Confidence, certainty, and clarity. They’re the essential skills that distinguish a leader whose presence is truly commanded. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry delves into the practical strategies and insights that can help leaders possess and embody these strong leadership qualities. He’ll share anecdotes and real-life examples to demonstrate how these skills can transform leadership effectiveness and inspire teams to achieve extraordinary results.
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 back to Veteran Led. Don’t just be present, be command present.
Think back to that time in service when you were in the presence of greatness. Maybe it was your company commander, your first sergeant, or even a general officer addressing your unit. You knew that you were listening to someone who would do what they said they were going to do. You would follow them because they had confidence, certainty, they spoke with clarity, and you were willing to follow them to hell and back.
Now, what made that leader so great? Gave them that presence? Well, there’s a few things. There was how they carried themselves, but also how they addressed the team.
The question that has baffled me over the years is, how can leaders that are so different maintain that command presence? I’ve seen leaders who were loud and obnoxious, and we hung on their every word, and we laughed with them. And then there were the reserved, quiet, professional leaders who were overly polite, who commanded our respect, and also had an amazing presence, even though their style of leadership was much different than the loud, obnoxious leader.
Both were effective, but in their own ways, and they were much different than that dorky staff officer who mumbled as they looked at the ground, and we couldn’t understand a word they said, and we didn’t care what they said, because they lacked the presence. They lacked the ability to entertain us, to engage us, to get us to want to hear what they had to say. But great leaders don’t have that problem. We see this when they address us in formation, we see this when they walk down the halls. There is something about the way they carry themselves.
So let’s start from the beginning. Let’s start with when they speak with us when we’re in formation. They generally walk up and approach with silence. They say nothing until the entire formation, or the entire room is quiet. They wait for us, and they stand there, sometimes for a minute, until everybody stops talking, and they are engaged and listening and waiting. And sometimes they stand there for so long that it gets uncomfortable. But they do this because they know that they are in charge, that they own the stage, they own the formation, and it will begin when they are ready to begin, and they aren’t going to begin until everyone is listening.
They also have a great ability to speed up and to slow it down. They can move quickly to keep our attention, but they slow down their words when they want to make a point. It’s very similar to, as we talked in another podcast, about the platoon sergeant stomping every time they wanted you to remember an answer.
Throughout their speeches, they would also pause, and pause to make people uncomfortable, to get them to feel the point, because when we can feel something, we remember it. Most of the time, their talks or their speeches are less than 19 minutes. And that’s based on the Department of Navy study that said 18 to 19 minutes is the optimal attention span for any speech.
But what they do best is they read the audience. They understand what message the audience needs to hear, and they deliver it in a way that the audience can and will receive it, and most importantly, will take action on it.
If you look at this podcast, I love to go hard and fast. I want to speak fast, I want to respect your time, I want to get the points out there, and I want you to understand them. I don’t want this to turn into some long, meandering soliloquy. I want to provide value, and I want to provide it quickly.
So what doesn’t work? Think about those leaders who had no presence in front of the formation, who take the stage, and no one listens to them. Well, many of them do the same things wrong. One of the worst things they can do is self-deprecation. Someone who gets up there and says, “Well, I want to tell you about this math problem. I’m not really good at math, but I’m going to walk you through it so I’m one of you. I know that some of you aren’t good at math.”
Okay. That’s garbage. Just stop that. You as a leader can’t be self-deprecating and saying bad things about yourself. That doesn’t build credibility with the audience. Yes, you need to be vulnerable, but saying stupid things about yourself is not going to gain you credibility with the audience, especially if it’s about the topic in which you are expected to be the subject matter expert.
The next thing is false motivation. Now, look, false motivation is better than no motivation. And we’ve all been there. I’ve walked out of staff meetings, I’ve had to go to my team and say, “Look, guys, this is the greatest idea ever,” even though it’s complete garbage. But because I’m a leader, I understand that the leadership team is team one, and I’m going to support the leadership team’s idea, and when I’m in charge of my team, my job is to fight for them in the meeting. But when I lose, I am going to tell my team to support the leadership team and act like their idea is the best idea ever.
That’s a lot different than someone getting up there and pretending to be motivated throughout an entire speech or presentation when it’s clear that they are not. Sometimes false motivation is necessary to get over the hump, but too much false motivation is obvious. You look like a phony.
Similarly, too much information period, is a bad idea. Leaders who cannot simplify the message and precisely articulate what they want to happen from the presentation, fail. The audience simply cannot digest all of the information and leaders that provide too much information lack presence because they simply cannot focus on the most important issues, and they can’t simplify. And so when we listen to them, we can’t figure out what they’re talking about.
Along those lines, another way a leader’s presence falls into the background is when they present a slideshow with too many words, the death by PowerPoint slides. It’s as if they’ve just listed entire military manuals on the slides. That’s a horrible way to present, and that is where you lose credibility as a leader.
When I was in Iraq, I listened to a major brief a general officer. During that briefing, the major started reading the slides to the general. The general not only gave the major a good butt-chewing but kicked him out of the room and made his boss brief the rest of the PowerPoint. And the reason for that was because the general said, “Look, I don’t need someone to come in here and read me a slide. I need someone who actually understands what’s on these slides and can brief them to me in a way that makes sense.”
Another way leaders lose credibility is when they give what they call the general’s speech. I had a friend who recently became a general officer, and he told me that every general has a canned speech; that’s a speech that they have perfected that they use every single time when they don’t have a specific speech prepared. And the problem with that is it becomes so monotonous and so boring to them that they lose the passion for it, and they’re just up there speaking. So you don’t want to have a canned speech.
On the other hand, you also don’t want to get up there and just wing it. And I am guilty of this. I’ve done this in front of formation. I’ve done this during presentations where I haven’t spent a whole lot of time preparing, and I get up there and wing it. As a leader, you lose a lot of credibility because you’re not fine-tuning the speech to the audience. I think it’s also disrespectful to the audience when you get up there and just wing it. And once again, I’m guilty of it, but as a leader, you need to show up prepared. You need to rehearse.
One of the worst ways to lose credibility as a speaker is when you make it all about you. Remember, when you’re talking to your team or an audience, it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. What value are you bringing them? What message do you want to give them? And finally, what do you want them to take away from your presentation? If it’s all about you and you’re just self-reflecting and bragging, nobody’s going to listen and you’re not going to have that leadership presence that you wanted to have.
So what does work? There are a lot of things that work. Here are some that have worked for me. Number one, start off asking the audience a question. The human brain cannot ignore a question. If you start off with a question, you get the audience engaged immediately. Now, I understand if you’ve got soldiers standing in formation at parade rest, they’re not going to raise a hand or pipe up, but if you’re speaking to an audience and you ask a question and some people respond, that’s a good thing. If the audience is engaging, that means you have a strong presence.
The next thing is, if possible, write on a whiteboard. When you present complex ideas, you understand them a lot faster than your audience and so there’s two reasons to write them down while presenting if you want to. Now, I know you immediately say, “Wait a minute, write stuff down? I use PowerPoint. I’m high tech.” Okay, that’s great. But we have become immune to screens. We’ve been overpowered with screens. We have our iPhone screen, we have our computer screens, we see screens all day. We rarely see people writing. But go back to when we did see people writing, that was when we were students and the teacher would write on the chalkboard, or if you’re younger, probably the whiteboard. And so when people see you write down a concept when you’re talking to them, it builds authority and credibility because they see you as the teacher.
You now have the presence of the teacher in the classroom. And as you write down the concept, another thing happens. It slows it down. I want to tell you why you want to slow it down, because when you’re presenting, you have mastered the information, but your audience has not. And so your brain is working a lot faster, and your mouth is working a lot faster than their brains can process your concepts. So if you can write it down for them, instead of clicking through a bunch of PowerPoint slides, it actually both builds your authority and it slows down the presentation so that your audience can better understand it, and that builds your credibility, but also gets the audience present with you in the moment.
Now, if you’re constrained by the size of the room you’re in, or the size of the audience, or it’s just not feasible for you to turn around and write down some of the key points, one of the best things that you can do is have a slideshow that only has images or no more than three words per slide. The idea is to show the image and talk through the image so that the audience can feel the image.
The next thing is, research your materials. There is nothing more annoying when a speaker or a leader misquotes or says something that you know is factually inaccurate. So don’t just go to the secondary source, go to the primary source, verify that it’s accurate before you put it in your speech or your presentation. You don’t want to lose credibility that way.
And next, rehearse. Rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals. The more you rehearse, the better you get. You should never have a presentation or speech memorized, but you should have it rehearsed so that you know when to push hard with your voice inflections, when to pause, or crank it up in a way you can get maximum information to your audience quickly without missing a beat.
Finally, and most importantly, always end a speech or presentation with a call to action. This is what the great commanders did. They let you know why they told you what they told you. And I always left the great ones feeling fired up. As soon as they left the formation or as soon as they walked off stage, I really wanted to run through a brick wall for them because they told me how to run through that brick wall and what I needed to do next to run through the brick wall. I wasn’t confused. I wasn’t dazed. I was clear on what that leader wanted me to do. That leader inspired me, and I was going to do it.
That is the presence that we want to have as leaders. When we talk to our team, we want to be able to give them a clear, concise call to action that they want to follow.
Now, the other part of presence is that image of greatness. We’ve seen those great leaders, they look stoic, they look like statues, they look like they’re impenetrable. Nobody can stop them. I can remember my company commander used to always have me nearby when we’d bring in the new lieutenants and he’d say, “Hey, JB, come here. Look at that lieutenant! He looks a little bit chewy.” And what my commander meant by chewy was his uniform didn’t fit, he looked out of shape, he didn’t look crisp and pristine, he did not look like a barrel-chested, steely-eyed killer who should be a member of the Infantry; he looked like a guy who shouldn’t even be in the military.
Now, when my commander saw somebody who looked professional, he’d say, “Now, that guy looks harder than woodpecker lips,” or something to that equivalent. But he knew what soft looked like, and he knew what hard looked like, and he made that decision before he even spoke a word to that new officer.
Now, I want to briefly touch on the downside of having that command presence and part of that is fear. When you are scared, your team knows that you are scared. And courage is not about not being scared. Courage is what you do after you * yourself. It’s about getting the job done regardless of being scared. So it’s okay to be scared, but you don’t need to reflect on it or spend a lot of time on it.
The other thing is you have to be an authentic leader. If there are bad facts or bad things that have happened, address them, but address them in a positive manner. The team can handle bad news if you as the leader have the presence to tell them the way forward.
One of the things that I did horribly wrong as a leader was, I used to always think out loud. The team would hear everything I said, and a lot of it would come off as negative. And when you have an organization, you should be intolerant of anything that is not excellent, but that doesn’t mean you need to think out loud and let everybody know because then I’m like the drill sergeant walking through the barracks, pointing out everything that’s wrong.
Now, I’m not going to toss the barracks. I’m not going to yell at anybody. Nobody’s going to do pushups, but they get that same feeling inside when I’m going through thinking out loud and talking about everything that’s wrong. So as a leader, you have to understand that your words carry so much weight that they could undermine the team’s confidence in their abilities, but also in the organization’s abilities. So watch the negativity, don’t think out loud, remember to carry yourself as that proud, self-confident professional who is going to win no matter what, and the team will follow your lead.
The other consideration is that most of your team members wants security. Not everybody wants to be the leader like you. Not everybody wants to wear the heavy crown. Nobody wants the dagger over their head every single day, except for you, the leader, who is fine with the risk. They want security. They want safety. And so, as you communicate with them, it is important that you choose your words carefully and not say things that will intimidate them or frighten them about their future.
If they’re not performing, let them know they’re not performing. But when the company is going through a hard time, you need to be honest about it, but frame it in a way that the team members understand that the company will get through the crisis. This crisis, the next crisis, and the one after that. They need to understand that you are dedicated to solving the problems and working as a team to accomplish the mission.
One of the things I regret doing early on as a leader was using a lot of milspeak, military speak, where I would be very direct and blatant about the problems in the organization. And sometimes that milspeak would start rumors of demise, right? Because for every day as a leader, the sky really is falling, right? There’s always something wrong with a company that needs to be fixed urgently. But if you communicate that that is the atmosphere of the organization, it can create the demise of your team because everybody else doesn’t want to live in the world of fear and frustration that we as leaders sometimes have to live in.
I can tell you that I also made the mistake of having a really bad day from time to time and still showing up and trying to power through it. Luckily, I had leaders who said, “Hey, John, you need to back off. Just go home, go in your office, do something, but you’re pushing so hard right now that you’re not making the situation any better. And your words have so much gravity right now that people are freaking out. So just let them do their jobs.”
If you see yourself doing that as a leader and you’re getting in your own way as a leader, or you’re getting in the way of the organization, remove yourself. And have a good COO or a good Executive Assistant, or a good second in command who can say, “Sir, or sergeant, stand down, step aside, let the team handle it.” And then you as a leader, even though you’re hot, you’re emotional, you want to solve the problem right now, you got to back off. Because if you can do that, you can be that legendary leader that you respected in your first sergeant, in your company commander, in the general officers that you respected. You can be that leader as a civilian, but you need to be cognizant of all of these things.
Now, I want to tell you the opposite of that. The opposite is what I call being “a Donnie.” There’s a woman I know who is a successful entrepreneur, and she told me this story several years ago. And her, I think she’s moved past this, and her company has grown quite a bit, but she would tell a story of when her mom would come home from work, when she was a young girl, her mom would always complain about her boss, Donnie. And so this woman knew everything about Donnie. Donnie made mom work overtime. Donnie wasn’t paying mom overtime. Donnie is the reason we didn’t get the Christmas presents that we were supposed to get because Donnie didn’t give the mom a Christmas bonus.
And it was never about, you know, mom is an alcoholic and Donnie fired mom because of her drinking problem. Now, at the end of the day, I don’t know whether Donnie was the problem or the mom was the problem, but for this young girl, all she heard about all day was what a terrible boss Donnie was and why her family was struggling to eat, to have the things they needed, because Donnie, the bad boss, who yelled at their mom all day, was not paying her enough and not taking care of the family.
Now, once again, there’s probably some parenting issues there and some mindset issues, but you don’t want to be a Donnie. You don’t want to be the boss that the team comes home and complains about because you’ve been so negative. That is the exact opposite of the great commander and the great first sergeant who built you up as a leader, who got you excited at the mission, who ensured that you were proud to be a part of the unit and proud to be a part of the military.
So go out and be a hero to your team. Don’t be a Donnie.
After Action Review:
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.
Our monthly newsletter features about important and up-to-date veterans' law news, keeping you informed about the changes that matter.