He serves as co-founder and executive director of the Taia Peace Foundation, a nonprofit organization working in Sierra Leone on socio-economic development. Leigh, who earned a master’s degree in public relations from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, retired in 1994 from his final assignment as director of management, Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army. He began his career as a second lieutenant, and served two tours in Vietnam, with the 1st Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. His other command assignments have included commander, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and assistant division commander, 7th Infantry Division.
What significant events helped shape you as a leader?
I commanded a rifle company as a first lieutenant, normally a captain position, during my first tour in Vietnam. This unit had a large amount of casualties five months before, and the captain who took over had stabilized the unit. The battalion commander chose me to replace that officer because he felt my temperament would continue the unit’s restored stability. I didn’t feel ready, but he thought I was more ready than the captains arriving as replacements. His mentoring of me made me very aware of how important it is to coach your officers.
The Vietnam experience underscored for me how important it is to maintain the dignity of people. Before we went to Vietnam in 1965, I defended two problem soldiers in court-martials. Every payday they would come back late or be in jail. They were released to go to Vietnam. One of those soldiers saved his squad three times and was killed assaulting a machine gun position. The other soldier had a unique ability to spot booby traps. As point man, he kept everybody safe. If you preserve a man’s dignity and signal caring confidence in them, they will be there when you need them.
What were some of the most challenging leadership capacities you served in?
The higher up you go, leadership is more challenging because your influence is achieved through others. That means you have to look hard at how you coach and nurture and give people freedom to succeed and show confidence in those who bring your influence to bear.
After your years of service, what did you come to learn were the most important qualities of being a leader?
First, you have to focus on the task or mission, and that’s true in the civilian world. Also, when you occupy a position of authority, the position gives you some legitimacy, but that alone is not sufficient to get the best from people. You have to perform in a way that those who enable your success know they are valued and respected.
What does your work with the Taia Peace Foundation involve?
I started working on sustainable socio-economic development in 2003 right after the civil war ended in Sierra Leone. Since 2010, we have focused on infrastructure, women’s economic empowerment, and restoration of cocoa and coffee farms. We partner with the people to sustain development, so when we leave they can maintain and thrive. Although we have funding to continue projects in agriculture, we now help contain the Ebola virus where we work.