Karen Durham-Aguilera is executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries. It puts her in charge of Arlington National Cemetery, which averages about 11,000 visitors a day and many more over a Memorial Day weekend.
Besides Arlington, she oversees the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., and the cemeteries at Army installations in the U.S.
Another agency, the Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, runs 135 national military cemeteries in the U.S. – like those in Upstate New York near Saratoga Springs and Bath. The American Battle Monuments Commission runs overseas cemeteries on battlefields, such as Normandy. States have more than 100 military cemeteries of their own.
Until she accepted her current assignment, Durham-Aguilera had spent most of her career with the Army Corps of Engineers, including leading the reconstruction of New Orleans’ hurricane protections after Hurricane Katrina.
First, please share your thoughts about Memorial Day and how you hope Americans experience Arlington or other military cemeteries on that day.
I’ve been to numerous military cemeteries. They are all special places.
Memorial Day is about remembering the service of those that are now laid to rest and what they did for our country, for us, for our freedom, and for our liberties.
You can do that in your home, you can do that by going out and participating in Memorial Day events, by going out to a military cemetery. Our Arlington National Cemetery is special, because it’s kind of a national symbol here in the capitol. But no matter where you are, you can remember our veterans and honor their service and their sacrifice for the nation.
Were you in leadership roles growing up?
I was not.
I was not in leadership roles as a child, or in high school, or in college (Louisville University). I guess you could call me a late bloomer.
One of the biggest reasons that I wasn’t doing any of that in high school (Eastern High School in Middletown, Kentucky) or college – aside from being an engineer nerd – is because I had to work. My parents instilled that in me and my brothers and sisters. My parents were children of the Depression and neither of them had a college education. The value in education was instilled in all of us at an early age.
I was focused in high school and college on being able to work enough to have that education. I finished high school almost a year early so I could work even more and have money for college.
I was fortunate enough to have scholarships that helped out as well.
I got my bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering at the same time and graduated in 1980.
As far as leadership, it wasn’t until I’d spent some years as a field engineer. By that time, I was in my early 30s, I was supervisor of several field offices doing construction for the Army. It wasn’t until then that I realized and others around me realized that I had leadership potential.
What happened in your early 30s to put you on a leadership path?
I spent several years as a field engineer, managing construction projects.
I got to the point where I was the lead engineer; we called it a project engineer. I was stationed in Germany on some innovative projects.
It thrust me into a really visible situation having to deal with people from high levels and lots of different agencies. Basically, it was either succeed or not succeed, stand out as a success or stand out as a failure. I started to realize that I had an affinity to lead, and people around me seemed to recognize my affinity for leadership.
I had an example of leadership that stood out. Lt. Gen. Colin Powell was the Army’s Fifth Corps commander. I was in an innovative project – it was Army family housing. Even though it was in Germany with a German builder, we had a requirement to design-build with U.S.-built components. It was pretty complicated. It was also innovative, so I had numerous high-level visitors, elected officials, assistant secretaries of the Army, secretary of defense, etc.
Gen. Powell stood out, because, of everybody that came there, he was the only one that actually talked to me and asked me questions where I felt he was truly interested.
I followed his career after that, and we all know the successes he went on to.
He set that example of listening, active listening, taking an interest. I’m a little GS11 engineer, and he’s a three-star general. It really stood out as what leaders can do.
What’s your advice to be an effective leader?
OK, I can summarize this as the four Cs.
I’ll add a few other things.
Any leader – regardless of rank, regardless of profession, regardless of what field they’re in – has to be competent in that profession. You cannot lead others if you don’t have a basic competency and working knowledge in whatever the business is of that firm or of that industry or, in my case, working for the Army.
The second thing is commitment. Commitment to the service, commitment to the people, commitment to the mission. That way you have the ability to set a vision, to use the team to help craft the details of the vision, to empower the team to carry out that vision, and then the ability to adjust, to make course corrections.
All of that takes courage, personal courage. Courage to let the people around you know that you’re empowering them. You’re underwriting their risk. Risk of success, but also risk of failure.
But also courage to do the right thing.
We talk about character as doing the right thing when no one’s watching. That absolutely applies to anyone who wants to be a successful leader. Everyone around you is watching you all the time.
And the last thing is caring. You’ve gotta be passionate about what you are doing. You’ve gotta care about the people and the work you’re doing. You can’t fake that. If you don’t have the passion and caring, everyone around you will notice.
Please elaborate on the idea that a leader exhibits courage.
First, anytime a leader is trying to do something, people will say that it can’t be done or that’s not the way we’ve done it, especially if it’s a situation where you could fail. It takes courage to get out in front, to take that team forward.
I’ll give a past example: Being in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I spent my early career in New Orleans. I was asked to go back to New Orleans – and I chose to go back – to put together and develop and lead construction of a hurricane system around New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We were constantly under the microscope, we were constantly being criticized for everything we did or were perceived as having done or could be doing.
It took courage to go there and put together a team with the right stuff while constantly under examination in the public eye and to take a lot of criticism and to lead a truly innovative acquisition and to persuade the investment all the way through the Congress and the administration.
To take a $14.6 billion construction program and to get all of that in place in basically four years was unheard of, especially with the federal government.
There were numerous obstacles that could have gotten in the way. It took unwavering determination, an unwavering will to succeed, not just of me and the team, but also our Army commanders, at the three-star general level.
Today, one of the biggest challenges is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery was founded in 1864. Veterans from every single conflict that the country has been involved in are buried here at the cemetery – 400,000 people are laid to rest here. There have been times when the cemetery was about to close as it was running out of burial space. We are at that crossroads again today. Without a change in eligibility or suitable expansion, we will close by 2041.
The Congress and the administration will need to decide what to do to take care of future generations so that our veterans who served in the Gulf War and every conflict since then and our Medal of Honor recipients will have the option to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
We’re limited in physical expansion, so it’s a tough challenge. It will be a hard and emotional decision, lasting for generations to come.
Or, we can close by 2041. And then we’ll be an historical place to come, for people to pay their respects for those who are already laid to rest here.
What’s your advice to a leader who faces tough challenges like the two you described?
The first thing is transparency. Be very open: We’re thinking about doing this – what do you think we should do?
Go out and deliberately seek others’ opinions.
That way, when a decision is ultimately made, people know that they were part of it, and they know how hard it was to get there. Not everyone may like the outcome, but the point is you get people to participate in that process. You will not be successful leaving people out.
You have to be willing to take criticism, both the good and the bad, and you also have to be willing to adjust direction based on that input you’re seeking. Try to build consensus, as much as you can, and be transparent. That’s a model for success that you can apply in lots of situations.
Inevitably, there will be setbacks. What’s your advice?
First is unwavering determination. You have to be determined for success of the mission.
Second, when setbacks happen – they are going to happen with everyone – it’s not personal. Do not take setbacks as a personal affront, as a personal insult, or anything personal at all. That’s the only way you can deal with setbacks and, at times, criticism, whether it’s constructive criticism or not.
It’s hard not to take a setback personally.
Well, one thing, is to say: What do we need to do? You had a setback. What do you need to do?
And then you need to involve the people around you. OK, this didn’t go well. What do we – we – need to do to be able to succeed the next time?
Anyone who is a leader can describe things that didn’t go well. But more importantly: What did you learn from it, and what did you do the next time?
As a kid, you fall off a bicycle and you get back on. I ride motorcycles. Anyone who rides a motorcycle at some time is going to drop that motorcycle. Well, then you get back on.
What qualities do you see in good leadership and leaders you admire?
People can learn from both good and bad examples of leadership, so I’ll give you an example.
I had engineering experience in private industry. When I was only 25 years old, I started working for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.
The person who hired me was Dr. John Grieshaber. He became my first and lasting example of a good leader.
At that time, there were very few women in engineering. He, in his own words, took a chance on hiring me when no one around him was willing to do that.
He set examples of teamwork and working well with others. I also saw the way throughout his entire career, he spent time developing and mentoring others.
He was the example of teamwork, good leadership, taking care of people, and fostering careers of others even if it meant he would be losing good people working directly for him.
I’ve had some bad leaders, whose names I’m not going to mention. They were the opposite.
They didn’t care, didn’t exhibit any confidence in the people around them, didn’t underwrite their risk of a potential failure as well as success. They took credit for others’ success.
Another leader I worked for, a lesson I learned was: Share the credit; take the blame. A leader has to be willing to take the blame for the team, when they don’t succeed. We give credit to the team when they do.
The good leaders that I worked for did that. And the ones that didn’t, they were terrible leaders. They were self-centered. Those leaders didn’t care about others – only themselves.
The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected] Last week featured Peter Belyea of CXtec, who says to be an effective leader your core values and the organization’s core values have to align.