“Good ideas have no rank”: lessons from the military for excellence leaders

Retired General Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in US military history to achieve the rank of four-star general, discusses change in the US military, and how leaders can realize their vision



Adam Muspratt
11/19/2019

In 2008, General Dunwoody became the first woman in US military history to achieve the rank of four-star general. Dunwoody dedicated 37 years of her life to military service; among the huge responsibilities General Dunwoody has had to contend with, one of the most exceptional was leading the largest global logistics command in US Army history, managing a budget of $60bn.

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Her organization’s motto: “If a soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, communicates with it or eats it, Air Mobility Command provides it.”

In The PEX Report 2020: Global State of Process ExcellenceGeneral Dunwoody shares her insights. 

PEX Network: How does something you do in your office translate to something that’s happening on the other side of the world?

Ann Dunwoody: When we had our base realigned to Huntsville, Alabama, we got to build our own new headquarters. We were able to leverage technology that we didn’t have in the past.

“If a soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, communicates with it or eats it, Air Mobility Command provides it.”

Like FedEx’s central operations center, we were able to get the technology to give us total asset visibility end to end, from the foxhole to the factory. When you can see the organization’s data, you can manage it. We now have worldwide video conferences which you could have regularly, so you can talk to personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or California.



In the past, we had leadership by walking around, but when you’re managing 65,000 people globally, that’s not realistic every day. Technology allows you to share visions, objectives and solve problems.

PEX Network: Do you think that one of the risks of transformation projects is that it’s going to become more about panic and less about putting in place a good strategy for the future?

Ann Dunwoody: You have to be able to communicate what the risk is of doing something and also the risk of not doing something. Not every good idea is worth the cost or the risk. We’ve been talking about getting these tools for the army since I was a second lieutenant back in 1975.

"We started Operation Iraqi Freedom and we still didn’t have the tools we needed."

During Desert Storm in 1990, we said we’re going to do it as we said we would never have this happen again. Then we started Operation Iraqi Freedom and we still didn’t have the tools we needed. And so the inefficiencies created by not being able to manage this huge enterprise was very costly. Informing the leadership who made the budget decisions, of the risk of not getting these tools, was very powerful.

Click here to read the entire interview

In the full interview, General Dunwoody discusses a wide array of topics including the implementation of new ideas in the military, approaching new ideas within a hierarchical structure and insight on how leaders can deliver their vision.

Key learnings:

  • You can’t manage the data unless you can see it
  • Share a clear vision
  • Good ideas have no rank
  • Ignoring mistakes sets a new (lower) standard
  • Change is the alternative to irrelevance
  • If the outcome is essential, work at it

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