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Dr. Chris Kolenda: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Here’s something I’m working on right now that can make a difference: cognitive diversity. The diversity we can see — race, sex, gender, and the like — boosts legitimacy. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Cognitive diversity is below the waterline. When you have cognitive diversity on a team united in the common good, you have a powerful foundation for good governance and sound decision-making.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Retired U.S. Army Colonel Chris Kolenda, Ph.D.

Chris Kolenda helps good people achieve their dreams. He does so by writing life-changing books, cycling for great causes, and serving as a trusted adviser who helps leaders be their best selves, Build an Inspiring Culture™, and make the pivotal decisions that create sustainable growth.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was raised in a very supportive family. My parents always backed and championed our aspirations.

As a skinny and awkward middle and high schooler, I was a target for bullies. The harder I tried to fit in, the more awkward I became. The abuse made me a prime victim of creeps and molesters. It was an awful cycle.

I learned from these experiences that I needed to protect myself, and I felt an obligation to protect others who weren’t in a position to shield themselves. I also learned that you need to associate with the right people who will help you achieve your dreams and be the best version of yourself.

No one chooses the circumstances of their birth, their chromosomes, or their innate traits. Yet you can choose to be defined by what’s happened to you — or by your response.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I like helping good people achieve their dreams. I’ve been gratified by how many people have written to me over the years to tell me how my book, Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, changed their lives. I’m thankful that I can run and cycle to raise support for good causes.

My word for 2022 is joy. I support causes and do work that brings joy, and I help people and clients I can root for.

Here’s an example: One of my clients is a solopreneur who has a dream of helping leaders excel. She comes from a military background, so business development practices, like marketing and sales, don’t come naturally to her. She was given bad advice in the past and felt pushy and slimy when she tried to implement hard-sell tactics.

I worked with her on an alternative approach, in which she focuses on understanding her prospects’ dreams and keys to success, and then she designs ways to help them. This approach fits nicely with her emphasis on service and aversion to self-promotion. She’s now the sage who’s helping the hero succeed.

She’s gone from being frustrated and barely surviving to joyful and thriving.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was fortunate to have served for 24.5 years on active duty as a cavalry officer and 2.5 years as a civilian senior adviser to two secretaries of defense and a four-star general.

One of my most gratifying and challenging experiences was leading a task force of 800 paratroopers in a contested area of Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. What our troopers achieved there was historic: we motivated a large insurgent group to stop fighting and support the government, the only example of such success in the 20-year history of the war.

After that experience, I was asked to help design a new strategy for Afghanistan and to be a direct participant in peace talks with the Taliban from 2010 through 2013.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

There are so many interesting stories and life lessons that it’s hard to select just one.

One example that comes to mind is from Afghanistan, where I learned the value of empathy and that you can’t build bridges while you’re busy digging trenches.

My main base in Kunar, near the Pakistani border, would get shelled regularly by rockets from the east side of the Kunar River. Our vehicles were too big to use the bridge, and getting there by foot wasn’t practical. The standard practice in this situation was to move at night by helicopter to search the villages and surrounding area.

I wasn’t convinced this approach would be fruitful, and I feared it might create even bigger problems. So I asked my leadership team for their views and options. My Afghan army counterpart, Lt. Col. Sher Ahmad, offered to visit Saw Village, the main village in the area, as his vehicles could cross the bridges and roads. The people from the villages weren’t participating in any governance councils, so he wanted to learn why and what they needed.

We worked up a plan to support his movement to and from this village. Sher Ahmad moved out with his 350 soldiers toward Saw and spent all day there.

“Yes, the rockets are coming from their area,” he told me when he returned. “A couple of years ago, American special forces and local militia carried out a night raid in the town, disrespected the elders, and harassed the people. The Taliban rockets are retaliation.”

“OK, I replied. “I didn’t know about that. What else did you find out?”

“They want their kids to go to school. They only have a three-walled building to teach from — and it has no roof. Their chalkboard is small, so only one child can use it at a time. The rest of the children write numbers and letters in the dirt with a stick. The girls go to school in the morning and the boys in the afternoon.”

We coordinated quickly, and a few days later, Sher Ahmad brought three truckloads of school supplies to the village.

For months before this visit, we’d been asking people to send us notebooks and pens instead of candy for the children, and we’d amassed an impressive stockpile, which would now go to good use.

“They were very appreciative,” he told me through an interpreter.

The next morning, I got a call from the front gate. A group of elders wanted to see us.

“Where are they from?” I wondered and then asked aloud.

“Saw Village.”

Sher Ahmad and I shook hands with the elders. The chief elder held out a stack of papers: “These are for you. They are thank-you notes from our children, using the notebooks and pens you gave them. There would have been more letters, but most of our children didn’t believe their handwriting was good enough.”

For the rest of that day, we spoke about their priorities and created steps to work together. I contacted a nonprofit about building a school in the village. That school stands to this day; the elders have defended it against attacks several times. Whenever I go to Kabul, the elders make the two-day trek from Saw Village to say hello.

The rocket attacks stopped.

I learned that you make a lot more progress when you build bridges to others rather than digging trenches around yourself. Sher Ahmad’s superpower — connecting with people — also highlights the importance of putting people in a position to contribute to their own success. By finding things in common, rather than fixating on disagreement, you’ll build trust and open avenues for cooperation.

All of this is possible when you’re willing to see a situation from another’s point of view.

I’m 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.

I’m deeply grateful for the examples of heroism that have shaped my life and the lives of many others. There are too many to count; they range from everyday matters, like standing up to a bully, to extraordinary acts of battlefield heroism.

One example of battlefield heroism is from August 2007. Our unit in Afghanistan had been in several intense firefights. Three of our paratroopers had been killed, one lay dying in a hospital cared for by his nine-months-pregnant wife, and dozens had been wounded. The enemy was reeling, and Captain Joey Hutto wanted to keep them off balance.

He did so by building relationships and being strategically vulnerable.

The elders of the area’s main village invited Joey to dinner to discuss the situation. This invitation was unprecedented, and Joey had no idea whether the invitation was genuine or a trick. He was on edge. His predecessor, Tom Bostick, had been killed in a firefight only a month prior.

He’d studied Afghan culture and knew that inviting guests to your home meant that you are honor-bound to take personal responsibility for their safety — even if your guests are adversaries. Joey had never tested the proposition and didn’t know anyone who had done so. He was in unchartered territory.

As Joey approached the village, he handed his weapons to his soldiers and took off his helmet and body armor. He walked with an interpreter to the meeting point, where an elder escorted him to dinner. Joey didn’t know if he’d come out alive or dead.

The elders responded to Joey’s respect and willingness to be vulnerable by sharing the grievances that had accumulated over the years and climaxed in the armed insurrection. Joey listened intently and repeated what he heard.

When the elders confirmed that his rephrasing was precise and right, Joey told them how sad he was to learn about these problems. He couldn’t change the past, but they could find ways to work together, and he was committed to doing just that. Were they?

His empathy changed the tone of the conversation, and the elders offered practical suggestions to build trust, work together, reduce violence, and support their people. What had been one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan in 2007 became among the more stable in 2008. The area’s insurgent group stopped fighting and supported this new direction.

Joey’s willingness to be strategically vulnerable and empathetic is an example of heroism you can emulate when facing difficult situations.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is someone who shows courage in the face of extreme danger. That danger can be physical, emotional, mental, or moral.

Physical courage is doing your job despite danger to your life or physical well-being. I saw a lot of battlefield heroism. Captain Tom Bostick, whom I mentioned earlier, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States Army’s second-highest military decoration, for personally counterattacking a superior enemy force so that paratroopers in his command post could gain a better vantage point to fight the enemy.

Emotional courage is the willingness to do your duty in the face of psychological danger, while mental courage is the wherewithal to maintain an open mind, challenge conventional wisdom, and make decisions when the best path forward isn’t apparent. Moral courage involves standing up for what’s morally and ethically right in the face of pressure to do otherwise.

Aristotle said that courage is the virtue that allows the other virtues to exist. In the story above, Captain Joey Hutto displayed all four forms of courage on that day and many others.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No, but you do need to show courage in the presence of extreme danger.

For example, empathy takes emotional courage; it means seeing a situation from another’s perspective and appreciating a person’s feelings. It takes courage to listen to someone’s experiences and feelings about an issue when those experiences and emotions are different from yours. Someone who risks ridicule by standing up to a bully or protecting someone’s right to express a contrary point of view displays emotional courage.

People show mental courage when they’re willing to listen to alternative points of view and put measures in place to avoid inhaling their own fumes. In the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln exhibited mental courage by choosing a diverse presidential cabinet rather than a crony cabinet. Over 23 centuries ago, Alexander the Great exemplified mental courage by expecting junior subordinates to challenge his ideas and offer new ones.

The person who refuses to fudge an account ledger, despite threats and pressure to comply, shows moral courage. Rosa Parks epitomized moral courage when she refused to sit in the back of the bus.

The presence of significant danger is vital for heroism, and that danger can be something other than life and death.

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.)

I’ll use some of the points Nathan Springer and I made in our chapter about combat-based leadership lessons from my book Leadership: The Warrior’s Art.

1. Empathy is your shortcut to cooperation and success. As an Army captain, Nathan Springer employed empathy as an offensive weapon to help people and keep the enemy off balance.

When we first arrived in Afghanistan, the district governor arranged a ceremony to open a pipe scheme that brought water from a mountain spring into two villages. The United States had funded the project, so Nate was invited.

One elder in the audience was so irate that he lunged at Nate, and the governor’s police chief restrained the elder. Nate had every authority to detain the person who attacked him. Instead, he wanted to understand what made the elder angry enough to put his own life in jeopardy.

After several meetings with the elders, Nate figured out that the mountain spring had served three villages, but the pipes only came to two. The irate elder was from the third village and believed the lives of his people were at risk. The villagers blamed the Americans.

Nate understood the elder’s point of view and his anger. He organized a project to modify the pipe scheme so that the third village had equal access, and the villages worked out a new water use arrangement. Nate’s empathy prevented a lot of harm and won over a village that was likely to support the Taliban.

2. You gain more ground by building bridges than digging trenches. Captain John Page and his company operated in the violent and challenging Kamdesh mountain valley in Afghanistan’s eastern Nuristan province. Instead of hunkering down, John believed he could keep the enemy off balance by building relationships with people and finding ways to cooperate for mutual benefit.

During one of his patrols, John noticed a burned-out building. It was once a school located between the villages of Kamu and Mirdish. He asked the elders of Kamu if they wanted the school rebuilt.

“Absolutely not!” they shouted.

Their reply shocked John, and he asked, “Don’t you want your kids to have a school?”

“Yes,” they replied, “but we aren’t sending our kids to school with children from Mirdish.”

John then met with the Mirdish elders and got the same story. So he probed further: “Why didn’t you tell the people who built the school that this was an issue?”

“You never asked!” the elders exclaimed. “You Americans asked us what we wanted, and we said a school. You promised us a school for our village, and then you built a school between the two villages. Our villages have been feuding for decades. Plus, you brought in outsiders to build the school when none of our people have jobs.”

The villagers were so upset about the whole affair that militants from both villages attacked the school. It was probably the only coordinated effort between them in decades.

John worked with both villages to build a school for each one. And the violence evaporated.

3. You can’t order buy-in; you have to earn it. You can’t order buy-in on Amazon or demand it from your employees. The same applies in the military, despite the misperception that soldiers are automatons.

To gain buy-in, Captain Jay Pieri would “chalk talk” changes in tactics with his mid-level leaders and ask them “what” and “how” questions to flesh out their concerns and implementation challenges. By asking open-ended questions, Jay was able to develop tactics that prevented civilian casualties and protected his troopers.

In Afghanistan, a common insurgent tactic was to bait us into overreacting, in the hopes that we would cause civilian casualties and prompt villages to seek protection from the Taliban. Civilian casualties were among the best recruiting tools for the Taliban.

One of Jay’s patrols had been working with elders from a nearby village to understand their priorities and build trust. When an insurgent fired a few rounds toward the patrol, the mid-level leader in charge of the mission responded just the way he’d rehearsed. Rather than plastering the area with gunfire, he met with the village elders. Embarrassed about the incident, the elders found and dealt with the perpetrator. That was the last and only threat from that village.

4. If you want people to take the initiative, you’ve got to have their backs. No one will innovate if they think you’ll throw them under the bus if the new idea doesn’t work. You must be a heat shield, passing the credit to your teams when things go well and taking the heat when they don’t.

General Dwight Eisenhower was famous for having his subordinates’ backs. To beat Nazi Germany, Eisenhower needed his team to innovate new tactics and technologies. By taking the heat for problems and shortcomings, he gave his subordinates the confidence to experiment.

World War II’s D-Day landings and inland operations were successful, in part, due to innovations like Mulberry harbors (artificially-constructed floating docks), PLUTO pipelines (gas pipelines under the ocean), and novel tactics that combined mechanized forces, artillery, and close air support coordinated over wireless radios.

In Afghanistan, my boss, Colonel Chip Preysler, had my back. He understood the novel approach we were applying and was determined to support our strategy in every way he could.

When a special operations force wanted to conduct a poorly conceived raid in one of the areas we’d recently begun winning over, Chip intervened on our behalf. The operation, he recognized, would undermine our work and damage trust irrevocably. He got the mission turned off, saving many lives.

A few weeks later, the insurgent leader from the area signed an agreement with the elders to stop fighting.

5. Avoid freebasing your own gunpowder. Confirmation bias is the tendency to place excessive weight on data that support your preexisting beliefs and discount disconfirming information. In other words, leaders can get high from their own fumes — or freebasing their own gunpowder.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordering Pickett’s Charge on the last day of the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg shows the consequence of freebasing your own gunpowder. His overconfidence led to massive causalities and a war effort the South never recovered from, militarily or psychologically.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have fallen into this trap as well, believing Ukraine would roll over and welcome the Russians as liberators. The United States government made similar miscalculations in Iraq. The history of war is full of these cautionary tales.

Leaders can avoid enjoying their own exhaust by encouraging candor among their subordinates. Be clear on what you want to achieve and ask “what” and “how” questions to gain their points of view before you announce a decision. Build an inner circle of trusted advisers who will give you unfiltered advice and tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

The most useful experiences in my life have been the exemplars who showed me what good leadership looks like, the mental capital I developed in graduate-level programs, and my experience with failure and success, which built toughness and resilience.

In the military, your experiences often serve as your credentials and an expression of your value. Certain positions signify achievement and potential. But that’s not the case in business, where you must convey value in terms of your client’s best interest. Thirty years of military leadership experience doesn’t mean much for a business if you spent three decades as a private-slapping, hard-driving General Patton wannabe.

Sales and marketing aren’t skills military professionals develop, and they’re challenging for many service-oriented career military leaders to learn, myself included. Service members tend to be allergic to self-promotion, as we’ve spent decades practicing self-sacrifice and selfless service.

My solution has been to work with clients who want to find healthy ways to market their products and services using a sales process that aligns with their values of service.

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?

We all struggle. No normal person comes away from intense combat and other traumatic situations unaffected. I often lay awake at night, reliving events and rehashing decisions. Goofballs who slam weights in gyms send my heartbeat and blood pressure sky-high. Certain mountainous terrain makes me hyperintense.

While I was in the mountains of Afghanistan, I made a promise to myself: I wouldn’t let toxic relationships control me as they once had. Keeping that promise led to some very difficult choices.

Many veterans get depressed when they think that the most significant parts of their lives are in the past. It’s natural to fixate on the rearview mirror. What else do you have to live for? Why live with these memories when there’s nothing ahead in the windshield?

I found it’s important to keep your next mission in mind. What impact do you want to make in the world? Keep leading a life of significance to others.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m going to pedal my bicycle 1,700 miles to visit the graves of the six paratroopers from my unit who were killed in action in Afghanistan. This cross-country ride raises funds for the Saber Six Foundation, which helps my unit’s veterans and families achieve their dreams.

The Fallen Hero Honor Ride begins September 25, 2022, at Private First Class Chris Pfeifer’s gravesite in Spalding, Nebraska. Chris died of wounds 15 years ago that day. His daughter was born two days later.

The ride ends October 21, 2022, at Arlington National Cemetery, where Major Tom Bostick is buried. En route, I’ll visit the final resting places of Sergeant Adrian Hike (Carroll, Iowa), Specialist Jacob Lowell (Elwood, Illinois), Staff Sergeant Ryan Fritsche (Hall, Indiana), and Captain Dave Boris (Minersville, Pennsylvania).

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Become a WHY Leader™. Most leaders are “WHAT” leaders. They do what they’re told. Some are “HOW” leaders. They’re the ones with solutions, plans, and answers. Because their position is tied to their expertise, HOW leaders can limit innovation and avoid putting talented people around them for fear that someone might outshine them.

The best leaders are “WHY” leaders. They’re the ones with the questions; they provide guidance and resources but let their subordinates figure out the how. Lincoln, Grant, and Eisenhower were superb exemplars. From my personal experience, Under Secretary Michèle Flournoy and General Stan McChrystal are WHY Leaders.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

1. Lead as the best version of yourself. Everyone else is taken.

2. Build an inspiring culture by putting the right cheeks in the right seats and gaining their buy-in toward the common good.

3. Avoid freebasing your own gunpowder. Surround yourself with free-speaking, trusted advisers so you make the right decisions that grow your revenue and impact.

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?

Jeannie Brayman was my high school English teacher. She worked with me to be the best version of myself. In my teens, I was always pretty down because of the bullying and manipulation I was facing. She believed in me when I felt no one else did, and her support gave me the confidence I needed to become resilient. Crappy things happen to people. She taught me that you can’t control that, but you can control what you do with it. Thanks to her, I’ve sought to turn those bad experiences into ways to help and protect others.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m not sure I’m all that influential. I just try to give every person I meet my undivided attention. When you do that, there’s no limit to the amount of good you can do.

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. :-)

Here’s something I’m working on right now that can make a difference: cognitive diversity. The diversity we can see — race, sex, gender, and the like — boosts legitimacy. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Cognitive diversity is below the waterline. When you have cognitive diversity on a team united in the common good, you have a powerful foundation for good governance and sound decision-making.

PROM Archetypes™ are a way to see cognitive diversity. PROM stands for Pioneers, Reconcilers, Operators, and Mavericks, and each contributes differently to your organization. Pioneers are your tactical innovators, Reconcilers are your consensus builders, Operators create systems and processes, and Mavericks are big-picture strategists. You need all four. Lincoln’s cabinet is a superb example of this.

A diverse team that pulls in different directions creates chaos. I saw this problem in several nonprofit boards that had diversity but no agreement on the common good. They tore themselves apart.

A homogenous team pulling in a single direction creates groupthink. In 2008, Swiss megabank UBS lacked cognitive diversity and went eyes-wide-shut into the financial crisis. The military tends to emphasize detail-oriented people who don’t rock the boat. As leaders tend to select people who are like them (affinity bias), you get a super-concentration of Operators and Reconcilers in the senior ranks and few Pioneers and Mavericks. It’s part of the reason militaries have a hard time reforming and tend to fight the last war.

Cognitive diversity will help you inspire each person in your organization, even the most vulnerable, to contribute their best and most authentic selves to your team’s success.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve got books full of quotes that I use to inspire, laugh at myself, and think bigger. One of my favorites is: “It’s a short walk from the penthouse to the outhouse.”

I’m not sure who said it first, but I heard it from General John Abrams when he was a colonel and my regimental commander in Germany.

I’ve made this trip several times. I’ve learned that you can always get back, too.

Here are some implications:

You’re never as awesome as your latest success and never as bad as your last failure, so generalize from the positives (e.g., I’m good at helping people succeed) and particularize from the negatives (e.g., I fell off my bicycle because I didn’t practice unhooking from the pedals well enough).

Fall down seven times; get up eight. Go to the outhouse seven times; return to the penthouse eight.

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 :-)

Basketball legend Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of my list. I love watching him play and seeing how he brings out the best in everyone around him, both on and off the floor. He’s both an athlete and an exemplar.

And Taylor Swift. Her song “The Archer” moved my soul. Her self-discipline, wisdom, courage, and sense of justice (the four cardinal virtues from ancient Greece and Rome) are inspiring. Not many people can navigate childhood success as she did, and she continues to innovate and grow.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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