of war was not one that the U.S military had trained for. In response to a question about contrasting Iraq with the Gulf War, Casey answers, “The biggest difference was that in the Gulf War, we were fighting another army,” and he continues, “I spent 30 years of a 40-year career training to fight a war I never fought, and the last 10 learning to fight a different kind of war while I was fighting it.”

How should leaders take action in a VUCA world?

Casey explains that VUCA environments divert a leader’s focus; VUCA can push leaders away from executing the most critical things needed for success. “The whole VUCA environment bombards leaders and puts them on the defensive, and [then] they can’t move forward.” To mitigate the forces pushing leaders onto defense, leaders need to have an offensive mindset.

In order to be successful, leaders need to focus their “precious intellectual and emotional energy on areas that have the highest payoff for an organization.” Casey discusses that these focus areas are: (1) developing vision and strategy, (2) building high performing teams, (3) setting internal and external conditions for success, and (4) preparing for the future.

Casey’s message to students

Casey says that “in the military, we believe that everyone can become a better leader if they commit themselves to the leadership journey.” Leaders need to be men and women of “vision, courage, and character.” Developing a leadership style “begins with a deep understanding of who you are, because everybody’s strengths and weaknesses are different.” At each important milestone in his career, Casey took time to reflect on the skills that brought him to that milestone and also took time to identify the new skills he would need to advance to the next level.

A significant segment of the class is dedicated to a discussion on character. Casey tells his students the same thing he told his generals; if “you’re not living the values that you’re espousing, the only one that doesn’t know it is you, because everybody else sees you for the phony that you are.”

Casey ends his course in a similar way to which he starts it. He leaves students with the inspiring message that while it is harder to lead in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, when you are an effective leader, you’re going to have a greater positive impact on the organization and the people that you lead.

Casey expands on the above topics and more in the full-length episode of Present Value. Listen, subscribe, and share!

About General George Casey, Jr.

Prior to being the Army’s Chief of Staff from 2007 to 2011, General Casey was commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, director of Strategic Plans and Policy, and director of the Joint Staff. He holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Denver. He sits on the board of Sarcos Robotics, is chairman of the United Service Organizations, and is a director on the Georgetown University Board of Directors. Casey is the author of Strategic Reflections: Operation Iraqi Freedom.