Heroes Among Us: “Care about those who work for you” With Retired Colonel Charles Johnson
Care about those who work for you. I learned early in my military career that people are most effective when they work for those who show they care about their team’s well-being and aren’t just out for themselves. I had an officer who addressed us for the first time and announced that his goal was to be a general — we could go with him or be left behind, he didn’t care. He promptly lost 50 percent of the team. I make it standard practice to let my subordinates know that I am there to help them be more successful in their career.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Johnson. Charles was raised in a military family — his father was an enlisted member of the US Army — and spent most of his childhood traveling the world, including spending four years in Germany. After graduating from the University of Texas, he received his commission, joined the Army’s Armored Cavalry and became a member of the Texas Army National Guard. While in the Guard, he served as a Cavalry platoon leader, company executive officer and tank company commander. Transitioning to the Army Reserve, Charles served as a staff officer, battalion commander and branch chief while attaining the rank of colonel. He spent a year at the Pentagon in the Army Operations Center during Operation Iraqi Freedom, reporting on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and sniper attacks. He was also credited with standing up the first Reserve Training Center (RTC) at Fort Hunter Liggett, California. He retired in 2013 after 32 years of service.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory” and what are you doing today?
I was a military brat and grew up on military bases, including Ft. Hood, Ft. Bliss and Ft. Riley. We also had a four-year tour to Erlangen, Germany, and I attended Nurnberg American High School. I graduated from Burges High school in El Paso, where my father was attending the Sergeant Major academy. I went on to serve in the military for 32 years, both on active duty and in the Reserves. Today, I am a Project Manager at Farmers Insurance®, where I am responsible for managing projects that transform the way we do business.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I was an Armored Cavalry officer in the Army Reserve, and for much of my time there, I followed the typical schedule of serving one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. I always took the jobs that no one else wanted, which contributed to my success. After 9/11, that schedule changed, and I spent the last 10 years of my career on and off active duty.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I was working at the Pentagon and wasn’t getting along with my boss there. The following year, I was working at Ft. Hunter Liggett in California and again, not getting along with my boss there either. I had to take a good look at these two experiences and think to myself, there’s a common denominator here: me. I had to examine myself to understand that these unsuccessful relationships were something I needed to change. Subsequently, my boss at Ft. Hunter Liggett and I became really close friends and we remain so today.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience?
My favorite story of heroism is actually a story about my father. I was on my way to Ft. Knox for my basic course when I met a gentleman at a gas station in Nashville. We started a conversation and I told him I was heading to Ft. Knox. He said he was an instructor there and that I would see him during my training. He asked my name and I told him. This gentleman then said that a soldier named Johnson had saved his life in Vietnam. I said, “Funny, my father is obviously named Johnson and he also served in Vietnam.” It turned out that it was my father who had saved this man’s life in Vietnam.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is?
I’d define a hero as anyone who is willing to help others without regard to their own well-being.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
Not necessarily — I think heroes can also be those who give selflessly to their community. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King and his “Drum Major” sermon, where he asked to be remembered for feeding the hungry and serving humanity. He asked to be called a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. To me, he was a true hero.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned?
- Learn the art of decision-making. In the military, we are trained in the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP). When faced with the need to make a decision, we are taught to identify the problem and then develop two or three courses of action to solve the problem. We are also trained to consider the factors that could impact our plan and to be ready to adjust our course of action. We’re trained to be prepared with several solutions and to be flexible because problems aren’t static. In my everyday life, I approach all of my decisions using this process.
- Care about those who work for you. I learned early in my military career that people are most effective when they work for those who show they care about their team’s well-being and aren’t just out for themselves. I had an officer who addressed us for the first time and announced that his goal was to be a general — we could go with him or be left behind, he didn’t care. He promptly lost 50 percent of the team. I make it standard practice to let my subordinates know that I am there to help them be more successful in their career.
- Prepare your subordinates for the next level. It is always easy to say that someone isn’t ready for a promotion but in the Army, I learned the importance of preparing subordinates to take my position. That way, I knew for certain they were qualified for their next job, whether or not it was my own.
- Understand the difference between being a leader and being a manager. In the military, I could easily “manage” situations. Because I had authority over the soldiers 24–7, I could force them to complete their tasks. But to the extent that I became a good leader, I didn’t have to manage them that way. They would complete required tasks because they wouldn’t want to disappoint me. They knew I always had their best interests in mind so I didn’t have to manage them through discipline — I could lead them to do the right thing.
Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business?
As I mentioned, it helped me learn to make decisions based on information and not just emotion. It also made me a better leader and not just a manager.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over?
I did not have to deploy. Fortunately for me, the majority of my career was in the Reserves, so I was able to maintain a civilian career alongside my military career.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now?
Yes, the projects I work on at Farmers® are designed to make doing business with the organization much easier. Figuring out ways to make insurance issues easier and more streamlined for our customers is an exciting challenge for me.
What advice would you give to other leaders?
Make certain that your team knows their success has a direct impact on the success of the organization as a whole. And always put the interests of your team ahead of your personal interest.
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?
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have people invest in my career. It started with the Brigade S3 operations officer, who insisted I take a position reporting to him. Only a few months later, I learned he was going to be a battalion commander and he then promoted me to company commander. I’m also grateful for a peer who was constantly on me to make sure my mustache stayed within regulation limits!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to give back in a number of ways. I am a member of the executive committee of my local American Legion Post. I am the leader of the Veterans and Advocates Employee Resource Group within Farmers Insurance and I am on the Advisory Board of the Vetted Foundation, a non-profit that helps service members locate employment after service.
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 would want to inspire a movement that focuses on finding well-paying employment for those who really want to work. The income from that employment would obviously be important but work also brings meaning and self-esteem to our lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote comes from Mark Twain, who said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I actually have had the opportunity to work in an industry about which I am passionate!
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’d like to have breakfast with Warren Buffett to see what made him the success he has become. What characteristics does he possess? How does he manage? What are his leadership traits?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.