Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Develop the definition of “What it means to be a leader” in your organization.” With Erik Therwanger and Marco Derhy

Unwaveringly develop your people as leaders. Develop the definition of “What it means to be a leader” in your organization. Identify the leadership traits that need to be exemplified in your organization. Spend time with your people, getting to know them, and what means the most to them. In a nutshell, everyone should be speaking the same language — speaking like leaders.

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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 Erik Therwanger. Erik is the founder of Think GREAT and draws from his experiences as a U.S. Marine, executive business leader, sales professional, and entrepreneur to help organizations achieve new levels of success. He uniquely combines leadership development, team building, sales training, and goal-setting into strategies and techniques that empower team members and leaders to exceed expectations. Erik has inspired audiences at companies such as US Bank, Sam’s Club, Shutterfly, RE/MAX, Hubbard Broadcasting, Thomson Reuters, U.S. Foods, armed services commands ranging from the Air National Guard to the U.S. Marine Corps, charities like The American Cancer Society, law enforcement and government agencies, and organizations in the health care and education industries. Think GREAT is a Certified Veteran-Owned Business, and Erik is also the author of The Think GREAT Collection. Erik shares the successful, proven concepts in his six books to give individuals and organizations the competitive edge needed to achieve new success levels. As a speaker and coach, Erik’s training sessions provide the tools needed to achieve greater results. He also empowers audiences with a lasting message of inspiration as he describes his life-changing experience of being his wife’s caregiver during her four bouts with cancer. Erik’s interactive and entertaining style engages audiences as he empowers them to open new possibilities in their personal and professional lives. Erik’s 3 Pillars of Business Greatness allows organizations to achieve greater results by providing dynamic programs and resources to enhance leadership development, strategic planning, and sales excellence — building a stronger foundation. As a trainer and speaker for the spouses of armed services personnel, Erik is deeply aware of their challenges and sacrifices. To help support their education and career goals, Erik founded the Think GREAT Foundation, dedicated to awarding scholarships to military spouses.

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

I was born in New York, and my family moved to Southern California in 1976, when I was six years old. Growing up, my parents raised me to have the highest respect for our country and our military. I knew that I wanted to serve our nation before pursuing a career in the film industry in high school.

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

After fulfilling the duties of vice president of a media company in Southern California, I launched my own business, Think GREAT. I now coach corporations across the country on the skills I learned in the Marine Corps, which I used to grow the media company by over 300%. I specialize in leadership development, strategic planning, and sales training.

One of my clients owns a restaurant chain in Minneapolis and he wanted to develop his people to think like leaders. During his leadership development journey with me, his organization empowered their leaders and they grew 323% that year.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1987 and went in “Open Contract,” which means that I did not choose a MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) — the military phrase for my job. Two days before graduating from boot camp, I learned that the Corps chose me to be an air traffic controller.

I was stationed at the Marnie Corps Air Station in Yuma Arizona, then was later transferred to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. I was awarded the Good Conduct Medal and the National Defense Service Medal before being honorably discharged in 1991.

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

The day before I turned twenty-one, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, and Operation Desert Storm was about to be launched. Our leaders immediately began to prepare us for deployment to the intense desert of the Middle East. To prepare us, they sent us into the Yuma desert on a forced march. In full combat gear, we marched for miles in the blistering heat — probably close to 115 degrees that day. Because Saddam Hussein threatened to use chemical warfare on us, our leaders gassed us to be better prepared to use our gas masks.

At the end of the training, we were hot, tired, and smelled like gas. Our Staff Sergeant pulled out the leadership trait, Enthusiasm, and encouraged us to each be enthusiastic — for our country, our Corps, and the Marines to our left and right. My biggest takeaway was “Look out for your people.”

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 learned quickly that the civilian sector likes to refer to our military service members and veterans as heroes. But we do not consider ourselves heroes, despite performing heroic actions. We do what we do, not to be recognized as heroes, but rather to exemplify honor, courage, and commitment.

With my clients, I share a story that would be considered to be “heroic.” During the bitter-cold weather at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, Chesty Puller addressed his Marines, who were running low on food, water, and ammunition. Right after he mentioned that they were outnumbered twenty-nine to one, he said seven words that created high levels of enthusiasm. He said, “They can’t get away from us now.” He empowered them during the toughest challenges. While the Corps lost over 800 Marines during this battle, the enemy lost over 35,000.

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

In my opinion, a hero is someone who maintains the ability to lead, inspire, and guide people during the toughest circumstances.

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

I believe that people can be considered heroic or courageous anytime they face their challenges with a positive attitude — especially when others are depending on 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.)

One of my most powerful lessons is to assign a date to every goal. The challenges of boot camp were significant and the thought of not being able to graduate was constant. To ensure that I graduated on time, I sent letters home announcing my graduation date — forcing myself to hit that date.

The next lesson is to believe in yourself. In addition to earning the title of United States Marine, I also completed air traffic control school, which had a high dropout/fail ratio. I needed to continually believe in my abilities to make it through that school.

A third but critically important lesson is to maintain bearing. One of the Marine Corps’ fourteen leadership traits is Bearing. They taught us always to carry ourselves and conduct ourselves at the highest levels of professionalism — always to represent the Corps in a positive light. I have always tried to maintain the highest levels of bearing in the civilian sector and teach business leaders to develop their teams with unparalleled bearing.

Another lesson is the need for goals. Military life can be challenging and stressful. Having meaningful goals allows us to see beyond our difficult circumstances and stay focused on a bright future. I wrote my first book, The GOAL Formula, based on this concept and now empowers people to stay focused on achieving greater results rather than succumbing to their circumstances.

My final lesson is that leadership development needs to be for everyone — at all levels in an organization. My leadership development started in the first moments of boot camp — the onboarding program for the Marine Corps. Every Marine is a leader, even if no one is reporting to them yet. Every Marine is expected to think and act as a leader. I wrote my book, The LEADERSHIP Connection, based on the leadership skills I learned in the Corps and how I transitioned them into every position I have held in the civilian sector.

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

My time in the Marine Corps was extremely instrumental in preparing me for the business world. For starters, I learned the value of developing every team member as a leader. I also understood the importance of crystal-clear communication and exhibiting empowering dialogue. I also learned the value of teamwork and always set out to achieve high cohesion and camaraderie in any of the teams I worked with or created.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways I have from serving is the importance of identity. In the Marines, we lived by our motto, mission, and core values. I constantly strive to fulfill my identity and to help business leaders to develop theirs.

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?

While I trained for deployment to the Gulf War, I was ordered to remain stateside due to my father’s health issues. My unit deployed, and by the time I returned, the war was practically over. My biggest struggle has always been the feelings of guilt for not being able to deploy with my fellow Marines.

I now focus on giving back to military families to enrich their lives. I have worked with family readiness programs and organizations such as the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. I provide valuable workshops to service members and their spouses, providing them with strategies and techniques for setting and accomplishing goals during and after deployments and through the rigors of military life.

I also created and launched the Think GREAT Foundation, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to raising money and awarding scholarships to military spouses to thank them for their sacrifices and commitments and allowing them to get back on track with their educational goals.

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

One of the most exciting projects that I am working on is our online training and development program: Think GREAT On-Demand. I am committed to bringing leadership strategic planning and sales training programs to millions of people worldwide.

I am also in the process of creating a Facilitator Program. I have been truly blessed by having many people inquire about becoming certified to deliver my unique business programs, so we will be developing a “Boot Camp” program to teach others the skills and techniques to empower business leaders and their teams.

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

Unwaveringly develop your people as leaders. Develop the definition of “What it means to be a leader” in your organization. Identify the leadership traits that need to be exemplified in your organization. Spend time with your people, getting to know them and what means the most to them. In a nutshell, everyone should be speaking the same language — speaking like leaders.

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

I never manage people — I manage work (schedules, budgets, inventory, etc.) It is critical to have your front-line leaders fully empowered to lead their people to lead large teams. Too many leaders have too many people reporting to them. Leadership should be shared — have no more the 5–7 direct reports. Use your organizational chart to clearly outline your “Chain of Command” and your line of communication and authority. Continually develop (not train) your leaders.

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?

While my business, Think GREAT, has grown every year since I launched it, it wasn’t until Sandy Crosby joined our team that we truly started to ELEVATE. As our Director of Business Development, she positioned us to meet and impact many new people and businesses. Her belief in me and my company was and still is instrumental to my growth and success. Also, her unwavering passion and work ethic pushed us to new levels and have helped transform us into having a greater presence than ever before. Everyone deserves to have someone who brings their A-game every day. She is fully committed, dedicated, and loyal , which has made a significant impact on me and my success.

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

Along with my team, I volunteer time to many events that support military families, including the launch of our own foundation to support the educational goals of military families. We have also dedicated time and resources to charities like Feed my Starving Children, Meals on Wheels, and Relay For Life. It is integral to our success that we give back.

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’m glad you asked. My vision is to lead the “Worldwide People Movement.” This means that businesses will begin to focus on the people in their businesses, not just the profits. I believe that profits follow people, not the other way around. It is time to develop our people and cultivate teams of leaders, rather than settling for having just groups of employees. Every business can provide an environment that is special and GREAT.

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

“Change Nothing — Enhance Everything” — this is a quote I created and have used for years. So many people want to make things better in their lives and organizations, but most people fear (hate) change. In fact, change agents are often needed to implement change. I encourage leaders to change nothing but to enhance everything. When we change, it is perceived as different. When we enhance, it is perceived better. People love “better.”

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? He or she might see this if we tag them 🙂

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. Kevin and I both attended USC’s film school and studied cinematography together. I would be interested to learn some of his thoughts about leading a team to such high levels of success, through creativity, collaboration, and teamwork.

I would also love to meet with Pete Carrol, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


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

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