Leadership: Trying to do the Right Thing

E-newsletter Issue #113 | April 25, 2013

Mike Thompson had set goals in his career as an Oklahoma state trooper and in the state’s National Guard. But he never dreamed they’d take him up the ladder to serve as Oklahoma Secretary of Safety and Security.

He can, however, trace the course that got him there and it all goes back to education.

Thompson, a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow, was an aide to Gen. Gary Maynard in the Oklahoma National Guard in the early 1990s. Thompson recalls Maynard asking him what goals he had. Thompson’s answer: “I want to be a captain on the highway patrol and I want to be a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.”

At that time he was a trooper and a captain—both several promotions away from his goal.

Maynard charted the course Thompson would need to take to get there. “All of them centered around education,” Thompson said.

He was a college dropout at the time, but began knocking out the academic requirements, first earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Langston University, then earned two master’s degrees, one from Oklahoma State University and one from the U.S. Army War College.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol also sent him to the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., in 2002.

“All together, (it) quietly added up to a competitive resume,” he said.

The hard work paid off.

Not only is he a cabinet secretary for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, but Thompson also has the chance to make general in the National Guard in the next few years.

He said the experiences he’s had throughout both paths of his career have given him a good foundation to successfully serve the people of the Sooner state.

Thompson served two tours of duty in Iraq, the first in 2003 when his unit was initially deployed to Kuwait for a routine security mission. When the war started in Iraq, his unit was moved to Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad.

“They gave us a couple of days to get our bearings and then we were doing full spectrum operations, which at that time was unheard of,” he said. “To pull from something so routine, to go out and do something so dynamic.”

The biggest thing about that mission, Thompson said, was that all members came home. A few of them were hurt, but no one was killed.

“The mindset then was this is a six to nine month (war) or so and we’re done,” he said. “No one dreamed it would still be going on 10 years later.”

His second deployment came in 2007, when his youngest son Jared was deployed at the same time. While it was difficult knowing his son was in a war zone, Thompson said it was comforting to him and his wife Debbie that he was in the same country with Jared. The Thompsons’ oldest son, Brandon, graduated from West Point.

But if you ask Thompson the highlight of his Guard career, he’ll point to the work his team did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His unit was deployed to New Orleans on a couple of days notice.

The New Orleans police and their families were impacted as much as other people and often were overwhelmed with their own personal feelings about the disaster. People were scared to come out of their homes. Some were wandering about vigilante style. The Guard put an end to all that.

“I really do think that us being there made a tremendous difference,” he said. “People look back and say, ‘Did you make a difference in Afghanistan or Iraq?’ I don’t know if we did. I’d like to think that we did, but I know we made a difference in New Orleans.”

While in Iraq, Thompson learned an important leadership lesson from Gen. David Petraeus.

“He said we—being this multinational force he was in charge of in Iraq—we have to do a better job of managing expectations because when we allow people, regardless of who those people are, to have unrealistic expectations, there’s no way you’re ever going to meet them,” Thompson said.

Managing expectations became a cornerstone of Thompson’s management style.

“For me, it’s hand in hand with effective communication with your people to keep them plugged in with what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do,” he said.

The biggest part of communication, he said, is listening.

States across the country are facing growing challenges as they struggle with a smaller budget to address the tremendous demands they face, he said. Thompson goes back to his agency’s core mission and goals, as well as communication.

“Have a clear and simple message and communicate that and continue to communicate that constantly so if people lose sight of the big picture, at the end of the day, they’ll know we’re trying to do the right thing,” he said.

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