VNG speaker series: Command historian offers leadership perspective

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, plus guests, retirees and family members, received some valuable leadership lessons from VNG command historian Al Barnes during the Guard’s annual speaker series Jan. 16, 2019, at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Barnes, a retired chief warrant officer, used examples from military history to provide simple but meaningful lessons to the leaders in attendance. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, plus guests, retirees and family members, received some valuable leadership lessons from an unlikely source during VNG’s speaker series Jan. 16, 2019, at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

VNG command historian Al Barnes, a retired chief warrant officer 4 and former enlisted Marine, titled his presentation “Leadership lessons: A historians perspective.” During the hour-long presentation, Barnes used examples from military history to provide simple but meaningful lessons to the leaders in attendance.

One of Barnes’ first lessons dealt with perspective and perception of a leader. He highlighted 32 of the Army’s first divisional commanders in the World War I era, speaking about their accomplishments and their historic achievements. He noted that of the 32, 30 finished right in the middle of their class at West Point. The two others, who finished far better, were eventually relieved of command for cause. The lesson?

“It’s not where you start, it’s where you end up,” said Barnes.

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

Another of Barnes’ messages had a very simple focus. After showing his audience historical photos of troops on the front lines of various conflicts making coffee and preparing field rations, he had simple advice for the senior Soldiers and Airmen in attendance.

“Food is important,” Barnes impressed. “Keep your troops fed at all times, and they’ll fight for you.”

Barnes spoke at length about the importance of diversity in the Army, even as far back as World War I. He showed the crowd photos of American Soldiers who were also immigrants from countries including Mexico, Ecuador, China and Philippines. He especially highlighted American World War I troops who joined from Germany, Austria and Turkey.

“That’s the enemy,” said Barnes. “That’s who we are fighting! Yet these guys come into the American Army and are fighting against their former countries. That’s pretty impressive.”

Barnes’ end point on that lesson was to the point.

“The bottom line is: An American is one who is willing to give his life for America,” quoting an 82nd Division commander in World War I, whose division was forced to take on immigrants despite initial restraint.

Some of Barnes’ lessons were more light-hearted. He showed photos of Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble Telescope who served in the Nebraska Guard; President Harry Truman, who served in World War I; and Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Willams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. All three were field artillery officers.

“The lesson? National Guard field artillery officers are really, really smart,” said Barnes. “But…”

Barnes showed a slide showing several famous film and television personalities, including Tom Selleck and Mr. T, both former Guardsmen.

“…National Guard infantrymen make better actors,” finished Barnes, drawing laughs from the crowd.

After his presentation, Brig. Gen. James Ring, VNG director of the joint staff, presented Barnes with an oversized Virginia National Guard emblem, thanking him for his service.

“Only Al Barnes can take us effectively from 1607 to the present as he does,” said Ring. “Thanks for the tremendous job you do as a historian to make sure that none of us ever forget.”

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)