Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Leadership can be learned from both positive and negative examples”, With Dennis Morton
Leadership can be learned from both positive and negative examples. I served under some great leaders as well as some who were less than stellar. I learned a great deal about what not to do as well as how to emulate great leadership from them all.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis Morton, Co-Founder and Principal with Morton Brown Family Wealth. A Certified Financial Planner ® and Chartered Financial Consultant™, Dennis has a combined knowledge of finance and economics with a background in history and leadership. Dennis has over 10 years of experience at larger financial institutions including Citi Smith Barney. In 2018, he set out to start his own firm with the vision of creating a community of clients and professionals leading purposeful lives through the stewardship of wealth. Prior to his professional career, Dennis served as a captain in the United States Army in the Air Defense Artillery. His role as a PATRIOT missile officer exposed him to a combination of strategic and tactical thinking. In leadership roles varying from Platoon Leader to Executive Officer, Dennis was exposed to complex decision making that has informed his role as an advisor. For his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Dennis was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Dennis is a proud husband and father. He and his wife, Gina, have made a commitment to the local community an integral part of their family life. A parent of a Boy Scout, Dennis Serves on the Executive Board of the Minsi Trails Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He serves as chair of the Investment Committee and serves on the Finance Council for the Diocese of Allentown and is a past recipient of Lehigh Valley Business’ “Forty Under 40” award. In his spare time, Dennis enjoys playing guitar, trail running, and hiking with his family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was raised the oldest of four children in rural Maryland, outside of Baltimore. I was a bookish kid who loved baseball, probably due to my appreciation for the history of the game. My math skills were okay, but I could remember statistics from old-time baseball teams and players as if they were current.
When I was young, I did not have a strong sense of what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I wanted to study History in college. I was fortunate to receive a partial ROTC scholarship to Loyola University in Maryland that did not kick in until my Sophomore year. Even though it was not required, I chose to participate in all of the ARMY ROTC activities during my Freshman year. My commitment was recognized by the program’s leadership who subsequently chose to resubmit my scholarship application, making it a “full” scholarship retroactive to my Freshman year. It was a proud day for me to call and share that news with my parents. Especially since I didn’t know what to do with a History degree.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
My partner, Kathryn Brown, and I founded Morton Brown Family Wealth, a Registered Investment Advisor, in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2018. Over the last 15 years, I have built a practice as a financial advisor to individuals and families using a combination of perspective learned as a history student, leadership learned in the Army and a passion for personal finance. After a decade of working together and developing a vision for what a great advisory practice could be, Katie and I made the bold leap to form our own firm. We currently serve over 100 families and have $140 million in assets under management.
I relish the opportunity to lead people through a financial planning process where I am held accountable. That accountability is pretty rare in our industry where there is often an emphasis on selling the product instead of providing advice. We built our firm around the concept of providing advice and serving clients as fiduciaries; placing client interests ahead of our own. It is always heartening when someone approaches us having multiple advisors with big decisions to make about retirement and says, “Now I need someone who does what you do.” That commitment and accountability make us different.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served in the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade based out of Ft. Bliss, Texas. I was commissioned a 2LT [2nd Lieutenant?] in 1999 and was made a platoon leader in a PATRIOT missile battery. I knew at the time that my career in the military was going to involve trips back and forth from the Middle East due to the PATRIOT mission enacted since the Persian Gulf War. In fact, in my first year in the Army, we served a six-month overseas deployment in Saudi Arabia. It was an excellent learning experience as a young officer, learning the technical PATRIOT system and gaining on-the-job training as a leader of 30 soldiers.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Anyone who served when I did, between 1999–2003, remembers vividly where they were on 9/11/2001. In our case, our mission was to be prepared at all times to deploy rapidly to the Middle East to protect against enemy air threats. In 2001, we had scheduled a week-long readiness exercise to simulate every activity from the recall of soldiers all the way through loading the airplanes with PATRIOT equipment. That exercise began early in the morning of September 10th, 2001. I was the Executive Officer of A Battery, 5/52 ADA and brought my bags into my office that day and began simulating our unit deploying overseas. The next morning, we found out after completing our morning run that the first plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. What had been training was now very real.
Those bags stayed packed in my office for the next 15 months. I will never forget the impressions that were made by watching leaders of all ranks and pay grades do their jobs each day, uncertain of what would be required of them and when. It was a powerful lesson in how to plan for the unforeseen, work as a team, and support the very human toll that uncertainty and tragedy can take on soldiers and families. I try to remember the lessons learned during that time when I plan for an uncertain future for clients.
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 think hero can imply dramatic action or feats of courage, but I am reminded of the quiet heroism that I witnessed when I served. As a young lieutenant, I prepared myself and my unit to deploy to Saudi Arabia in 2000, which was my first trip overseas in uniform. My platoon sergeant and several of the staff sergeants in the battery were going on their 4th or 5th deployment. Since the Persian Gulf War eight years earlier, they had been standing guard, leaving their families every two years to provide protection in peace time. During that time, their movement back and forth rarely made the news. Their service was performed out of a sense of duty, something that I found to be very heroic. They trained me and all of my soldiers with that same sense of duty. When we did serve in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was proud to see so many serve bravely and honorably in war time, having used the training of those who came before them in peace.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I think a hero is anyone who stands for a set of values and is willing to defend them when necessary. That is what I try to teach my children. They may never be called to defend their values or their way of life, but they should always be prepared to do so. They may never be called a “hero” but it is a heroic commitment to have those convictions and be willing to stand up for them.
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.)
- Leadership can be learned from both positive and negative examples. I served under some great leaders as well as some who were less than stellar. I learned a great deal about what not to do as well as how to emulate great leadership from them all.
- Exposing young leaders to high-level decision making is empowering. I was allowed to observe great leaders in discussions about war preparations at an early stage of my career. It has given me perspective and an appreciation for how transparency in command can make for healthy growth among junior leaders.
- Discipline can build morale. We had issues in one unit with soldiers leaving their post and going AWOL, something that can be contagious. The Commander did not flinch and made every effort to bring them back and handle each case accordingly in the military justice system. While it was initially a hit to morale, his actions showed the soldiers who were committed that he had their back. It went on to be the best unit in which I ever served.
- The Vertical Experience. This actually started in Army ROTC where the battalion commander would talk to us cadets about what happens when you grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. He called it the Vertical Experience of Life and encouraged us to make the most of how Army life would challenge us and help us grow in all facets. He was right.
- Life/career is not a straight line. I was a history student who fired PATRIOT missiles and now own a wealth management firm. I learned in the military that there are universal truths about people: how they think, grow, and behave. Also, that leadership is in demand wherever a career takes you. Those lessons combined with my perspective on the past have made me a better professional in my current field.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
My career made me think expansively about what was possible in my life. I did not have definitive plans. I just knew that I was capable of learning new things and had a desire to see the world. Once I learned to think expansively, that genie never went back in the bottle. To this day, I try to bring a vision for the future, as well as the preparation necessary, to my role as a business leader. The fact that there is always someone more experienced from whom I can learn has also given me a sense of humility.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The most exciting project for my partner and I is to expand the ability of Morton Brown Family Wealth to serve more families. There is an increasing demand for advice and guidance, and not enough qualified professionals to provide it. As Certified Financial Planners®, we believe that our commitment to holistic planning and helping people live purposeful lives sets us apart. This next year is about spreading that message and changing the way people feel about their financial future.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Ask the people on your team what they want for their career and listen closely. It may be that their role can be optimized for everything they want in your business, but maybe they will only be a fit for a period of time. Such is life in the Army. There is constant turnover, but you have to lead the people you have when you have them. The key is to find out what they can contribute, find a role where they can thrive, and then affirm how the work they do supports the mission.
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?
My wife, whom I met three months before 9/11, has really helped to unlock my potential through all of life’s ups and downs over the last two decades. When I went to war, she handled all the planning for our wedding and life after the Army. When I told her that I disliked my first post-military job and had an idea to start a financial advice career, she didn’t bat an eye and supported me through the many years before reaching success. Now, having built a business while raising four kids at home, we still talk about our “hopes and dreams” and are excited about what the future holds for our family.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t know if it is goodness, necessarily, but I do think I apply grounded principles to my work and personal life. I believe there are certain ways of living that help create good outcomes both financially and otherwise and I try and espouse them and support them in those around me. The only evidence I have that it is working is the amazing group of people who I can call family, friends, and coworkers.
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 wish for a financial “Carpe Diem” moment for every family. That moment when they realize that their leadership is the difference between the life they have and the life that could be. I think professionals like me could do so much more to help them seize the day and inspire families to become their best selves as stewards of their family’s finances.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All you can take with you is that which you have given away.” This is the quote that hangs below a picture of George Bailey’s father in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My wife gave me an embroidered version of it for my office when we launched Morton Brown Family Wealth. It is a reminder to me that selfless service, generosity, and business are not mutually exclusive.
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 love to spend time with former college football coach Urban Meyer. Recently, I have been studying coaches and their underlying leadership philosophies and his approach and its effectiveness really have me intrigued. (And my brother is a Florida Gator!)
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.