Leadership Lessons from General Tommy Franks

Last Friday, I had the privilege of hearing General Tommy Franks speak at the Spur Leadership Conference in Austin, Texas. I was standing in the “green room” visiting with one of our authors when General Franks entered the room with his wife, Cathy. He stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, my name’s Tom.” I liked him immediately.

Photograph of General Tommy Franks in His Army Uniform

The way he carried himself made an unforgettable impression on me. First, he was clearly “large and in charge.” He was in a business suit, but you just knew he was a general. He exuded leadership. Second, he was warm and self-effacing. He also clearly adored his wife and bragged on the fact that they had been married for forty years.

I would not describe his speech as eloquent or profound. However, it was filled with the kind of common sense that today seems to be all too uncommon. I was totally captivated by his stories. He had the kind of wisdom that only comes from leaders who have been through many battles and been forced to make the kind of gut-wrenching decisions between bad and worse.

I will tell you one story that I recorded in my journal. He flunked out of the University of Texas in 1967. Rather than wait to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he enlisted in the Army. As he got on the bus to leave for boot camp, his father said, “Son, I have one piece of advice. Be feisty.”

He replied, “But Dad, I am feisty.”

His dad said, “Son, I know your feisty, but I mean it as an acronym. F-e-i-s-t-y.” He then went on to spell it out:

  • “F” is for focus. You need to get focused on what is important and stay focused.
  • “E” is for energy. Bring all the energy you can muster to every situation.
  • “I” is for integrity. This is your most important possession. Don’t ever compromise it.
  • “S” is for solve the problem. Don’t argue. Don’t make excuses. Just solve the problem and get on with it.
  • “T” is for take the blame when no one else will. Accept responsibility and be accountable.
  • “Y” is for “Yes, I do windows.” Don’t ever say, “That’s not my job.” Do whatever the boss asks you to do and do it with enthusiasm.

Later in the Q&A session, General Franks told the story of a young lieutenant who declared his intention to one day become a General himself. He asked, “Could you share with me the one thing I can do to advance my career and achieve this goal?”

General Franks told him, “Son, go out and buy two alarm clocks.”

The young officer, clearly confused by the General’s answer, asked, “Two alarm clocks?”

“That’s right,” General Franks explained. “If you can’t take responsibility for your own life and show up on time, you have no right leading anyone else. Don’t ever be late.”

Question: What’s one leadership lesson you learned from your dad?
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  • Scotty Strickland

    I was SO hoping you'd write about General Franks, after reading your tweets that you were privileged to meet and hear him! What a wonderful example of bringing up men of quality and the definition of being a man!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/clayhebert clayhebert

    Another inspirational post, Michael. Thanks.

    I've learned a lot from my dad through the years but the lesson that sticks out the most is, "there is no substitute for enthusiasm". I think of that one everyday.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That reminds me of Bill Hybel's quote, "The primary thing an a leader brings to a team is his energy."

  • http://robedwardslive.com Rob Edwards

    My Dad was a carpenter. He could frame a house, but he could also make the most intricate carved figures and do the most delicate finish work. He was a craftsman in the truest sense of the word.

    I remember often going with him to pick out wood for a project. As a kid, it seemed interminable. He would lift the piece of wood to his eye, looking down its length to make sure it was straight and square, not warped or bowed. Many days he laid aside more than he chose.

    As I grew older, he showed me how to choose good lumber, too. But he showed me so much more–how to look critically at a situation, an opportunity, a crisis, a need.

    Thanks, Dad! I miss you!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That's a great word as well. I used to build model airplanes with my Dad. When I was trying to fit two pieces together, he would always say, "Son, don't force it." I learned that there is usually a more elegant way of making things happen than brute force!

  • http://www.inhisgripgolf.com Scott Lehman

    My Dad was my little league coach and the one lesson that I have applied for over 40 years is "Never Stop Swinging." Whenever I struck out in high school, college and even when I played semi-pro baseball, or even hit a bad shot on the golf course, I hear my Dad's voice saying "never stop swinging son." My Dad will be 80 years old on May 3, 2010 and he is still my #1 hero.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That is a great quote! Love it.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Wisdom. Let us attend.

    The most valuable thing I have learned from my father is something he does not verbalize, but something he lives. My dad is incurably curious…about everything. He knows the name of every tree in Tennessee. He loves to try new foods. When he travels, he asks an endless stream of questions of tour guides, fellow tourists, waiters… Always stretching, always learning. I hope I have effectively paid it forward in the lives of my own children.

    Great post!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/hscotthunt hscotthunt

    My dad recently past away. As I was looking through pictures to put together a slideshow for his funeral, I noticed several shots where he was fishing, and it reminded me of his love for the sport.

    In fact, two of my kids and I were privileged enough to take him on his last fishing trip – across the street to the neighbor's cattle tank! He didn't catch anything that day, despite my seven-year old daughter rounding up 18 catches of her own! And that was typical for Dad – everyone else caught fish, but he didn't (I have the pics to prove it). But that didn't keep him from doing what he was so passionate about.

    So I would say his "never give up" attitude is the one trait that stands out the most for me. Whether fishing, or marriage, or building a mission work, he never gave up!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      Never giving up is a wonderful quality. I remember Pat Williams, former general manager of the Orlando Magic started running marathons at 50 or so. His daughter once ran one with him. At about mile 20 she said, "Dad, remind me again why we are doing this?"

      He replied, "Because we're practicing not quitting."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/speli speli

    Excellent insights. My husband, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after twenty years in the US Army, met outstanding leaders during his time in the service. Of course even there, they are the exception rather than the rule, but some of these men were amazing in their dedication to outstanding leadership.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RogerGriffith RogerGriffith

    I would also highly recommend General Frank's book, American Soldier. There are great gems of leadership advise throughout the book.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      Yes, it's on my to-be-read list.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhsmith michaelhsmith

    One of the leadership lessons I learned from my dad is his willingness to serve faithfully with integrity in every situation that God has placed him. Now even in his retirement years he still is willing to say yes to opportunities for service.

  • http://www.deodandum.com pbandy

    My father ran a farm newspaper until the owner died and the presses were sold for scrap metal. After that he sold printing. He was proud of his work — especially when making sure that every price was right in the grocery flyer, that the meat colors looked like meat, and that he caught a typo that five other people had already missed. He never said it, but showed it in his work “God is in the details”.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      That's a great quote. Oprah often says, "Love is in the details," but I like your Dad's version better.

  • Justin joiner

    Gen. Franks has always been a favorite of mine to listen to. He uspeaks at an event called Get Motivated Seminars. Great speaker

  • http://blog.greggstutts.com/ Gregg Stutts

    My dad was the Business Administrator for a school district. He loved to get out of his office and visit people. I think his favorite thing to do was to talk with the custodians, cafeteria workers and bus mechanics. He cared about the people others tend to walk past.

  • Perry

    I think a lesson I took from my dad is that "everyone matters". No matter how big you get, or think you get, you always treat others with respect. To this day I always introduce myself to servers at restaurants and to the cleaning crew at my office. And they are always surprised that someone has noticed them. General Franks exhibited that in your story when he stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, my name is Tom." We all like to be noticed.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      Amen to that. It's so offensive to me when people in position of power are dismissive of "the little people." Everyone is worthy of our utmost respect and kindness.

  • http://amothersangst.blogspot.com Fran

    I played the bass clarinet in symphonic band in HS. Before every concert my Dad told me "Give 'em hell." To this day when I'm going into a situation where my performance has an impact on the team, I hear my Dad's words of encouragement. I take it to mean "Do your best & don't be daunted by the situation." Although my Dad is a bit of a chauvinist, he raised me with the message "You can do anything you set your mind to." Whether I'm dealing with tough issues in my engineering organization or stepping out as a writer, he continues to encourage me to "Give 'em hell."

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      My Dad was the same way. He always gave me he assurance I needed—even when I didn't have it myself.

  • Marilyn

    My father’s advice to me was from Charles Kingsley's poem, A Farewell:

    "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
    Do noble things, not dream them, all day long:
    And so make life, death, and that vast forever
    One grand, sweet song."

    When faced with a choice between good and clever, I try to choose good.

    When faced with a choice between doing and dreaming, I try to choose doing. (As Andy Stanley reminds us, decision trumps intention.)

    But, I’ve only followed my dad’s advice to a point. Accomplishing good as a leader often requires that I be clever!

  • Teri D. Smith

    My father often said, "That's no step for a stepper." It didn't matter if the task was one no one wanted to do, he'd dig in with his saying and do it without complaint or hesitation. It pains me to see his steps slow and shuffling today, but when tough or unpleasant task loom ahead of me, I can hear him say, "That's no step for a stepper."

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      That's one I have heard many times, too. Someone needs to collect all of these and put them in a book!

  • LynnRush

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks. Boy, my dad, a former CFO, non-Christian, ultra-athlete first taught me to sacrifice everything to succeed (health, family, friends included). Now, he didn't intend to teach me that I'm sure . . . but that's how he once was.

    Before Christ, that is.

    After. . . Boy, now the most important leadership lesson he taught (and still does) — Stand firm in God's promise and you'll never fail.

  • http://www.rickey2.org rickey

    I love this post, maybe because my father was in the army and so it just brought back a lot of warm fuzzy feelings that i've had on the bases and such. One of the best pieces of advice that my dad has told me was to "not panic". He would constantly show situations where a person could have acted appropriately had they not panicked. This has kept me cool thru all sorts of things. And has helped me as a leader. When some of my volunteers or co workers come running to me with a problem that seems like the world will end, its great to have calm and just find a solution that we won't regret later

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      Lt. Col. Harold ("Hal") Moore, played by Mel Gibson in the movied "We Were Soldiers." is a great exmple of this. Under fire, he never flinched. He too was "large and in charge." He had a calming effect on his men.

  • milijo

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Somedays, I want to invest in 2 alarm clocks and on other days I want to gift-wrap them for my boss :-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/BigDrG Dr.G.Franks

    Thanks! I'm dealing with some health issues that have made me chronically late the past year or so, but reading this post is inspiring me to keep fighting and restore my previous punctuality even if it takes more effort and preparation than before. (I can rest later.)

    Regarding your question, my dad was an incredibly friendly person. There were hundreds of people at his wake and then the funeral the following day. I'm learning more and more as I grow older and reflect on his life that gaining friends and good is much more valuable than "being right" ever could be. It's becoming an easier trade-off to make as each day goes by.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      Yep, I agree. One's frends are his most valuable possessions—next to his family.

    • http://twitter.com/BigDrG @BigDrG

      just spotted a typo as I came back to read the reply, "good" should be "good will"

  • http://spudlets.wordpress.com Marc V

    Leadership advice from my dad? Not much – maybe “Take care of your feet and your feet will take care of you.” I’m struggling now with my son and giving him leadership lessons in his first year of football. He tends to want to quit, and I have to remind myself not to take it personally but show grace while working through the issue.

    “He had the kind of wisdom that only comes from leaders who have been through many battles and been forced to make the kind of gut-wrenching decisions between bad and worse.” Unfortunately, we (American electorate) tend to elect good campaigners and “speechifiers”, rather than leaders who have been through the fire. The US is facing some very difficult times where the choice is between bad and worse, and we need the leaders to make those decisions and follow through even if the poll numbers do not look favorable.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      I agree. Courage is in short supply. It is something that always marks the great leaders.

  • http://zfam4.blogspot.com Brooke

    My boys are studying about writing hooks in school today, your post today had me hooked! What a great story to relay to us and I love the FEISTY acronym and will be sharing this posting at the dinner table tonight.

    My Dad taught me many things about leadership before he passed away at 56. First of all, get in there and do the work with the others, don't just dictate what needs to be done. Second, get to know the people who work for you, care about them, serve them. Third, be fair.

  • http://www.lautsbaugh.com Lindsey

    My dad taught me two things that I carry with me into everything, Value people and work hard. Anyone who knows my Dad (a Pastor) knows that he puts high value on each person he meets, I hope I can do the same.

  • http://donnafrank.blogspot.com Donna Frank

    My Dad taught me how to safely smoke a cigarette in a foxhole. Not a particularly useful skill for an 8-year old girl, but I know he meant well. My father served in the Marine Corps so my home was a little bit like Parris Island. Most of the truly meaningful lessons I didn't understand until he was gone, but loyalty to our country was paramount.
    He would tell me about the men who fought and died so that I could stand in the yard and drink a coke. Our country isn't perfect, but we can never forget the price that was paid for our freedom. God bless America!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      This is so true. I always try to thank soldiers when I see them. We still have a volunteer military. It blows my mind to think that men and women actually choose to serve the rest of us in this way. What a priceless gift!

  • Rich

    I really appreciate this post. As a dad, leaving a legacy that my 2 teenage sons can carry on with them is something I sometimes worry about. Perhaps the best legacy is one of attitude such as the one described here by Gen. Franks.

    thanks Michael.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    After dropping out of high school to fight in WWII, my dad's top priority for all five of his kids was a college education. All of us have memories of our dad making us do our homework, especially the math assignments. All of five of us did graduate with bachelor's degrees, and getting a good education has been my battle cry for our children and my students.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decjer

    I love this! Just printed the acronym and posted it to my cork board.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt michaelhyatt

      I want to do the same!

  • http://www.leadershiplessonsfromthebook.com Bill Bliss


    Thanks for a great post. I really like the FEISTY comment. With your permission, I would like to use it!

    The greatest leadership lesson I learned from my Dad (who passed away when I was 16, so the lessons may not be that insightful to most) was "if you are going to do a job, do it right". This actually applied more to the chores around the house he would assign me; nevertheless, it is certainly applicable in leadership as well. If you are going to be a leader, do it right.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely, it is Gen. Franks, but I don't think reporting on it is a problem.

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  • Ben Sevilla

    My father never gave up on his first three sons, after a failed first marriage. He took responsibility and made himself accountable for bringing into this world three sons (later to be five). He never complained about not having enough money, instead while being in the US Navy, he got a second job. When still it was not enough he got a third job. When my dad brought his family to San Diego in the late fifties it was with the idea to raise each one of his boys to finish college; they all have. Thanks Dad

  • HildaTK

    Hi, I have only just discovered this site. Thank you for all the amazing post. This site is definitely going on my Favorites. From my father I learnt the importance of humility in leadership and to always be well prepared. A very good friend gave me one of the best advice in life and leadership – plan and prepare as if everything is dependent on you, pray as everything is dependent on God.

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  • http://www.d2entertainment.com Dennis Disney

    The lessons my dad taught me are pretty much innumerable, but two are distinct: 1) work ethic…outwork everyone, and 2) whatever vocation your choose, make sure you love it. You spend way too much time doing it. The money will take care of itself.

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  • Nikky Tenllado

    My father, retired USAF Colonel fighter pilot, alongside my mother gave me constant advice without me knowing it. They live their lives as one large example that I am proud to attempt to follow.

    Leadership Lesson – Never ask someone to do something, large or small, that you wouldn't do yourself.

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  • http://twitter.com/melvinram @melvinram

    Two lessons spring to mind immediately:

    * "If you shit in water, it will float to the top & probably stink." = If you lie/cheat/deceive/steal, the truth will come out.
    * "If you have your legs to two different boats, you'll eventually fall in the water." = Focus.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KaylaFinley KaylaFinley

    My father taught me not to bail, because it hurts the person that you leave! I strive every day NOT to be anything like my father. It's extremely motivating!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.w.doyle Michael W Doyle

    I worked under Gen Tommy Franks at Centcom in Florida from 2002-2003 at the MP Desk. He was always fair and a man of his word. I even looked like his twin, I was saluted more than he was. Everywhere I went, people started saluting before they could see my rank. The best was a 3 star saluting me. If Tommy ever needs a look alike, give me a shout.

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  • Vahe Sargsyan

    My Dad taught me – Lazy people never become great people.