From undercover work as a Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent to Commanding General of the District of Columbia Army and Air Force National Guard to the House of Representatives Sergeant at Arms, Major General William Walker has carved out a unique career. On June 6, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Leaders Program alum offered lessons on leadership and his perspective on everything from American democracy and the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol to our nation’s ever-evolving drug problem during an ELP fireside chat session.
Walker (ELP cohort 1002) recounted being asked by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve as the 38th House Sergeant at Arms in the wake of Jan. 6 and having the honor of escorting and announcing Pres. Joe Biden during a joint session of Congress. He called the position, from which he retired when new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy assumed the gavel, a “great job” that he will “appreciate for the rest of my life.”
Having previously appeared at an ELP session entitled “Fragility of Democracy,” Walker opined that the state of American democracy is “very fragile,” arguing that it takes great leadership and dedication to maintain it. Rather than competent elected leadership, Walker said he had seen a lot of “self-interested” elected officials.
Walker said he believes everyone should be required to complete some type of public service to “pay for the privilege” of living in such a great nation, either in the military or a public agency such as FEMA, citing Israel as an example. That, he said, is necessary to help the U.S. be prepared for a series of disasters and adversarial attacks, noting that the National Guard is made up of the civilian workforce and has been responsible for fighting in every conflict the nation has ever had.
Walker said he believes our nation needs more people trained and capable of responding to increasingly complex and multi-faceted challenges and conflicts. And he said that’s why educational programs like those at CHDS are “so vital.”
At the helm of the DC National Guard during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Walker said he was already anticipating “a lot of trouble,” noting protests on Nov. 14 and Dec. 12, and adding that he still regrets not responding more quickly to the Jan. 6 attack, despite orders not to do so without specific permission.
At the same time, Walker called the Jan. 6 attack “predictable” and said the key to being prepared and ready to respond is “sustainable readiness,” and added that Jan. 6, 2025, will also require similar readiness.
Hearkening back to his time as an undercover DEA agent with long hair and earrings in contrast to his current clean-cut, distinguished appearance, Walker said it is a “disgrace” that our nation can’t do more about a worsening drug problem that has seen overdose deaths soar to more than 100,000 per year recently. Walker said the U.S. needs to work closely with nations such as Mexico and China rather than seeking to embarrass them, including threats to invade Mexico. He said it’s also imperative that the U.S. work with other foreign and domestic partners as well. “We need a coalition,” he said. “We need to do it quietly, and not be chasing headlines. We need to do more. I’m embarrassed this nation has this kind of a drug problem.”
Asked how he got the most benefit out of his CHDS ELP experience, Walker told the cohort that the program offers a “tremendous opportunity to create relationships with people who will probably be very helpful in the future,” advising the participants to “make use of every day here” and to “get to know your colleagues” while noting that he stays in touch with many of those in his cohort from more than a decade ago. Walker said he doesn’t believe in “self-made people,” and that success requires coaching and mentoring. “I will forever be grateful for the [CHDS] opportunity,” he said.
Walker referred to the old adage about the “sword and the shield,” and the premise that the sword can fail but the shield cannot. “You all carry the shield for this great nation,” he said.
During a question-and-answer session with the cohort, Walker discussed topics ranging from addressing threats, improving Capitol security effectiveness, understanding the “why” as a leader, insight into today’s ultra-polarized politics, and adaptive leadership, among other issues.
Asked how he chooses leaders, Walker said he relies on the seven “Cs”: character, competency, courage, commitment, consciousness, compassion, and communication.
But the bottom line, he said, is leadership requires knowing the “why,” citing author Simon Sinek. “Those who know how,” Walker said, citing author Malcolm Gladwell, “will always work for those who know why.”
Walker currently works as a senior advisor for The Chertoff Group, a security and risk management advisory firm focused on security technology, global threats, strategy, and public policy.