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Episode 30

Episode 30: As Wet as You're Gonna Get: Leading Through Rain or Shine

Description

When it rains, it pours. Leaders have the choice: either get stuck in the mud, or dig your way out. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry discusses the inevitability of ‘bad news’ and the importance of persevering through difficult situations. But bad news doesn’t just come during monsoons, bad news comes even on your best days. John shares personal stories, including his father’s experience in Vietnam and his own encounters with employee turnover, to illustrate the need for uninterrupted resilience and determination in leadership. 

Transcript

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.

Bob Marley said, “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet.”

And as leaders, we know what it’s like to feel the rain. We used to say, “If it ain’t raining, we ain’t training.” We knew that when we went to the field, it would probably rain. And we know every day, as leaders, we have challenges. We can feel the rain. Whether it’s a data breach, or a horrible news story about our organization, or a bet-the-company strategy that fails, we know when it rains. But there is a point where we’re as wet as we’re going to get, and all we can do as leaders is continue to lead our teams.

My father tells a story about Vietnam. Now, when he traveled from base to base, he traveled in a Jeep, not an uparmored Humvee, just a Jeep with a driver, no gunner, no convoy.  One day, they were driving from one base to another base, and the monsoon hit, and the rain just poured down, and there’s no roof on the Jeep, and his papers are getting wet, he’s on his way to try a court martial, and he starts complaining. And it keeps pouring, and the primitive road is now washed out, and they’re stuck in the mud, and he’s complaining. And the driver just looks at him and says, “Sir, you’re as wet as you are going to get, so stop your complaining.” My father looked at that sergeant and said, “You know what, sergeant? You’re right.”

Eventually, they had to exit the Jeep and walk back to the base through the mud, busting brush, because no one was coming to get them. They were stuck in the mud and the rain poured down. There was nothing they could do about it but get back to the base. And as a leader, sometimes you’re in that position where the rain is going to pour, you’re as wet as you’re going to get, the bad news is as bad as it’s going to get, and you don’t have time to bury your head in the sand. You have to decide whether at this point you’re an ostrich or a lion. Are you just going to stick your head down and let it come? Or are you a lion? Are you going to go attack the problem? And sometimes attacking the problem just means moving to the next destination.

Unfortunately, bad news doesn’t just come during monsoons. It comes all the time, every day, even on your best days. I remember a period of rapid growth where I got a call from one of our senior attorneys. His name was Chuck. Chuck had been with us since we had five employees. Chuck called and said, “John, I need to talk to you.” I said, “Great, Chuck, let’s meet up tomorrow.” He said, “No, I need to talk to you today.” So I said, “Well, Chuck, come on over. My house is always open.” Chuck arrives, he’s smiling. He seems pretty happy. So I said, “Chuck, what’s going on?” And Chuck looked at me and said, “John, I’m so proud of the organization. I’m so proud of the team. We’ve grown so much. We’ve got over 40 team members. This is great. I’m really happy that we’ve gotten here. I really respect your vision. I like your vision, but I don’t want to be a part of it anymore. John, you told me that we don’t all stay on the train forever, and this is where I get off the train. You know, I liked it when we had 10 team members. With 40, it’s too much. I like what you’re doing with all the technology, but it’s not for me. This is not the pace of life that I want. I just want to practice law. I don’t want all this growth stuff. I understand why you’re doing it, and I respect it, but I’m out.” And while I greatly respected Chuck and the hard work that he had put in, and his role in developing our team, I understood that it was time for him to go.

And while he is still a great alumni, he still refers cases to us, we’re still friends, we still hang out from time to time, but the reality is, this wasn’t what Chuck wanted. And as a leader,  even when we grow rapidly and hit our goals, it’s not going to be for everybody, and there’s going to be some bad news along the way, and we’re going to break some things along the way, and some people are going to break along the way. That is the reality of growth and the reality of leadership.

Now, my problem is, because I started the train in motion, I can’t get off the train. Not now. I’ve set the vision. The team is relying on me. I can’t say we’re going to put the brakes on the train because Chuck’s out. No. As a leader, for me, it’s too late to quit. I’ve got to make sure the train reaches its destination and gets there with enough speed so that we can continue on to the next stop after we hit our destination.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that if you just keep moving, you will out weather the storm. I think back to a day of the Mountain Phase in Ranger School. This was one day before I injured my shoulders, two days before I failed my patrols and failed out of the school. I remember we had just completed our last mission of the day. It was starting to get dark. They had assigned a new leadership team, and we moved out. Our movement was only supposed to be about two clicks. Over two hours later, it started sleeting, and I knew that we had gone further than two clicks. The newly appointed squad leader was a special forces medic named Jason. And I could see the cat eyes in front of him. As I counted them, I knew that he was four up. So when the patrol slowed, I ran up to Jason, I said, “Jason, I think we’re lost. We should be there by now.” And Jason said, “No, it’s worse than that.” I said, “What can be worse than being lost?” He said, “The R.I. took control of the movement.” In other words, the Ranger Instructor was now leading the platoon, not the platoon leader. And I said, “Well, that’s a good thing, right?” He said, “No, it’s a bad thing. It’s sleeting. They’re going to keep us moving all night to keep us warm.”

And Jason was right. We moved all night until BMNT, before morning nautical twilight. At some point that night, the patrol halted. We saw the hand raised and everyone took a knee. I heard a Ranger Instructor screaming at what appeared to be a ranger student saying, “You want to quit? Let me tell you something, it’s too cold to quit. You will die of hypothermia out here. If we wait for you, we will all die of hypothermia. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to call headquarters. They’re going to come get you. In the meantime, I’m going to put this chem light on your LBV, and I’m going to tie you to this tree, and you’re going to wait for him.”

And I saw a chem light crack, the vigorous shaking of the chem light, and it was pinned about chest level near the tree. I could hear the SINCGARS radio crackle, and the Ranger Instructor was talking to somebody giving an 8-digit grid coordinate. I assumed that this is the ranger that quit. The next morning, as day broke, we set up a patrol base and Jason came around to check on the members of the squad. As I was pulling security, Jason asked how I was. At this point, I was cold, I was shivering, my back was hurting, I was dehydrated. And I said, “Jason, I’m fine. Who quit last night?” Jason laughed and said, “When we set up the patrol base, our head count was the same. Nobody quit. The R.I. was just messing with us.”

The truth is it was too cold to quit. Had any student quit, they would have been stuck on the side of the mountain, freezing, probably catching hypothermia. We had to keep moving. Sometimes in life, it is too cold to quit. You just have to keep moving because there’s no other viable option.

As leaders running businesses, when we run into financial problems, it’s too late to quit. We have to find a way around it. And there are companies that survive bankruptcies. There are companies that survive losing most of their team members. There are companies that survive severe competition coming in and wiping them out, and they have to pivot, adjust fire, and start an entirely new product or service.

As leaders, our team relies on us, and we have to find a way to keep moving. We don’t have the luxury of quitting. And we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Discomfort is all part of it. And anytime I’m really comfortable, and nothing is going wrong in the business, I get really nervous. That’s where I get paranoid. And as Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid survive.” Something is going wrong, and I just don’t know about it. That is part of business. That is part of life. And if you’re always trying to improve, there’s something that is substandard in your life. And you have to figure out what it is, and you have to fix it before it blows up.

As a leader, discomfort and fear are the pressures that either burst our pipes or turn us into diamonds. And pressure is a privilege that leaders get. And when we get that privilege, we must help the team overcome every obstacle. We must keep moving.

The one thing I’ve learned as a leader is that most of the bad news is cyclical. Pandemics, economic downturns, problems with your power grid, IT problems. Sometimes it’s a big cyclical economy problem. Sometimes it’s a cyclical problem within your own organization, but those problems are going to come and they’re going to come again. As a leader, you have to recognize them and prepare for them so that you can adjust fire and deal with those problems when they come up.

The great thing about all these problems being cyclical is, you know that once you deal with them, they’re going to come back around and you can learn, you can have that After Action Review and ask, “How will we handle this next time?” Next time it comes around, we’ll be ready for it because we’ve seen this before and that’s why it’s so important to have experienced people in your company, the “gray hairs,” as we would say, the individuals who have lived through that cycle many times. Because they have the experience, they know what’s going to happen and they can help you as a leader, they can advise you and tell you, “This is what’s coming.”

Some of the best coaches I’ve had have already been where I’m going. They can say, “John, your company is now at eight figures. Here are the problems you will face in the next couple of years. You need to start planning, preparing, and hiring to solve these problems.” Understanding that the nature of the cycle will continue to wash bad news and bad things into your business and life is okay, because it helps you enjoy the good things.

When you ride that wave, enjoy the ride. You know, it’s not going to last, and you know that you as a leader can handle it when the wave crashes, when the cycle turns and something bad happens because you’ve been there before. And the more cycles you go through, the better you’re equipped to deal with them.

In fact, the biggest problems you handle today won’t even phase you tomorrow. I can think about problems that kept me awake at night five years ago. Today, those problems resurface, and it’s not a big deal. I already have a plan for them. I have a way to attack them. And they are not going to destroy me, and they’re not going to destroy my organization. I know how to deal with them because I’ve dealt with them before.

I first heard about this when I was 13 years old working for a corn detasseling company. We got off the bus, and we’d walk through the rows, and we’d pick the tassels off the corn.  And we all had supervisors.  One day, a supervisor showed up that was more clean-cut than the rest. The guy looked like he didn’t belong. He looked like he belonged in an office. And when we walked the rows, I went really fast, got through my row, and then I would help my peers.

As we walked through the rows, the supervisor said,  “You know, you’re really doing a good job helping your buddies, and I appreciate that.” And I said, “Well, I’m actually trying to get to my paper route, so I’m just trying to make this move faster.” So that, that’s good. He said, “You know, when I had this job, I absolutely hated it. It’s so hot out right now. When I was your age, I hated this job. I swore I would never do it.” He said, “Now I’ve got a comfortable office. I’ve got cold drinks everywhere in my office and it’s great, but I have days when I’d rather be here. So two weeks out of every summer, I come back to supervise corn detasseling.”

He went on to explain that while I wouldn’t understand that now, but someday when I was sitting in an office, I would wish I was back in the field dealing with the problems we deal with detasseling corn, as opposed to the bigger corporate problems that he was dealing with. For him, he said, “this is an escape to go back to the problems that used to challenge me when I was detasseling corn, to think about the weather, to think about how tired my body was.” He said, “I deal with so much bigger problems now that this helps me to relax.” And I thought, that’s absolutely crazy.

So we ate lunch, and it started raining. And now the cornfields were soaked in mud. And I was trudging through the mud. And the problem was that the mud was going to slow down the rate at which we could detassel the corn, which meant we were not going to get back until late, which means I was going to be late delivering the papers, I was going to get a bunch of complaints, have unhappy customers, and it was going to be a mess. So I’m upset about it. I’m like, “Oh no, it’s raining. I’m not gonna be able to get my paper out done.” And the supervisor just looks at me and says, “That’s not your worst problem. Your worst problem is your negativity. If you’re going to be negative about this, everybody else is going to be negative about the rain and everybody else is going to be complaining. It’s contagious. So just stop it. There is nothing you can do about the rain. There is nothing you can do about being late for your paper route. You took the risk. You decided that you wanted to have a paper route and to detassel corn. Now you are going to suffer the consequences. And that’s just the reality of life. There are decisions and there are consequences. And you, young man, made a decision. I admire your work ethic, but you took a risk. You lost. And complaining isn’t going to do any good.”

The supervisor was right. There was absolutely nothing I could do but continue to detassel the corn. I knew that I would deliver the papers late. I knew that I would get some complaints. The newspaper company would be mad at me, but I’d get through it. And as leaders, tough times never end. Since that muddy day in the field, I have made that same mistake time and time again, where I work with team members who bite off more than they can chew, who find themselves in the muddy cornfield hoping they can get back to their paper route.

As a leader, I have to help them to ensure that they understand how to manage their time, how to manage their products, how to manage their resources, how to pick the right team. All these things matter because we can’t always predict the rain. We can’t always make the trains run on time. Understand that we are growing because we are solving the problem. We’re getting better because we will see the problem again, and the next time we will be able to conquer that problem.

As Wet as You’re Going to Get After Action Review:

  1. Bad news is cyclical. Solve the problem now and solve it for the future when it comes back.
  2. The difficult problems that keep you up at night today, won’t even phase you in a few years.
  3. As a leader, enjoy getting wet. That’s all part of the mission. It’s all part of the journey. And when your team sees that you can stand getting wet and continue the mission, they’ll do the same.

Three Down:

  1. Negativity is infectious. Do not let negativity infect your team. Be the positive response to every challenge and obstacle.
  2. Some problems can’t be solved immediately. All you can do is all you can do. Enjoy the rain and prepare better next time.
  3. The tough times will never end. You as a leader must be tougher than the problem.

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.

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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