Life And Leadership Lessons From A US Army Major

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Courtesy of https://twitter.com/jbyerly81

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for space and clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Joe Byerly is a Major in the United States Army with over thirteen years of experience in garrison and combat environments. He served two tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and is the recipient of two Bronze Stars and one Purple Heart. He writes frequently on the topic of leadership and has published articles in ARMY Magazine, Military Review, Small Wars Journal, and many others. His blog is From The Green Notebook. Joe, welcome to the show.

Joe Byerly: Kevin, thank you so much for having me.

Kruse: Now, I read in your bio at the beginning of this show, Joe, a little bit about your background, and you've done a whole lot out there, but I've got listeners in over 150 countries now, all around the world, and I've never served in the military myself. My father was a marine, and his stories from boot camp in the ‘50s scared the heck out of me, so I never joined up myself. But tell us about your recent experiences in the army and then segue from that and tell us about your blog, which is called From the Green Notebook.

Byerly: Okay, Kevin. I recently served as the executive officer for First Strike and Brigade Combat Team for the Fourth Infantry Division out at Fort Carson, Colorado. In that job as the XO, I was essentially the chief of staff for a 4,500-soldier brigade combat team and our mission was to deploy anywhere within the world within 72 hours to meet our nation's call.

For my job, specifically, was to ensure the synchronization of all those moving pieces, both in training and on the deployment side, if that situation ever arose. Also, I managed a fairly large budget and then finally, I managed the readiness for both the soldiers and the equipment. So I made sure that everyone remained healthy, that all 4,500 of those soldiers could get out the door and that everyone had a vehicle that worked, and a weapon that shot. That was my last assignment and that was a very challenging, yet rewarding assignment.

Kruse: Yeah, that's a big responsibility 4,500. How long were you in that role?

Byerly: I had transitioned into that role for a couple months and then prior to that, I was doing that exact same job for 600 soldiers, so it was a pretty good jump for me at the time.

Kruse: I didn't explain in the early part of the show to my listeners, and I should've. The way I found you was, I was doing research for my next leadership book, which won't be out til next year, and over and over again, as I was searching for examples and thoughts about different subjects, and often I'd be Googling and I'd be adding plus army, plus military, plus soldiers, to round out my own understanding of a topic. I kept coming up to a blog called From the Green Notebook. All kinds of topics that those of us in the corporate world, topics that we're familiar with, you're writing about them and taking a military perspective. When did you start this blog and why is it called The Green Notebook?

Byerly: I started the blog about four years ago, and it's something that we take for granted in the military. When you take a step back, it really is a cool idea, a cool concept. In every supply room, and this isn't just the army, this is marine corps, the navy, the air force, the coast guard. We have these small, green notebooks that anyone can sign out and take with them. They fit in your cargo pocket and typically in our culture, you bring your green notebook everywhere with you. Your green notebook contains everything from to do list, to meeting notes, to your notes from a leader professional development session you went to, notes from training, and lessons learned from your training events, because we're constantly learning as we train in the military.

In essence, these books represent the collective knowledge of the army, so at first I just thought that I would provide a platform to share my experiences. But then I found that there were so many people across the military that just have these great stories and great lessons learned on leadership that they can share.

Over the last four years, we've had everybody from enlisted soldiers, those are soldiers that, in a lot of instances, haven't been to college yet, all the way up to four-star generals posting on the blogs. It's really been great and we've also brought a lot of authors in and people outside the military who have a lesson to share that resonates in our community.

Kruse: I didn't realize that those notebooks were all over the place and in all branches. For many years now, I carry this black notebook around and when I was doing research on my book, 15 Secret Successful People Know About Time Management, that's one of the 15 secrets. Richard Branson says his number one tool is his notebook. He's like, “I would not have been able to become a billionaire without this little notebook,” and that's what I tell people. You've gotta write it down and you keep those notebooks. I was feeling kind of cocky, Joe, because I'd look out on my bookshelf and I've got, I don't know, maybe 10, 15 black notebooks lined up, and I brag about, “Look this is gonna be my legacy. Oh, this is my life.” Well I've been snooping on your social media and you've got people putting pictures up of, I don't know, it's 30, 40, 50 green notebooks. There's some general that you posted a picture of who has all of his green notebooks from his career just stacked up right there.

Byerly: Right. It's not just any general too. That was General Robert Abrams.

Kruse: Oh, wow.

Byerly: His father's Creighton Abrams, who we named the Abrams Tank after, today. But he's currently the Force Com commander. He's the guy in charge of the training for all the soldiers stateside right now. The picture that he shared was 30 years worth of notebooks. What was great about it was I found it and we recently ran a hashtag, #mygreennotebook. I had leaders from Australia, from the United Kingdom, taking pictures of their notebooks and posting them online. It really does work.

Kruse: It's inspiring, right? Now, how many notebooks do you think you've filled up at this point?

Byerly: The good thing about me is it's not a good training exercise unless I lose my notebook somewhere during the training exercise. My notebooks are not on a bookshelf. They're spread across post and probably across the globe right now, at different locations, but I have several.

Kruse: Let me ask you this. This is sort of a curve ball question for you. When I go out and talk to people about, you got to carry this notebook, what I get all the time, especially from maybe the people who are still in their ‘20s, is, “That's old school.” Now I take notes, but I just type everything into my phone. What do you say to that? Is it like, hey, it doesn't really matter? Or you think there's something better about actually writing it in your green notebook?

Byerly: Because I recently wrote about this topic, there've been studies that were done, I believe it was at Stanford, and the researchers found that writing down something in a notebook instead of typing it on a computer actually helps you retain knowledge better than if you were to type it out. Deep down inside, I do believe that the process of actually taking the time to think through something, and your hand moving with a pen or pencil across a piece of paper, helps you retain the information way better than just tapping a keyboard or an iPad.

Kruse: Yeah, and listeners out there, I think that's completely right. I think the study that Joe's referring to is called, if you Google, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard”

Byerly: That's it.

Kruse: They're talking about when you type, you become a transcriptionist. You're just recording the words without having to do that cognitive process. Because you can't write as fast as someone's speaking, it's forcing you to process it and summarize it, and then you remember it better. I'm all with you. There is The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Joe, I think the article that first caught my attention, I was writing about, and right now working on a new course, about how to give effective feedback. I think you were the author of it, correct me if I'm wrong, but the article was called, The Art of Giving Negative Feedback. Was that one you authored, or was that a guest author?

Byerly: That's one that I wrote. That was based off me connecting my experiences with a book I had recently read called Stop Talking and Start Communicating, by Dr. Geoffrey Tumlin.

Kruse: That's great. What surprised me is, again, from the outsider perspective, when it comes to feedback, I know in the corporate world, managers don't do a good job of giving feedback because they don't want the fight or they just don't want to kick up a storm or whatever. But my view would be in the military, from the movies and everything, it's like if you've got rank, you're giving that feedback and you don't really care how it's received or perceived. And yet, you wrote, “We in the military don't always do a great job of giving folks the cold, hard truth about their performance.” That surprises me. Why do you think people are holding back or not giving the cold, hard truth?

Byerly: Kevin, I think it's because it's human nature. I think for most people, you want to lift others up. You want to make other people feel good. Don't get me wrong. There are folks out there who have no problems telling somebody that they're doing a horrible job. But I just think that naturally, it's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to sit there and look somebody across the desk, and a lot of times in the military too, just because of how the officer and NCO structure works out, you may be 23 years old talking to somebody who's twice your age and who has three times more experience than you do about their performance. It's hard and it's uncomfortable for people. I think that's a big thing, but I think that deep down, that if you truly care about the folks that work for you, and you care about their development and their getting better, then you're doing them a favor by telling them, “Hey, this is where you're failing. This is where you're falling short.” You're actually hurting them when you sugarcoat it or you just avoid the topic altogether.

Just from my experience in the military, I find that those relationships always end in a dead end because there's not that communication there. The person that's working for you is not meeting your expectations. They're not meeting their performance objectives. Then eventually, you have to give them a bad evaluation, which is way worse than having that initial conversation three or four months a year before that, to tell them, “Hey, these are some areas that you can work on.” It's been my experience too, that when you do tell somebody that, “Hey, this is where you're failing right now and this is what you need to work on,” they actually try to get better at it. I've seen people go from being the worst-performing soldier to being one of the top two or three once they received that critical and very important feedback.

Kruse: Now, in the private sector, I mean, every company's different, but in the big companies it's traditional to do a end-of-year annual performance review, which most people groan at. It's like one to five scales on a bunch of things. But in the army, is it something similar? Because you mentioned you're doing their evaluation.

Byerly: It is. In the military, we do an annual evaluation. As part of that, you're supposed to do a quarterly counseling. By the time the person gets to that evaluation, there should be plenty of conversations between that initial counseling and their final evaluation, where you were able to get your performance objectives in and they were able to work and develop.

Kruse: Now, I'll put you on the spot. Thinking back on your career, was there ever a time when you were given maybe some direct feedback about something specific which maybe stung in the moment, but made you a better soldier?

Byerly: Oh, yes. My recent job, being the executive officer. For the last 13 years, I was very operations-focused. That's all the fun stuff. The stuff that's not so much fun is the maintenance of equipment, the managing of a budget. Those were all new concepts to me. When I first took over that job, my boss sat down with me and said, “Hey, you're failing here, here, and here.” It hurt so bad, because I had done so well previously, just to be told that I wasn't doing as great anymore.

I just attacked those weaknesses and really concentrated on them. I worked with my boss, too, to develop a way ahead. “Hey, these are some very specific, concrete steps you could take to get better.” Over time, I was selected to move up from that 500/600-person unit to that 4,500-person unit. It was because of that tough feedback I got at the beginning.

Kruse: That's great. I don't know how familiar you are with, there's sort of a strengths-based leadership movement that Gallup® started putting out where it's saying, identify your strengths and lean into those. 

A lot of people have misinterpreted that to believe we can ignore our weaknesses, like let's not worry about developing our weaker areas. Let's just pick a strength or two. But even the Gallup® guys, when they're asked about that, they said, “No, no, no. If there's an area of development that you need to reach a standard on to do your job, you definitely need to focus in those areas. It's not to ignore your weakness. It's just to identify and play to your strengths.” It's good to hear that's been your experience too.

Byerly: It has been. I've found, too, that as you move up within an organization, I'm sure it's the same in the private sector, that your scope of responsibilities gets greater. Yeah, your weakness may not come into play now, but it may come into play three, four, five years down the road when the scope of your responsibilities is way greater than it was previously. I think it is important that we focus on our weaknesses and try to improve those areas.

Kruse: Now, there's another topic, a different chapter in my book is about. I'm obsessed with time. A lot of people wouldn't think that time and productivity is a leadership topic, but to me it really is, because you need to be very efficient and productive. It's both be good with the people stuff and the task stuff. When I first started looking at examples of this, I was studying sports coaches. I was surprised that a lot of the great basketball coaches, John Wooden, Coach K, a football coach, New York Giants Tom Coughlin. When you read their books, they're talking about scheduling practices down to the minute, scheduling the seasons down to the five minute, 15-minute chunks. I, myself, preach a lot of the things on your to-do list will never get done. If you want to get it done, then you actually schedule it.

There was an article I found doing research called, The Five Rules for Balancing Military and Career Life. You don't have to go into all five of the rules, but what are your views on balancing military and career?

Byerly: I don't think that you're able to actually balance anything. I think that either you're giving your family everything or you're giving your work everything. It's just managing when you're going to be giving work and when you're going to be giving your family time. I've found that if I'm not good with my own personal time management, that time will slip away from me. Next thing you know, I've gone several weeks without eating dinner with my family or spending time with my family. I do my best to do exactly what you're talking about, Kevin, is instead of keeping a straight to-do list, but try to schedule things.

From the family aspect, too, one of the things that we try to do as a family is continually schedule events, because if we just say, “Hey I think we're going to go try to do something this weekend,” Friday's going to roll around. I'm going to be tired. I don't want to do that. It was a crazy week at work. Then next thing you know, I'm sitting there watching football all weekend eating Cheetos and drinking beer, and not really doing anything positive with my family. One of the things that we try to do as a family is continually schedule events, either date nights, short little weekend trips, and then we always schedule either a big fall vacation or a summer vacation. We make sure that's blocked off and on the calendar. When I do those things, I'm giving all my attention to them, and not continually slipping back into work mode.

Kruse: I noticed something interesting in the comments on that particular blog post. You get some good comments, and almost universally positive and supportive. This one kicked up some conversation. It was sort of like, “Easy for an officer to say,” right? There was a little bit of, “Well, officers don't understand how hard it is, and they can just order everybody else to do their stuff.” What's your reaction to that? Is that just sort of a cop-out for someone not taking more ownership for scheduling family time and things like that, or do you think there really is a difference there?

Byerly: I think it varies. Leadership varies from unit to unit. You may have somebody that gives a thousand tasks and then goes home at 5 o'clock with the expectation that everything's going to get done by 5:30 the next morning. That does happen, but I think generally across the board, a lot of times we do fail to manage both aspects of our lives. The military is very rewarding. We get ribbons, we get awards, we get coins. There's always something tangible to chase. A lot of soldiers and leaders get wrapped up in that, and then they'll put their families on the back burner because of it. That's one thing that organizations I've been a part of, I try to have those conversations with folks to talk about expectations and, hey, our goal today is 5:30. We're going to get out of here by that time, so you can spend time with your family. It's not always possible, and when you're constantly training, constantly worried about preparedness to go to war, a lot of times that does end up consuming you and you do miss out on a couple dinners. I'd say that it's something that every leader in the military struggles with at one point in their careers.

Kruse: I think any high-achiever, any leader out there is going to struggle with the demands, are just going to be really tough. The other question that came up, again, from one of my chapters is about basically have no rules. Everything I'm talking about here and in my book, it's sort of extreme to start a conversation, right? I don't mean we shouldn't have the kind of rules that keep us alive and keep us safe, but I'm talking about the dumb rules, policies, procedures. I should have pulled it up before this interview, because I forget the exact article, but I did stumble on a study that was put out. It was a US Army publication, one of your journals, where it was found that right now the training requirements in the army exceed the amount of time there is to get them done. The requirements just cannot be met, but somehow, miraculously, everybody meets them. It was two retired army officers that did the study. In their interviews, the term that kept coming up was officers saying, “We pencil-wagged it.” They were talking about little white lies and ways that they got the e-learning test passed, or that equipment was certified, or whatever.

This is an area where, again, I think in the private sector it's easier for me to say to some leader, some company, “Hey, you should really throw out the rule book. You should be teaching people to make decisions based on values. Give people guard rails, not rules.” But in the military, how does this resonate? Is it like, look, what we're doing here, you need rules to keep everyone alive and to protect our country. There's a reason why we have military discipline. Or is it to a point where it's not realistic and it's taking away these abilities to make decisions?

Byerly: I think, just from a military standpoint, one of the things that we've gone through, in, I would argue the last five, six years, is a cultural mind-shift. What I mean by that is for a decade or so, you would show up to a unit. You would know that 12 months from now I'm deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq. I'll be gone for 12 months. I'll come home. I'll do this ramp down, and then I'll ramp back up, and then I'll get ready for deployment again. Everything was very calendar-based. This is when we're going to war. This is when we're coming home from war. I think that now that we're starting to look at the global landscape, we realize that we got to be ready to go to war at any time. Right now across the army, what you see is a reprioritizing of everybody's efforts to make sure that everything that we're doing is meeting that mission of readiness and making sure that everybody across the force is ready to fight tonight.

I think that article got after that. You had a little bit of time at home and you had all these priorities. But right now, like I said, we're in the process of prioritizing this thing. I know that in several units, commanders have delegated that decision-making authority to what people have to do and what people can accept some risk in to mitigate by not doing that training, so you're not lying, so you're not pencil-whipping it. I think that's a big thing, is where do those decision authorities rest at, at what level? And making sure that's very clear across the formation. What I've seen since that article has been published, last couple years, is that I think we've actually gotten a lot better at it because of this, everybody knows their mission now, you know?

Kruse: Right, right, yeah. It tends to change your focus, I guess.

Byerly: It does, and then you start figuring out what makes this mission, what meets our objectives? If it's not there, then either we don't do it and we say, “Hey, we're not doing it,” or we come up with some creative way, which I've seen a couple times, to where we still get after those objectives. We just do it differently than conventional means.

Kruse: Right, right. Last subject, again, based on my book research, is on this whole topic of being an authentic leader. I've spoken to some other friends in the military. There's a guy. He's former Navy Seal. He's an entrepreneur now. He invented those suspension exercise bands, those TRX bands. Yeah, yeah.

Byerly: I love those, yeah.

Kruse: Randy Hetrick. I asked him the same question. It's sort of like, okay, I'm all about being vulnerable and talking about my mistakes and my failures and where the opportunities are going to be for our team, where the risks are. But then I struggle with how much is TMI, too much information? If you're vulnerable to the point of sharing your own fears and doubts, doesn't that go against trying to instill confidence and this bright vision of the future. What are your views? Should you be an authentic leader in the military, and where do you draw the line?

Byerly: Once again, this is my experience in the military. If you think about it, once you start understanding how the progression works within the officer ranks, typically we're in a job no more than two years, and then we move on to the next job. When I first came in the military, I was in charge of 12 soldiers. Then I was in charge of 31 soldiers. Then I was in charge of 75 soldiers, and then 250, and then right now I've been in a job where I'm managing for somebody else 700 to 4,500 soldiers. What happens is if you're moving up every two years, there is going to be a learning gap once you come into a position. You're not going to have all the answers. Some of the best leaders I've encountered have approached it just like that, and have relied on the people around them. What I've found is being open, being honest, and being authentic strengthens the team, versus having people just have this image of the commander as the all-knowing entity within the organization. All the sudden, everybody's pitching in together to help solve problems. I know the leaders that I've worked for, that have come into positions where they've been in for 17 to 20 years, and have been open and authentic with me, I try even harder to do my best for them, because I want them to succeed, because we do have that open, honest communication.

The other thing, too, is if a leader's open and honest about, “Hey, I don't know a lot, but want to learn,” I think it sets the tone for the rest of the organization. They can see, “If the colonel, or captain, or general doesn't understand it but they’re working really hard to understand, then why can't I do that same thing in my own area of influence?” I think that that's a great approach to have to an organization, especially one like the military where you're continually moving up and you're continually having to face new experiences and new challenges. That's the thing, is everybody knows that you don't have all the answers. They know that this is the first time. So to even come in with those false airs, I think, ends up just setting a bad tone throughout the organization.

Kruse: Any difference in your approach from when you're home versus when you're in theater, if you're leading troops in combat?

Byerly: Yeah. My first combat tour – I wanted to be the guy that had all the answers. What I found after a while, I had to rely on other people. That's where I learned that with first combat deployment is to rely and work with others to make the organization better instead of putting on those false airs. The second combat deployment I had, I leaned heavily on the strength of the entire organization. What I found was that all the way from second lieutenant brand new in the army to sergeant first class with about 10 years, down to brand new private, everybody had buy-in to the organization and wanted us all to succeed as a team, because it wasn't about me. It was about our company. I think that from those two experiences, I've tried to take that with me throughout my career. I've never been disappointed with the results from that.

Kruse: That's great. Now Joe, I know you've listened to a couple episodes, so I like to end with a challenge to our listeners. I always want people to get just a little bit better every single day. We've covered a lot of ground, but is there one thing in particular that you can challenge us over the next 24 hours, something we could do, something we can think about, to become a little bit better as a leader?

Byerly: I would say read something that you normally wouldn't read. In the military, a lot of times we have our own literature on leadership. We've got our own stories, because we've got guys out there like Patton, Ulysses S. Grant. We've got some great heroes to follow. But what I've found is I went to look into business literature on stuff, listen to podcasts like yours, Kevin, that I found some really great lessons that I can bring back to my own organizations that had nothing to do with the private sector.

I would encourage listeners, if they're in the private sector, to go grab a bit of military history and read about how guys like Ulysses S. Grant made tough, challenging decisions when he was up against the wall, or how Eisenhower would step away from the moment and just go somewhere and quietly reflect before making major decisions like the D-Day landings. That would be my one challenge to your listeners.

Kruse: That is a great one. Of course, I believe leaders are readers, so reading's always a good recommendation, but then to read something like if you're in private sector read military. I just finished, I'm forgetting the exact title, but I stumbled on something about Nathanael Greene from the Revolutionary War was Washington's top general. I live in Philadelphia, so I'm right in the middle of the revolutionary history stuff. It's like, sure, there's Washington stuff all over, but I don't know anything about Greene. I ended up reading about Greene and especially his revolutionary Southern campaign and how that helped to finish the Revolutionary War. So any listeners looking to start somewhere, look up Nathanael Greene as is a good one too.

Byerly: Another good one, on the topic of Revolutionary War. I picked up a biography of Charles Lee. What I found was a guy who refused, who became sought-out by the Sons of Liberty because he was somebody that was pushing back against the British establishment, fighting against the British military, even though he was a British officer. When they brought him into their own ranks, and as the situation changed and they needed him to be on their side, he was somebody that started pushing back. As he moved up in the positions of senior leadership, he derailed himself because he failed to change his approach as the environment changed. Once again, there's just great lessons out there when you pick up something that you wouldn't typically read.

Kruse: I love that. I love that. Joe, this has been helpful on a lot of levels. This is a great gift of your time to our listeners and a great gift to me personally, as this is going to help me to refine my thinking and a second draft of this book. I want to make sure, I'm not going to take too much of your time in the future, but I'm going to let you know already, I'm going to be asking you back on the show so we can geek out on leadership some more.

Byerly: That'd be great, Kevin. Like I said, I'm a long-time listener, first-time guest, so I would love to jump in there and we can talk about a ton of other topics.

Kruse: Give our listeners the URL for your blog one last time.

Byerly: Yeah, it's www.fromthegreennotebook.com. I'm also on Facebook at From the Green Notebook, and then I have my personal Twitter account @jbyerly81, @jbyerly81. I'm always on Twitter. We've had a couple of great interactions on there recently.

Kruse: I'm going to put all of that information, of course, I the show notes. We'll spread the word on social media too. Byerly, thanks so much for everything you're doing. Thanks for coming on to the LeadX show.

Byerly: Thanks, Kevin, appreciate you having me.

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

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.