Colonel Michael J. Hertzendorf 89 leads by inspiring others

A common joke in the military is that people will follow a leader simply out of curiosity, just to see what they will do next. But Colonel Michael J. Hertzendorf ’89 doesn’t believe that oddity is a good way to gain followers. Instead, he focuses on leading with humility and confidence, and with an emphasis on service and care for others.

Despite his high military rank, Hertzendorf takes being humble very seriously. “Nothing’s ever been about me as a singular person,” he said. “It’s always about the team that comes together to accomplish the mission.”

After graduating from Ithaca College, Hertzendorf became an army aviation officer, serving tours in Korea and at Fort Hood, Texas. For the past 21 years, he has worked in special operations, focused on counterterrorism. He currently serves as deputy chief of staff for the 18th Airborne Corps.

Hertzendorf’s principles of leadership have come from both his IC School of Business education and from his time in the military. In fact, he sees many similarities in the traits of good leaders and in how they create success.

“What you do may be different, but the why isn’t,” he said. “You’re leading change, embedding a culture, looking into the future of the organization.”

Drive, loyalty, and hard work have all enabled Hertzendorf to find success in the military, and he chalks up his personal growth to the lessons he learned from his business education and two-year participation in the ROTC program.

“It was about commitment, dedication, and work ethic—to not quit and succeed at all costs,” he said.

These leadership traits apply to all disciplines and are far more important to him than formal rank. Military leadership has distinct hierarchies of authority, yet Hertzendorf believes that titles shouldn’t overshadow excellence and meaningful relationships. “I’ve taken a lot from many different people, both seniors and subordinates,” he said. “Subordinates often have great ideas and view situations differently. You can learn from everybody.”

Because personality supersedes position, Hertzendorf feels anyone can be a good leader. “It’s about how you interact with others—how you think, how you act—not whether you’re in a specific position,” he said.

Ithaca College students heard about Hertzendorf’s philosophy when he visited the college to give a presentation titled “Curiosity: Not Why You Want People to Follow You.” He implored the audience to use trust, empowerment, and passion to inspire others to win, using his own experience as an example.

“Early in my career, I was doing the right things, but I wasn’t necessarily doing them for the right reasons,” Hertzendorf said. “Your ‘why’ is what you have to hold onto. It’s not just accomplishing a task, getting a grade, and moving on.”

Hertzendorf found his purpose during his experiences in flight school and the military—learning from others every step of the way. He had mentors who showed him how to lead teams by example and to rise to extremely tough challenges.

In his presentation, his final remarks to IC students encouraged them to do the same: “You’ve got to have people who will look out for you,” he said. “It’s the same in any job. Find a mentor who has a sincere interest in you, who will take care of you and help you succeed.”