Dr. Gary L. Wilder: “Know who you are as a leader and always seek to improve”

Know who you are as a leader and always seek to improve. When leading people, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is vital to having a successful team. When I was a Heavy Machine Gun Platoon Sergeant, I had to know every aspect of how the gun operated and how to deploy the weapon effectively. […]

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Know who you are as a leader and always seek to improve. When leading people, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is vital to having a successful team. When I was a Heavy Machine Gun Platoon Sergeant, I had to know every aspect of how the gun operated and how to deploy the weapon effectively. If I was unsure of either, I would find the Marine in my platoon who had the best expertise about the weapon to instruct me so that I could gain strength in that area. Doing this showed my Marines that I was willing and confident to learn from my subordinates, which made the team much more effective.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. 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 had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gary L. Wilder.

Dr. Gary L. Wilder is a retired United States Marine Corps Master Sergeant. After joining the military at 18 years old, he served in active duty for 23 years, fulfilling a combat tour in Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the Gulf War and serving during Operation Enduring Freedom. He was also a Drill Instructor and Scout Sniper. Wilder holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from South University, where he published his dissertation titled “A Legacy of Leadership: Mentoring Today’s Adult Males,” and is an associate minister at Abundant Life Church. He has received multiple awards for leadership, motivational speaking and executive management. He is a Class of 2010 Hall of Fame inductee of the American Football Association. Additionally, Wilder is the owner of the Palm Beach Makos Adult Men’s Minor League Football team and a mentor with Men2Boys Mentoring Group. He and his wife, Felecia, an ordained minister, currently live in Margate, Florida, and they have three adult children. To learn more about Wilder, please visit directionalmoments.com or connect with him on Facebook (@directionalmoments), Twitter (@directmoments), Instagram (@revdrwilder29) and YouTube.

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

I grew up as an only child in Thomasville, North Carolina, with loving, working-class parents. I lived in a blue-collar town of factories in the furniture industry (Thomasville Furniture). During the ’60s and ’70s, my background was not diverse, and as a result, I grew up in a well-grounded African American culture. I received mentoring from my parents along with my maternal and paternal grandparents who planted the seeds that made me the person I am today. I grew up with a large external family of cousins, aunts and uncles, with love and support. They displayed the importance of God, family, church and community along with work ethics and taught me to treat everyone with respect.

During my high school years, I played football, wrestled, ran track and participated in the school writing/journal club, and I drove a school bus. Upon graduation, I joined the Marine Corps Reserves and attended Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia. I later transferred to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina before going active duty active with the Marines in 1983. I receive my undergraduate degree from Bluefield College, Bluefield, Virginia while I was on active duty. Shortly after retirement, I earned my master’s degree from Brewer Christian College, Jacksonville, Florida. In 2020, I received my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) from South University, Savannah, Georgia.

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

Since retiring from the Marine Corps, I am involved in numerous activates within the community. One of the unique works was starting up and owning a Minor League/Semiprofessional Men’s Adult Football Team, named the Palm Beach Makos located in West Palm Beach, Florida. My best friend and fellow Marine, Daris Steen, MBA, and I co-owned the team where I became the President/Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Daris became the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Due to other demands, Daris gave up many of his shares and I, along with my wife, Felecia, became the majority owner.

The team became successful, winning a conference championship and two division championships along with individual awards for offensive and defensive players of the year, offensive coordinator of the year, and coach of the year. I was also named owner of the year in 2012 and 2015. Moreover, we have had players go on to receive opportunities in the National Football League (NFL), the Canadian Football League (CFL), the NFL Developmental League, and the Arena League.

Likewise, the team has cheerleaders, the Palm Beach Makos Cheerleaders, under the direction of DeShon Allen. Several of our cheerleaders have accomplished major events. Three have made the Miami Dolphins (NFL) cheer squads, the New York Jets (NFL) cheer squads, and the (then) Oakland Raiders (NFL) Raiderettes squad. We had several win various local pageants and one makes it to the Miss America Pageant. The team is proud of the success of our Makos Cheerleaders.

Besides football, our team hosts annual events such as the Back-to-School Book Bag giveaway, with nearly 400 book bags and school supplies given away; our 4th of July Bag Lunch event, where we hand out more than 1,500 lunches; the Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl, where we give away nearly 300 turkeys and food baskets; and our Christmas Toys-4-Tots, where we have given away over 2,000 toys. When requested, the Makos host other community events throughout the year. You can find us at palmbeachmakos.org.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

The Marine Corps had been an interest for me. All of my extended family that went to the military would send their basic training or boot camp picture to my paternal grandad. He would share with me the stories of each of them but would emphasize those in the Marine Corps. I lost interest in the Corps until my senior year of high school. I wanted to do something different, or rather my peers began talking me against going. However, two months before graduation, I went to the recruiter’s office and stated, “I want to join the Marine Corps. If I can’t be in boot camp at least two weeks after high school, I will not join.” He walked over to his board, made some phone calls to his company office, and said, “done.” I graduated high school on June 5, 1980, and was in boot camp on June 10, 1980.

After joining the Corps, my first Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) became a Field Radio Communication Specialist. Three years after joining, I changed my MOS to Combat Arms and was assigned as a Heavy Machine Gun Operator. During active duty, I obtained several jobs. Specifically, I became a Scout Sniper, served two tours as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor (Recruit Depot San Diego, California, and Officer Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia) and was selected to become a Counterintelligence Specialist. I performed that duty during the Desert Shield/Desert Storm Gulf War. Prior to retirement, my final assignment became Weapons Officer/Assistant Operations Chief with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (Wolf Pack) in Twentynine Palms, California.

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

The most interesting experience was being sent to war during Desert Shield/Desert Storm Gulf War at a moment’s notice. While serving at Camp Pendleton, California, during a typical Marine Corps day, prior to noon chow (lunch), at 11:30 AM, our unit had an emergency formation. The Platoon Commander explained that our unit was to assist an Army unit in Saudi Arabia, near the Kuwait border. This was the start of the Gulf War.

Our commander instructed us to return to the base by 1600 hours (4:00 PM). The hardest part still remains telling my wife “I am leaving for war by this afternoon.” Once returning to base, our unit drove HMMWV (Humvee’s) to (then) Norton Air Force Base and boarded C130 planes. Once loaded, we traveled from Norton to Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, non-stop for over 17 hours with in-flight refueling. We landed in Saudi Arabia on September 3rd, 1990, and with a return date of April 25th, 1991.

The takeaway from this experience is that regardless of what I am doing or my location, I must remain prepared for whatever life throws my way and be ready at all times to handle the challenge. This is instilled in my children. Staying attentive to what is happening around you will ensure that you do not lose focus on your life’s goals.

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.

Heroism, in my view, is something instinctive inside of someone besides a person being a hero. Once they perform the act, it shows the heroism of them as they did something extraordinary to save someone. I have dealt with devastating events during my time in the Corps, where heroism came into play to assist others or to overcome things in the face of danger.

Stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 1983, we lost 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers to the Beirut bombing. Many of those Marines I knew personally and still think of them today. I was not at the embassy in Beirut during the bombing, but I heard the stories of those who were there. They talked of running towards the blast once the dust settled to rescue their fallen Marines. They did what was instinctive and what was already inside of them to save others. To do something extraordinary saved lives and recovered our fallen brethren on that dreadful day, which demonstrated their heroism.

Likewise, doing something extraordinary can come with the act of getting over the fear. While training in Pohang, Korea, our unit (1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment; i.e.1/5) suffered a devastating tragedy, losing 22 Marines and one Sailor in a helicopter crash. Our Battalion Commander knew that we may have a fear of riding in helicopters and decided to do something extraordinary. He requested and received approval to have several helicopters arrive at our training area two weeks after the crash. He addressed the battalion as to why he ordered the transports. He explained (paraphrasing) that he wanted his Marines not to have any anxiety about flying in helicopters. The extraordinary act made the Marines of 1/5 see the heroism of our commander, who chose to help us get over any fear.

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

Although the definition of a hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities,” as I mentioned earlier, it is someone who does an extraordinary act that places them in the realm of doing what is defined as a hero. Therefore, we admire their courage to go above and beyond in the face of immeasurable circumstances.

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

No, not at all. I also reflect on the extraordinary acts that mirror the heroism of a military wife, enduring by raising the family when the spouse, being deployed, is gone for nearly a year or more. She preserves the family, the house, the bills, the car and if she is working, the responsibility of the job. My wife falls into that category. She withstood while I was away for six to eight months at a time, and at one point, away for nearly a year and a half. It takes a special person to do that and still care for her husband when he returns to his family. That places her, and other military wives, in the extraordinary status of heroism.

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. Know who you are as a leader and always seek to improve. When leading people, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is vital to having a successful team. When I was a Heavy Machine Gun Platoon Sergeant, I had to know every aspect of how the gun operated and how to deploy the weapon effectively. If I was unsure of either, I would find the Marine in my platoon who had the best expertise about the weapon to instruct me so that I could gain strength in that area. Doing this showed my Marines that I was willing and confident to learn from my subordinates, which made the team much more effective.
  2. Know your people and look out for their welfare. As a leader, it is vital that you know the people that you are leading. It is important that you know why they chose this job, their background (other than what is on the resume), home life and what motivates them. I was stationed in Quantico, Virginia, at Officer Candidates School as a Drill Instructor. After completing two years in the training platoon, I was assigned as the Leadership Chief Instructor. One of my Marines was having issues teaching a class and his productivity was decreasing. I sat with the Marine to find out why his performance was down. Getting to the source of the problem, he was having trouble at home which was affecting his performance at work. I requested that he have some time off to address his home situation while I taught his classes. Understanding these areas will allow you to understand the central issues behind the person’s lacking performance as well as what motivates them to give their best to the job. As a leader, you must know your people and take care of them.
  3. Mentor your personnel on a consistent basis. Mentoring is a fundamental factor in having success with your team. As the owner of a minor league/semi-pro football team, I was constantly in a mentoring model. Many of the young men that are on my team did not grow up with a father figure in their life. One instance of mentoring stands out. During my fifth year with the team, a player posted an incident online that could have landed him in jail. Once it was brought to my attention, I immediately addressed the player and asked him to remove it. After our conversation, he was still hesitant about removing it, but a day later, he did. I asked to meet with him, and he agreed. We talked about the incident, the posting of it and why it was important not to do things like that. He was truly sorry for bringing any shame to the team and openly apologized to the team for his actions. I mentored him consistently for about six months, and he later informed me that because of the mentoring, he was going back to college, saving for a house and pursuing a better job. Mentoring can change a person’s outlook on life and give them the exposure they need to be successful.
  4. Connection with your people is key. We often hear people say of a motivational speaker (paraphrasing), “their speech really connected with the people.” In other words, they found out what the audience needed and filled that need. It is the same with leaders, they must find out what their people need and do whatever it takes to fill that need. Accomplishing that will fortify your team and increase their productivity. One of the foremost teachers on leadership, John Maxwell shared, “If you can connect with others at every level — one-on-one, in groups, and with an audience — your relationships are stronger, your sense of community improves, your ability to create teamwork increases, your influence increases, and your productivity skyrockets.” When the leader connects, the mission will be accomplished.
  5. Lead your people, not manage them. When I began to study leadership, one of the mantras often used was, “leaders lead people, and managers manage resources.” I learned that there is a difference between leaders and managers. Don’t misunderstand, a person may hold the title of a manager but can be an effective leader. A manager manages time, paper, pencils, supplies, i.e., the resources of the company. They ensure that people are on time and do not use all the papers, pens, etc., whereas the leader leads their people through connection, mentoring, knowing their people and understanding their limitations. This is something that I did as a Marine leader, and I use this principle today when leading my team.

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

Absolutely! The Marine Corps was regimented and disciplined which is essential for operating my business today. In leading my football team, I am in charge of the personnel that handles the operation of the team, coaches, individuals that collect the money at the gate, concession stand, security and financials. This is not done alone; I have people in charge of these areas. However, everything that is accomplished or not accomplished is my responsibility. Leading this team was the same as when I led my Marine team.

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?

When I retired, I struggled to conform to civilian life. Applying for jobs and doing interviews seemed impossible. I started my own business that had little to no success. The first couple of years was challenging. Contrasted with the veterans that returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as well as those from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) who received the proper treatments and counseling, those of us that returned from Desert Shield/Desert Storm Gulf War did not receive the same treatment. Returning from the war, we integrated back into society or returned to our units without any counseling. Once I returned, my wife expressed that I was not the same, but I told her I was alright, suppressing what I experienced in Desert Storm for more than 20 years, It wasn’t until late 2011, early 2012, that I went and received help to overcome those memories. If you need help, please don’t hesitate to go to your local Veterans Administration (VA) clinic for assistance. Getting help from the VA is vital to help with your transition.

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

Yes. I am marketing my new book, “One Degree: Unleashing Your Focus” while writing a new book (still working on the title). Also, I create 3 to 5-minute videos regarding focus, dreams, direction, purpose and destiny through my non-profit business “Directional Moments.” Videos can be found on YouTube and other social media platforms under Directional Moments and on my website. Additionally, I am working with my church on starting a Bible college. We are conducting classes now that will lead to accomplishing this task. Each of these projects will assist people in their personal, mental and spiritual growth.

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

As I mentioned earlier, know yourself as a leader and always seek ways to improve on your weaknesses. Also, get to know your people while taking care of them and mentor them on a consistent basis. Moreover, connecting with your people ensures that they are motivated and open to a leader influencing them so they can excel with their productivity. Additionally, lead your people as a team, do not manage or even micro-manage them. Use the familiar acronym of T-E-A-M (Together Everyone Achieves More).

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

Ensure that your team has all the tools needed to accomplish the task that they are given. In the military, we did not always have all the tools needed to get the job done, however, we improvised to make it happen. As a leader, when you assign a task to your people, listen to their input to find out what they need to accomplish the mission. Give them the freedom to create ways to finish the task. Many leaders tend to step over into the management role and tell the team how to do the job rather than allowing them to come up with the ‘how’ in completing the task. Remember that you are directing the team and not doing it yourself. This assists with creating that connection, which is key to influencing your team to success.

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?

Several people guided me in the right direction, such as my father, maternal and paternal grandparents and a friend of the family. Each planted a seed in me that developed me into the person I am today. There is one person that catapulted me to be successful through my Marine Corps career, and I use his advice today.

During my time as a Marine Drill Instructor — I was a Sergeant (E-5) — I found myself in trouble which landed me in a three-day military court-martial (trial). On the verge of losing everything that I had worked so hard to achieve upon the conclusion of the trial, the verdict returned not guilty, and the jury instructed that I return to work. A few months had passed when the battalion Sergeant Major, Lorin Rhaney, saw me moping around feeling dejected and summoned me to his office.

Listening to my complaints, he said to me, with force, “Sergeant, that’s the last time I will hear any complaining from you! From this point, pull up your bootstraps and walk like the Marine that I know that you are and can become! You have a lot to offer to the Corps. From this point on, act like it! Now get out of my office and let this be the last time I see you walk like you are defeated!” The Sergeant Major continued his mentoring, and the words he spoke that day allowed me to see that I may get knocked down, but no one can ever keep me down! Through his mentoring, it allowed me to pull up my bootstraps as I walk in my success!

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

Yes. Currently, I mentor with the Men2Boys Mentoring Group in Margate, Florida, where I also serve as Vice-President and board member. The organization has been around for more than 10 years. The program is an all-male non-profit organization mentoring young males between the ages of 13 to 18 on how to avoid mistakes that could alter their purpose and destiny. They are given sessions about their dreams, choices and decisions, education, developing maturity, friends and relationships. They are also taught Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and robotics, exposing them to other non-sports-related career choices. Through our program, our participants attend college or start their up-and-coming careers. It is rewarding to help shape young minds for success.

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 love to start a movement that focuses on STEM for African American males between the ages of 13–18. Many of our students have fallen behind with STEM and even further behind for young males in the ages I listed. This movement would integrate parents, teachers and the community to generate excitement regarding the STEM process. Through this excitement, it shows young males that STEM is the GEM (Growth/Excitement/Momentum) for their success.

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

There is a poem that was written by English poet William Earnest Henley entitled “Invictus” that shares on overcoming life’s challenges. When reading the last verse of the poem, it states “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” As a political prisoner in South Africa during the Apartheid, the late President Nelson Mandela quoted the poem every day for strength and encouragement. Apart from the Bible, which is my true source of strength, I quoted this poem for more than 30 years as words to lean on for encouragement while going through challenges. When faced with your own trials, remember that you are in charge of your destiny while pursuing purpose.

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 🙂

Having to name one person was difficult; therefore, I narrowed it to two: Mark Cuban and Warren Buffet. Each of these men came to fortunes through humble and meek beginnings and continue to stay that way even with their billions.

I would love to have lunch with Mark Cuban. His billionaire status is not flaunted, and he maintains a down-to-earth, working-class billionaire status and connects with his people. I would like to talk to him regarding his approach to business, especially in the field of sports. My goal and dreams are to own or be a part-owner of a professional sports team. Mr. Cuban would be the one I would enjoy talking to about that goal while asking what strategies he used to obtain that success.

In addition, I would love to have lunch with Warren Buffet, Mr. “Oracle of Omaha.” Likewise, he is a humble man with humble beginnings, a down-to-earth billionaire that also shares how he obtains his billions. While sitting with him, I would seek to gain valuable insight into trading stocks as I ask what strategy he used as a business model to gain his success. The seeds learned from him would be used to share with my children so that I could create a perpetual harvest.

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

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