The more I interview leaders and successful entrepreneurs the more I am convinced that the key to personal and organizational change involves creating great habits. Our brains are always seeking to preserve energy by creating shortcuts. Unfortunately, our brains don’t distinguish between great habits and bad habits. Once we become aware of this invisible force that guides so much of our daily behavior, then we can begin to be intentional about replacing bad habits with great habits. Charles Duhigg notes in his best-selling book “The Power of Habit”that he was inspired to study the science of habits after watching a military commander in Iraq utilize his knowledge of habits to bring peace and order to a community he was policing. The commander noted, “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army. It’s changed everything about how I see the world.”
I recently interviewed retired Maj. Gen. Erik Hearon, and I wanted to learn what 40 years of service in the military had taught him about leadership and developing great habits. Hearon grew up in Jackson and graduated from Millsaps College where he studied accounting. During his senior year of college, he enlisted in the Mississippi Air National Guard where he served for 40 years and retired in 2010. He had a long and distinguished military career with too many accolades to list here. Highlights of his service include three overseas tours of duty following 9/11, service at the Pentagon as assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, and being a recipient of the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal. In addition to his military service, Hearon is a CPA and practiced public accounting for 28 years.
Hearon shared that he believes it is important for leaders to “count on the people that work for you until they prove otherwise.” He also emphasized that it is important to listen to, respect, and value the opinion of your colleagues and subordinates. We also discussed that leaders have to make the tough decisions and that while you want to quickly gather as much data as you can to make an informed decision, you will never have 100 percent of the information you need. Rather than getting paralyzed in your decision making, you have to make the call based on the information available and trust your experience and judgment. Hearon also believes that the ability to communicate orally and in writing is critical. He encourages leaders to work on their communication skills and seek out training to be the best communicator you can be. Hearon recognizes the value of having a mentor, and he credits retired Maj. Gen. Bill Lutz as having a significant impact on his life and career.
We also discussed the importance of after action reviews, checklists, and continuity binders in creating a great organization. After every significant event, the team should gather to have an “after action review” to learn from mistakes and find ways to improve performance. While I understand this is a core part of military protocol, I don’t see this frequently enough in companies and other organizations. For Hearon, checklists were a part of everyday life in the military. I am also big fan of utilizing checklists in business and life to avoid making sloppy and unnecessary mistakes. He also made a very good point about the need for “continuity binders.” Hearon noted, “For every role in the organization it is critical to have a continuity binder which explains how to perform the core functions of the job.” As he emphasized, “You have to plan for the unexpected.”
It was a great honor to learn from someone with Hearon’s experience and expertise. I am appreciative of those faithful servants who protect our country by serving in the military. There are many valuable lessons we can learn from military leaders about operating well run organizations. I hope that we will have future generations of dedicated and community minded soldiers like Hearon to lead us in the future.
Up Close With Maj. Gen. (retired) Erik Hearon
First Plane: “The first plane I ever flew was a Cessna 172.”
Favorite Books: ”I enjoy books on and by Gen. Colin Powell.”
First Job: “I drilled water wells in Carthage with my grandfather which taught me the value of hard work and getting an education.”
Proudest Moment as a Leader: “One of my proudest moments was when we airlifted Sgt. Stamaris, a POW from Desert Storm, home to the United States.”