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Three Wise Men

Lessons from Trusted Mentors to the Army Leader

By Lt. Col. Jason Borg, Deputy Commander, Chicago District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

September 15, 2017

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Three Wise Men

If given a chance to interview three very remarkable, senior and experienced Army leaders, what would you ask them? Would you want to know how they became the people they are, who their influencers were, and some of the stories or lessons they learned throughout their combined 90 years of service? Would you want to know what makes them tick as leaders, and if they can reveal any secrets of their success? As a fellow Army leader, and a student of organizational leadership, I did.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing three recently retired command sergeants major, all three highly successful, and very senior Army leaders. They left such an impression on me, from the time we first met, and watching them advance to the very top of our Army’s leadership continues to impress me. They continue to grow, develop, and mentor the people around them, inspiring me to ask them for some explanation or blueprint for their success.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett

Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett

Twenty-one years ago, my wife and I had just arrived in Germany, my first assignment and as a 2nd Lieutenant, and were invited to another lieutenant’s house for a welcome dinner along with his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Todd Burnett. Their platoon had recently returned from a deployment to Bosnia in support of the NATO Implementation Force mission. I could tell they had formed a unique bond that all platoon leaders hope they can create with their platoon sergeant.

I remember we were barbecuing chicken and the pieces were burned on the outside but not cooked to the bone. My wife looked at the chicken and said that she preferred hers cooked more. Burnett took a bite, looked at the raw meat next to the bone and said, “I like it just fine.”

That was my first exposure to Burnett which told me he was either too polite to ask for more or too tough to care about food poisoning.

Although Burnett and I never worked directly in the same command, we crossed paths on several tours throughout our careers. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was first sergeant for Company A, 307th Brigade Engineer Battalion. When I deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division in 2006, he was the 20th Engineer Brigade command sergeant major and visited our headquarters regularly to talk with the division engineer. Finally, when I was again stationed at Fort Bragg in 2012, I met Burnett while he was working as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton focused on defeating improvised explosive devices.

Burnett has attained legendary status with the engineer regiment. I know of no other NCO with the resume and lore to match his, and everything about him is true. He quickly advanced through the ranks, completed all Army training he was afforded, deployed multiple times, and then found himself posted in some of the most senior enlisted positions in the Army including as command sergeant major of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, and in a career finale, as command sergeant major of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He always maintained extreme focus, superior physical fitness, unceasing energy and a fearless attitude aimed at developing and caring for the Soldiers around him. “You have to care that much” he says.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Johnson

Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Johnson

I was stationed on Fort Drum for almost two years, waiting to be assigned a key and developmental job as either battalion operations officer or battalion executive officer. In March of 2010, that day arrived. I was told to report to the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion as the operations officer. 3rd Brigade had returned from a tour in Afghanistan in January and many of the unit’s leaders were leaving. Luckily for me and the unit, Command Sgt. Maj. Ron Johnson stayed with the command and provided the stability and knowledge for the battalion to rapidly reset, and prepare for an upcoming deployment in early 2011.

Quickly I assessed that Johnson was the smartest person in the room. Literally, he had “seen and done that” and had a calming confidence that everything that we had to do could be done. We had to reset most of the battalion’s key leadership positions, turn in and refit our battalion’s key equipment, onboard more than half of the battalion’s personnel, and execute a training plan that would prepare us for combat in just over 12. Johnson had the respect of his peers and people trusted his answers and the sensibility he provided. I instantly liked and respected him. The next 12 months proved difficult, but even in the most chaotic moments, Johnson provided answers and confidence to rally us. In March of 2011, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division deployed to the Zhari District in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

After returning from this deployment, Johnson was selected as the Joint Base Lewis McCord garrison command sergeant major, and then, more than a year later was selected as the 1st Engineer Brigade command sergeant major, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Not too much later, he was selected as the Transatlantic Division’s command sergeant major, a strategic two-star command with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he gave professional counsel to Army civilians and uniformed Soldiers stateside and to those deployed to the Middle East and Central Asia.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Harold A. Reynolds Jr.

Harold A. Reynolds Jr.

In 2003, as a platoon sergeant in Company B, 307th Engineer Battalion, Sgt. 1st Class Reynolds was forced to separate from his platoon during their deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The platoon he trained, mentored and prepared to go to war with was tasked to support Special Forces units in preparation for airborne operations in Iraq. While the majority of his platoon trained with Special Forces in Saudi Arabia, Reynolds and a handful of his platoon headquarters Soldiers deployed with the rest of Company B to Kuwait. Reynolds accepted his mission and drove on. Days later, he was recognized by the Division commanding general for his preparation of the sand-table used for the combined arms rehearsal the day before our unit crossed the border into Iraq. No matter the mission, Reynolds delivered excellence. The day after the invasion, the mission changed, and Reynolds reunited with his platoon and accomplished phenomenal things throughout the rest of the deployment.

A year later, Reynolds was promoted and became my right hand as 1st sergeant of Company B. I had already witnessed the type of person and leader he was and was grateful we were paired together. He was the voice of reason and was always supremely calm in the face of chaos. Because of that he was very likable, trusted, and a great trainer. He remains one of my very favorite people. In 2011 I was happy to see Reynolds and give him a high-five in Afghanistan as our unit replaced his. After years of successfully leading Soldiers at the battalion and brigade level, the Army recognized Reynold’s unique skills and assigned him as the Director of the Sergeants Major Course at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.

The Building Blocks

Many leaders are innately gifted with charisma and are equipped with the essential tools to lead. Most aren’t lucky enough to have those gifts but through training and experience develop the skills to become good leaders.

I questioned these leaders on life before the Army, curious if they oozed leadership and if they knew that they were destined to “be all that you can be” when they enlisted in the Army? What lessons did they learn as youths that contributed to their successes?

When I asked Reynolds how he started his leadership progression he replied, “with humble beginnings.”

Reynolds grew up in a small farm town in Clarks Grove, Minnesota. Population 350. He usually tells people “I’m from Albert Lea,” the next largest town 10 miles away, “because people can find that town on the map.”

“I was just a kid from Clarks Grove. Not Hispanic, not white, not Asian, not nothing, just a kid from Clarks Grove who played baseball and got along with everybody” he said.

Similarly, Ron Johnson grew up in a small town in Indiana.

“The family wasn’t well off but we also weren’t hungry. Just an average small town American family,” Johnson said. “I had a paper route, I cut grass for money. I remember my grandma’s house was one of the yards I always cut.”

Her house was on the other side of town, so he rode his bicycle there, steering with one hand and pulling the lawnmower with the other.

I learned that all three, Reynolds, Johnson and Burnett all grew up in small towns. Burnett from a small town in Ohio, Johnson from a small town in Indiana and Reynolds, from a small town in Minnesota. All three joined the Army searching for opportunity and a start for something better. Probably not that different of a reason from any of the rest of us. But good leaders and great leaders can come from anywhere. The more I talked to them the more I realized it is not so much where you come from, or why you joined that brings success. What is critically important is who you are as a person, your work ethic, your desire to succeed, and your need to help others.

All three believe in having a hard work ethic.

Reynolds was very active in sports. He wanted to play on the football team, but because his mother and father worked and they lived ten miles from town, his mother told him that if he wanted to be on the football team then he would have to figure it out.

“And so I did,” he said. “I made sure I had good tire pressure on my bike and I rode the ten miles for the two-a-day [practices].

“If I were to go back and talk to (my younger self, I would tell him) that (experience) will serve you well,” He said. “You took a problem, you took something that you wanted to do and you figured it out in the most expeditious manner you could, based on the resources you had available.

“Fast forward to today, that is pretty much what I do now,” he said with a chuckle.

Soldier First

We have all experienced pain and hard lessons and so I asked Johnson about hard early lessons and about people who mentored him. I asked him what he learned. He explained the importance of adaptability and the idea that being a Soldier first is all important as a leader. Johnson believes there is no “24- month Soldier.” You are a Soldier first and not just for the first two years of your career. In this way, you understand how to do the core of your job and you understand what it takes to take care of the Soldiers you are responsible for.

“Up until I went to Germany (as a combat engineer), it was all construction and then I got to Germany and I was a staff sergeant,” Johnson said. “It didn’t matter if I was a staff sergeant for one month, which I was, or ten years, the expectations were (the same).”

In Germany, the 94th Engineer Battalion was still responsible for construction but in a combat context. The unit was a lot more focused on tactical operations.

“It was a shock for me and I sucked for about the first year,” he said. “The first sergeant rode my behind non-stop. He rode me hard and I hated it. I had to adjust. I was out of my comfort zone. Then he started to treat me differently and I reflected that the reason he was treating me different was because I had finally settled into the role. That was that first year when it was really rough and (the first sergeant) whooped me into shape.

“It helped me realize it’s just another step,” he continued. “I am a Soldier first. I need to learn how to operate in austere environments and then I can build something when I get there.”

I asked Reynolds what advice he would give privates or young sergeants who aim to be future command sergeants major.

Reynolds believes it begins with Soldiering.

“You have to be dedicated and committed to the Army mission,” he said. “If you do this well, you will progress.”

He discussed what he uses when he in-briefs and counsels new Soldiers, referring to it as the “nuclear triangle.”

“Within the (nuclear) triangle there are smaller triangles with things like the Army physical fitness test, height and weight, and counseling,” he explained. “The point is, the Army, in some peoples’ eyes, is really easy, but when you look at all the different things you have to do as a Soldier and a leader, it really is tough.

“So, to the young private, you are going to have to do a lot of balancing and prioritizing to achieve your goals. You have to do the Soldier things right first, and then the leadership stuff will come because you understand how Soldiers work and what it is they need to better themselves. Once you put those stripes on it is all about the Soldiers and has nothing to do with you anymore.”

Be Authentic

I asked Johnson if he had any slogans or sayings he carried with him throughout his career to motivate himself or others. He said that a key to his success was to remain authentic to who he is and to trust in himself to do what is right. This is something he described as “dancing with the one who brought you.”

“If you are trying to make a decision and you’re going into a situation where you are not quite sure how to carry yourself or how to act, you have to remember you are the sum result of all your experiences and who you are brought you to this point, so keep being you are,” he said.

This advice was echoed by Burnett. He remarked that some people feel forced to do what they don’t want, but shouldn’t.

When he was at West Point, he was shocked when a couple of officers given their branch and he noticed they didn’t look very happy. They branched Infantry. They told him they did not want the field but it is the big thing.

“I told them no, that is not the big thing,” Johnson said. “Do what you want otherwise you aren’t going to be happy. And it’s going to impact people.”

Johnson and Burnett’s remarks serve as a powerful message -- being authentic not only means being able to trust yourself to do the right thing, but if you aren’t authentic and true to who you are, it ultimately affects everyone around you.

Taking Care of People

Ultimately, leadership is about taking care of people, inspiring them, and helping them to become better. Burnett, Reynolds and Johnson live by this rule and I believe it is the essence of what makes them so inspirational and such good leaders. You cannot succeed in the Army without a want and desire to care for others.

For example, early one morning at his first duty station in Fort Bragg, N.C., young Pfc. Reynolds was driving into work and got a flat tire. Knowing he had no other option, he ran the rest of the way to work and reported to his squad leader, dripping with sweat and fearing what would happen for being late. What he believed was going to be a reprimand turned into something entirely different and taught him a powerful lesson. Being in the Army is about taking care of each other.

“So I ran to work and let my squad leader know (what happened) and he can obviously see me sweating and everything. He told me to just stay here, and I’m thinking, I’m about to get the smoking of my life and began mentally preparing myself,” he said. “He came back five minutes later and handed me an envelope. The envelope contained money he collected from the squad to help me put gas in my vehicle, to get me through the rest of the week until we got paid. And so that lesson again is that (the Army) is really more of a family than a job. Everybody really does care for you.”

The Army’s leadership often hands out coins to Soldiers to instantly recognize high performance or to show their appreciation. Some of these coins are elaborate and have designs and logos and campaigns and history on them. They are great recognition and reward tools, and the longer you are in the Army, the greater you coin collection will get.

My favorite coin, and probably the most unique, is one that I received from Burnett. It is smaller than a quarter and shaped like the command sergeant major rank insignia. The back of the coin reads “you have to care that much.” It is a saying Burnett has used and continues to use to this day. He later added the phrase, “Leadership matters.”

“I think caring that much means putting yourself out there and you’re vulnerable to the things that have impacted you,” he said. “By showing people you care that much, they will perform at a much a higher standard. If you make yourself (available) night, day, or anytime, if somebody is having a problem and you show them that you care that much, they’re just going to do that much more and elevate their performance.”

Burnett went on to discuss why leadership matters.

“I have come to the reality that the word ‘leadership’ is abused because (anybody can say) they are a great leader,” he said. “But what are you doing to show you are a leader?

"Leadership means engulfing yourself into something, trying for something higher, and giving back,” he continued. “It’s not about you, it’s about somebody else. Always remember people matter because nothing is successful without the people around you.”

Final Words of Wisdom

Johnson – “Do every job the best you can. Everything happens for a reason.”

Reynolds – “Look at your rater’s (supervisor) support form. It will allow you to understand their vision and initiate conversation and dialog on how to get there.”

Burnett – “Worry about the position you are in and the next position will come. Focus on what you are doing and everything else will come.”

You can see more and watch the interviews in their entirety at: