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Stand back, yak; ‘Aga Tom’ is on watch

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in Leaders & Managers

To warlords in Bosnia, he was known as “Mean Mr. Tom.” To colleagues in Tajikistan, he was “Aga Tom.”

Soldier/diplomat Col. Tom Wilhelm came of age during the collapse of communism, cut his teeth in the Balkans and now represents the U.S. military in Mongolia.

But beyond his tough-guy persona,Wilhelm wields strong influence because he’s got charisma and a plan for Mongolia. He also has a plan for his own education as a leader. Here it is:

Go where the action is. In 1983,Wilhelm flew helicopters and commanded an Arctic infantry company in Alaska. In the mid-1980s, on his own initiative and a wink from the Army, he enrolled at Leningrad State University to learn Russian. After the Berlin Wall fell, Wilhelm gained combat and nonmilitary operations experience in the former Eastern bloc. In 1995, he served in Macedonia.

“I had a damn great job,” he says. “I was the second-in-command on the ground of what was the Super Bowl of American military operations at that time.”

Wilhelm works in Mongolia now instead of at the Pentagon because he knows that, out there, he can make a difference. One of his goals: raising Mongolia’s profile. Last year, the country sent soldiers to Baghdad to help with policing: the first Mongol troops to enter the city since 1258, when the grandson of Genghis Khan killed most of the population there.

Excel at following orders. Back in cold, muddy Bosnia, Wilhelm’s job was to integrate new Russian soldiers with NATO peacekeepers. Major Gen.William Nash told him his job was to keep the Russians out of trouble.

“Nash had given me a one-sentence mission,” Wilhelm says, “which implied that he trusted me to figure the rest out. He knew that I knew that the Russians were professional and well disciplined and would work well within the brigade. My job was to incorporate them into this complex, fast-moving machine of ours.”

Live to serve. Mongolian border officers often complained about shortages of vehicle fuel and parts, as well as the way their solar generators failed in storms. Wilhelm’s solutions: He requested wind generators instead of solar panels and relied on fast ponies and Bactrian camels—instead of heavy vehicles—to patrol the border.

“In great armies,” Wilhelm says, “the job of generals is to back up their sergeants.”

Honor your hosts. Think you’ve sat through awful business dinners? Near Zamyn-Uud, a Mongolian desert outpost with sheep almost as big as horses,Wilhelm was served tea mixed with salt, mutton fat and camel’s milk. He also withstood large meals in which his hosts gave vodka toasts as well as having him drink a glass of gazelle blood.

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