Risk-Taking Retired Army Officer to Train New Leaders at Yale

Pam Sutey

Thomas Kolditz, in 2009 with Ellen Sutey, then a West Point cadet, shows how shared risk helps build trust.
July 16, 2012

The Yale School of Management needed a shot of adrenaline to jump-start a leadership-development program that had stalled out. Meanwhile, a 30-year Army veteran, sky-diving instructor, and expert in crisis management was looking for a new challenge.

It might have seemed an unlikely pairing when Yale selected Thomas A. Kolditz, a retired brigadier general, to join the Ivy League institution. He had taught crisis leadership there as a visiting professor, but his main job for the past 12 years was running the leadership program he developed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Reminders of his military life are apparent in his small, meticulously organized office at the Yale business school, where he officially started this month as director of its leadership-development program and a professor in the practice of leadership.

Above his desk are two framed sabers given to him by his cadets at West Point, which he left in April.

A large white board outlines the program he's designing based in part on recommendations from a faculty committee. The panel found that the school's previous program, put on hold a few years ago, was disjointed and needed a strong leader to run it. Mr. Kolditz, 55, fit the bill.

After attending college on an ROTC scholarship, he began active duty while working on his doctoral dissertation. "I assumed that if I went and got a doctorate in social psychology, the Army would make me a research psychologist, but, instead, they said, 'Congratulations, you're an artillery officer.' "

He came to relish the role of battlefield synchronizer, using his analytical skills to calculate when to bring in cannons and rockets to support the infantry.

His academic studies about human behavior gave him a lens through which to view leaders who engendered fierce loyalty from their troops.

At West Point, he studied leaders who "operate in dangerous contexts and how that applies in more ordinary business contexts," he says. Talking with investment bankers during the financial crisis showed him that "there are tremendous commonalities."

He says: "It doesn't really matter whether the crisis is the threat of combat or the threat of losing $500-million"—the best leaders demonstrate competence and empathy for the people who work under them.

Mr. Kolditz, the author of In Extremis Leadership and a frequent lecturer on leadership, illustrates his lessons with videos of leaders acting in dangerous situations. He has even taken students on tandem skydiving missions, strapping them to his body, to demonstrate the importance of shared risk in building trust.

Yale M.B.A. students aren't likely to be jumping from planes with him, but they will get advice gleaned from his interviews with soldiers who fought in Iraq, as well as from his own experiences in battle.

Yale's redesigned leadership program will span both years of the M.B.A. program and will be highly individualized, with an emphasis on peer coaching. Someone focusing on manufacturing might adopt "a classic, Westernized view of leadership that involves giving purpose, motivation, and direction to people." A student who hopes to work for a nonprofit organization in Asia might try a more collaborative style. Students will practice leadership in teams and by running clubs and small businesses. Leadership lessons will also be incorporated into a session abroad that's required in the management program.

Edward A. Snyder, dean of Yale's business school, says the selection of Mr. Kolditz fits well with the school's recent push to expand its international reach. Yale recently spurred the creation of the Global Network for Advanced Management, joining 21 business schools from both developed and emerging countries to study leadership challenges posed by complex global markets.

A few faculty members who disapprove of the military's role in recent U.S. interventions initially questioned whether Yale should seek guidance from an ex-military leader, Mr. Snyder says. But after the faculty reviewed Mr. Kolditz's record and met him, the response to his arrival was overwhelmingly positive, he says.

Mr. Kolditz's new job, which allows him 52 days a year to continue his outside consulting and public speaking, makes it possible for him to earn nearly twice what he made at West Point, although he says the pay was "pretty much irrelevant" in his decision.

And while he says he will miss the military, "if you take someone with not only great leadership skills but also a strong management education, you really have someone who can get things done in the world."