Some Old Soldiers Never Stop Leading

General Mark Hertling doesn’t want you to refer to him as ‘the General’. He made that clear when he spoke at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast last month in front of the University Women of Flagler. It’s not because that title invokes a certain car insurance company. It’s not because he likes the meter of his own name. It’s because, despite a career in the United States military spanning decades, he doesn’t believe his profession defines him. While “General Mark Hertling” might be the politically correct way to address him, Hertling just wants to be called Mark.
It’s both an understandable and baffling self-assessment. One would think, given the relatively small number of those in the armed services who ascend to the rank of general, that Mark would want to let everyone know about it.
After all, it’s how President Barack Obama probably addressed him when he served on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Most of us would tell our friends, our friends of friends, our ophthalmologist, our valet, the guy who does our taxes if we were generals. It’s easy to envision the reverence inherent to the title being hard to resist. But in listening to Mark speak at the Hilton, and then joining him for a 20-minute chat after he concluded, it’s plain to see it’s a vice he suffers not.
One reason for this preference is because Mark’s career is genuinely impressive even beyond his military service. Immediately upon his military retirement in 2013, Hertling was recruited by AdventHealth. The company’s CEO approached him, he said, and asked him to help in developing a program that could instill leadership qualities in healthcare providers.
After beginning to roll up his sleeves on the project, Hertling concluded that the most effective way to create successful teams was to integrate professionals from each of the diverse job types commonly found in a hospital. “What they really needed was a mix of physicians, nurses, and administrators,” Hertling said. He likened the present relationship between physicians and administrators in some cases to that of a dog and a fire hydrant, highlighting the need to establish a trust between the two that might not yet exist.
The first major tenet of a successful leader touched upon by Hertling was, put simply, plasticity. The active effort to continue absorbing new information and use it to fuel personal improvement is vital, he argued. “If you stop learning and growing, you might as well just give up everything else.”
For someone with as lengthy a career in the same sector as Hertling had, the importance of adaptation is self-explanatory. When his time in the military began, the United States was barely removed from the Vietnam War. He’d go on to experience service during the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan, all inherently unique conflicts demanding different qualities in its soldiers and leaders. A lack of adaptability was fatal to a career in military leadership in that era, and it became ingrained as one of Hertling’s most vital traits.
The same principle applies to his leadership in the healthcare field. When he was first approached, Hertling entered the industry in what one might call ‘peacetime’. It would stay that way for several more years, as he evolved from a military man entering healthcare to a healthcare professional with military background. Come March 2020, the entire field was changed irreversibly. The COVID-19 pandemic demanded not just valor and bravery in America’s frontline healthcare workers, but a steady guiding hand from those in administrative and leadership roles. It’s easy to speculate that for those in the field at the time, the feeling was not dissimilar to entering a direct armed conflict with an enemy nation.
All that to say, nothing was the same in healthcare as it was before. It still isn’t. It required adaptability to a radical degree. And beyond that, it demanded well-trained reinforcements from incoming professionals. Multi-million dollar grant programs to this day are being deployed in Florida to replenish the workforce lost during the pandemic. All that to address one hard truth: our nation’s guard against an invisible pathogenic enemy are depleted.
Among the most sizable financial responses to the healthcare worker shortage has been a $3.8 million commitment to Daytona State College’s nursing program, with half coming from the state and another half from AdventHealth and Halifax Health.
The purpose of the grant will be to help nursing students reach the finish line in their degrees. While Hertling himself isn’t part of the decision to issue such grants at AdventHealth, it is in line with a principle he believes in strongly: the value of higher education. “The important part [of college] is the engagement with others,” Hertling said after his speech. “The understanding of how to think versus what to think, and the ability to get other people’s perspective.” He went on to address a growing number of students skipping higher education to enter the workforce directly, identifying flaws in both the students who skip college and in the schools for how they’re presenting what they have to offer.
As students complete their higher education, Hertling contests, they learn to care not only about themselves but about the people they work with in their jobs day-to-day. It’s a principle he applies both to military service and to the healthcare field. And it’s also a crucial step in growing from a professional to a leader.
One common misstep in the efforts of healthcare companies to train up leaders within their ranks has been a misidentification of what skills need to be honed. “What they’re really teaching is just management skills,” Hertling said. After helping conduct a series monthly of seminars over eight months, he said he began to observe a change in the culture. One where authentic leadership was being more commonly reflected.
So what made it apparent that those who went through the seminars were developing as leaders? “The research shows leadership is built on four things,” Hertling said. “A person’s attributes, their behaviors, their methods of influencing others, and the context in which they’re leading.” Attributes, he went on to say, are made up of personality, experiences, and values. Behaviors, he said, are what someone’s presence is like, and how it relates to the qualities they profess to have. He defined influence as emotional intelligence and dealing with others, and context of leadership as identifying differences in situations and in people requiring different methods for maximum effectiveness.
The reception for Hertling’s message at the Hilton event reflected the sheer amount of wisdom he imparted: with few in the world able to relate a comparable life experience, all in attendance hung on his every word. Perhaps the loftiest goal of his speech was one he accomplished almost immediately: disarming the awe and reverence attendees had for his statuesque career and resume. Hertling made it readily apparent he could’ve filled several more hours with the lessons he’d learned in his career, but in doing so never made himself out to be a legend of his craft. Andrew Carnegie once said, “no man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”
That’s why Mark Hertling doesn’t want you to call him ‘the General.” It’s why he’s just Mark.