Face of Defense: Army Leader Focuses on Empathy, Compassion

Mentoring new, inexperienced soldiers and giving them increasing levels of responsibility and authority is commonplace in the Army.

But how does the Army develop great leaders?

Army Col. Raul E. Gonzalez, the integration and assessments division chief stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, grew up in the ranks of infantry and Ranger units. As a young captain, Gonzalez said, he was offered an opportunity take a teaching position at the Virginia Tech ROTC program in 1997. He credits this experience with helping to develop his own style of leadership, which he refers to as “Hard Leadership.”

Gonzalez is participating in the Joint Warfighting Assessment 18 being held here.

“In the Army, especially in combat arms, physical training and understanding weapons systems and equipment are things you enjoy doing, and you become very good at it, and it’s a very competitive environment,” Gonzalez explained. “When I transitioned to Virginia Tech, it was a very different environment. And, I had a very different type of leader.”

In today’s fast-paced environment, leaders can be overwhelmed with reports, training preparation and planning, maintaining physical fitness and medical readiness, and ensuring the readiness of hundreds of subordinates, all while maintaining awareness for today’s complex, expeditionary environment. These competing priorities can hinder a leaders’ ability to be attentive to soldiers and their morale.

While at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg,Virginia, Gonzalez fell under the leadership of retired Army Col. Dennis Cochran, who taught him many lessons on the hard things of leadership.

Taking Care of Soldiers

“He taught me how to be compassionate, how to be understanding, and, he taught me truly what care means in the whole vernacular of taking care of soldiers,” Gonzalez said.

Cochran emphasized the need to watch over soldiers’ mental and emotional well-being, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said it’s easy to hold a leadership position, but the harder task is to be a little more humble, patient and understanding to truly connect with the human domain and improve an individual as a person and as a soldier.

“I’ve found that this is seldom talked about, especially in a combat arms environment, because it is typically more of a ‘hooah hooah’ environment where we are taught to put aside our emotions and our feelings,” Gonzalez said. “In this culture, we fail to realize that humans are emotional beings with feelings and thoughts, and soldiers will perform a task much better if they know their leader understands that.”

While Army culture creates command climates that reward conformity, Gonzalez said, he sees the value in rewarding merit and supporting soldiers by developing emotionally intelligent leaders who understand that soldiers have unique needs, abilities and dreams.

Caring, Understanding

“I’ve never had a retention problem in any of my organizations, and I’d like to think I can attribute it to the command climate that we provided, because it was a brotherhood of caring and understanding; that I am going to do for you even what I may not do for myself,” Gonzalez said. “Once you have that bond, it’s truly a special thing.”

Gonzalez said he has explained “Hard Leadership” to those in his command assignments, which include a detachment command, two company commands, a battalion command and a brigade command, with the expectation that leaders are provided the opportunity to see it, experience it and learn how to integrate it into their own unique leadership style.

“To be a great leader, you have to be true to yourself,” Gonzalez said. “Get grounded in the basics and develop how you’re going to convey those basics to your organization. Most importantly, live it. People will always remember what they see you do rather than hearing what you do.”