There’s a reason why situational awareness is the first skill taught to prepare soldiers for the battlefield. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry will share some anecdotes from his time in the military, highlighting the critical role situational awareness plays when making informed decisions. With deep insights, John explores how developing and maintaining situational awareness can help leaders make conscious decisions, navigate challenges, and create a culture of accountability and success within their company.
Welcome, fellow veterans. From the tip of the spear to in the rear with the gear, I went from active-duty Infantry to reserve-component logistician. I’m your host, CEO, entrepreneur, trial lawyer and Lieutenant Colonel Retired, John Berry. The military lessons that I learned helped me grow an eight-figure business that has maintained consistent annual double-digit growth, landing on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America every year for the past seven years and has allowed me to continue to serve America’s heroes.
Welcome to Episode 2, Situational Awareness: the first skill you developed in the military.
One of the first lessons we learn in the military is situational awareness. Keep your head on the swivel. Always look for threats on patrol. Complacency kills. And you could remember that situational awareness developed long before you left the wire. There’d be briefings on enemy activity in the area, location of suspected IEDs, and location of friendly forces.
I remember when I first learned about situational awareness. I was on patrol in some training environment, and we had just left the patrol base, and the leader raised his hand. And we all took a knee for about 30 seconds, and we conducted something called SILS and SILS stood for Stop, Look, Listen, Smell. You were acclimatizing to the environment to create more situational awareness. In other words, now that we’re moving out, let’s just stop, take a breather, and understand what’s going on in our environment. That was SILS.
Now, for most of you, you can remember day one, you got exposed to situational awareness, the situational awareness of the drill sergeants. If you walked on the grass, talk during chow, they saw it, and they smoked you for it. You did pushups, you did flutter kicks, you beat your boots. The drill sergeants made you do all these things because they knew when you screwed up and after a while, you developed situational awareness, right? After a while, especially if you were a shammer, you figured out what the drill sergeants were doing and when they were doing it and when you could get away with stuff. And that happened throughout basic training and, for some of you, throughout your military careers.
Now, I had the great fortune of going through Ranger School twice, first as a winter ranger and second as a summer ranger. In the winter phase, I hurt my shoulder, failed my patrols, and it took me about six months to heal, so I went back through in the summer. But the first time I went through with some members of my IOBC class, Infantry Officer Basic Course class, and in that class were a few West Pointers, actually a lot of West Pointers. Now, because I hadn’t been to Airborne School, I had to go to Airborne School between IOBC and Ranger School.
But for my friends in the class ahead of me, they had a great tale, a great story that was told to us by the ranger instructors when we got to Dahlonega, Georgia, the mountain phase. And they explained to us that there were a couple rangers, who were officers, who decided that during the mountaineering phase, these are the five days where you stay in the barracks and you’re doing mountaineering, so you actually get sleep and you get chow, that they decided that they were going to sneak off to Walmart and get a bunch of pogey bait, or junk food.
Well, here’s what happened, getting the scoop from some of my buddies who were in that class. There were two ranger lieutenants and, of course, in Ranger School, nobody has any rank, but they know who you are. One of them was dating this woman in Dahlonega, Georgia whose brother was a cab driver. They went to Walmart, and they bought bags and bags of beef, jerky, nuts, candy, brought it all back; they were heroes, they shared the candy and the food, and everyone was impressed.
But there were two bat boys. Now these are, uh, younger enlisted soldiers from the ranger battalion that hit the top of their order of merit list, and they were afforded the opportunity to go to Ranger School as enlisted soldiers. They decided they were going to do the same thing. They were going to be heroes too and get even more junk food for the ranger students, but they didn’t have the same situational awareness as the lieutenants. The lieutenants changed completely into civilian clothes, whereas the bat boys simply removed portions of their BDUs and walked into Walmart with their army brown t-shirts, combat boots, newly shaven heads, emaciated bodies, dragging the duffel bags that they were going to put all the food in. And, as you can imagine, there were individuals who worked at that Walmart who were familiar with Camp Merrill. One of them was a security guard who was a former employee at Camp Merrill, who noticed them, who called the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and said, “Hey, I think I’ve got some of your rangers here.”
As you can imagine, when the bat boys returned, there was a shakedown. And the RIs found all the junk food, and they talked to these enlisted soldiers and asked, what happened and why they did it, and the enlisted soldiers turned in the lieutenants as well and everyone was kicked out of school. Now, the moral of the story is the soldiers did not have the situational awareness as the officers. Look, if you’re going to do something, don’t do something stupid, but if you’re going to do something stupid, have the situational awareness to understand the risks. And as soldiers, we know that risks are everywhere, and we know that even when we do something stupid, we need to be on high alert. We need to maintain situational awareness of everything that’s around us, everything that can go wrong, and we need to govern ourselves accordingly. So, it’s important to maintain that situational awareness.
Now, what does that have to do with your civilian career? Well, as a civilian, you must have situational awareness or you’ll get caught in Walmart, right? And what I mean by getting caught is not that you’re going to do anything wrong, but that you’re going to get caught when you’re not prepared. And the key to situational awareness is preparation. You have to anticipate what’s happening and as a leader, you have to know what’s going on. And generally, in business, there’s four areas where you have to maintain situational awareness: number one, data and performance metrics, number two, financial reports, number three, the culture of your organization, and number four, your leadership team.
Let’s talk about data and performance metrics. You have to look at the numbers and the data can tell you a lot about external forces, but also internal forces. Sometimes individuals don’t understand that the true enemy is inside the wire. It’s easy to blame competitors or market conditions, but if you don’t understand whether your team is hitting its KPIs or its performance metrics, you won’t know whether the trouble is inside the gate or outside the gate. Individual metrics matter. As a leader, you have to maintain situational awareness. My COO looked at those first thing in the morning and last thing during the day to see what had changed. Your individual metrics matter and if you don’t understand those, you will not have situational awareness. What’s even worse is when you don’t understand your financial reports. If you don’t understand your balance sheet, your profit/loss statement, your budget variance report, or don’t have any of those reports, and there’s six reports I look at, but those are three of them, you don’t understand the whole story. Numbers tell a story. And as I’ve heard, cash doesn’t lie. And if you don’t have the situational awareness to understand the financial health of your company, you’re not in a position to make decisions, and as a leader, you’re making crucial decisions about the future of your organization. If you don’t have the situational awareness to understand what your cash position is, what your financial situation is, you really cannot decide, and that’s what leaders are paid to do; to decide.
Your culture. Maintaining situational awareness of your culture is key. If you intentionally develop your culture, you’ll know how people behave, how the work gets done, how tasks are completed, and what happens when the team fails. However, if you leave culture to chance, it’ll take on a life of its own. Once you let it take on a life of its own, you’ve lost the situational awareness, you don’t understand, and so you must take those intentional acts to develop the culture that you want so that you have situational awareness of how things are really getting done, if at all, in your company. And that is the frightening thing, is that the cultural aspects of your company matter. But if you’re not aware of them and your actions are not intentional, you’re going to be in trouble. At Berry Law, we made metrics part of our culture. We had huge scoreboards, 84-inch TVs throughout the non-public facing areas that had the metrics that would flash every 10 seconds to something new, and the culture was one of winning, and we would celebrate wins. And the culture was something that we could control. And it allowed us to maintain situational awareness. Everyone in the building has situational awareness of our wins for the week and our metrics. Now, some people don’t like metrics, some people don’t like accountability, but the reality is, if your culture is a culture of accountability, they’ll learn to love it.
Finally, your leadership team. You have to have situational awareness of what is going on in your leadership team. The most important team in any organization is the top leadership team. I understand that you may have a team of teams and there’s a lot of different leaders out there. But from the top, that leadership team needs to be tight, needs to be solid, and if it’s not, you need situational awareness of that. And what I mean by that is that every now and then, we see an organization where it fractures, the leadership team fractures, and there’s silos, and there’s politics, and there’s a rumor mill. If you don’t have situational awareness, you end up with that toxic cloud of leadership, right, the toxic leadership throughout the organization. And that’s not something that ever intentionally happens. We know that the toxic leaders never intended to be toxic leaders. We know that the toxic leadership teams never thought they would get that way, and yet, I saw commanders relieved in theater because of toxic leadership environments. And so, if you don’t maintain that situational awareness of what’s going on with your leadership team, you won’t know who you can trust, you won’t know who’s being untruthful, you won’t know who’s being deceitful. Because the reality is, in a good leadership team, none of that happens. The team is open, honest, they trust each other. They trust each other to work together to make decisions. And if you don’t have situational awareness of what’s going on in your leadership team, you might be being played.
As a leader, situational awareness also comes down to really thinking through how you’re going to handle the bad things that will happen. IT outages, liability driven events, cash shortfalls. These are all things that happen. And you must be aware of them. And when they happen, you must be able to respond quickly. If you don’t have situational awareness, you’re in trouble. You don’t want to wake up on Monday morning and find out that your systems, your IT systems have been down all weekend. You don’t want to wait until it’s just before payday and you find out you have cash shortfalls. You need to keep your finger on the pulse of the organization, and that is situational awareness.
We all have blind spots. And one of the great things we’re going to talk about this next episode is the buddy system but use your buddies for situational awareness. We can’t see everything, it’s the analogy of the beach ball. If you’re in front of me, and I’m holding a beach ball, you only see your side, you don’t see my side, and situational awareness is about seeing all of it. And you know, if you’ve been the military, you’ve done the 360-leadership assessment where you hear from your subordinates, your peers, and your superior officers. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about the situational awareness of things that are blind spots in any situation where you can’t see it because of your position, right? It’s just like in a patrol base, right? You’ve got a triangular shaped patrol base and you’ve got 360-degree security. You as a leader can’t see everything right away, but you’ve got a team laid out with interlocking sectors of fire to make sure that no enemy slips through. And that’s the type of situational awareness you have to have. Look, in business, bad things happen. There will be problems. There will be risks. There will be things that you have to deal with, but if you know they’re coming, if you have the situational awareness, you will be much more prepared, and you will be the leader that your team expects and respects.
Now it’s time for the AAR, the After Action Review. Sometimes when we get to the end of these, I did not have time to get everything in the book, so I like to give a little bit of the bonus pieces that didn’t get in there. Number one, you can’t have situational awareness without data. Know your numbers. Number two, awareness of your operating environment equals awareness of opportunity and dangers. Number three, situational awareness means knowing what’s going on in your community and your opportunities to provide value.
The three down: situational awareness is not about knowing everything. You don’t need to know everything. If you hesitate waiting to know more, you may miss opportunities. Number two, know the locations of the drill sergeants. If you don’t know the key players, laws, or regulations, you will fail. Don’t get smoked by a drill sergeant. Number three, trust your gut and trust your buddy.
Thank you for joining us today on Veteran Led, where we pursue our mission of promoting veteran leadership in business, strengthening the veteran community, and getting veterans all of the benefits that they earned. If you know a leader who should be on the Veteran Led podcast, report to our online community by searching @veteranled on your favorite social channels and posting in the comments. We want to hear how your military challenges prepared you to lead your industry or community, and we will let the world know. And of course, hit subscribe and join me next time on Veteran Led.
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