I had the pleasure of interviewing Command Sergeant Major (Retired) John Ramirez. Ramirez served in the United States Army for 27 years, retiring as Brigade Command Sergeant Major. He is currently the Dean of Operations for the College of Doctoral Studies at the University of Phoenix. Ramirez is the recipient of the Association of Latino Professionals for America’s (ALPFA) national 2017 Veteran of the Year Award and was the Chairman of the Corporate Advisory Board for the Phoenix Chapter of ALPFA in 2016 and 2017. He also supports a number of National and Phoenix-based veteran charitable and non-profit organizations. During his distinguished military career, Ramirez served as a committee member of the US Army’s Special Executive Review Board for the Center for Strategic Leadership, and in 2004, was selected as one of the “Top Hispanic Leaders” in the Army. He is a graduate from the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy and recipient of the Sergeant Major of the Army William Bainbridge Ethics Award. Command Sergeant Major (Retired) Ramirez’s education includes Bachelor of Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration from Arizona State University, a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from University of Phoenix, and a Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security with a concentration in Global and Homeland Security from University of Phoenix. He has been married to his wife Sonya for 42 years. Together they have 5 children and 10 grandchildren.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory?”
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and raised in my maternal uncle and aunt’s housing projects and Hispanic neighborhoods. My uncle worked to support my cousins and I while working his way through college. My aunt was a first-generation Chinese-American who also worked hard to support us. Together, they provided a warm and loving home. They instilled strong moral values, enforced an acute sense of humility, stressed the importance of education, and imparted in us the value of service of our country, our family, and our community.
Throughout my upbringing, I was surrounded by proud men and women like my grandfather, uncles, cousins, and neighbors, who had one common bond — service in the United States military. Ultimately, my decision to serve originated with a desire to follow the example of these proud men and women. Who I was and what I would become would be a reflection of my family and community.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Presently, I serve as the Dean of Operations for the College of Doctoral Studies at the University of Phoenix. I have the honor of serving our students, a community of dedicated and hard-working adults, from across the United States and the globe. Most of our students are minority women who are pursuing their doctorate to create opportunities, help their families, and make a difference in their organization or community as thought leaders and change agents.
During my 14-year tenure with the College of Doctoral Studies, I am proud to have served and supported over 5,800 students who have earned their doctorate, and each has unique stories. From the combat soldier serving in Iraq working on his dissertation to the mother of four in war-torn Sierra Leone who walked miles to have electricity to complete her course work, each has inspired their ability to persevere. I am humbled to play a small role in their lives and witness the positive impact on their families, communities, and organizations.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I proudly served in the United States Army for over 27 years, from 1977 to 2004, and retired as a Brigade Command Sergeant Major. I had the honor of serving in various roles and leadership positions, from a squad leader to a Command Sergeant Major. Through my military career, I received a quality education, a strengthening of my core values, real-world leadership experience, and mentoring by some of the finest leaders in the country. I also had the privilege to serve thousands of soldiers and their families during my 27-year journey.
The experiences of my military service extended across the globe, and I bore witness to the dark underbelly of humanity. However, I also experienced the good qualities of humanity through the hard work and dedication of the men and women who made the military their chosen profession.
Through it all, I learned that leadership is a privilege. Those blessed with the opportunity to serve have an obligation to those under their charge the best leadership they could muster regardless of the situation, conditions, or obstacles.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “takeaway” did you learn from that story?
My most interesting experience came in the summer of 2004, in the final year of my military service. I accompanied a unit to College Station, Texas, as we prepared President George H.W. Bush for a parachute jump to celebrate his 80th birthday.
I had the opportunity to speak, interact, and observe the President, First Lady, and their family, and it profoundly affected me. I learned so much about his military, political, and professional experiences. But, more importantly, I observed a man, who served in the most powerful position, treat every individual that he came in contact with — be it his children, grandchildren, friends, dignitaries, guests, staff, reporters, and even strangers — as if they were the most important person at that very moment.
Our 41st President was not brash, loud, self-centered, or arrogant. Rather, he was soft-spoken, kind, funny, and unpretentious, and yet commanded respect by his very presence. Here was a man that once held the most prominent position in the world and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, who never lost sight of what was truly important. He was a man who had a deep sense of service to the country and a sincere, devoted love for his family.
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 consider MSG Daniel (Danny) Robles a hero. I had the honor to serve with Danny early on in our careers during our stint as Army Recruiters. Danny was a young, hard-driving junior Non-Commissioned Officer who dedicated himself to being the best. After leaving Recruiting Command, Danny went on to become a Platoon Sergeant of a Mortar Platoon.
On his third deployment in April 2006, his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) attack near Baghdad, Iraq. Seeing the devastation to his legs and feet, he knew he was seriously injured. He was trapped in the vehicle and did not want to go into shock. He refocused his thoughts and began shouting orders to his men, telling them to secure the location. Amid all of the commotion, the vehicle caught fire. Luckily, it was extinguished before any further injuries were sustained. Communicating over hand-held radio, MSG Robles called for a medic and assisted his soldiers trapped in the vehicle.
Transported by helicopter to the local Combat Support Hospital, MSG Robles remembers thanking the pilot before falling unconscious. Two days later, he woke up in a Landstuhl, Germany. MSG Daniel Robles lost both his legs from the ordeal.
Today, Danny works as a Skills Life Program Coordinator at the Military Warriors Support Foundation, providing support to wounded warriors and Gold Star Families. Danny coordinates recreational activities like hunting and fishing that bring wounded warriors together from across the country for a fun time, comradery, and the opportunity to build life-long relationships. The foundation also provides programs that assist with housing and homeownership and financial mentoring.
Danny epitomizes my definition of a hero, and I appreciate his continued service to the nation, dedication,n and tireless efforts in support of wounded warriors and Gold Star families.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I define a hero into two categories. First are those service members and first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice in their country and community service. Their sacrifice embodies the character of service and their willingness to give their life in service of their nation and their community. They deserve our praise and remembrance for their courage.
The second are those men and women whose selfless service toward a common good has advanced or improved the lives of others. These individuals do not do it for notoriety or personal gain; instead, they recognize a need and take action. I believe heroes share common traits: courage, passion, humility, and commitment to their cause. The title “hero” is earned by their actions, words, and deeds. I believe their willingness to push toward their goal or mission regardless of the obstacles, resistance, or dangers they face.
Based on your military experience, can you share 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience with our readers? Would you please share a story or example for each?
I practice and encourage my subordinate leaders to practice the following leadership lessons:
1. Character counts. To be a leader of character takes effort, requires your full attention, and gives you the resolution to make the correct decision when faced with difficult problems. Leaders of character understand the interdependence between values, morals, and ethics. When you compromise one, the others soon follow. Soldiers or employees are always watching, and when you lack character, they know it. A leader’s lack of character affects discipline, morale, and organizational and individual performance.
In one of my battalions, the company commander engaged in unethical behavior and quickly lost all credibility with his team. Discipline within the company was immediately impacted, and the company commander had difficulty administering corrective action because soldiers were holding his improprieties against him. The company commander also lost the trust of subordinate leaders. When my battalion commander and I got involved, we immediately removed the company commander, conducted a thorough investigation, and delivered appropriate disciplinary action.
It took some time for the unit to recover from the breach of character. However, the quick reaction from leadership sent a powerful message to all soldiers in the battalion. Soldiers understood that compromising our core values would not be tolerated, and violators would be swiftly dealt with regardless of rank or position.
2. Leaders must be visible and engaged. Leaders can’t afford to hide in their offices or be so busy that they are constantly on the go, in a rush, and unable to engage with their team. As leaders, we may think that filling our calendars with busy work demonstrates how effective we are. Instead, leaders need to make time to walk through the organization with their staff. They need to make time to engage and interact with the people performing the daily tasks that make the organization succeed or fail. Doing so allows a leader to secure a real sense of what is occurring in the organization and where resources, support, and training are required.
Leaders will know when and where their presence is needed, especially at critical times. In his book titled It Worked for me, General Colin Powell referred to this “Where on the Battlefield” philosophy (Powell, 2012). According to General Powell, “Where should the commander (leader) be on the battlefield? The answer: Where he can exercise the greatest influence and be close to the point of decision — the place where his physical presence can make a difference between success and failure” (p. 56).
3. Leaders must have Intellectual Capacity. Leadership is a perishable skill. Thus, leaders must be life-long learners. As a leader moves up the organization ladder, the more power and authority they will inherit, and greater responsibilities will be placed on their shoulders. Leaders of intellectual and emotional capacity constantly consume information, watch and learn from others, and continually assess their effectiveness.
I have had to honor to serve leaders who were constantly studying, asking questions, and mastering their craft. These leaders were able to quickly assess a situation, formulate a plan and take action. They also displayed the wisdom and humility to ask for guidance and listen to the opinions of others. Each led organizations that performed well, functioned as a team, and shared the importance of training, coaching, and individual and team development.
4. Leadership is a privilege. Serving and leading others is a privilege and not a right simply because you put in the time or were the top performer in your organization. Leadership is earned and entrusted, and leaders have an obligation to provide the best leadership they can muster. Leaders who are self-aware and understand their obligation realize that this privilege derives from confident and skilled leaders who came before them and on the backs and shoulders of those they serve.
During my military service, I served under a leader who made it a point to constantly reminded us of his rank, a West Point graduate and the Commander. He spoke down to subordinates, contradicted superiors, and placed his needs above everyone else. He tormented and belittled his staff and openly criticized them. In his view, the organization temporarily stopped en route to his next promotion, and members of the organization were there to serve him.
The organization was a disaster. Soldiers lacked self-discipline and initiative, they were unmotivated, and mistrust and disobedience crept through the organization. The organization consistently failed inspections and evaluations and was ineffective. The commander was eventually promoted and given a new assignment. However, years later, he was relieved of command and eventually left the military.
5. Be empathic and respectful towards others. People want to succeed and want to contribute to the organization’s mission and goals. They need to feel appreciated, provided with reassurance, and coached, trained, and motivated by their leaders. Everyone should be valued and should feel valued, from the maintenance staff and the most senior leaders in the organization.
Leaders who are empathic and respectful toward everyone are in turn appreciated and respected. Taking the time to say “thank you,” acknowledging, encouraging, or asking people how they are doing speaks volumes about you as a person and a leader—the empathy and respect you give spreads quickly. Soldiers and employees know who you are, and when you take the time to acknowledge them and appreciate them, word spreads quickly.
As a young soldier, I worked late one evening in the motor pool on my assigned vehicle, an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. My Brigade Command Sergeant Major was making his rounds. I did not immediately recognize him, and being tired and frustrated. I hollered at him using profanity. “Can’t you see I am busy?” As he got closer, I recognized him, jumped to my feet, and stood at parade rest. I saw my whole life flash before me, and I imagined myself on extra duty for the next hundred years. He told me to relax, asked if I knew who he was, and cautioned me to be careful about yelling profanities at him. He then asked if he could help. For the next hour, he turned a wrench and shared his experiences in Vietnam and his platoon’s old M113.
For the next year, when I would encounter him, he would ask how I was doing, ask about my vehicle, and always remind me to do my best. His leadership shaped me and made me a better soldier and leader. He is someone that I would have followed under the harshest conditions, and I will always respect and admire him for that.
Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
It absolutely did. My military experience shaped who I was and gave me a great appreciation and understanding of leadership, teamwork, and dedication to duty. The military invested time and resources in my education and development.
Equally important, as I moved up the leadership structure, the military provided the training and resources to develop my confidence and understanding of a wide range of business principles and competencies, preparing me for transition into civilian life.
Now in the civilian world, I study an organization’s mission, vision, and history. I learned its processes and systems and the work done by each functional area. The military laid the foundation for higher education, and now I am a true believer in lifelong education. I am grateful to the military for creating opportunities for me to demonstrate my value.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How 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?
I believe extensive training and preparation, reviewing and sharing lessons learned, availability of required resources and good leadership help reduce soldier’s struggles after a deployment. Include in this is the immediate availability and accessibility to counseling and other resources to help soldiers in need.
In addition, I believe the transition from the military to civilian life requires preparation on the soldier’s part and staying connected to comrades in arms via the variety of military service organizations. I also believe it is important to find a purpose, and this can be done by continued service to the country by volunteering in your community. There are hundreds of veterans, young and old that need your support. Knowing that you can help will validate your life’s purpose.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At the University of Phoenix College of Doctoral Studies, we are creating a robust community of scholar-practitioners whose focus is research in a wide range of areas such as Diversity and Inclusion, Technology, Change Management, Organizational Behavior, and Veteran Transition. We believe our scholarly contributions can drive change, improve communities, and help people. Our teams’ research has the potential to benefit a wide variety of populations. More information can be found at https://research.phoenix.edu/.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would advise team leaders not to ignore the small things. The team’s ability to complete the smallest task leads to the successful accomplishment of the bigger ones, and in turn, the mission.
I would also advise leaders to constantly train, coach, guide, and direct their team, continuously assess their individual team performance, and find opportunities to improve. Be accessible and available to your team and let them know you care.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a leader of a large organization, I suggest the leader focuses on the items they can control. Stress accountability for one’s action and encourage collaboration. Maintain high standards and create a value-based culture. Communicate constantly and be honest and transparent. Trust and empower your subordinate leaders and coach them along the way.
I would also advise that there is no magic pill for success. It takes a combination of a leader’s actions, initiatives, and lessons learned, all working in unison. Lead by example, and success will follow.
None of us can 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?
I am extremely grateful for my maternal uncle and aunt. Together, they accepted me in their home and treated me as one of their own. They taught the importance of hard work and the value of education. More importantly, they made me feel valued and important.
My uncle was active in our community and an advocate and role model for Hispanic rights. They were respected and appreciated for their thoughtfulness and acts of kindness. I live to make them proud and will always be grateful to them.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My wife and I are committed to supporting veterans in our community. We want to ensure that all veterans and their families are treated with respect and valued for their contributions to freedom and service to our country.
I use my success to help create awareness of veteran needs and leverage my network of peers and business leaders to support veteran causes. I am also proud of my work at the University of Phoenix. I have the privilege to witness how education lifts people and has a lasting legacy in their families and communities.
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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would encourage the importance of service to the country. I believe that all citizens should serve their country. This does not mean military service. It means doing your part, no matter how old or young, in service of others. I believe a national effort of volunteerism at the community level can impact everyone. I believe it will build collaboration and cooperation, regardless of our differences, political affiliation, or economic status.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote comes from General Colin Powell, who said, “Do your best –someone is watching.” This message resonates with me. I believe that everything we do becomes our professional and personal legacy, and I always ask myself how I will be remembered. As it relates to my professional legacy, how am I remembered when I leave a team, department, or organization? Am I remembered for my contribution to the greater good? Did I have a positive impact? Am I remembered for always trying my best, for leading by example, and for the way I treated others?
As it relates to my personal legacy, can it be said that I was a good man, a trusted friend, a good husband, father, and grandfather? If so, I can be proud of my life and my accomplishments.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? They might see this if we tag them.
I would love to see General Powell again. I have spoken with him before and even served under him (decades ago and many echelons below). I have always admired him and what he represents. I am a student of his and always revert to his words of wisdom.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.