Retired U.S. Army Gen. Dennis Via, the 2019 Leader-in-Residence, addressed cadets in the Hall of Valor April 17, 2019. The general, who received his fourth star in 2012, told the story of his introduction to the Army, noting that his goal was never to achieve a four-star rank. “I just wanted to be the very best at every assignment and every position.”
In fact, if someone told him at his commissioning in 1980 that he would someday be a four-star general, he could not have imagined it. “I would have thought you were delirious,” he said.
Via had no way of knowing where the Army, and life, would take him. “And for the cadets in the room, you don’t know either,” Via emphasized. “It’s one more example of what is possible if you work hard, you believe in yourself and [when] you’re presented with an opportunity, you take advantage of that opportunity and seize the day.”
A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, he was initially drawn toward Army ROTC because of the financial help it offered him – his father had passed away, and money for college was a necessity.
While financial help was the initial attraction, what kept Via in Army ROTC was his affinity for everything the program embodied: “I loved everything about it. I loved the discipline, I loved the camaraderie, the leadership, the followership, the physical fitness part of it,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be in this thing called ROTC and learn about leadership.”
In his capacity as Leader-in-Residence, Via has visited post and cadets in nearly every facet of their lives at VMI. He’s been with cadets in classrooms, visited barracks and seen most of the “tremendous, first-class facilities” available for cadet use. As a non-alumnus, Via was impressed by the quality of VMI and what is offered to cadets. He asked cadets to pause and recognize how “fortunate” they are “to experience this leadership journey, this unique opportunity and the enormous investment – I want to underline enormous – being made in your young lives,” Via said. “I didn’t have that.”
With graduation on the horizon, Via offered advice for the future. Leadership – what cadets are groomed to do at VMI – is not about simply being in charge, Via said. Leadership encompasses far more. It does not come automatically, but requires effort. Via shared with cadets five “qualities of highly successful leaders” he observed – and personified – during both his Army career and his time in the corporate world. These characteristics and values are the mark of successful leaders and things that “sustained me throughout my career,” Via said.
Responsibility and accountability were the first set of characteristics Via touched on. “To be a successful leader, you must be accountable and take responsibility for you actions and your decisions.” Successful leaders must also be willing to take risks, even knowing that the risks might not work out as planned.
“On the basketball court of life, you can’t score three-pointers unless you take three-point shots. Reflecting back on my career, my greatest accomplishments occurred most often when the outcome was not, in fact, clear,” Via said. “As a leader things will not always work out the way you intended or the way you desire. Not all of your decisions will be the right ones. You’ll make mistakes. I made many. However, it is through these mistakes that you will gain … valuable experience. And these experiences will help you grow into a strong and effective leader.”
Next, Via noted that followership is essential. “Being an effective leader requires being a good follower. Nothing replaces a good teammate,” he said. “The business of leading is all about building teams, teamwork and cohesion. People who work well together will win.”
He followed that by talking about excellence and competence. “Establish a reputation for excellence in everything you do. Become the go-to individual, the recognized subject matter expert for your organization,” Via advised. “Be highly competent in all aspects of your career field, and develop a thirst for life-long knowledge and self-development.”
Via’s fourth point addressed the relentless change in today’s world. “In the global world you’re entering, change is constant – it’s the norm,” he said, encouraging cadets to take advantage of that change – even to the point of directing transformations. “You must always strive to adapt, grow and evolve with the organization. Be the change agent for your organization or your company. And in doing so, in many cases, you may have to lead that change.”
The general’s final theme echoed a point brought home by several other recent speakers. “Be genuine and authentic,” Via said, referencing building relationships and genuinely caring for others. He noted the need for treating all people well, with dignity and respect – regardless of position. “Every person in your organization is important and plays an important role.”
Early in his career, this point was brought home to him. As an aide-de-camp for a general, Via attempted to hurry a general – never a good practice – into a staff meeting with other high-ranking officers. The general was speaking with a young soldier who, along with his family, had just moved to the base. Via overlooked the young soldier, thinking that the higher-ranking people waiting in the staff meeting were more important.
“I received a stern, heels-locked one-way conversation informing me that every soldier was important, not just the generals waiting in the staff meeting,” Via recalled. “It was an invaluable lesson that remained with me throughout my career.”
Via ended his remarks by reminding cadets to hold tightly to their integrity, remember their foundations and to “look up.”
“Take a break from your mobile device and learn to personally – not electronically – engage people,” Via said. “Leadership, true leadership, is all about people. … You cannot effectively lead by text, Twitter and – by now – old school email. Be a good friend, a true friend. Be a good classmate, a good roommate, and good family member and a positive role model for others to emulate. Be the person you want others to be.”
Editor’s Note: VMI’s Center for Leadership and Ethics annually brings a noted leader in his or her field to post during the spring semester. In addition to spending time with faculty and cadets, each LIR delivers a speech related to leadership. Past LIRs have included ambassadors, business leaders, entrepreneurs and military leaders from various services. Via served as a logistics officer in the U.S. Army. His final assignment was as commander of Army Materiel Command. Via is currently a defense fellow and executive vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Virginia.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist