An interview with Mjr. Rocco A. Spencer by Dominika Kantorowicz

You are a retired US Army infantry officer. You held command posts for 20 years, served in airborne units and mechanized infantry. After leaving the service and moving to Poland, you founded the Leadership Source training and consulting company, which prides itself on introducing a new quality in team management, leadership training, shaping leadership attitudes and motivational training. Can management methods are taken from the military environment be transferred to the business world?

Absolutely. It’s really funny that people try to draw differences between the two of them, but there is not. Leadership is leadership. Leadership is when your mom is getting you ready for school or it’s me getting 200 soldiers ready to do a parachute jump or it’s you managing a project for 50 people spread across the globe. Leadership is the same. It doesn’t change whether you are in the uniform or the tools that you use. So the principles do carry over, the requirements of what we do are often the same thing. You call it a project, I call it a mission, but they are the same thing and the results that we want to achieve are the same – the success. So everything that we do builds towards providing a successful outcome to the project, the mission or whatever we are trying to do.     

What is leadership for you? Who is a leader for you? Can we learn to be a good leader?

First of all, I differentiate between leaders and managers. The people that you lead will quickly determine which one you are. I can promote you and give you the title leader, but it doesn’t work like that. The people who work with you decide if you are a leader or not. Otherwise, you are just a manager. They have to sense certain things in you in order to decide if they are going to give you the title “leader”. As far as what leadership is to me when I train my people, is one word – responsibility. You are responsible for everything. One of the things I have learnt at a very early age was that excuses have no value, it’s an empty hole. You are responsible for the choices that you made, for the mission you accepted. So if you are a commander or a project manager, if you are going to take the pay check  for your job, then you are responsible for it. I can’t turn around and say that the reason we failed is that my subordinate did something wrong because in the army my commanders respond to me would be “who does he work for?” He works for me, so they would like to talk to me, not to my subordinate. So I think the responsibility is number one.

The other thing that defines leadership for me is developing trust and confidence. The people that you are going to lead need to have complete trust and faith in you. If they don’t, you probably won’t get the title, in their minds you probably won’t be a leader, just a manager.

At my company, when we are looking for people to work with us, we use the military environment. We take the candidates to the forest for four or five days where we push them hard. They get 4 hours sleep a day and eat around 1500 calories per day. My team is doing the pushing and I am doing the looking. What we are looking for is a responsible and trustworthy person. These are things that you can pick up almost immediately in a group. So this is how we select the people that we want to work for us. 

The last thing is whether we can learn to be a good leader. Absolutely yes because leadership is an art, like a martial art, a discipline, a mindset. You have to programme yourself to think that way, to be trustworthy, honest with your people and this will help you to be a good leader.

Fot. 24klatki Mjr. Rocco A. Spencer at the XIV International Congress PMI Poland Chapter

How do you assess yourself as a leader? How many natural leader qualities do you have, and how many attitudes and behaviours did you have to learn? What was your way?

My soul is that of a leader and my ego is going to say that I am a natural leader. However, you should ask people who work for me because they are the ones who can give you the right perspective on what kind of leader I am.

My way of defining whether I am doing things right or wrong, especially in the army, was two things. Firstly, I have always asked people who work for me if they would serve with me again. That was the first kind of judgement they gave me whether they saw me as a responsible, trustworthy and honest person that cares about them. Secondly, how my superiors saw me. In my case, my commander said that my company will follow me to the gates of hell and ask to go back again. We have to keep in mind that we tend to be quite unrestrained in our expressions in the army, so this seems to be extremely flattering. Thus this is how I define my own sensing of I am doing the right things or I need to correct them. 

Natural leadership qualities I have to credit to my mom and dad because basically those principles were trained in my brother and I. My parents were also very strict about simple things, about honour, the family, being trustworthy and so on. I think they gave me very strong foundations in these basics principles. My father served in World Wad II, he was a UDT diver. He tended to say “you make a bed you sleep in, you are responsible for the choices you made, don’t come to me crying, because you are responsible for that”. When I was exposed to military life, I found out that those things that my parents had taught me were natural there. When I got my commission, my dad sat me down and gave me some simple rules to follow. The number one rule that I like is that you win your respect man to man every day by your actions, not by what you say, but by what you do, and as long you will remember that you will be ok. I kept it always on the front of my mind that my actions will be going to define who I was and how my people perceive me.

Fot. Tomasz Knapik Mjr. Rocco A. Spencer at the BGK Conference in Wroclaw

Are there leaders who inspire you?

A lot. Firstly, I would say again – my dad, he was the first guy that I was moulded by. Then, of course,  historical leaders. I felt very connected to the styles of how people did things. When I started to read, I was swallowed up historical books, especially the military ones. A joke which I tell to my friends is that my emperor is Napoleon and my king is Frederick the Great. Historically, these are my favourites. When I read about them in great detail, I saw the things that resonate well with me. They inspire me on how to be the leader. Napoleon was the quintessential of a natural-born leader. He knew exactly how to speak to people on different levels to get the best results. The thing which I like the most about Frederick the Great is that when he became the King of Prussia, he collected all the ministers together and the generals of the state, he settled down and he said “I am the King of the Prussia. I am the first servant of the people of Prussia. I serve them and you serve me.” So he was saying, “yes, I am the king, but your purpose is to serve to people of Prussia, not to me.” These are ideas that I thought were good.

Then I realized that my real mentor was Colonel Alfered Issic. He was the one of the first commanders   that I met in the army and I was very fortunate in serving in his battalion. If you randomly came to the battalion, consisting of 900 men, and you would tell them that colonel has to die this day, but one of them could take his place, you would probably have 850 volunteers, because of his actions, how he did things, how he had talked to us. He was our colonel but he was also our mentor which is not always easy to do. Mentoring is a very difficult thing to do correctly because if you overdo it, then the fruits soften to nothing, if you do it too much, then you will smash it. You have to know how to do it skilfully and he was wonderful in that. My personal interactions with him were amazing on many, many levels. He stayed my mentor also long after he was retired. He was always the guy that when I have a very difficult situation, especially when I became a commander. I was asked many times how he would act in this situation or what he would do. I was always able to call him and say “hey boss, I had this situation, what would you do?” One thing I love about him is that he would never digress into what he would do. He would always leave the choice up to you and he has never sent a message behind the scene like “be like me and everything will be perfect.” He showed me that everyone needs to find their talent and use it to become the leader that he should be. You might act completely differently from me. It doesn’t matter as long we both accomplish the mission and our people respect us and consider as responsible and trustworthy. 

Do you think leaders today and leaders of tomorrow mean something different? Do tomorrow’s challenges require leaders to acquire other characteristics?

No, I don’t think there are any differences. I don’t think leadership has changed by 5 000 years. I think it still comes down to the same thing, it’s a person who has to convince a group of people to do something and their techniques that let them do that, that hasn’t changed. Whether I am building a highway in the Roman empire, I still have to get the road done and I still have to keep the people from running away in the middle of the night, from killing me when I sleep and so on. I have to get the road done, so I have to be able to do that.

One of the things I think in today’s world is that everybody thinks that they are the first ones who have thought about it. I am sorry, there are many people who have come before you and there will be a lot of people that come after you and there are very few original ideas. Everybody thinks that their ideas are original and especially when it comes to leadership. Napoleon, when he was being interviewed in St. Elena after he abdicated, was asked about his innovations on the battlefield. He laughed and said “no, they aren’t innovations. You can attack from the front, from the right flank or left flank, and that’s it. These are all options that you have.” The tools that you have and how you apply them is the only difference, not much has changed over the years. Napoleon had carbines, nowadays we have computers, GPS trackers. The tools changed but the principles don’t, they are always the same. I think they always come down to the basics: can you get the group to do what you want, the way you want in the time that you want with the assets that you have. That doesn’t change.

Fot. Mjr. Rocco Spencer archives

How do you, your company, work as a team? What management style do you prefer and why?

I have tried to mentor my team members to be the leaders on their own. I try to give them a mission and let them do it because one of the things I think is important is there are many ways to accomplish a mission. My way is not perfect. You may have a different way. When you try your way, maybe you will find a better way. The first thing which I have to do is to put my ego in the closet. Because I can’t think that my way is the best or tell you that you should be like me. Go ahead and take your shot at it. My job is again to trying to mentor you through. If I see you are going to completely left, my job is to say “excuse me, back this way”, but not telling you exactly what to do because you have to learn how to risk and take chances on your own because I won’t always be there. I try to teach my people to be independent thinkers, to understand what the mission is and do things that support the mission, make the decisions on your level. I might in a long run not be happy with that decision, but then we may sit down and discuss it, but I very rarely will tell you that you were wrong because you have to trust the person on the ground, especially in today’s world while we are talking over radios. If you are in a contact with an enemy and you are talking to me on the radio, I don’t see what you see, I have to trust what you are telling me and I have to give you that feeling that I trust you to make the right decisions and I give you the assets to do them with. I can’t say ”stop what you are doing, I will be right down and let me look at it”. That doesn’t work because I am not building you then. You are just another tool. Tools I can find anywhere. Good leaders have to build them.

My personal style, which I believe I use at my company, is the charismatic style. I believe it fits me very well with my ego, of course, I enjoy it very much. But I also use the team style, because I want my people to work as a team. I want them to always see that the mission is their mission, our mission. I want them to have ownership of the tools. For me, those are the two styles that I would take out and say there are my strongest ones. As I wrote in my book, a good leader has to be able to move back and forth between them. You must also know which is your dominate style and which you are not so good in. If you force to use that, you going to sit down and think long how you will do it versus something you are comfortable in.

Your company also offers field training, where participants are immersed in an outdoor reality, sometimes even a post-apocalyptic one. There is a mission to perform, difficult conditions and in some scenarios a “zombie attack”. What can be achieved by using such scenarios, because I understand that the goal is not only to provide extraordinary entertainment? 

First of all, let me explain “the zombie attack”. That was the special scenario we put together for one particular company. They have already undergone our outdoor survival course and they wanted to do the same type of challenges but with a new twist. They knew that it would be the survival event again, but they had no idea that they will get zombies this time. It was the most fun event that we made.

To get the full benefits from the survival event, like ours, one has to immerse oneself in the situation. When we do these events, what I am looking for and what my people are trained to look for, are these different leadership qualities that we know exist. We also look for things like credibility, the team itself, do they work together as a group. In the case of larger companies, we strongly recommend to not to keep up the departments together in a team but to split everyone up to work with different people which they don’t see every day. There are colleagues who talk to each other on the phone but they have never met before, they should definitely play together in a team.

When we appoint leaders at work we expect that they will act as leaders in any situation. However, when people feel that they are not in charge, they usually care less about what happens. We are searching for the ones, who always care, we are looking for natural leaders. We pull on information from extreme situations through the course of the event. We get to evaluate team members’ ability to support each other. Then we consult our point of view with the client’s board and we discuss how this the problem raised. We then review with the attendees afterwards and we try to let people leave these events with the basic knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. If you know you are good at something, that’s good, if you know you are bad at something, you should train against those limitations.

Fot. 24klatki Mjr. Rocco A. Spencer at the XIV International Congress PMI Poland Chapter