U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert B. Neller, poses for a command board photo at Arlington, Va., Aug. 31, 2015. Neller posed for his official command board photo as the 37th Com­mandant of the Marine Corps. | Wikipedia

Last week, stu­dents and faculty had the oppor­tunity to learn about the qual­ities of lead­ership from Robert Neller, four-star general who served as the 37th Com­mandant of the Marine Corps. 

Neller spoke at a “Food for Thought” event. In his speech, titled, “Leading from the Front: Prac­tical lead­ership lessons from 44 years of uni­formed service to our nation,” Neller shared his thoughts and stories about lead­ership, empha­sizing the essential qual­ities of a leader. 

After 44 years of serving the country in the marines, Neller has had vast expe­rience as a leader but imme­di­ately told the audience that neither he nor anyone else could give the nec­essary qual­ities and traits for lead­ership.

“There is nothing that I am going to say today that is going to make you a great leader, because it all starts with who you are and the type of person you are,” Neller said. 

In order to be a good leader, a person has to have integrity, com­pe­tence, dis­ci­pline, honesty, humility, self­lessness, intel­li­gence, and respect, Neller explained. These are the qual­ities that make people want to follow a leader. And, Neller pointed out, there is a big dif­ference between being a willing fol­lower and being a forced fol­lower. 

“If you become a leader, no one is going to follow you if you are arrogant, if you don’t tell the truth, if you’re not com­petent and don’t have a plan and if you don’t care about other people or are dis­re­spectful,” Neller said. 

Neller pointed out that lead­ership is not easy because a person has to make the choice to pursue these qual­ities. Lead­ership means sac­rifice and self-denial because a good leader is never about himself, but about the team. 

“Being a leader always is going to involve self-denial because being a leader is not a position of priv­ilege,” Neller said. “It is a position of respon­si­bility.” 

Neller said he knows how hard leading is. He shared a story about when he was an officer com­manding marines and had a rule that officers eat last so that they would serve the other men first. 

“Leaders eat last,” he said. 

Pro­fessor of History Tom Connor, who attended the lecture, said he appre­ciated that lesson. 

“That was a great way to com­mu­nicate the impor­tance of humility in a good leader, and the simple fact that the work of a leader is more about the tasks that need to be accom­plished than about the leader,” Connor said in an email. 

Since sac­rifice is such an essential part of being a good leader, Neller high­lighted that humility is also an essential quality in a leader. A good leader cannot be passive or arrogant. 

“There is a line between being arrogant and being passive. It’s called com­pe­tence,” Neller said. 

Neller told the audience to look to leaders in their own per­sonal lives and think about their qual­ities. 

“It was never about them, it was always about the team,” he said. 

For Lt. Col. Michael Murray, Hillsdale’s legal counsel and admin­is­trative director of planned giving, Neller was one of the leaders in his life that he has always looked to. 

Murray, a former Marine, met Neller in Uganda when he was deployed. Neller’s son was playing football for Hillsdale at the time, and years later, Murray came to work for the college. Over the years, Murray has remained in contact with Neller. 

“You want to look at people you can aspire to, people who set the example. He has set the example and he has served our country very faith­fully,” Murray said. “And he has just been a great example to me, from being a marine to being a good man and a good citizen.” 

But Neller empha­sized that he and every other good leader had to make a choice to pursue the vir­tuous life and qual­ities that make a leader. It would have been easy to choose to simply ignore those qual­ities and choose to live a less vir­tuous life. But then he wouldn’t have been a leader. 

“There’s no secret here,” Neller said. ”Be a man or woman of virtue, treat other people with respect, tell the truth always, learn your job. Try to become as com­petent as you can be. Be kind. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Don’t be arrogant.”