Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned in the Military: “Allow yourself a healthy measure of vulnerability.” With John Waldron and Marco Derhy.

Allow yourself a healthy measure of vulnerability. Vulnerability is one of the least understood and appreciated characteristics of a strong leader. Succeeding as a leader requires building strong relationships with followers. One way to strengthen relationships is to be comfortable admitting mistakes and owning up to things we do not do well. Too often, leaders feel that hiding or denying mistakes is important not to show weakness. But admitting mistakes with those we lead helps followers connect with leaders on a deeper level and creates a level of comfort in the relationship.

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As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Waldron, Executive Director, The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

Marco; Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was born in Queens, New York, and grew up on the north shore of Long Island until I was 14. Long Island was a remarkable place to grow up with the ocean nearby, plenty of natural surroundings to explore as kids, and an idyllic suburban lifestyle. My parents worked hard to maintain our middle class life with my dad working in the melt shop of a titanium plant and my mother working as a certified nurse’s assistant. I have an older sister, Doreen, and we had a younger brother, Michael, who died in a car accident at the age of 20. At 14, I moved to Las Vegas as my mom and dad sought opportunities to live out West. I had a good life growing up in a loving family. We didn’t have much in the way of money or things, but we looked out for each other, and we remain close today. I did not transition well when we moved to Las Vegas, though, and I struggled through high school. It wasn’t until was 25 that I saw possibilities in my life to do something worthwhile, and it was because I had the right mentor at the time, who took a chance on me. I missed the opportunity to have the high school experience kids should have. But with the right people in my life, I went on to accomplish academic achievements beyond expectation, including a doctorate in leadership.

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

I am doing three things professionally today. I teach business and leadership classes for two colleges — College of Southern Nevada and Southern New Hampshire University. I also have a leadership development program I created and have facilitated since 2005. The leadership development program has afforded me wonderful opportunities to mentor and coach emerging leaders and to return the great fortune I had in people creating the right environment where I could succeed. My primary role is the Executive Director of The Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada (The Center). All of the work I am fortunate to do includes a component of serving others. The greatest leaders are servants for the people they lead and I have been beyond fortunate to serve countless leaders in helping them define greater purpose and vision. At The Center, our mission is to enhance the lives of the LGBTQ community in Southern Nevada. We do that by serving as the home to all members of the LGBTQ family, and our allies, proving a safe and affirming place to embrace our authentic selves. We have a wellness clinic to serve the needs of individuals with HIV, social programs that provide countless opportunities to make healthy social connections, and educational programs to increase cultural competency in the community. We also have individuals on staff, as well as volunteers, who are certified to respond to people in crisis and to help them get the support and resources they need in moments of difficulty.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I served for four in the U.S. Army from 1983 to 1987 in a transportation unit that hauled heavy equipment, including tanks, and other armored vehicles. I did not see combat and served during a time when we had no major military conflicts. I completed my enlisted as a sergeant (E5).

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

My greatest experiences still go back to basic training. It was so impactful because I had enlisted when I had little sense of direction and purpose in life. I think the military saved my life in that I learned disciplines that I still employ today. Basic training was 36 years ago for me. But my drill sergeants remain two of the leaders I think about most in my life. It’s a remarkable experience when you are torn down to your core, completely dependent on your leaders and fellow soldiers, and then subsequently built back up into a soldier. I will be forever grateful to Sergeant White and Sergeant Van Zandt for taking a confused 18-year-old kid and making him into a leader.

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 wish I had a great answer for this question. My military experience was more than 30 years ago and I do not recall a specific example of heroism. I’m sure the courageous men and women who have faced combat situations in their military service can cite myriad examples of heroism. I honestly cannot think of an example that would be meaningful for this piece.

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

A hero is one who acts selflessly for the benefit of others and who is willing to make themselves available when a fellow human being is in need. I think of my friend Chuck. We have been the best of friends for decades and I know of no one else who is more selfless in everyday affairs. One of the stories that stand out for me is the time a man was having a medical emergency while driving, and Chuck jumped into action never hesitating for a moment to step in when someone was in need. On a regular workday back in 2015, Chuck was driving between the campuses where we worked at a local nonprofit agency, on his way to a meeting when a truck passed him and was out of control. The vehicle hit another car and then the back of a work truck. Chuck got out of his car and ran to help the gentleman in the truck where he quickly recognized the driver was not breathing and had no pulse. Chuck solicited help to get the driver out of the vehicle and he laid the gentleman down in the street and worked to save the man’s life providing CPR.

Chuck continued CPR until he was able to switch over with paramedics who worked earnestly to bring the driver back. The paramedics took the gentleman to the ER as Chuck worked with the police to help figure out what happened and to attend to the other drivers. He had no idea whether the driver recovered.

After providing a police report, Chuck left the scene and went on to work where he spends his days serving men and women with intellectual disabilities who come to the agency every day to work and lead productive lives earning a paycheck. True to Chuck’s character he told few people what happened and he quietly worried about the man’s condition and hoped for the best. Sadly, we later learned through a newspaper report that the driver had passed at the hospital.

The thing that stands out most for me is that the man who died was likely someone’s father, husband, grandfather, brother….he was someone’s friend. But as his life was about to come to an end, he was alone — except for a few strangers who cared enough to stop and try to help. I can’t help but think that the gentleman’s family and friends would be comforted to know that his last moments of life were spent being helped by someone who cared, a hero. Chuck, and the people who stopped to help that day, are my definition of heroes. Ordinary people who are willing to do the right thing, asking for nothing in return, to help another in need during life’s difficult moments.

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

Heroism does not require life and death situations. Heroes are in our presence every day. There is heroism in the selfless act of empathetically and compassionately helping others in need. Every day at The Center, we see lives changed for the better, and individuals from young to old find inner peace living as their authentic selves. And countless social services organizations across the country are staffed with employees and volunteers who generously help others in times of great need. While notable heroes often do inspire and remarkable acts in service to others, everyday heroes are just as noteworthy, and often serve with little recognition for their 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 what your mission is and be persistent
     The most effective leaders, and people who are successful in life, know that you have to establish the target if you’re going to aim properly and accomplish objectives. Not having a clear mission is like someone telling you to fire an arrow and hit a bullseye, but they never show you the location of the target. And people in business leadership roles do this all the time. They evaluate their employee at the end of the year based on objectives and criteria they never established at the beginning of the year. When soldiers set out on a mission, their objectives are clear and they are coached and provided feedback continuously. They are also expected to persistently drive-on and not lose focus of the mission regardless of the obstacles that come their way.
  2. Leaders look out for the needs of their followers; even at the cost of personal needs the leader may have
     Simon Sinek wrote an entire book on this principle. For Marine leaders, they are expected to eat last, after ensuring their soldiers are fed. It’s a simple concept that has profound implications. When soldiers are in training, their leaders are up first, and to bed last. There’s an expectation that leaders look out for the welfare of their soldiers as the primary objective. That principle would transform modern workplaces if leaders embraced the mindset that leadership is a call to service. Serving one’s followers is the highest calling a leader can have, and it is a privilege to serve in that capacity.
  3. You have to be a good follower before you can be an effective leader
     One of the objectives of basic and advanced training in the Army is to teach individuals how to follow. Learning how to follow instills discipline in a soldier while demanding commitment to fellow soldiers, the objectives of the team, and the Army as a whole. When we learn to follow, we are learning to take orders, solve difficult challenges, and to watch out for the best interest of our fellow soldiers. When a soldier is a strong follower, he or she demonstrates they are a good member of a team, and that they can be trusted. They demonstrate respect for authority and they are accountable for their actions. Leaders in the Army are followers first so that they learn the experience of the soldier and appreciation for how to achieve goals as a unit. All of these skills are invaluable traits of a leader and the individual who has the experience of a follower first is compassionate, empathetic, and driven to do what’s right for the collective welfare of others.
  4. The right way may very well be the hard way, but you always do the right thing
     We learn early-on in the military that if you do things dishonestly, you will be discovered, and it is hard to recover from bad choices. There are few secrets in life that do not get uncovered and choosing to be dishonest is a costly mistake. Life is full of opportunities to choose an easier path and cut corners or do the wrong thing. A soldier who has honor takes pride and satisfaction in doing the right thing, even when it is harder. I had a sergeant who used to tell us that we are constantly building our reputations with each decision we make, and each action we take, one small step at a time. We were told continuously that we needed to think of the reputation we wanted to have and align our decisions and actions with the building of that reputation. And then we were warned that when we make poor or unethical choices, we are adding those decisions and actions to our reputation as well, and over time they become cancerous to the core of who we profess to be.
  5. Prepare continuously and always have an alternative plan
     One of my leaders in the business world used to tell me that I needed to be like a good pilot…I should always have a place to land, whether times were good or bad. What he meant was a good leader is constantly preparing not only for the mission, but also for the inevitable when things go wrong, and they know how to solve problems well. Soldiers in the Army continuously train, not because they forget how to do things, but to be constantly reminded and refined in how to do difficult tasks. Learning and development is a critical component of a successful team, whether in the military, or in any organization. The business world often comes up short-sighted on the importance of preparing and planning for the inevitable. That’s due in part, because in difficult economic periods, learning and development is a line item on the budget that is easily erased. The best leaders know that they need to continuously remind people of what they know, help them solve challenges to improve their capacity, and develop growth and opportunity paths for everyone on the team. James Autry has a mantra that I think is appropriate for this lesson…”if we can’t always guarantee people employment, we can guarantee they’re employable.” It is the leaders responsibility to ensure each person on their team is prepared for future challenges and opportunities.

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

I think the discipline and stick-to-itiveness that is embedded in a soldier is a vital characteristic of a successful business person. Life in the private sector is not as regimented and leadership is certainly different in civilian life. I didn’t know I was a leader before I served in the military. The Army showed me that I had some measure of innate capacity for leadership, and helped set the foundation for the leader I would become. I was a struggling teenager when I enlisted who needed help finding my path in life. Without the Army, I think I personally would have struggled to manifest leadership potential if not for the process of becoming a disciplined follower.

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?

I did not see any form of military conflict and consequently, I was not scarred in any way from the experience.

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

I am working on expanding a leadership development program I created several years ago. It is a six-month course that is designed to help emerging and seasoned leaders define their purpose as leaders and to develop a personal vision for their success in leadership. Oftentimes, people become leaders without fully understanding their purpose in leading others. The program takes participants through a process of learning basic leadership principles and practices, self-reflection exercises to become more purposeful in leadership, and the development of a clear and compelling vision. The program has 150 alumni, many of whom help current participants as they progress through the program.

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

Allow yourself a healthy measure of vulnerability. Vulnerability is one of the least understood and appreciated characteristics of a strong leader. Succeeding as a leader requires building strong relationships with followers. One way to strengthen relationships is to be comfortable admitting mistakes and owning up to things we do not do well. Too often leaders feel that hiding or denying mistakes is important so that they don’t show weakness. But admitting mistakes with those we lead helps followers connect with leaders on a deeper level and creates a level of comfort in the relationship. Subsequently, followers will be more open when they make mistakes…rather than feeling as though they need to cover mistakes. And to cultivate the relationship, leaders should see the mistakes and failures of followers as developmental opportunities, rather than opportunities to punish people. This type of relationship also requires empathy on the part of the leader. On the surface, some leaders may see vulnerability and empathy as weaknesses. But when leaders lead through directing and telling and punishing people for mistakes, the best they can hope for is compliance. Leading through the “do this or else” approach, never inspires people to greatness. A leader who practices vulnerability and empathy, while developing people through their mistakes and familiars, will inspire people to greatness. Lastly, believe in people and their capacity to do more than they know they can do. Les Brown always says “sometimes you have to go on someone else’s belief in you until your belief catches up.” Many of the people we lead will do more than they even imagine if their leader genuinely believes in their capacity to grow.

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

Find your leaders among the team and develop them to serve as your first followers. Once you develop your first followers to succeed, they will add credibility to your vision for the team and will make it okay for others to follow. Develop those first followers to cascade great leadership to others so that they too can find other leaders to develop. Also, share information widely. Give information liberally to everyone at every level. A quote I have always tried to live by is “nobody ever did a worse job for having too much information” — James Autry. Gossip and rumors have a very natural appeal to human beings, and can also be seriously detrimental to the success of a large team. Flooding the team with information will help curtail gossip and rumors and will empower teams to act when they face challenges.

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?

When I was 25, I was unsure what to do with my life and was afraid to take chances. I began working at the local daily newspaper in an entry-level position. The director of our department met with me to tell me he saw potential in me and he would help me if I was open to mentoring. I didn’t know what the word mentor meant, but I was open to learning. Jack began to open doors and each time he did, I made sure to take full advantage. I began to believe in my potential and found greater purpose in learning to become a leader in business. His influence inspired me to learn every opportunity I was given to develop my skills. Jack stayed with me for years in mentoring me through multiple periods of growth and advancement in the company. He genuinely cared to see me become a leader that was driven to succeed. Jack retired about 11 years into our mentoring relationship. I was a middle manager in the company and on a path to continue succeeding. I wanted to do my part in helping other leaders go through the same process I experienced, defining purpose and pursuing a bigger vision for their life, and creating an environment where people could choose to be better leaders. That’s when I created the leadership development program I currently offer emerging and seasoned leaders. Because Jack opened doors for me, I was able to reach the highest levels of leadership in the newspaper company, and it prepared me for my current role as an executive director of a nonprofit organization. I recently contacted Jack, 28 years after he initially chose to mentor me, and shared my success and the fact that it all started because he chose to take a chance on a young guy looking for direction. He’s 82 now, and it meant everything to him that I shared the powerful role he played in my life.

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

I try to be a leader who constantly helps others succeed. I do my best to be recognized as a compassionate leader who is kind to others. I believe being kind is the foundation of bringing goodness to the world. We just need to be decent people as leaders who care more about the welfare of others than we do our egos or our tangible successes. And one of my absolute favorite things to do in life is to help a person who doesn’t know yet how to succeed and works with them to define a clear path to success and to achieve much more than they ever imagined. My new role in the community is affording me wonderful opportunities to be part of bringing goodness to the world. I work with an amazing team every day that is focused on living lives of significance by helping people in the LGBTQ community cultivate affirming relationships and connections. We work hard to create an environment of love, empathy, compassion, and hope. The thousands of people who walk through the doors of The Center each year are looking for a home to feel connected and empowered. Our team works tirelessly to be the hub of inclusiveness for the LGBTQ community, and our allies, in Sothern Nevada.

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 like to launch a nationwide initiative to expand the development of emerging nonprofit leaders to define their purpose and set their vision as leaders of significance. We would work on promoting the importance, and great intangible rewards, of a life of service and leading others to do greatness in social services. I’ve had the vision to form an agency called the Nonprofit Leadership Development Alliance (NLDA) that would also work to promote leadership careers in the social sector. My research for my doctoral dissertation focused on the serious gap in ready-now leaders in nonprofits. I would like to work toward inspiring a call for servant leaders who are well-trained and skilled in the capacity to lead nonprofits as they do meaningful work to the benefit of others.

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

“You can’t always see the picture when you’re stuck in the frame” — Les Brown

The quote means to be open to feedback and coaching from others. Be willing to step out of the rush of life to do self-reflection and learn from others who may have a fresh perspective on the picture of your life. Be open to asking others for advice, guidance, and sometimes the hard truth. Be willing to take the time to learn and grow, even when life seems impossibly busy. And be humble. I also love the quote, “Be humble, a lot was accomplished before you were born.” I don’t know who said that one, but I remember it always.

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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

It would be the honor of my lifetime to meet Barack Obama. I think he was one of the greatest leaders our country has had in modern history. His capacity to lead with incredible integrity and a very high level of emotional intelligence is the example all presidents should emulate. President Obama’s capacity to stay focused on a purposeful vision is inspiring to me as I work to help other leaders define their purpose and vision for their life in leadership. He is a man of dignity and strength who is married to a woman who is his equal.

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