Establish clear boundaries between the different parts of your life. If your job is the scene of the crisis, you have to try not to bring it home. Every day that I came home to my family, I would take a couple of minutes in the car to reset my equilibrium. I focused on how happy I was to be home, and I did my best to leave work at work. It doesn’t always work great, but if you try it will always help at least a little bit.
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 Ruthie Bowles.
Ruthie is a US Army Combat Veteran, and separated from the Army as a Staff Sergeant. She’s a mom to four, and married to a fellow Army vet. After working in the US Intelligence Community for nearly 10 years, Ruthie founded Defy The Status Quo, is now an authority marketing strategist for client-based businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Well, I’m one of six kids. I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters. We’re pretty spread out; there’s 21 years between my oldest brother and my youngest brother. My attempts to stand out among that many siblings led me to be the high-achiever I am today.
I was born in California, but we moved to Pennsylvania when I was in 6th grade. That was my first encounter with culture shock for sure!
My mom is white and my dad is Black, but we were never raised really focusing on that. I constantly felt torn after we moved to PA because there seemed to be serious distinctions between the Black people and white people who lived there. I struggled to fit in.
A great example of this is when I skipped school occasionally, I usually went to the library. It’s hard to fit in when you’re “that” kid!
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Today, I’m an authority marketing strategist. That must be a holdover from trying to stand out amongst my siblings. My specialty is helping service-businesses (consulting firms, agencies, etc.) stand out in “the sea of experts” as I like to say.
My clients enjoy working with me because of my focus on authenticity. When we sit down for our initial consultation calls, it’s all about digging into their business, their offer, and their ideal audience. Then we assess how we can authentically reach that ideal audience through my client’s stories and experience.
We lean into what makes them unique to increase their marketability, but to also create genuine connections across time and space.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the Army right out of high school at 18 years old. I signed up to be a cryptologic linguist, which is a fancy way of saying translator. When I got my orders after graduating Basic Training, I saw “PF” as my language code. I asked my battle buddies, “PF? What’s that?”
“Persian? Like 300 Persian? I thought Persian was a dead language?”
Of course, I quickly learned otherwise. Persian Farsi is spoken in Iran, and by some ethinic groups in surrounding countries. I fell in love with the language and the culture during my training.
My first duty station was at Ft. Campbell, KY. I was a part of the 3rd Brigade, 101st ABN Division (Air Assault) . I completed a 12-month deployment, which really changed my life and pushed me to my limits.
After I came home from deployment, I changed station to Ft. Gordon, GA. At about 4.5 years in, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant, which was pretty quick by most standards. I was the head of my battalion’s 200+ person language program, which involved coordinating training, equipment, supplies, and contracts. It was one of the most satisfying positions I ever held.
Then I changed station to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, TX. I was a training instructor for new Airmen, Soldiers, and Marines in my specialty. I finished my time in the Army while in Texas.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I’ll start with the takeaway: we do have the power to BE the change we want in the world, but it’s easy to abdicate that power in the face of the stories we tell ourselves.
While I was stationed in Georgia, I had a Soldier who came to me because she was being harassed by a noncommissioned officer in another service. When I was a lower enlisted Soldier, about 19 years old, I was sexually assaulted by a servicemember in another service. It happened again when I was 21 by another Soldier.
I was so tempted to tell her that she was going to have to buck up and deal with it, because no one was going to help her. Because no one had helped me. I reported my first incident, and nothing happened. That’s a longer story, but my bad experiences with a bad system were coloring my view of her situation.
I realized that I could be the difference for her. And I resolved to make sure that no one ignored her and that she wasn’t swept under the rug. I promised to be there for her every step of the way, and so she filed a complaint. In that case, the system worked the way it was supposed to.
I almost relinquished my power to be the change I wanted to see in the Army. Almost.
We are 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 that we have this grand idea of what heroism is, especially when people consider professions like serving in the military. But I would challenge the flashy version of hero, with the one that everyone fails to notice. I served alongside heroes every day of my career.
In order to work in military intelligence, you have to be able to get a security clearance. That security clearance means that you’re entrusted with classified information. Information that you cannot willingly divulge without breaking your oath and federal law.
That means we go to work day in and day out, unable to share with our families exactly what it is we do. We’ll receive awards with vague descriptions because the cause of receipt is classified. No matter if there is a global pandemic, social unrest, or a volatile economy, we’re expected to come into work and leave those problems at the door so we can support operations overseas and national security interests.
Even now, as a veteran, my husband is a federal contractor. Our children often ask him about his work. He has to explain that his work is a secret and he isn’t allowed to share what he does. They don’t understand, which is why they keep asking. And yet, he carries the trust of the government, and goes back in every day to do his “secret” work.
There are heroes who take enemy fire, and there are heroes who bear the weight of our nation’s secrets. I served with both.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Being in a leadership role in the military was more demanding than anything I’ve experienced as an employee or an entrepreneur. Not to say that’s true for all industries everywhere. But a leader in the military has more absolute responsibility over their subordinates than a civilian leader.
So being a military leader showed me what it felt like to go beyond what you thought was possible. Our duties are very sensitive, so I learned what it felt like to be the face of consequences and to mete those consequences out when necessary.
A successful business isn’t a flash in the pan. We must endure different trials so we can relish the successes. Being in the military built up not just my physical endurance, but also my mental fortitude.
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?
I had a squad leader when I was deployed who pushed me to go to the Sergeant Promotion Board before I considered it. I remember her asking me when I wanted to go, and I was shocked. She saw something in me that I couldn’t see yet. We made a plan to help me prepare for the board, and she worked with me on my physical fitness so that my fitness test scores wouldn’t hold me back.
The day of the board, I remember her double checking my uniform and just pumping me up. She reminded me that I had done Soldier of the Month and Soldier of the Quarter boards. The board members knew me and appreciated my dedication. She looked me in the eye and told me that I didn’t have to know I could do it because SHE knew I could do it.
Without her push, I can’t say that I would’ve accomplished everything in my career that happened after that point.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
I consider a crisis to be anything that shakes us down to our “lizard” brains. It becomes incredibly hard to focus when your health, relationships, or wealth are in jeopardy. This year is a spectacularly horrible example.
With COVID-19, many considered their health to be in danger. Imagine the pressures they experienced if they also were essential personnel. When the stock market was affected and many people lost their jobs, the true personal crisis of an endangered livelihood brings great stress.
With respect to business, external crises, like the ones we’re experiencing this year, we encounter situations that we didn’t plan for. That means most businesses likely weren’t able to mitigate the risks.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
As leaders, we have to accept that there are things we can’t plan for. But that doesn’t mean that we should plan and run scenarios to prepare our teams for a variety of negative scenarios. While we don’t know what would cause some situations, we can certainly anchor contingency plans into our business operations and KPIs.
From a marketing perspective, marketers have to consider what they would do if one of their high-ROI channels was inaccessible tomorrow. What if they could no longer run Facebook or Google ads? What if their primary social media channel changes their algorithm?
Teams should have plans in place, even if they don’t know the scenario, they can plan for a variety of outcomes.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
We have this tendency to want to take massive action in a crisis, not realizing that makes us highly reactive. The first thing anyone in a crisis should do is STOP. Do not react to your crisis.
Instead, stop and then assess. You may not be able to make an extensive plan, but you can stop and decide what your next few steps will be based on the information that you have.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
One of the most important characteristics is the ability to compartmentalize. Long-term compartmentalizing isn’t healthy. We all have to deal with the issues in our lives. But in the short-term, to provide the guidance and leadership our teams need, leaders need to be able to separate how a crisis is impacting them as individuals and what their teams need from them.
Imagine that you’re a company executive with a variety of responsibilities and a health crisis strikes. Your spouse is a medical professional and is pulling 12 hour shifts to assist in the effort to combat the health crisis. Your whole team is worried for a variety of reasons, and they need more guidance from you than usual. How can you give them what they need if you can’t set aside your own worries?
It doesn’t sound fair that you have to subjugate what you need in order for your team to get what they need. But being a leader, a true leader, isn’t about fairness.
In the military, I learned to give all I had, and then to dig deeper and give more. My life wasn’t like that all of the time. But by doing so, I learned I had depths of will, courage, and mental fortitude that were hidden until those very moments.
True leaders are servants. We serve, giving others what they need so they can live up to their full potential. We can’t satisfy every need, but a leader should feel compelled to do everything they can to enable their subordinates’ success.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Funny enough that he should come up again during this interview, but my husband actually. Not that I don’t have other leaders to pick from. But he’s the first person I thought of when you asked.
We actually met during a deployment to Afghanistan. Our base came under attack and insurgents actually got on the base. I think I pulled a 16-hour shift that day before they told me to go back to my bunk. He was in the office giving after action analysis for another 4 hours I think. That wasn’t something any of the leaders wanted to do that day, him included.
But it got done because it needed to get done. That’s enough of a reason for leaders who put the mission and team above everything else.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
While I was serving, I had two military sexual trauma (MST) experiences. The first one was about four years before the second one. But that first one influenced my choices following the second assault.
I filed an unrestricted report the first time. And I was let down by the system in almost every way possible. In the military, they teach you that if you file an unrestricted report, then they will be able to do everything they can to help you and prosecute the perpetrator. But for me that didn’t happen. Despite having a taped confession (which was later damaged by a faulty HVAC) unit, the perpetrator only received a letter of reprimand.
This process was something that took months, and at every turn, I was let down by the organization I trusted.
When I was assaulted the second time, I didn’t report it. It was right after my deployment. I didn’t want to experience another “system-wide” failure just for me.
About a year and a half after that second assault, I had a soldier in my charge who was being harassed by a noncommissioned officer in another service, as I mentioned before. My initial inclination was to tell them that they needed to keep it to themselves and grow a thicker skin. No one was going to help.
But I had a moment of transformation.
What if someone DID help? Did this person need the whole system to work for them? Or could one person fighting on their behalf make a difference?
I realized that I could be the change I wanted to see in the Army. It lit a fire inside of me, and I prepared to go to battle for my Soldier.
I told them that if they felt comfortable reporting, I would support them 100% of the way. I would go with them to every meeting with the chain of command, I would be our commander’s least favorite NCO to see until their case was resolved, because I wouldn’t let anyone ignore it.
I told my Soldier I would write congress people and senators, but that they wouldn’t be swept under the rug or punished for reporting.
I don’t know if the Universe was paying extra special attention that day, but the system actually worked the way it was supposed to for my Soldier. No letters to congress people necessary.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Establish clear boundaries between the different parts of your life. If your job is the scene of the crisis, you have to try not to bring it home. Every day that I came home to my family, I would take a couple of minutes in the car to reset my equilibrium. I focused on how happy I was to be home, and I did my best to leave work at work. It doesn’t always work great, but if you try it will always help at least a little bit.
2. Focus on establishing mental frameworks that you can monitor to avoid being reactionary. Think of them as mental pauses. When your emotions reach a certain height, you’re no longer effective. You cannot yell at your team members and still accomplish your mission. When you feel yourself rising, you need to make the conscious choice to walk away. You need a mental pause to cut off those reactions. During deployment, my work was of a sensitive nature. I couldn’t afford to be reactionary, or I might miss something. These mental pauses helped me take a brief pause and get my mind back in the right place.
3. Balance your emotions and your logic. A true leader understands that they need their emotions and their logic to fulfill their mission. Our emotions are what helps us connect us to others. They can also guide us in split second decisions. Our logic helps us assess our options. When a leader can approach a situation with enough of both, they take ownership of the situation they’re in, instead of allowing the situation to rule them. Reactionary decisions are less “decision” and more a proverbial flinch.
4. Scream it out. Sometimes, we need to give ourselves a chance to work off some of our stress. Crises have a way of not stopping, and if you don’t make time to decompress, then it will happen at the least inopportune moment. For some, a good scream or cry while you’re alone can do it. For people with physical hobbies like martial arts, a tough sparring session can help you release pent up aggression. Anyone who can play an instrument might try playing music that suits their mood. I favor a good scream and playing my guitar.
5. Create space and time to share with those closest to you. We don’t want to do damage to our close relationships, so our initial inclination may be to try and shield them from the crisis we’re experiencing at work. But those people are close to you for a reason. They likely can tell that something is weighing on you, and will feel as if you’re closing them out if you don’t share. They don’t need all of the details, but you’ll both benefit if you open up. This year, I’ve made time to discuss the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the face of COVID-19 with my husband. It’s helped me mentally relax and draw us closer together.
Ok. We are nearly done. 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. 🙂
Veterans are a source of great leadership, resourcefulness, and skill. I would love to see a well-funded and innovative movement that worked hard to provide veteran business leaders with the resources (educational, monetary, and network) they need to bring the brilliant business ideas and companies they’ve built to the forefront of the business world.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have breakfast with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not because we share the same political beliefs, but because I admire what she’s managed to accomplish. We’re about the same age, and we’ve led incredibly different lives. But she serves, and I’d love an opportunity to get to know her.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be found easily on LinkedIn, which is my favorite social media platform. I’m also easily found by searching my name on Google, “Ruthie Bowles.”
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.
It was definitely my pleasure!