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"If You Are In Charge... Take Charge!" Part #2 Words of Wisdom from a Combat Veteran

Posted by Cristina Filippo on 08/28/2018

Cristina:  Grit and perseverance is such a hot topic in the leadership literature right now.   Do you have an example of a time during your service where perseverance and grit was key to your success? Then, on top of that, how did you inspire it in the people that you were charged with leading?
Tony:  My first deployment in Iraq is a great example.  We got deployed and up to that point most of the deployments had been at or around six months, but nobody told you when you went over “It’s gonna be six months.” It was actually indefinite. So as time went by when you are away from your family, it does begin to stress you out. The way I knew that it was getting stressful was when my men would start to question me…”Look when are we going back? I’m sick of not knowing.”  It is a tough environment…it’s 120 degrees, we’ve got all our gear on, we’re out there getting shot at. You know it gets to this point of there’s just no end in sight. The military is always great with training exercises because everybody knows how many days plus a wakeup you’re gonna be until you get to go home. I’d say that first deployment was definitely a perseverance exercise because not only was it frustrating not knowing what the timeline was and when you may get to go home but also you had to, again, lead from the front and try to put on the face and the encouragement for my platoon. I certainly didn’t want them to be getting any added stress or any other negative impact by me complaining about it.
It’s like that scene in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks is talking with his soldiers and they are all moaning and complaining and they ask him “What about you sir, what do you think?” And he says “Well there’s the chain of command, I only bitch up, I don’t bitch to you guys.” So, that’s how you’ve got to live as a leader, in the corporate world too, when you are a part of a senior management team.  As a leadership team we can have disagreements, we can have a difference of opinion, but when we come out of the boardroom we’re all going to be behind the same plan and speaking the same message. As a platoon leader, you want to go home just as much as anybody, you don’t know when it’s going to happen. You know, the situation sucks, but making sure that we’re trying to motivate them and keep them engaged in the fight, it’s the face that you put on for your soldiers and its got to be at all times because, again, we have to lead by example. 
One of the platoon sergeants I first worked with, when we were back in the civilian side of things he gave me some advice. He said if you’re in the mall, if you’re on base, if you’re at the gym, people are always watching you and they know who you are whether you realize they’re paying attention to you or not.  What you do affects what they perceive their leaders as, so making sure you’re always "on" is so important.  That was something I took to heart and that I still try to live by.

CristinaOne of the most important traits a leader can have is remaining calm and stable under pressure.  In a way, people in leadership act as the parents.  In essence, no kid wants to see his or her parent either behaving poorly or panicking or complaining.  They need calm leadership…is that what you’re saying?
Tony:  Exactly.  When I was in ROTC we got rated on leadership competencies.  I always ranked high on remaining steady.  They would say “Tony, is always cool-hand Luke…he’s always calm and collected.”  I was always glad when they would point that out because the last thing I want to do is bring stress into other’s situation. I want to try to pull stress away from the people I serve. Even though my heart might be racing a million miles a minute, my mind might be going in a dozen different directions, or my temper might be building, I try to make sure that it’s not visible to the folks below who I work with.   They definitely don’t need to be stressed out because of me. I need to protect them from the stress. Again be between them and the challenges so that they can focus on doing their job.

CristinaWhat did you admire most in your leaders during your service time?
Tony Leading by example and being a hands-on leader are two traits that I try to emulate and try to live out in the way I work and the organizations that I support. I definitely did that during my time in the Army. To me, there’s nothing more inspirational than having the leader in the senior-most levels being down in the weeds with you from time to time. Of course in an organization, you aren’t going to be successful if your CEO is always down in the trenches trying to process new hire documents or what-not. But when things get difficult and all hands are needed on deck and they jump in there and help support the team to get whatever done...it is inspiring. 

Quite honestly, the military has poor leaders just like any organization and there were leaders who weren’t willing to roll their sleeve up and jump in and participate. They carried themselves differently like they were better than others in the organization. Again referencing a war movie, in We Were Soldiers, General Hal Moore says something that’s very telling. He was right there in the middle of all the gunfights….he wasn’t calling it in from far away. When they called to bring him out after it got really difficult, he simply said “Why would I leave my men? I will stay here.” Those are the best leaders, the ones that are willing to roll up their sleeves and participate in whatever is going on, whether it’s in the military or an organization. To me that I try to carry that forward from the military to corporate.

Cristina Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you think would be good for people to know in their own leadership journeys?  I know people will be reading this and inspired by your service and wanting to learn from your experiences.
Tony:  The thing that is great about the military is that everybody is told and trained from basic training on up, that whether you’re the general, whether you’re the captain, or whether you’re a private…there’s a chain of command and you typically work through the chain of command.  But, if there are issues or fatalities or something breaks down, that if you’re in charge...take charge. That’s actually unique about the U.S. military, in that leadership is trained at all levels. It’s discussed and it’s pushed at all levels.  In other countries, officers are in charge and that’s it - you are not in charge, you are never going to be in charge, you will follow orders. Throughout military history you can see when that’s happened in other country's military events, it has caused massive casualties. No one can make a decision, everybody is struck with fear, they’re not supposed to be in charge or not prepared to think of themselves taking charge. Whereas you look at the U.S. Army, there’s hundreds of medal of honor winners who are privates, who are NCOs, who are corporals, who are lower level leaders in the military. But because of the “I’m in charge, I’m going to take charge" mindset, they do heroic things.

In that way, I think the best organizations are ones where people know when to follow and they know when to lead. And so, as I’ve said, I’ve taken that with me the "when in charge, take charge" mindset. I think it is a useful mindset for an organization if every employee views themselves as a leader in the company. Even if you’re in the mailroom, you’re the receptionist...if you are in charge, take charge... and if you’ve got some guiding principles with the organization that you’re supporting, then you should be able to step into any role and deliver some sort of result in a positive way.

My big takeaway from this is to advocate for those you serve.  What did you take from this last half of the interview with Tony?  Let us know and also let us know if we can assist you in any way on your leadership journey!

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