The One Trait All Leaders Need, Courtesy Of Special Forces


Are you a self-reliant leader?

We are only as strong as the weakest member of our team, and while the instinct may be to cut them loose, by doing so you may be limiting your viewpoint. While some teammates may be weak in certain areas, they can always bring strength to others, and it is that diversity of thought that can truly create an unstoppable force. As a leader, can you help the slowest on your team reach his goals and forge an even stronger unit?

Jan Rutherford is a true leadership thought leader. He entered the US Army at 17 when he was 5’4” inches tall and weighed only 114 pounds, but he thrived in the military and even spent six years in Special Forces as a medic, 18 as executive officer, and three years as a military intelligence officer. He now has over 25 years of business experience and with roles in business development, marketing, sales, training, product management, even as a CEO. He is now the founder of Self Reliant Leadership and he co-hosts The Leadership Podcast. His book is The Littlest Green Beret on self-reliant leadership. I recently interviewed Jan for the LEADx Podcast, where he shared his story of joining the military, and the value of being self-reliant. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: When people think Special Forces, they think of Rambo. And you're saying you were slight of stature, so what attracted you to the military?

Jan Rutherford: Good question, and I am up to a whopping 135 pounds but I haven't gained any height. I'm still 5-foot-4. Well, here's what's interesting. Like most things in life, it's not one thing. I wanted to play football and of course I was too little, and I got to play one year, I weighed 60 pounds but with pads, I weighed 65 and they let me play. The next year, I went to high school and you're not going to play high school football weighing 65 pounds, you're just not. So I was a drummer and I threw myself into the band and as I tell my kids, I was in the band when the band was cool.

I fell in love with music and I thought I was going to major in it and I didn't get a scholarship to go to college. We were too poor for me to go, so I went to an army recruiter and said, “Hey, I want to do a trial for the band.” They put me on my first airplane and I flew from Miami to Atlanta, tried out for the band and all the way back had this epiphany that I could keep doing music but I wasn't making a living out of it. I was playing.

I was good but not talented and so when I got off the plane, I said to the recruiter, “I'm not going to do it.” He looked so frustrated. I said, “But I really liked flying on that airplane. I think I'd like to be a guy that jumps out of them. I love medicine. Could I be the best-trained medic in the army and jump out of planes?” He said, “Yes, you need to go Special Forces.” I said, “No, I don't want to be an MP. I don't want to be a military policeman.” He said, “No, Special Forces is for Green Berets.” He showed me this brochure with the big strapping rainbow guys. At that time, I actually weighed 101. I had not gotten up to 114.

I said, “Sergeant, I can't do that.” He looked me dead in the eyes and he said, “Yes, you can.” I believed him. The rest is history, as they say, but all those things lead into it. I mean, if I had been normal stature, if I'd been able to play football, if I had been a really talented musician, if we had had money, my life would have turned out differently. I'm really grateful the way it turned out because going through that, and having so many people tell me that I would fail, was the biggest confidence boost I could get at age 17 and it was exactly what I needed. I realized that adversity made you stronger and it gave you confidence to say, “Hey, if I want to do something, I'll figure out a way. I can be resourceful and resilient.” It's what it taught me. That's what it gave me.

Kruse: I’m sure that recruiter had quotas, but they don't want to send anyone that's going to wash out, either. You must have shown him something to have him push you like that. 

Rutherford: I've never been asked that. That's a good question. He did have a quota. They all had quotas back then but he was a great guy, Sergeant Kyle Fleener from Tennessee who had actually been shot in the buttocks just like Forest Gump in Vietnam. I think what he saw in me was as a little guy, you're either going to get picked on or you're going to be scrappy, and I think what he saw was a certain amount of drive and determination and persistence and maybe a little bit of that scrappiness.

Keep in mind, once I went to high school, I didn't do any sports. Back then, it was football, baseball, basketball and if you didn't do those, you just didn't do sports. I hadn't done anything so when Kyle Fleener said to me, “I think you can do it,” that's the first time I started really working out or doing anything since I was 13. I started running and I had to gain weight, of course. They wouldn't have let me in at 101 pounds. I had to weigh at least 103 and get a waiver. I was drinking Joe Weider weight-gain and working out but he said all that before I was even an athlete.

Kruse: My father was a marine, but he regaled me with stories of marine corps boot camp in the 1950s. When did you enlist?

Rutherford: I went to the recruiter, that was the fall of ‘78, I was a senior in high school and then I weighed 101, I had to get up to 103, I got up to 109 and I actually raised my right hand and joined in January of my senior year ‘79. Then the day I went on active duty which was July 2nd, 1979, I was 114 pounds. I was still 17 so my parents had to sign for me.

Kruse: Boot camp stories just scared the heck out of me. As an 18-year-old, I was far away from it.

Rutherford: Let me tell you one other thing. In the military, there's a saying that “I went through the last hard class.” I'm here to say I did not go through the last hard class. My son is a West Point grad, he's a captain, he's serving and I can tell you that the troops today are better than we were. They're stronger, they're faster, they're fitter. The training is harder. The only thing I would give my son a rash of crap about is our clothes, our uniform, our boots were ten times worse. They were horrible. When it was cold, it was cold, but the training, I think it's harder and better. I honestly don't know if my 114 self could have gone through current day Special Forces training. That's God’s honest truth.

Kruse: How do you define self-reliant leadership? Tell us about it.

Rutherford: Well, I think it's really about what Socrates said all those days ago “Know thyself.” What I said repeatedly in the book is that it's about knowing which questions to ask and having the courage to answer them and act. Taking another step further, it's being self-reliant in order to be reliable. It's what the best teams do and what I often say is, you think of the analogy of TREE, T-R-E-E. When you look at people and you say, “Hey, I'm a servant leader. Here are the things I'm going to do for you.”

Here's what I think leaders need to say more often to the people is the “T” in TREE is Team. You need to put the team first. We before me. “R,” you need to produce Results. That's the results, the numbers, the behaviors, that's what performance is. Selections and ongoing process, you have to earn your spot on the roster every day. “E,” is Empathy, you have to be empathetic for my role, your peers’ roles, all the people around you. Seek first to understand. The final “E” is are you making everyone's job easier or harder?

I think if we leaders and we, teammates, said to each other, “Hey, this expectation of each other is TREE,” that, to me is what self-reliant leadership is about. It's taking responsibility to be a good leader, to be a good follower, to be a good teammate. More than ever, I think we need great collaboration. We think we want all this autonomy and just work on our computer by ourselves and do our own thing but think about where we've gotten as a human species. We've gotten where we've gotten by working together. We're social animals. We've forgotten that it's all about connectivity but you have to be accountable to people. You have to be self-reliant to be reliable.

Kruse: You organize a special trip once or twice a year. Tell us about the crucible trips that you're organizing.

Rutherford: It actually ties into the question you just asked me about self-reliance. I have this love for the wilderness and, of course, for leadership development and having been in the army, I knew that being cold, wet, tired and hungry produces really remarkable things in people. It reveals character, good, bad and ugly. I thought, “Gosh, if I could combine those two things, wouldn't that be amazing?” Well, when I started organizing my first wilderness expedition with executives, I was getting all these calls from Special Operations community because my book is dedicated to them, the proceeds go to them and I've been helping them and I thought, “What if I helped guys that are transitioning come out in the field and spend time with executives, a place for all the Special Operations guys feel comfortable, and I put executives out in the field where they're uncomfortable and they can help each other?”

The executives are basically helping people getting out of the Special Operations community realize they have great leadership skills, team skills, problem-solving skills, force multiplying skills, they just don't have the business language and that's okay. Then, the executives learn things like selections and ongoing process. There's power in an after-action review and debriefs.

There's all kinds of different things like that that they learn. This is absolutely an amazing experience and what comes out of it is positivity, the whole concept of slowing down to speed up, hearing the unheard. There's always some great lessons that come out of it because there's always a different combination of people, personalities, teams and group dynamics.

Kruse: How many people go on the trip and what's the ratio of the executives to vets?

Rutherford: Ideally, it's 50-50. It really all depends on sponsorship. We've been really dependent on the sponsorship that we get. I mean, ideally, it's 50/50. We pair the executive up with the Special Operations and we've had expeditions Moab, Patagonia. We've got one coming up in Northeast Oregon, Wallowa Mountains next year, New Zealand and they're just amazing.

For me, it's kind of like, “Gosh, I wonder what's going to happen?” It helps me as a leadership development person stay relevant and to keep testing hypothesis like when we went to Patagonia, what does being liked have to do with leadership? Is that an important concept? The executives found that the Special Operations guys were more about being liked and being collaborative and less about command and control, even in what we see in Fortune 500 companies.

Kruse: Do you have any of these executives who are just like, “I cannot climb this mountain,” or “I cannot go another mile today.” Have you had those things come up?

Rutherford: I'm so glad you asked that. The executives always worry about that and I always say work out, of course, you want to be as fit as you can be but here's the good thing. We've just got back from Moab, we had four executives, two Special Operations guys and then a videographer, a technical guide and all that. Two guys that were particularly weak physically, and you know what? That made the team ten times better and I'll tell you why.

If we had six macho guys, it would have been six macho guys competing and it would have just been a brutal death march race and because we had two guys that were weak, the team slowed down and the dynamic changed. It was all about helping people and getting them through. It wasn't about competing. Then, the guys that were weaker, the team really made sure that they were able to shine and be strong in other areas where they weren't physically strong. What the team realized and appreciated was, “We need diversity in all aspects. We don't need everybody exactly the same. There's no power in that.”

Kruse: This does give me hope. I'm going to remind you when you're dragging my butt up a mountain that you said I was going to make it a lot better.

Rutherford: Trust me, I wouldn't be dragging you. The other thing is, I have had all different ages and body shapes and everything and every time we go out, we'll say, “You get to choose to do this or not,” a particular activity and people always do. They always do and it's not from a peer pressure. It's the team wants them to and you want them to succeed and I've never had anyone not succeed or have to turn around or any of that because what happens is they start doing it for the team, not just for themselves. Then, what they wonder is, “Gosh, if the team can get me to do these extraordinary things, what do I need to do when I get back to the office to create a team that can pull extraordinary performance out of people?”

What we would say also is, “Are the goals big enough in the business world?” Because out there, the stakes are high. You have to go and you get to a certain point out in the world where you have to go, otherwise someone's literally going to carry you. How do we equate that to the business world? Nobody wants to be carried but we carry people all the time, literally and figuratively and there are no consequences for that. They don't feel like they're letting the team down. To me, the onus is on the leader to create that shared accountability and that's one of the hardest things to do today, is to create that true collaboration.

Kruse: I always ask our listeners to get 1% better every day. What's one specific thing we can do today to become better leaders?

Rutherford: I'm reminded of the best boss I ever had who is actually on the last crucible. He's in his 60s and he did a phenomenal job and he told me, when I started working with him, “Jan, it's easy to catch people doing things wrong. It's hard to catch people doing things right.” Catch people doing things right. Recently, I learned—and I'm forgetting the person's name—about when you give compliments to people to think of TSP as in “Teaspoon.” They just got to be timely and truthful. It's got to be specific and it's got to be personal. I also know that the ratio of compliments to negatives for people to feel they've been treated fairly is 3 to 1 and for marriage, it's 5 to 1.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at