Each of us have likely encountered individuals from whom we have learned much about the art of leadership. If we are fortunate, we are able to look back and identify a handful of inspiring andremarkable individuals who were particularly important influences. In the course of my career, one such leader was Ernie Gregory, an iconic former U.S. Army civilian executive whom I wrote about in my book Lessons Learned on the Audit Trail. Ernie recently passed away, and I have been reflecting on the important lessons in leadership that I learned from him.
I first met Ernie in 1982, when I was a junior level internal auditor in one of the Army’s major command internal review (internal audit) offices. Ernie was the newly appointed Army Assistant Comptroller for Internal Review (a position that would later become the Army’s Chief of Internal Review). At the time, the Army’s Internal Review organization was a sprawling network comprising more than 300 offices and over 2,000 internal auditors worldwide. I immediately knew he was someone with remarkable talent, and I always relished the opportunity to be in his presence.
Our professional relationship deepened over the next 16 years, as we advanced in our careers within the internal review and financial management fields. In 1993, at Ernie’s request, I left the command where I had worked for 17 years and succeeded him as the Army’s Chief of Internal Review. Ernie had been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Operations and, for the next four years, he was my boss. His leadership and mentorship were instrumental to the success I enjoyed during my years at the Pentagon, and they played an important role in preparing me for the opportunities that would lie ahead.
As I reflect back on all that I learned from Ernie, there are five leadership lessons that stand out:
Be courageous. One of the first lessons from Ernie was that we must challenge those things that are wrong. Upon assuming his post as the Army’s internal review leader in 1982, Ernie recognized that internal review auditors did not enjoy the level of organizational independence required by Generally Accepted Government Audit Standards (the Yellow Book). They worked organizationally for the comptrollers in their organizations around the world. Armed with evidence that comptrollers sometimes interfered with the work of internal auditors, he persuaded Army leadership to direct the realignment of internal review so that it would report directly to commanders, chiefs of staff, or deputy commanders. It was an extraordinarily brave undertaking — considering he was assigned under the office of the Comptroller of the Army.
Encourage success. In 1988, I was promoted to Chief of Internal Review of the U.S. Army Forces Command. From my first day in this new role, Ernie took me under his wing and I sought his wisdom on a regular basis. He regularly touted the successes we achieved in turning around the performance of internal review in our command. He never took personal credit for his team’s accomplishments, but he also never publicly criticized any of our mistakes.
Leverage your gifts to motivate others. Those who knew Ernie could tell immediately that he was a gifted orator. Unlike almost anyone else I met, he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand from the beginning to the end of a speech. He also had this capacity when engaging in one-on-one conversations. He used his oratory skills to inspire and to motivate the Army’s audit community around the world. I always wanted Ernie to speak at conferences that I organized, but I never wanted to follow him on stage. In the decade in which he served as the Army’s Director of Internal Review, he transformed the sprawling community from a loose-knit group that shared an organizational title to a closely aligned network that shared a vision. The foundation that he laid made my job as his successor much easier.
Model integrity. Ernie became the face — figuratively and literally — of the Army’s commitment to ethics. From the crusade to empower internal review with more independence, Ernie was a symbol of doing what was right. He would never look the other way if he felt someone was acting unethically. His strong moral compass coupled with his gift of oratory eventually led Army leadership to tap Ernie to develop a presentation on ethics, which he delivered to Army commanders and soldiers around the world. Ernie’s presentation was a powerful message that drove home the point of doing the right things for the right reasons.
Remain loyal. Ernie recognized the importance of loyalty to those who served and supported him, and to those who served and supported the Army as an institution. In 1998, I joined the U.S. Postal Service Office as Inspector General. But I knew I could continue to count on Ernie for encouragement and support. When I became Inspector General of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Ernie traveled to Knoxville to speak to my staff on the importance of ethics. He even spoke, at my invitation years later, at an IIA conference. As always, he was a big hit.
After I left the Pentagon, Ernie moved up to even greater levels of responsibilities within the Army. In 2002, he was named Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management and Comptroller). From late 2003 until his retirement in 2004, he served as Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management and Comptroller). Ironically, Ernie later joined Deloitte at the same time I was at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although we didn’t cross paths as often as I had wished in our post-Army roles, I was always comforted knowing that he was bringing the same lessons in leadership to a whole new world.
Former GE CEO Jack Welch once observed, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” As I reflect back on all of the leadership lessons I learned from Ernie over almost two decades, none describes the overall lesson more eloquently. Ernie was committed to lifting those around him, and growing others.