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Col. Drew Conover’s Q&A

Discipline and Leadership with Army Col. Drew Conover

Q&A: Colonel Drew Conover (US Army) On How Shared Hardships Build Cohesive Teams

By Jonathan Movroydis

Colonel Drew Conover is a National Security Affairs Fellow for the academic year 2021–22.

In this Q&A, Conover discusses his two-decade career as an infantry officer in the US Army, including deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Europe.

He describes his work in counterinsurgency operations during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how these events demonstrated that, at its core, the army has historically fought wars at the platoon and company levels with broad guidance from senior military officers. He explains that these experiences have enabled well-trained army officers to easily transition from fighting insurgencies to conducting large-scale wars.

Conover also talks about the goals he would like to achieve during his time as a National Security Affairs Fellow. He is especially enthusiastic about the opportunity to mentor Stanford students about important leadership lessons he has learned as an army officer—including the value of “shared hardship” in building cohesive teams.

Why did you join the US Army?

I come from a military background where my father served 29 years in the US Army. I went to college at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and my education there aligned with the values instilled into me by my parents, so serving in the military was a natural transition for me. My career in the army has been an extremely rewarding experience to this point, which is why I continue to serve.

Will you describe your educational background?

At VMI, I studied business and economics and graduated in 2001. It was a great experience, with small classes and excellent professors. I also attended an advanced military planning and strategy school at Fort Leavenworth, where I earned my master’s degree. This program was exceptional in helping further develop my complex problem-solving, planning, and communication skills.

What factored into your decision to join the infantry?

By nature, I am a competitive and aggressive person, and the infantry is the most challenging area of the army in which to serve, so I was drawn to it. As soon as I got to my first unit, I knew I was in the right branch, because our job was tough, the standards were high, and we were always out in front. In the infantry, I have always been surrounded by great leaders and soldiers and have learned a significant amount from those units I’ve been a part of.

Describe some highlights from your career to this point.

Shortly after graduating, I went to basic officer-training school and then to ranger school. My first deployment was with the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where I served as a platoon leader and later as a company executive officer.

I went on two more deployments to Iraq in 2006 and 2008 as a company commander in the Fourth Infantry Division based out of Fort Hood, Texas. I served in various regions of that country including Mosul, Tal Afar to numerous areas across Baghdad.

As a major, I deployed to Afghanistan twice.  The first deployment was in the mountains of Kunar Province bordering Pakistan in 2012 and then in Kandahar in 2014. My most recent deployment, in 2019, was as a battalion commander to Eastern Europe.

What was the purpose of your Eastern European deployment?

Every year, the army rotates a brigade consisting of multiple battalions across Eastern Europe. During my assignment, we operated in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, and Bulgaria.  Strategically, we were positioned on the eastern front to provide US presence and reassure allies of our continued commitment to NATO and European security. Tactically, it was an opportunity to not only train and build our readiness but also to maintain and strengthen working relationships with our partners and NATO allies in the region.

What was the nature of your work in Iraq and Afghanistan?

All my major deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan involved counterinsurgency operations. The primary objective of the organizations I was involved in was always to provide stability to the area to allow for local governance and for other institutions to take hold and regain strength. I personally found that once the enemy was ineffective in a particular area, the locals began fixing the rest of the problems on their own. However, fixing problems at the national level was certainly a different story, as we saw in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

When you joined the army, were you expecting to do this type of work?

No. I joined the army two months before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and at that time there were no major wars that the United States fought since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, so I certainly wasn't expecting to fight in any future conflicts. However, my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were some of the most meaningful that I will ever have. Leading an organization every day for a year with an aim of keeping your soldiers alive while dominating a determined opponent was an awesome challenge. Being responsible for these soldiers at such a young age, with very little oversight, was an incredibly humbling and an important experience for me. Not only did it provide me with a lifetime of fulfillment, but it also illuminated my true potential in a way that I might not have ever known.

In your opinion, has the army’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the way it will fight future wars?

I certainly believe we have developed some technical capabilities with targeting and use of technology that we didn’t have before and we will build upon those efforts in the future. I also think those wars have provided a corps of officers and noncommissioned officers who have seen the importance of maintaining high standards and employing tough and realistic training. These are crucial aspects for the safety our soldiers and their ability to win on the battlefield. Even with the rapid development of technology, leadership will remain a critical component of any future war. Specifically, building disciplined, cohesive, and well-led units; clear communication, detailed planning, and aggressive execution; and being in position to check progress and adjust plans will remain fundamental elements of military leadership regardless of the changing nature of war.

What do you hope to accomplish during your fellowship at the Hoover Institution?

First, it’s an honor and tremendous opportunity to be here at the Hoover Institution. With that said, I have three objectives during my fellowship. The first is to gain a deeper understanding of the current set of major national security issues, particularly those involving China, Russia, and Iran. Thus far, it has been an incredible educational experience being exposed to all the brilliant fellows here at Hoover—especially the likes of James MattisCondoleezza Rice, and H. R. McMaster—and their thoughts on these issues.

The second goal is to take advantage of Stanford’s proximity to the tech sector. I want to continue to gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist to better link the tech industry in Silicon Valley with the Department of Defense.

Finally, I have had the amazing opportunity to mentor a select group of Stanford students. These students are interested in learning about leadership, perspectives on national security issues, and broadly how the government works. Providing my very best to these students remains a top priority for me.

You mention leadership. What does that mean to you?

To me, leadership is about driving a team toward organizational objectives while meeting the individual needs of its members. Leaders establish the culture of the organization, set the climate, establish and communicate a clear path towards achieving its goals, and ensure employees understand both what is expected of them and the issues that they identify will be addressed.

A critical component of leadership, and one that I invest heavily in, is training and developing subordinates. Investing in our people not only benefits the organization but serves as a legacy, because those whom you have invested in will carry on similar traits to that you have taught them.

In your thoughts about leadership, I am reminded of the late Distinguished Fellow George P. Shultz, who said “trust is the coin of the realm”—meaning that trust needs to be in the room for people to accomplish great things together.

I agree completely and certainly believe that trust is the foundation for leading an organization. If we are going to maximize the potential of an organization, then the subordinates have to trust one another and their leader. The common attributes of leadership such as honor, integrity, respect, and selfless service all lead to building trust within organizations. Divisive comments or actions are counterproductive and corrosive to organizations, and there is no place for that, particularly in the military.

One of the reasons why the US military is especially effective in bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and building trust within teams is because our servicemen and women suffer through shared hardships. One example I discuss frequently is an experience I had as a lieutenant before the invasion of Iraq.

My fellow soldiers and I were participating in a training exercise throughout five days of rainy weather. Without tents or any type of cover, it was absolutely one of the most miserable experiences of my life. But the fact that we trained together, drenched and out in the cold for a sustained period of time, brought us closer together. We all had a shared experience that, though miserable, was critically important in building our team. These are the types of events that bring people together and those that soldiers in the army are proud of.

Where do you look for inspiration?

My father certainly serves as an inspiration to me. He is the most honorable and hardworking person I know, and someone from whom I have modeled my leadership style.

I also find elite leaders really inspiring, whether that be elite coaches or those in business, the military, or government. Specifically, I think those leaders who experience extreme success in relation to their counterparts have a special intellect that simply cannot be measured or assessed. I believe these leaders have an uncanny ability to cut through complexity and identify the three or four things that really matter in order to produce exceptional results. I believe many of the most extraordinary leaders throughout history had not only that special intellect but also the drive to see it through regardless of the risks. Those are the leaders I look up to.