Chris F Walker: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military
Be prepared. The military practices what is generally referred to as the 80/20 rule. The concept is that 80% of your time will be spent training and preparing for what you do the remaining 20% of the time. While the principle itself is not entirely military, it is ingrained into the schedule of the military lifestyle.
As a part of our series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris F. Walker.
Chris F. Walker joined the U.S. Army at age 17 and went through many transformations during his decade of combat operations, but his journey from atheist to devout Christian was the most profound — moving him to take on a new name and begin writing. As a longtime military intelligence operator, he’s also become a sought-after instructor, consultant and speaker, putting his expertise into programs and presentations that lay out information so that anyone, regardless of faith, can benefit. Today, he engages audiences on topics such as motivation, team-building, leadership and strategic development while also speaking from the heart about his personal faith journey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up as Alex Manire in the small town of Elizabeth, Colorado. My sister and I were raised by our single working mother, which often led to long periods of time alone. I was probably not the best student growing up, but this came from a lack of structure and discipline more than anything. I really did enjoy learning, but I had a great deal of resentment about how much of my time the teachers seemed to want me to spend doing repetitive homework assignments, which I viewed as redundant since I had no trouble learning the lessons.
It became clear that I was never really cut out for the more standard, corporate-structure lifestyle taught in school. At age 17, I asked my mother to sign emancipation papers, so I could join the U.S. Army and just be done with school altogether. That way, my time and effort could contribute directly to tangible results rather than a grade on a paper. I wanted to serve my country and prove I could be someone who made a difference, and I felt being a soldier would achieve that more than continuing to try and perform to a teacher’s standards.
My mother’s father had been a preacher who was also a womanizer, and eventually he simply abandoned his entire family. This led my mother to raise us as critical thinkers more than blind followers of any worldview, and I become an atheist who believed only in tangible results, never in abstract or hopeful ideals. The fact that I’m a Christian today is the result of a lifelong journey of experiences and investigations which have become the focus of my books and talks.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
My passion today is trying to convey some of the life lessons learned through my experiences as a military intelligence operator to help people, especially other veterans, gain a healthy and prosperous view of the world, leading to joy and success for them and their families. My books focus on the concepts and theories found in the Bible and compare them to other worldviews. Then, I try to convey these concepts to help people use them in real life application.
The largest argument I had against any religion was that it either didn’t work in real life or required “blind” faith, which for me held absolutely no merit. This “results-driven” approach led me to a conclusion I never expected when I tested it against the Bible. I believe the Bible holds not just a truth, but the truth.
In my book “The Life Question,” I tried to share a philosophical, historical and biblical example for each topic to help explain that these truths are not confined to the pages of the Bible, but rather are found in life and the world around us. Once you understand this, you can then reference the Bible with confidence that what it is teaching is not merely good ideals, but actionable truths that will lead to peace, joy, love and even prosperity in your life. Not to say it will teach you to become rich with money, but that you will become a good steward of all your resources and become rich in patience, joy, kindness and other fruits many of us struggle to find.
For example, I had no role model of how to be a husband or a father, since that person was missing from my youth. Any success I’ve had at either is due entirely to living out what the Bible teaches about those roles as best as I can each day.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the U.S. Army at age 17 and tested well enough to become a ground surveillance and reconnaissance operator, or GSR for short. This was a combat role, designed around gathering real-time intelligence of the enemy forces. I served in peacekeeping roles in the Balkans and multiple wartime operations in the Middle East. With my primary mission of gathering intelligence, I really never knew where the information might take me in the world.
I served nine years, earning the rank of staff sergeant, and was offered a promotion to sergeant first-class had I continued. My career allowed me to be part of many operations which garnered me multiple awards, commendations and medals, including the Bronze Star. In nine years of service, I spent a total of more than four years deployed to active combat missions and more than two years in various training situations.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
There’s so many, but I’ll choose one focused around leadership. I remember one of my leaders, who had earned my full respect, came in one morning to inform me that one of the many tasks I had been assigned had almost missed the deadline. He simply told me that he’d handled it for me, to keep the task from being a failure, but I’ll never forget how terrible it felt to let down a leader I admired. He never yelled — in fact, he never spoke of it again — but I never missed another deadline because I did not want to disappoint him.
I spent a great deal of time with units that were filled with highly motivated individuals and learned that leading people who are driven and focused is much different than the leadership found in other units, where people were not always happy to be there. Discipline and motivation have an interesting relationship, but when you can inspire loyalty among your team it leads to better results.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
My view of heroes has changed drastically because of my time in the military. I used to think of a hero as more of the wild-card rogue who was so good at their task that no one could beat them. Now, I view heroism as the willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. In the military, people who get labelled a “hero” after the event are usually not fond of the title. Their intention was not glory or honor but rather sacrifice. They were willing to sacrifice everything, even their life, for the good of their teammates.
For example, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on April 4, 2003, when he organized his platoon to hold off a large assault while the rest of the nearby units tried to regroup and maneuver to react to the counterattack the enemy had launched near Baghdad Airport. Because of his efforts, three wounded soldiers were rescued and over a hundred soldiers who were in mortal danger were able to reorganize and fend off the attack. Sgt. Smith was killed by the enemy during this action, but he saved many of his fellow soldiers.
I never had the chance to meet Sgt. Smith, but I was not far from this engagement at the time it happened. I didn’t know until after the fact that his actions had even affected our successes in other areas of the theater of operations. I can say with certainty he wasn’t seeking glory or recognition — his willingness to die fighting only came from a love of others and a willingness to sacrifice and place their safety and future above his own.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I would define a true hero as someone willing to step in front of what most people run away from, not for themselves, but for the others who wouldn’t or couldn’t face that struggle.
This understanding of how heroes are motivated by a greater love came full circle for me when I dove into who Jesus was while he walked here on earth and chose to receive the full weight of judgement and punishment for sins himself. What made this hit home was not that Jesus died to save mankind, but rather that he loves me enough to die for me. It is completely personal — if I were the only person in all of history that had the problem of sin, Jesus still would have done what he did for me. If I simply accept that his punishment should have been mine to bear and believe he bore it for me, then I can live free of fear, and out of gratitude I can be given a whole new chance to live a better life.
Even more amazing is that this truth is the same and available for everyone and anyone. I go deeper into a more real-world application style of understanding of how God’s justice and love work together through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ towards the end of my book, “The Life Question.”
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Absolutely not! A hero can be a mother who raises her child on her own, or a father who gives up his goals and ambitions so his family can have the safety and security of a stable home, or a random stranger who shows kindness and assistance to someone who needs help but has nowhere to turn for it.
Heroism is found in the act of sacrificial love. A soldier jumping on a grenade to save his teammates is not a hero because of what he did but because of the selfless love in his heart that motivated him to do it. For this reason, I believe there’s a potential hero living inside every one of us, if we can just right our hearts to act in love and sacrifice rather than out of selfish ambition or comfort. I believe the circumstances that lead us to call someone a hero are merely the outward results of what was always living within someone.
For example, my mother almost certainly didn’t think she’d be raising children alone or that she’d have to make so many sacrifices to help her children have a better life. Nevertheless, out of love for us, she woke up each day and committed herself to the work of raising the two of us as best she could. No glory was awarded, no medals given, no monetary compensation paid, just a willingness to do what it took for the benefit of her children.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be prepared.
The military practices what is generally referred to as the 80/20 rule. The concept is that 80% of your time will be spent training and preparing for what you do the remaining 20% of the time. While the principle itself is not entirely military, it is ingrained into the schedule of the military lifestyle.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I only had an hour to cut down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.”
In life, when it is time to execute a skill or task, you’ve passed the optimal time to learn how to do it. The more time we spend honing our skills, studying our craft and perfecting our technique, the more effective we will be at the time of execution. Many people today fail to achieve their full potential because they just wing it when the time comes to accomplish something. Don’t let free time now rob you of achievement later. Utilize that time for training and preparation.
2. Plan, but plan on things changing.
Some people are inherently good at planning events to the smallest detail, while others don’t like to plan at all because they feel things will not go as planned anyway. In the military, you learn that both of these instincts are valuable.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” Later, Dwight D. Eisenhower took this principle a step further when he said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
In the military, we learn to plan operations to the smallest detail — timetables, landmarks, supply chains, communications networks and contingency plans. In the process of planning, many potential hazards and pitfalls are identified prior to executing an operation. However, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The military teaches you how to plan an event, prepare for contingencies and think through as many possible scenarios as intelligence will allow. But no plan survives contact with the enemy.
For this reason, the military is constantly learning to improvise, overcome and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Priorities are assigned to the objectives and the timetables. Even if a particular operation does not go according to the plan, by maintaining focus and accomplishing the objective within the time necessary, we can ensure the larger mission continues to move forward.
In life, people often plan things to the smallest detail only to find that, in practice, things don’t work that way. The real hang-up does not come in the obstacles we face, but rather in our loss of focus on achieving the objective, regardless of the details. Do not be so detail-oriented that you lose sight of your overall objective and timeline.
3. Build on your momentum.
As the ancient proverb states, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” In the military, once an operation has begun, it becomes detrimental to simply remain idle. For example, when your team is stacked on the door and you have breached with a flash-bang, the worst thing to do is sit still. Once you have initiated, you must maintain momentum and continue to move forward until you have achieved your objective.
All too often in life we find things start going our way, but then we get comfortable and rest on our laurels. It’s usually not too long after that we find the momentum of our life working against us rather than for us. Whether by natural occurrence or by design from opposition, there will always be something working against what you are trying to achieve. The idea of momentum maintains that once you get a little movement in the direction you want, it is time to double down and work even harder to build on that momentum until you cross the finish line of your objective.
4. Practice discipline.
“Discipline” is a word many of us associate with negative consequences for trespasses in our youth. Disciplinary action in that context certainly exists in the military, but the real key is learning how to discipline yourself. Whether it be through a reward or a punishment, you should be the first person to decide the consequences of your actions. (Except when those actions are against another person, then you must yield that decision to them.) Even in this age of instant gratification, the old adage “slow and steady wins the race” is as true today as it ever has been. The full scope of what discipline means is not found in a simple reward or consequence system, but rather in enacting habits that prove healthy and sticking with them for the long term.
Nothing worth doing happens overnight, whether it has to do with fitness, health or economic gain. The only guaranteed method that works time and time again is constant discipline and relentless cultivation of good habits designed to reach your objective. At the very least, developing healthy habits and good life practices will help reduce stress, improve productivity and increase the quality of your relationships.
5. Communicate clearly and courageously.
We’ve all seen the movies with military guys on the radio, talking back and forth about a dire situation as it develops. Simple and concise methods are taught to military personnel for the purpose of ensuring communication happens quickly and accurately.
Military communication involves making sure that both the sender and receiver can acknowledge a message is received. Once clear communication is established with both sides, then the request is made or message conveyed. The receiving party then informs the sender of how the request will be answered and distributed, or they will simply acknowledge the message was received accurately, with any clarifying questions asked of the sender. Emphasis to military communication is centered around being clear and concise.
While this is much more indoctrinated and formal in the context of military communication, the same practice works in our normal life just as well. Making certain that the message is understood, repeating back vital information and ensuring everyone is on the same page in a timely manner is at the heart of any team objective.
However, there are many topics of discussion that people may hesitate to engage in. This hesitation often leads to more damage, so typically the best course is to address it openly, even knowing it will be controversial. Be clear and concise, but do not avoid topics that must be discussed. Have the courage to be the first one to open communication, even about hard topics. People may not always like what you have to say, but they will come to respect you as a person of courage and integrity.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
The military teaches you how to problem-solve, it teaches respect for a chain of command and it teaches how to adhere to schedules, but there’s a culture the military teaches that does not always transition directly into the civilian form of business. I do believe those who choose to embrace the good and let go of the bad during military service enjoy a clear advantage. However, I have seen many military people do the reverse of this, and then as a result they struggle with many aspects of life after their service.
Veterans who have learned aspects of leadership, self-motivation, determination and respect for authority while serving gain a distinct advantage over those who do not embrace such ideals. On the other hand, someone does not necessarily need to join the military to learn these traits.
For example, I have driven coats and blankets into areas where many homeless people gathered. One day, a woman asked specifically for a military fleece coat I was giving away because she was a veteran and knew it was a very warm and comfortable coat. I talked with her about many of the things that had gone wrong in her life, but each time what I heard from her was a feeling of defeat and blame that she placed on everyone and everything that had happened to her. She was a complete victim in her mind. She let these hardships define who she was.
I’ve also met very successful business owners who share a long list of hardships, turmoil and betrayal, but for them each of those events and people was another lesson learned. I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase, but I’ve seen the truth in it: “We can let our past define us or refine us.” Either way the choice falls entirely on our own shoulders.
So, ultimately, I believe success or failure at business still comes down to the individual.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
Coming home from war is never easy. We fantasize about what life will be like once we get back, but the reality is that our loved ones have been living an entire life without us for a prolonged period of time, and once we come home we really become a wrench in the whole system they’ve had to create in order to survive in our absence.
For me, specifically, one of the hardest elements I had to work around was my lack of patience for how emotional people got at what seemed to me like trivial matters. People would be almost in tears as they talked about some breakup, or a deadline at work, or some stress they were under for a test at school, and I had a really hard time empathizing with them since none of those things seemed like actual problems compared to war. I also felt like I had to learn how to communicate with my family and friends all over again, because the military doesn’t use the same common lingo as the rest of the country. All these things join together to create a huge rift between everyone.
I think the single biggest thing that changed these struggles for the better was when I finally decided I would at least try to talk with those closest to me about what I had been through and what I had seen and experienced. Perhaps they can never fully understand me because they didn’t experience what I went through, but by being willing to talk with them and share my weaknesses, I quickly discovered who truly cared about growing a relationship with me and who now judged me for my past. As painful as this was, it allowed me to know who to pour my attention into and which relationships had changed past a point of reconciliation. It wasn’t easy or pleasant to open up, but it helped me build the kind of relationships that are the most important to me now.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At present my real goal is that the work I have done, and continue to do, will be of use to anyone who finds it. One of my mentors once said that if you buy a book, you help the author; if you read a book, you help yourself; and if you learn to apply lessons shared from a book, you can change your whole world.
My prayer is that my efforts will help that statement become as true for people who read my works as it has been for me.
My first novel, “The Path: Every Journey Begins with the First Step,” was actually my attempt to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus, who up until the time of my writing had always been a fictional character to me. It wasn’t until I came to see him as a real-life being, who I could in fact build a relationship with, that things began to come into alignment for me. I still needed to run my lifetime of questions and complaints by him, and writing that book wound up being the means by which I had this hard but necessary conversation.
Later, I began to dive into how I could best apply the lessons the Bible teaches into real-life application yielding tangible results. I wanted to test these lessons against similar themes found in history and other worldviews. This led to the self-help booklet I developed, “Naked Success,” and finally the more refined book, “The Life Question: Accidental Success by Design.” I recently finished a video training series about building a small business based on similar lessons called “Inside the Pyramid.”
Today, I am continuing to develop materials and lessons to help reflect my journey, which I share on different platforms and media in hopes that others can understand these lessons without enduring the hardships and sacrifices it took me to learn them. We’re working now on the website www.ChrisFWalker.com to help make these tools even more accessible.
Most notably, I have been blessed to share these topics through my speaking engagements, which are skyrocketing with my recent acceptance to the speaking network overseen by Bruce Merrin at www.BruceMerrinsCelebritySpeakers.com. Engaging with people face-to-face is still, I feel, the most powerful way to communicate, and it touches me deeply each time I can connect with an audience and inspire individuals.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Teams are made of people, and people are not machines. Teach your team the techniques and skills it needs to succeed, but then take the time to build the relationships with the people directly under you. Ensure they understand that a team is not just about achieving a united goal, it’s also a means through which each individual might grow and thrive. In another decade, will your subordinates think your team was something that shaped them and prepared them for their future; will it be just a job they had to endure for a short time; or will it be an experience they regret?
Finally, remember that not every team is for everyone, and that’s OK. Choose the right people, know and understand your team, and remember your job is to lead, inspire and, if necessary, discipline — but never lose sight of the humanity of your team members.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The military was an amazing teacher in this area because I got to see various styles of management and leadership. I think the biggest thing that holds some people back from greatness is a fear of giving up authority to the team below you. The best large-team strategy I ever heard came from Gen. George S. Patton, who said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
Ultimately, I believe that the real mindset of a good leader begins with the phrase “follow me.” Leaders are in front, not just when times are good but also when things are at their worst. People follow and are inspired by examples, but usually resent someone who relies entirely on their assigned authority to be in charge. Be worthy of trust, and be someone your subordinates admire and want to please. In doing so, you are leading by example, becoming the version of yourself you would want those who follow you to emulate. Then, encourage your team to do the same by giving opportunities, rewarding success and assisting where needed. Finally, allow for each person to be an individual within the team, so they know and feel like they are valued and unique. The differences of others can build and enhance your team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ll never be more thankful to God for any man in my life than for my grandfather on my father’s side. Even though my father left us, his parents continually tried to remain in contact with my sister and me. Though I did not get to know my grandfather very well growing up, when I came home from war I was able to have a life-changing conversation with him before he passed away. Though it was brief, the topics we discussed were profound, and I believe that conversation altered my life trajectory away from one that could have been catastrophic.
He made me realize I am not the first man who had to fight a war for my country, and I won’t be the last. People who have never experienced war can never truly comprehend its impact on a person’s life, but this doesn’t mean I am now an outcast from the rest of society. Instead, I have experiences to draw from that others don’t, which may, in fact, allow for an advantage when trying to comprehend my future. Finally, he told me not to dwell on what happened in war too hard or too long. War is never pleasant, but the simple fact remains that when my country called, I was willing to answer and step into a world of danger, something more than 90% of the rest of the country was not willing to do. This doesn’t make me better than anyone, but it does give me confidence that when life gets hard I have it in me to answer the call to action rather than just hope for the best while waiting on the sidelines.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Actually, I would say that my desire to bring goodness to the world actually wound up leading to my success.
I believe in the statement “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Ultimately, if your goal is to gain wealth, power and influence, you will find quickly that even short-term gains will be fleeting. The truth is these elements are never generated, they are given. People will not give you these elements from their own life if they do not see any value or merit in what you will offer them in return. Instead, focus on what people need, how you can help them and whether there is a way to duplicate your efforts for maximum effect. Once you start to build ways to help others, they will repay you with kindness, devotion and, yes, economic gratitude. What most people today would call success is really the side-effect of a goal that is much more selfless and noble, designed to benefit others, not yourself.
I go into much greater detail about this topic in my book, “The Life Question.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think it would be to remind people that this world quite simply is unfair and unjust, filled with turmoil that causes a great deal of pain and confusion. But it’s the same world with light, laughter, love, beauty, splendor, wonder and amazement. There are two sides to every coin, but, regardless of whether one side might be good and the other side might be bad, it does not have any effect on the value of the coin.
Quit getting so hung up on the elements of life you don’t like or don’t agree with, and focus instead on the ways you might be a light for someone on a dark day. Remember that helping someone does not mean always making them feel good emotionally, but rather focusing on what will provide the best result for their future. In return, you’ll see the world through the light you shine, which makes things around you seem brighter. Sometimes people won’t like when you do the right thing for them if it isn’t what they wanted, but over time everyone eventually sees good from bad and right from wrong. Stand with confidence on the side of right and good, then be patient enough to let time take care of the rest.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I grew up loving history, so quotes like “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” by John F. Kennedy, resonated with me. The single most impactful quote, though, came from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of Rings,” when Bilbo told Frodo, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
When I left home at 17 I made a promise to myself. I wondered what would go through my mind before I took my last breath, and I saw two possibilities. I would either think of all the things I had wanted to do, but regretted never accomplishing, or I would look back at an endless list of both mistakes and victories. What I realized was the only element that would create the difference between these two scenarios was fear. Either I would regret letting fear rob me of experiences, or I would ignore fear and find out what happens.
Now that I have some experience under my belt, I don’t know if I would fully endorse always charging in without worrying about the consequences, but I will say that contemplating what fear could have robbed me of has led to so many wonderful experiences that I thank God for daily. They certainly weren’t all successful, but each of them was amazing.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would be truly humbled to have lunch with Jordan Peterson. I know not everyone agrees with his statements, but I truly admire the logic through which he explains his views.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.