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Military leaders need business education, retired general tells UVa gathering

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Charles Wald


Encouraging military leaders to use civilian business tactics would simultaneously improve America’s economy and the operations of the armed forces, said a former top U.S. Air Force officer in a recent speech at the University of Virginia.

“I think the Department of Defense would be very smart to get more people trained up to be business savvy,” said Charles Wald, who retired as a four-star general in 2006 after more than 35 years of service.

He spoke last week during an installment of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society’s speaker series. Wald, who began his military service during the Vietnam era, articulated his outlook for a world that is defined by social media, economic and political connections and conflicts.

“Your life is going to be a lot more complex from the international challenges we face,” Wald told a capacity crowd in Jefferson Hall on UVa’s West Range.

In his last assignment before leaving the military, Wald served as the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany.

Today, Wald serves as a director of the professional services firm Deloitte. His duties include being “responsible for providing senior leadership in strategy and relationships with the U.S. Department of Defense,” according to an online company biography.

Wald said installing more military leaders who have business education and training would require a simple change in direction from the top leaders of each service branch.

“That can be done without any congressional approval or anything else — they can do it internally,” Wald said.

Right now, Wald said, a typical educational track for military members is to pursue a political science or advanced technical degree. Those skills are important too, but Wald said having more business-minded people will bring balance and broader perspectives to the ranks.

“I think … his talk brought up the idea of specialization and what that has to do with a modern economy, where everything is more globalized and interrelated,” said Macy Early, a first-year UVa student.

Early said educational leaders at liberal arts schools, such as UVa, need to choose between strengthening the links between disciplines or focusing more on specialization.

For the past 10 years, Wald said, the U.S. has invested about $700 billion annually in defense spending.

“What Gen. Wald is advocating is simply common sense,” John Harvey, a retired four-star admiral who teaches in the business executive education program at UVa’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, said in an email.

“As military leaders become more senior and gain greater responsibility for the overall direction and performance of large organizations, these leaders need to be business literate and adept at applying fundamental business principles in the unique environment of the military,” Harvey said.

The bottom line, Harvey said, is that military leaders, like civilian business leaders, need to understand where their dollars are going, what they’re getting for that investment and how they might get more return on investment.

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Charles Wald