VICENZA, Italy – Brig. Gen. Lapthe C. Flora is the new U.S. Army Africa deputy commanding general and Army Reserve component integration adviser. He concurrently serves in the Virginia Army National Guard as the assistant adjutant general – Army land component commander.
Flora, a native of Saigon who fled Vietnam with his family in the 1970’s, is one of the first Vietnamese officers to be promoted to general officer in the U.S. Army. During his time at USARAF, he will continue to maintain his civilian career as a principle application engineer with the night vision project of Harris Corporation in Roanoke, Virginia.
Flora recently agreed to participate in a leadership-based question and answer session during exercise Shared Accord 2018.
Q: What was the pivotal moment in deciding to make the U.S. Army a career?
I had some idea when I was in the refugee camp. After spending a year in the refugee camp, you feel a sense of destitution and hopelessness. I silently promised to myself that whoever gave me a second chance in life, I would serve forever. Once I came to the United States and felt the generosity of the American people who embraced me into the community, it solidified my decision. My passion and drive to serve all came down to the gratitude of the U.S. giving me a second chance in life. I was given a freedom that you can’t pay back in a monetary value. I was so anxious to serve but I signed up for Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training even though I barley spoke the language. I eventually was rejected from the Navy due to speech impediments; this was due to my heavy accent, so I decided to join the Army. The Army gave me the opportunity to serve and I never looked back.
Q: How do you maintain you and your team’s daily motivation and inspiration despite obstacles particularly in an environment that we do not have the technology that we are used to?
I have learned in the past 30 years serving alongside our patriots, that most of our Soldiers are passionate and are very conscientious of what they do. They want to do a good job. So, for me as a leader to motivate them, I make sure to show my appreciation for them, thank them for what they do. As a National Guard officer, I understand that there are other options besides serving in the military and I am very mindful of that. For that, I want to thank them and show my appreciation to them. It’s amazing how a simple thank you and showing that you care can go a long way and inspires troops to go in a difficult environment. You do that with a great sense of humility. If you possess a good sound character, especially in integrity and have the Soldier care aspect of it, you will be amazed. Your Soldier will follow you if you care for them, inspire them by your actions and your words, they will follow you.
Q: How do you mentor your soldiers to recover from setbacks?
What I try to tell them is to look at every setback as an opportunity. Life is not fair, never fair. Obstacles will always be right in front of you, you must be resilient to overcome those obstacles. The military often teaches you to go to the obstacle, go over it, or to roll around it. In all of us we all have a strength that is in us if we are passionate about what we want to do. Regardless of whatever obstacle is right in front of you, knowing that the work that you do is noble, is important and essential. You are working to defend your country and that is a noble, noble profession. I think once you have a clear objective of what you want to do and the passion to go after it, it’s no longer an obstacle but another opportunity to improve yourself and move forward.
Q: How do you encourage creativity and innovation in your organization?
I have found that the best way to instill creativity and innovation is to have a diverse and inclusive environment within your staff and your organization. Diversity is great because it brings in different perspectives. As General Patton once said, “If everyone thinks alike, then somebody is not thinking, and we don’t want that.” We want a diverse team so that we can all share the different values, backgrounds, socio-economics, gender and religions. Once you bring different values and perspective into the decision-making process, I believe your final decision is more robust because everyone had a chance to discuss and have input. It’s almost like doing a military decision-making process, you look at all the facts and assumptions and its very effective.
Q: How do you believe people should share those innovative ideas in the organization?
I think in order to have good information flow within your organization, leaders need to adapt a transparent leadership style by being more approachable from the top all the way down to a private. I think once you create the environment that makes people open and wiling to express differences, then people will be willing to come to you on issues. As a leader, the day you have no one come to you for issues means you are in trouble. You are not creating a very conducive environment for dialogue or discussion. If you have open communication, are approachable, transparent -- good communication, I think, will naturally flow.
Q: What are the most pressing challenges that leaders face today, in your opinion?
Readiness. In the readiness umbrella, there are several key things: manning, recruiting, retention and the time that you have to do all of the training. The two items that really keep me up at night is our economy is doing very well, and the propensity of the younger generation that want to serve in the military is decreasing. We do not have enough patriots that are willing or want to come in and join the formation even though we have a very good career. We need to do a better job of communicating to our fellow Americans that the military today is not like the military of past generations. This is an organization that has many career fields that you can learn leadership skills, technical skills and these skills you can take with you to the civilian world. Recruiting and retention worries me. You never have the time to train to fight, especially for leaders being very busy with meetings and not having the time to always engage with the Soldiers at the tactical level.
Q: What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?
I don’t think that there is one single characteristic, it must be a combination of more than one character. To me it’s everything. Its important to have a good solid vision of where you want to go and integrity to really care, that and the courage to make sure your vision gets moved forward and galvanized for your team to go with you. And the last piece which I think is the most important aspect is humility. I think with a heavy dose of humility and a good sound character that a leader really makes the sky the limit.