“There are times when the greatest causes you may one day fight are not your own, but the causes of others” — Terron Sims II
In this interview in the series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crises and how to adapt and overcome from a business owner that is building his organization with Veterans and Military Family Members. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I have the pleasure of being joined by Terron Sims II. Terron is a political strategist, military veteran, and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point — the preeminent leader development institution in the world. Terron has provided strategic counsel and developed policy plans for The Obama Administration, the Democratic National Committee and for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, as well as for several of the 2020 Presidential candidates. Terron has published two novels, With Honor In Hand and Hands of Honor, and has written his third novel, For Hands of Honor, along with his Iraq memoirs, Baghdad Peace. Terron is currently running for the Arlington County School Board and resides in Arlington, VA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I am the son of a US Marine. From birth to high school graduation, I lived in California and Virginia twice, Louisiana, Texas, and part-time in North Carolina when my dad was a company commander. From kindergarten to high school, I attended nine schools. Most of the moves occurred during my elementary years, which I loved! On the first day of school at a new elementary school, since I didn’t know anyone, I kept to myself and did my schoolwork. Once recess hit, I’d be the first one out the door and sprint full speed across the playground. This technique worked every time in me garnering instant friends, for who doesn’t want to be friends with the fastest kid in school? HA!
I grew up on military bases and the suburbs, so my childhood was pretty unique because I grew up around many cultures and had friends of multiple ethnicities and religions. Add that to the fact that I was generally only one of three Black kids in nearly every class I was in. I was never really ever conscious of it until we got our class pictures. That being said, I was always proud to be Black. My parents weren’t the Black power types, but their library was filled with books written by famous Black authors and about historical Black people. My world began to change in the seventh grade when I dove into their books, beginning with “Roots”. My English teacher’s reaction when I told her I was going to read “Malcolm X Speaks” for creative writing, instead of her selected book, was priceless. It may be why I didn’t do as well as I would have otherwise in that class. HA!
I am the oldest of three kids — a little brother and sister. The best way to explain my childhood and how I was raised is to tell the story of our family’s move from Camp Pendleton, CA to San Antonio, TX the spring of 1982. I was five years old and my little brother was just over a year old. My mom drove our Chevy Malibu with me and my brother in tow and my dad drove his hoopty as the lead vehicle. I sat up front with my mom and kept her company, but when my brother needed his diaper changed or needed to eat, I rolled over the front seat into the back and took care of my brother.
My parents raised me to be a responsible person, and eventually an independent adult. What most kids called chores was a way of life for me. I have to give credit to my mom for how slick she began implementing my housework. On Saturdays, from kindergarten to third grade, I had, while cartoons were on, to dust all the horizontal surfaces in the living room. That was easy enough — dusting while watching the Smurfs and Fat Albert. As I got older, the workload increased such that I was literally doing all of the house and yard work, with my little brother assisting. In high school, I once asked my dad why I had to do all the work. His response? “Why do you think we had you kids?” The jokes my brother and I have with our parents about this aspect of our childhood are hilarious. With all that, I am thankful for having to do all that work because it gave me a strong work ethic, life skills, and true respect for those who labor hard for a living.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a Marine. In the second grade, one of my best friends, Lacey, had to use a wheelchair to get around for extended periods of time. Because I knew that the Marine Corps and Secret Service guard the President of the United States and Lacey was a President Reagan fan, during recess, we played a game protecting the President. In her wheelchair while we protected the president, Lacey was the car, navigator, and heavy machine gunner. I was the driver and lookout. When the enemy attacked the president, I’d push Lacey away and take off after one group of bad guys, while she chased down the others. We always got the bad guys. I ended up not becoming a Marine, but graduating from West Point and being a US ARMY combat veteran is a good consolation prize.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
The joke amongst my West Point friends is that none of them know what I do…I kind of like that. That being said, there is a good story I can tell that exemplifies what I do. In simple terms, I am a Democratic politician, primarily in the sphere of defense, national security, and veterans and military families. I do other non-political “things”, but politics is the nucleus of what I do.
One early afternoon in late 2013, my friend Saif Khan and I were leaving the White House after having attended a veteran focused meeting with White House staff. As we stepped out onto 17th St, Saif asked me to run for the position that I have now held for the past six years: Vice Chair for Membership & Recruitment for the DNC’s Veterans and Military Families Council (VMFC). The 2016 presidential race was soon to begin, and Democratic leaders realized that the veterans and military families aspect of campaigning was not yet in a position to help achieve success. Saif and the co-chair, Jan Donatelli, wanted me to hold the position because they knew that I would do the work needed to grow and legitimize the council. Jan and I had worked together in Veterans and Military Families for Obama-Biden back in 2008 when I was co-chair of Virginia Veterans and Military Families for Obama and a surrogate and policy writer for the campaign. In this position, I literally built the human infrastructure for our council, establishing national regional coordinators and state directors. Since accepting the position, I have worked with several state Democratic parties in establishing VMFCs at their level. In my capacity, I advise and provide intellectual and human resources to congressional, senatorial, and presidential candidates.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I am a fourth-generation veteran, beginning with my great grandfather, “Papa” John Orphey, who is a WWI veteran. I am a 2000 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I branched Field Artillery and served in 1st Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, LA. While deployed in Iraq (May 2003 — July 2004), I established and mentored the government of Baghdad’s Tisa Nissan District (186sq km, 1.25 million people), where I served as the primary liaison to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the UN, Baghdad City Hall, and Iraq’s federal government. Additionally, I was the Wasit Province’s primary military liaison officer. As the Deputy Chief of Training for the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) and Fort Polk, my final Army assignment was supervising and designing a $29 Million real-world fighting village for the installation, which initially was used to train soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.
As a civilian working for Army G3/5/7 Current Operations Center, I tasked major Army commands to support conventional and special operation missions in the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, southwest Asia, Guantanamo Bay, Central America, and various operations here in the United States. I also worked for the Army ACSIM (Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management), where I developed and managed the system that streamlines the Army’s instillation requirements budget validation process, and I led the team that developed DoD’s Sexual Assault Incident Database (DSAID).
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
The first Tisa Nissan Women’s Committee meeting I attended was 12 October 2003, after my regular Sunday rounds at Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters. Entering the DAC Hall, I expected the meeting to be in the main conference room. Instead, it was in one of the side offices, which in all actuality was just the right size because there were only about fifteen women present. At the front of the room, behind a large wooden desk, sat Liza and Amal: Liza the president and Amal vice president.
I smiled and politely greeted all of the women, most of whom I knew. All of the women on the district council were present, along with a few women from various neighborhood councils who I knew and some who were not on a council, yet wanted to be active in the community.
The Women’s Committee meeting began at exactly 4 pm. I did not bring an interpreter, so my friend Abeer, a Ziyuna neighborhood council member, translated for me. The agenda for the meeting was to brief the committee on the current state of widows and orphans in their respective neighborhoods. The committee had conducted a thorough census of the widows and orphans in Tisa Nissan. Their next step was to work with the CPA and the Iraqi federal government to move forward in achieving their goals and objectives.
The meeting ended just as it had begun: on time. That is one of the things I loved about the Women’s Committee. They always started and began on time. All of the women’s committee meetings were one-hour long. The only time a Women’s Committee went over an hour is if they held a lecture. Being that this was a regular meeting, it started at 4 pm and ended promptly at 5 pm.
Before dismissing the committee though, Liza asked me if I had anything to say. I actually did. I wanted to share something personal with them — explaining to them how proud I was of the stance that they had taken and the struggle for civil and human rights which they were fighting. I rose to my feet and gave the ladies a history of the women on my mother’s side of the family. Again, Abeer translated for the few who could not understand English.
“Ladies, first, I want to say how proud I am of all of you. You all have taken a tremendous stride towards freedom and equality. I commend you for your efforts. Liza, thank you for inviting me to the meeting. I definitely enjoyed myself. Being Black in America, I can empathize with you ladies and your cause. My family is from the south, back when Black people were still treated as second class citizens. I come from a very strong family of women. My grandmother and her sisters don’t take crap from anyone.”
The ladies laughed when I said that.
“My great grandmother, Ma Dear, raised her daughters, my grandmother, and her sisters, in such a manner that it was ingrained in them that they could not work in the home of a white person. You see, back then, a large number of Black women worked as nannies and housekeepers. Ma Dear believed that that kind of working was disgraceful and belittling to Black women. For those reasons, my grandmother and her sisters followed as Ma Dear had told them to. My Aunt Emma told me a story one day of when she and my grandmother, along with my mom, who was only four at the time, were fishing along a creek bed. Two white men came rowing by on the other side of the creek and shouted, calling Aunt Emma, my grandmother, and my mom niggers. Aunt Emma told me that my grandmother stood to her feet and shouted back, “The only niggers I see are there in the boat!”
The ladies laughed again and waived their fists and hands in joy and pride.
Feeding off of the ladies’ energy, I continued stating, “Aunt Emma told me that story after I witnessed my grandmother go toe-to-toe with a white man twice her size because he didn’t like the fact that she had taken a parking spot that he wanted. Before hearing that story, I was scared for my grandmother, but afterward, I knew that there was nothing to worry about. As Aunt Emma told me that late summer morning, “You have nothing to worry about; your grandmother can take care of herself.”
“The point I am getting at ladies is that your cause is my cause. Whatever you need to further your cause, know that I will do everything within my power to assist you in achieving your goals. Do not let anyone, your husbands, your brothers, your cousins, anyone, tell you that you cannot better your lives. Iraq will not be free until you all are free.”
Finished speaking, the ladies leapt to their feet and graciously shook my hand, thanking me for my kind and inspirational words. It seemed to take forever for the room to clear.
I spoke with Liza afterward, who requested, “CPT Sims, I want you to come to all the women’s meetings.”
“It would be my pleasure, ma’am,” I simply replied.
Deciding to work with Tisa Nissan’s Women’s Committee was one of the best decisions I made and gave me some of my fondest memories and greatest victories.
- Lesson Learned: There are times when the greatest causes you may one day fight are not your own, but the causes of others
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. Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Military personnel, especially combat veterans, are very leery of the word “hero”. I am no hero. I’m not sure I would define any of my living friends as heroes, and I am confident that they would agree with me. To me, heroes are those who sacrifice their lives for others. One of my buddies and former roommate, Kevin “KJ” Smith, was killed in action in Baghdad, and while he was dying on the battlefield, as he and his men were still in the middle of a firefight, with his last breath, told his platoon sergeant to take care of his men. Another hero is my buddy and West Point classmate, Tom “TK” Kennedy. He deployed from West Point to Afghanistan on what was supposed to be a routine deployment. Leaving a meeting with tribal leaders, TK and his men were attacked by a suicide bomber who was disguised as an Afghan soldier. TK died instantly, leaving behind a wife and infant twins. TK and KJ are heroes. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of at least one of them. The lasting effect they left on all of us to be good leaders and good friends is everlasting.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
All of the success I have garnered and opportunities presented, I have West Point and the Army to thank. I do not know where I would be professionally if I were not a West Point grad and an Iraq combat veteran. I also never realized that I would apply my degree in systems engineering towards nearly every aspect of my professional career, but I do. Maximizing utility while minimizing cost and creating efficient systems and minimizing the queue is what I do with every operation and task that I take on.
West Point and the ARMY taught me how to lead people and organizations. My year at West Point’s Prep School taught me something that sadly, most people are not aware — that we are all leaders. That one can lead and be a leader without holding a leadership position. In Baghdad, I learned how large government bureaucracies work and how to lead and work with my superiors to achieve mission success. With my last duty assignment as the Deputy Chief of Training for the Joint Readiness Training Center & Fort Polk, I learned how the Army works at the installation level.
Everything I learned about politics, I learned in Baghdad. Due to my role of advising and overseeing our neighborhood councils and district council, I realized that every action and inaction on my part directly impacted the lives of over a million people. And, when I say impacted their lives, I literally mean that their physical lives were on the line. I learned the importance and power of words and keeping your word and what their real-world impact is on people’s lives. If most politicians had lived my Baghdad experience, they would be slow to be negative, nasty in their language, or mislead people with their actions and words.
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?
The first person I met who got me on the path of national-level politics is my good buddy Mike Signer. You know him as the mayor of Charlottesville when the white supremacists stormed the city. In February 2006, I went to a bar in Georgetown with a friend, and on the way, he kept talking about how much I needed to meet his friend Mike — that we would have a lot in common because of my Iraq experience. Upon meeting Mike at the bar, we struck up a really good national security and defense conversation. Further in the conversation, Mike informed me that he and some friends had just recently formed a national security organization of young progressive policy wonks called The Truman National Security Project, consisting of other early members like Jake Sullivan and Pete Buttigieg. I was all in, and by that March I was a security fellow.
If I had not met and befriended Mike, I do not know how I would have been able to inject myself into national-level politics. Without Mike, I would have never been a surrogate for or written campaign policy for President Obama or Secretary Clinton. Without having met Mike, I would never have been in a position to write the national security and veterans and military families platform for the United Kingdom’s Labour Party. Meeting Mike was my launching pad for what I do professionally from a political perspective. Mike is a Good Dude and a great friend, and I am blessed that he is my friend and truly thankful that he saw, and still sees, my potential to lead in the political arena.
We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
A crisis is relative to the person or persons. My background is such that, unless bullets are being fired at me, there is no need to overtly stress over a matter. Most situations that people deem as a crisis are not life or death; thus, it is always important to take a step back, breathe, and analyze the situation.
I define a crisis as life-threatening — an action or series of actions that will negatively affect one’s life, the lives of family or friends, or one’s livelihood.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
When leaders face a crisis, the livelihood of those they lead should always be at the forefront of their minds and the focus of their actions. It is much easier to deal with crises in the Army than in the civilian world because Army leaders are not making salary and employment decisions or are making decisions that affect them. Leaders should craft their plans in a manner where the outcome is as painless as possible to those they lead.
Before a crisis strikes, leaders should always be training and providing those they lead opportunities to grow professionally. Team building is important, too, whether it is through recreational activities or professional training opportunities. It is important for your team to be strong, cohesive, and confident in itself prior to a crisis occurring so that when faced with one, you all are able to rally together and confidently tackle and solve the crisis.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Good leaders always surround themselves with good and smart people and people who are smarter than them. When tackling a crisis situation, one ought to confer with others in crafting a solution. Various perspectives help flush out the situation. Also, research the issues and history surrounding the crisis. More than likely, the crisis is not a new phenomenon and a solution exists that was used years ago.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
- Positive attitude
- Clear head
- Team work
- Open mind
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
The first person who comes to mind is my Squadron commander, Mark Calvert. The day we handed command of our districts (Tisa Nissan and Sadr City) over to the two 1st Cavalry Division battalions that were replacing us, a few hours later, the Battle of Sadr City ensued. The commanders of our replacement battalions were overwhelmed, and though our Squadron was no longer officially on duty and were preparing to leave the following day, being that we are leaders and war fighters, LTC Calvert filled the leadership void. He rallied his troopers and led us to victory that evening. I was with our quick reactionary force that evening, ensuring the safety of civilians fleeing Sadr City and making sure that Muqtada’s thugs weren’t trying to escape. Monitoring the radio during that period, LTC Calvert was cool, calm, and collective throughout the entirety of the battle. The Battle of Sadr City was a scary episode. It was LTC Calvert’s leadership, through his demeanor and decisiveness, that kept us all calm and focused.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
As for my greatest professional setback, I’ll keep that story under my hat for now…;) An instance when I believed a setback had occurred, yet I came out stronger and better for it, came to a head 3 October 2003. Leading up to that date, I was attempting to return to the US with several of my peers and friends to attend the Army’s Field Artillery Captains Career Course (CCC). Prior to the deployment, LTC Calvert had informed some of us lieutenants that if continuous combat operations had ceased, he would allow us to return stateside to attend CCC. Several of us first lieutenants, including myself, put our packets together in order to return home. What I did not learn until it was too late was that the Squadron admin officer had emailed his friends’ packets, but mine, he mailed through conventional mail, which meant that my packet did not arrive to the necessary persons in time. My friends whose packets were emailed had assumed that mine was too, but that was not the case. I was irate, but on 3 October, while some of my friends were returning to the US, I stood on the steps of the Tisa Nissan District Council Hall that early morning preparing for its opening ceremony featuring Ambassador Paul Bremer. At that moment, I knew that God meant for me to be in Iraq. If the admin officer would not have punked me and I had left Baghdad as I had wanted, I would never have had any of my phenomenal Iraq experiences. My deployment experience would have been a blip and I would not be considered a subject matter expert in the area. Baghdad was the greatest time of my life, and I wouldn’t exchange that experience with any other or anyone. That experience solidified in me an understanding that whenever I face an obstacle, God has something much better ahead for me — something better than I can comprehend. I am thankful for that.
Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Maintain a positive attitude: Though things seem bad, there is always someone dealing with much more. Remaining positive keeps you focused on the positive outcomes of the crisis of which you are dealing with. Positive energy exudes positive results and, to those you lead, provides them confidence and hope.
- Trust yourself: You are educated and trained in what you do. You are capable. You have tackled issues and solved problems before. Lean on your past successes over other problems and crises, knowing that if you overcame once before, you can overcome again
- Trust your subordinates: No one solves problems alone and no one knows everything. Trust those who work for you. Confide in them. Run ideas by them. They may see the situation differently than you. Their experiences could be the key to crisis solution. Delegation of authority is sometimes key in solving a crisis. You must trust in your subordinates’ knowledge, training, and expertise. Leadership does not mean physically performing every task. It’s about creating an atmosphere that enables the team that you lead to each success.
- Seek self-improvement: Use the crisis to better yourself: attain knowledge and new skills. A crisis is generally such because the issue you must solve falls outside of your comfort and ability zones. It is reasonable to assume that in order to solve the crisis, one will have to learn new information and techniques.
- Understand the crisis: Every crisis has a relative level of severity and in order to truly know how serious to take the crisis, one must research and analyze it first. The knowledge attained about the crisis will enable you to ascertain the severity of the crisis; thus, you can gauge what it will take for you to solve it.
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 believe that everyone has the potential to be great. Greatness is not defined by wealth or fame, but by the good that one does for others and utilizing one’s abilities for good. Sadly, most people do not understand that. I would love to be in a position where I could help everyone in the world tap into their inner greatness. Imagine such a world…
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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?
I would love to have breakfast, lunch, or (preferably) scotch and cigars with President Obama. Our paths have crossed several times since 2007. I have done much for his campaigns in a leadership role and worked behind the scenes with his administration in tackling policy issues. Such a conversation would be epic. Notably, I worked with his special assistants in crafting and executing a plan to garner US Senate support for the Iran Deal. I was amongst the group of veterans and Gold Star Mothers whom he and Sec Kerry publicly and had privately thanked at the White House. As you can imagine, there is much more to this story, as with the others…;)
How can our readers follow you online?
- Facebook is my social media of choice: https://www.facebook.com/TerronSims and https://www.facebook.com/TerronArlington/
- You can also check me out on my website: www.TerronSims.com and my campaign website www.TerronforSchools.com
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting