It’s always refreshing to listen to a keynote speaker who’s a straight shooter—maybe even more so these days, surrounded as we all are by spin and buzzwords. Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré (Ret.), therefore, was just what the doctor ordered, taking the stage to close the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Education Forum June 20.

He was also the right fit for a New Orleans program since he is a Louisiana native and, more pointedly, he led the Joint Task Force Katrina, directing the deployment of National Guard troops in the rescue and recovery operation after the devastating storm in 2005. His leadership was recognized as exemplary; now he shares leadership lessons with corporate and other groups.

Learning from Other Generals
Gen. Honoré looked to history for principles that are relevant today. Napoleon, he said, famously commented that two things motivate people: fear and self-interest. And George Washington’s legendary crossing of the Potomac River in 1776 reveals that if you are able to show individuals how their self-interest aligns with the organization’s interests, you can even motivate them to try the impossible—like going on the offensive with no training and no appropriate clothes, shoes, or weapons. Washington’s volunteers had a shared understanding of their purpose: freedom.

Gen. Honoré reviewed three leadership principles exemplified by Washington:

1. Do the routine things well.
This remains a principle that guides the U.S. Military.

2. Don’t be afraid to take on the impossible.
All the opportunity is on the other side of impossible.

3. Don’t be afraid to act, even if you are being criticized.
“Change will create criticism,” he said. “The job of a leader is to push through that.”

He also offered his tweak of the familiar definition of leadership as “the art of influencing others to accomplish a mission.” His addition: “willingly accomplish…” It is the responsibility of leaders to create that engagement and willingness in their people by making sure everyone understands the organization’s purpose and priorities.

Leaders also recognize when it’s time to act. In the midst of the Katrina evacuation, he told the FICP audience, he was told that a TSA agent had stopped the movement of evacuees through the airport because of a lack of equipment to process them all. Gen. Honoré got on the phone with the agent to explain that the evacuation would not stop. In the middle of a disaster, he said, you need to figure out what rules you’re going to break. “Get past the bull and act.”

With the elected officials of the U.S. Government regularly unable to “get past the bull,” it’s not surprising that during the General’s question-and-answer session one attendee essentially asked him to run for president.

The Power of Meetings
Gen. Honoré also took time to thank FICP attendees for bringing the Forum to New Orleans and for booking past and future programs in the city, which depends upon meetings and conventions for its livelihood. “There are multiple generations working in the hospitality industry in New Orleans. There are more hotels and more restaurants here today than before Katrina. That’s because you planners are bringing your meetings here.”

Finally, Gen. Honoré reminded the audience that 100,000 veterans will be leaving the service this year. Take care of them, he encouraged attendees. Welcome them back, bring them into the fold, help them through their transitions.