Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West (the Army surgeon general) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, the Army surgeon general, who says that even if you don’t know your employees well, you have to figure out the best way to connect with them. . To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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Tell me about your parents.

I was adopted by very humble, very decent people. My dad was born in New Orleans. He joined the Army in 1939, and loved the organization enough that he stayed for 33 years.

Back then, the Army was segregated, but he never felt bitterness about that. He just explained that that’s the way things were, but that as you got to know people and work with them, you could win them over.

He felt that everyone should serve their country, so we grew up in a home with a real sense of patriotism. I have 11 brothers and sisters, all adopted, and most of us have served in the military.

My mom was born in Hot Springs, Ark. When she was young, she had a ruptured appendix. Because of the scar tissue, she could never have children. But she dedicated herself to helping others — not just adopting kids herself, but helping the nuns at a Catholic orphanage find families for the children there.

Any favorite family expressions?

My dad was a sergeant for the mess hall at one point, and there was a sign that said, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” So they taught us to not be wasteful.

They also would remind us that people are always watching you, so you have to set an example and watch your behavior. My dad said you have to have a “sense of decorum.” He always used that term.

What have been some key leadership lessons for you?

One characteristic that stands out in all the leaders I’ve seen is empathy. You don’t have to be like everyone else, but you can try to connect with other people. People can tell if you care about them or not.

You have to show soldiers and the people who work for you that you may not know where they’re from or their background, but you’re responsible for them and you try to figure out the best way to connect with them. If you treat every human being with dignity and respect, you can’t go wrong.

What else?

Through my medical training early on, I learned how to encourage people to do things that they might not want to do. You don’t want to scare your patients or chastise them. You can talk to them all day long and explain to them what’s happening, but if you don’t really understand what’s going on in their lives or why they can’t do what you’re asking them to do, it can be frustrating. You can’t yell at your patients, but I was thinking, “Why aren’t they listening to me?”

So that was my first leadership training — to get your patients to move in a direction that you want them to move, you have to use different types of approaches. In the military, technically you could say, “Do this now.” But you can’t tell that to a patient, so you have to learn how to persuade people.

One byproduct of this approach early on was that it might have made me a little less decisive in the military realm, because I would always be thinking about different possible strategies. Ultimately, I learned how to find the right balance.

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Here’s a direct link to the complete interview.

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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