Communication is more than a job; it’s a life mission for Fort Thomas’ Toby Hlad, the 39 year old Marine Lieutenant Colonel who is the newly installed Battalion Commander for 7th Communication Battalion in Okinawa, Japan. Hald’s professional and personal journey has been of discovery and revelation.
Hlad is a graduate of Highlands, played football, was the school newspaper’s editor, and participated in various leadership activities. He recalls, “I was pushed into leadership positions in high school. Mrs. Johnson told me that I would be the editor of the paper. I said I was the worst writer but she said that I would get it done. I didn’t see the leadership then.” But that was high school. “I had a pretty good foundation from here in Ft Thomas. I was always part of a team.” That has served him well.
He applied to the Naval Academy, a life dream, but was not accepted. So he played football for Centre College, but then after his sophomore year, without telling his mother, he enlisted in the Marines. He was still chasing his dream. Now this was a bit of a surprise coming from someone who confided in his mother. He knew how she would respond.
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As he worked as an MP in Lexington, his commanders recognized his raw leadership skills. He went to Quantico for officer school and also graduated the next year from Centre. “That shaped me. It humbled me,” he says. But he was on the path to becoming a leader. But what did that mean?
Former Presidential speechwriter, James Humes once said that, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” And that has pretty much defined Hlad’s career and life. I am impressed by how leadership decisions spin out from his belief that communication is key to success in life, career, military actions, and personal growth. And when communication breaks down, well, bad things usually happen - and that apply to personal lives, military decisions, or world politics. It’s vital to keep the lines of communication open.
Ideas become concrete with the right word. Goals become refined with the right word. Friendships are developed with the right word. It’s like what Mark Twin observed when he said, “The difference between the right word and wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” That, it seems, is Toby Hlad’s career. Finding the right words to motivate, connect, and ultimately lead.
Hlad cut his teeth organizing Huricane Katrina communications for the different responders who literally worked on different wavelengths. He organized a way for every first responder to communicate with others. It worked. “It was a mess,” he says. The power was out and cell towers were down. It appeared overwhelming but his plan came together and with intense daily planning they were able to have all parties communicate. “It was eye opening to me as a humanitarian relief in the US.”
Then he was off to officer training school, more leadership training, deployments around the globe. Always learning and always honing those communication skills. Always asking the big questions. Always looking to bring the best out in others. He became a servant leader. As the new Commander, Hlad wonders how “can I better enable Marines to be better Marines” and beyond. He is thinking beyond their time in the corps. He worries about their family lives, goals, aspirations, and obstacles. He worries about how he can return a young man back to society.
He functions in loco parentis and feels a paternal need to develop fine people. He succeeds when his troops succeed. And that’s the challenge of being an effective leader. It’s a complicated job - involving planes, ships, computers, power, men, and whatever else it takes to establish communications for humanitarian relief or battle. There are a lot of moving parts. He’s very good at what he does but there are some lighter moments of communication failures.
Hlad tells the story of how he met his wife, Jen, in South Carolina. He thought that he would impress her on their first date by taking her to the annual Marine Ball, a formal affair. It worked and the relationship grew. But then he had a bit of a communication failure as he planned his proposal. He wanted to propose on the beach but that fell apart. He found himself stumbling all over himself at dinner as he tried to get the words out. At one point Jen even remarked, “What’s wrong with you?” He continued to flounder. He mentioned his desire to the matre de who brought two glasses of champagne and he managed to get the proposal out. What seemed an agonizing communication fail turned out pretty well. They laugh about it now.
|Toby and Jen Hlad|
Hlad has embraced the core values of the Marine Corps, but “the key things I didn’t expect to learn are the the leadership lessons and that’s humility and leading with a happy heart. My favorite book is The Philosophical Thoughts of a Fighter Pilot. Nothing to do with flying - by James Stockdale. He was senior prisoner in Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He survived six years by adopting a Stoic philosophy.” Hlad summarizes his approach by saying, “It’s not what happens to me; it’s my reaction.” That’s what he tries to exhibit. Leadership, effective communication, and just being a good person is about “human interaction and don’t underestimate your impact on others.” And that’s a wonderful lesson for all of us.