Lt. Gen. Jeff Talley: tech can help disaster prep, response, recovery

“Leadership is a team sport.”

By | 3 minute read | November 18, 2019

“What can you do with a general
When he stops being a general?
Oh, what can you do with a general who retires?”

Irving Berlin wrote the words in the 1950s, and Bing Crosby sang them in the 1954 White Christmas. The movie general is sad because he no longer feels needed and useful; that becomes the impetus for the film’s grand finale, a show-within-a-show to let the general know how much he’s loved.

“There’s a lot of truth to that song,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley told Industrious from his office in Arizona.

Except when it comes to Talley—a now-retired US Army General who commanded the US Army Reserves from 2012-2016—the answer to, “what can you do with a general” is: a lot.

Talley spent more than 30 years in active and reserve service, commanding numerous units and serving in Korea, Kuwait, Iraq and the US.

Since his retirement from the military in 2016, he’s worked in both technology and academia, where he focuses on engineering, sustainability, and leadership. Talley is an IBM VP and Global Fellow, and a Professor at the University of Southern California.

One of his focus areas at IBM is disaster management in the digital age. It’s a natural extension of his work in the military.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley hosts AFRICOM meeting, 2013

“Throughout my military career, in addition to traditional military missions, I was involved in support for disasters,” Talley said. He helped coordinate disaster response for disasters in both the US after Superstorm Sandy and Japan after the 2011 tsunami, among others.

“I believe that tech can play a bigger role in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters,” he said, “whether natural or manmade like a cyberattack.”

Technology can help, for example, with visualizing situational awareness around a utility, or adding cognitive awareness to an operation center. The ultimate goal, according to Talley, is to save and sustain lives before and after a disaster or complex emergency.

It’s a challenge he’s excited to work on.

“What I’m pretty good at is looking across a very broad spectrum of complex problems,” he said, “and working together with organizations and individuals on solutions in a timely fashion.

The graduate courses he teaches at USC integrate engineering, policy and business around disaster management and public private partnerships. At USC, his focus in on teaching and research. At IBM he’s looking for opportunities to practice solutions that bring technology to help in complex environments.

Talley has an extensive academic career and holds multiple master’s degrees: engineering, business, strategic studies, liberal arts, and religious studies. Plus, a PhD in civil and environmental engineering.

“This is a big, important part of me,” he said. For that, he credits both the military’s culture, as well as his own personal interest in constantly learning and growing in both education and experiences.

“Through my experiences and personal interests, I’m always reading and studying,” he said.

What he’s found, he said, whether in research, innovation, teaching, or tech, is that “the most exciting stuff is on the fringe of disciplines.”

“The ability to integrate and pull capabilities across the different disciplines and organizations,” he said, “that’s going to determine whether you stay in business.”

It’s clearly the mark of a good leader—and leadership is also one of Talley’s key focus areas.

“Leadership is a team sport,” Talley said. “As leaders we never do anything on our own.” And while one person can and does make a difference, leadership, to Talley, means growing other leaders, influencing and mentoring others, and growing others in the organization.

And what defines leadership?

For Talley: competence, commitment, character.

“You have to have a certain amount of competence,” he said. “You have to be committed to the mission and activities you’ve been given the privilege to lead. And you have to be a person of high character.”

He’s spent a lot of time and thought around what that means: to be someone with high character.

“Character is informed by our experiences, our family, our faith,” he said. “You want to do the right thing.”

And what does that mean, doing the right thing?

“You know it makes sense,” he said, “and you do the right thing when no one’s looking.”