Leadership is both a skill and a talent. Anyone who has ever been in a leadership position knows firsthand that it is the ultimate learning experience. There will be challenges, and there will be failures. But the first time you step into that leadership role and experience success, or more importantly, watch your employees have success, you will find that spark you’re looking for.
It’s a well-known fact that failed leadership is a driving force behind a large percentage of the resignations in the job force in the United States over the last years. Couple that with the effect of the pandemic, and employers are having a hard time hiring new workers and retaining them. Not to mention that the cost of failed leadership, and its effect on employee welfare, is estimated to be $3 trillion (about $9,200 per person in the US) dollars a year.
If you ask someone what makes a good leader, they might mention honesty, integrity, and drive. Maybe it's a good communicator, someone with empathy for others, who can teach others and inspire them toward a goal. When you combine these attributes, another job title seems to fit this definition: a member of the Armed Forces. Add a bit of grit and bravery in the mix, and you get Dr. Tony Brooks, former Army Ranger.
Who is Tony Brooks
Dr. Tony Brooks is a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine, an author, a public speaker, and a veteran. And that's just his professional accolades. But when you sit down and speak to the man, what he is, is a leader. So, how did Brooks get to where he is today? We talked with Brooks about what makes a great leader, how he developed many of those skills during his time as an Army Ranger, and what guidance he can offer the rest of us who wish to be great leaders.
It Started With 9/11
After the events of September 11th, 2001, The United States was reeling. But it didn't take long for a generation of young people to realize that there was something they could do, something many of them felt they needed to do, in the chaotic and fearful aftermath of that terrible day. During the year following 9/11, many Americans signed up to join the military. Over 181,000 signed up for active duty, and another 72,908 joined the reserves. Tony Brooks was a young man in his first year of college that fall, and he suddenly realized that he was supposed to be somewhere else.
"I grew up in Northern California, a very middle class, normal, Peter Parker lifestyle," Brooks says. "I went away to college to the University of Arizona. My freshman year was 2001, and within the first month of college, 9/11 happened. And quickly, I realized I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong things. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life," he says.
Brooks says his father was surprised when he got the phone call from his son saying he wanted to join the Army. And although he didn't try to dissuade him, he did convince Brooks to finish that first year of college and then reevaluate his decision. "So, believe it or not, I listened," Brooks says. "And I finished my first year of college. And (then) I was like, 'Okay, dad, I'm joining the Army.'"
Rangers Lead the Way
Brooks recalls being inspired to join the Army Rangers from stories told by his older brother. Couple that with his seeing the movie “Black Hawk Down” and being inspired by the story of Pat Tillman, who joined the Army Rangers after 9/11 as well. And so, in 2003, Brooks enlisted in the Army, with an option to become a member of the elite 75th Army Ranger Regiment. He first deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, and his first big mission was the infamous rescue of Marcus Luttrell, known as the “lone survivor” from Operation Red Wings.
“So, I got deployed, and my first mission was one of the most high-profile missions of the 20-year Afghanistan war,” Brooks explains. The mission and its aftermath were turned into the 2013 movie “Lone Survivor,” starring Mark Wahlberg. “I never really shared that I was a part of it. I didn't want to be the center of attention,” Brooks says. “It just made me feel uncomfortable. So, everyone was talking about that movie when it came out. And I just kind of sat there and listened.”
After Brooks retired from the Rangers, the drive to help others continued. But it was a bad back that initially led him into the chiropractic field. “I couldn't find anything to help me,” Brooks says. “And my wife, with all her grace, forced me to go to a chiropractor, against my will, by the way. And I'll be damned if he helped me. Got me out of pain. And instantly, I was like, wait a minute. This seems like an awesome job,” he says. “You don't have to see the blood and guts. People aren't dying in your office. People like you. And you get to help people.”
A Different Kind of Leader
Being a leader must be organic, and it must come from a true desire to see others succeed. A good leader inspires others to work toward a goal and compels them to want to seek better things for themselves. In his chiropractic business, Brooks was able to use both his passion for helping people and his drive to help others succeed in the role of leader and mentor.
He credits his time with the Army Rangers for instilling many of the qualities that allow him to be a valuable and successful leader. And for him, it starts with the desire to help others. “I'm your average guy. I’m just driven by serving other people,” he says. “That is what makes me get up in the morning. It’s the ability to help others. And it's been that way my whole life. It's always been my motivating factor in everything I've done.”
Inspiring Others, Even When It's Hard
A good leader needs others to follow, even on their worst day. Brooks likens this to compelling a group of tired, hungry soldiers to keep going, despite their desire to stop. "You are considered a leader if you can get a group of tired, hungry, and angry people to do what you want them to do. That's how you know you're a good leader. Because if their mind is set on something else, and you were able to accomplish a task that maybe isn't top of their mind, you have successfully been a leader," Brooks says.
“In Ranger School, you get one meal per day, and you get about three hours of sleep per day, for about 62 days straight. And no one wants to do what you tell them. And they're all grumpy and hungry and sleepy,” Brooks explains. “But if you're able to accomplish specific tasks, you get to move on. So as a leader, you've got to keep everyone under one umbrella and moving in one direction. Not an easy task,” he says.
Being a Part of the Team
Keeping employees engaged and working toward a mutual goal is no easy feat, but research shows it’s very important to the success of any workforce. Brooks says that the mental toughness he developed during his time with the Rangers has helped him stay the course, even when it's not easy. “There's a mental toughness that comes with putting all your thoughts and limitations on the backburner,” Brooks says. “Not focusing on not telling them that you're hurting, not telling them that you're doubting yourself, whatever it is that's going on in the back. And you need to step up, be confident, and lead the way.”
Getting people to follow you willingly, whether on the battlefield or in the workplace, takes empathy. And a part of that empathy means being the kind of leader who will work with employees as a part of the unit. “You have to care for all those people. And you have to prove to them that you care about them,” Brooks says. “And the leader needs to check themselves. Put themselves in everyone else's shoes. If you all have a common mission, and everyone's invested in it, it becomes easy.”
Research shows that employees who trust their leaders are more engaged, more loyal, and more likely to advocate for the benefit of their organization. But how do you build that trust with a team? Brooks says a big part of it is the willingness to do the work. “You've heard this probably a million times. You’ve got to be the first one there and the last one to leave. Everyone needs to see that you're working harder than everybody else,” Brooks says. “And that's not just a pretend thing. You have to do it.”
Brooks explains the importance of leading by example, not just by demonstrating a task but by stepping in and helping an employee who may be struggling. “When I give tasks to my employees, I will do that task in front of them. Randomly, multiple times. If I see that they're stressed out, I will put my work on hold, do some of their tasks, take some stress off them, and then move forward,” Brooks says. “I won't look for any praise or anything like that. And it builds up team a mentality.”
To Err Is Human
Building trust is a delicate task because it takes a long time to establish but only a moment to destroy. Brooks says one of the biggest threats for a leader is a lack of consistency. "You have to be consistent. You can't do it once and expect that earned trust.” Brooks says. “Time is your best friend when it comes to building trust. You can't rush it,” he says.
Another characteristic that will garner mistrust among employees is difficulty admitting to mistakes. “We all hate it. We all hate to be wrong. I hate being wrong. I hate making mistakes,” Brooks says. “But if I make a mistake, I'll say, ‘yeah, that was all me, I apologize. Thank you for helping me find my errors.’”
Admitting mistakes is a skill, and it takes practice. Leaders must work toward being the type of person who can own their mistakes if they expect respect and trust from their employees. “If you're a leader and you think you're never wrong, that's a different problem. You're probably not a great leader yet. Because all great leaders will admit when they're wrong,” Brooks says. "They're not going to dwell on it, they're going to move on, but they will admit when they're wrong.”
When To Pull Rank
Every leader knows there will come a time when you need to remind your team who is in charge. So, when and how do you pull rank in a way that will maintain that trust you’ve been working so hard for? Brooks says a good way to handle it is by delegating the responsibility, sort of the same way the military does it. "In the military, they're very smart on how they do it," he says. "You have enlistees, and you have officers. The senior enlistee is the kind who hands down the punishment. And the officers are the ones who just give the orders.” Brooks says establishing leadership roles in the ranks needs to happen early. "The key is defining those roles early on and sticking to them. So, I think it has those clear boundaries,” he says.
But what if you're a small company or a startup trying to work with a small number of equally ranked executives? That can limit your ability to delegate any type of responsibility. "Obviously, in a startup, it's got to be a little more delicate of a situation where there's going to be one person who is probably doing three or four different roles. You don't have the money, or the time, or the manpower to do a lot of separation of tasks," Brooks says. But he says the risk versus reward model for startup companies can be a motivating factor for employees. "Where it's a little bit easier is that most of the people in the startup all have that potential for the big reward. Whereas in many businesses, that low-level employee doesn't have the potential for the big reward," Brooks says. "So, you've got to dangle different carrots for different roles."
And if employee motivation starts to slack, Brooks says it's important to refocus everyone on the goal. "In a startup, the mission will drive everything," he says. "And in my startup, if we were starting to get off track, we would always go back to the mission. And we'd focus on it for as long as it took for everyone to get on the same page." Brooks says the mission is what matters when it comes down to it. "There has to be something greater than individuals."
So, how does a leader maintain loyalty over the long term? One of the biggest obstacles companies face regarding employee retention is employee burnout. Burnout is considered an “occupational phenomenon” and is not listed as a diagnosable medical condition, but that doesn’t make its effects less devastating for both employees and companies. And it doesn’t take long for burnout to progress into actual health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
Brooks recounts his personal experience with burnout during his time as Army Ranger. "I've experienced burnout when I was in the military. And I recognized that it wasn't sustainable. So, I needed to leave the military to do something different. That's the classic burnout, right? You have to change careers," Brooks says. How did he know it was time for a change? "The autonomy of not being able to keep my non-negotiable items is what did it," Brooks says. "I think, ultimately, everyone should have some non-negotiable things. Like, I'm going to do this, this, and this every week, without fail. And they need to be non-negotiable.”
Brooks says that burnout is more common than people think, and often people are struggling for some time before even realizing it. “I see it every day in my clinic,” Brooks says. “I'm in a town that's mostly tech workers. And they're not usually very physically active. And they'll come in, like. They just got hit by a truck. Pain, headaches, discomfort, they're unhappy. All these things, or one of them even, should be a sign.” he says.
“Usually, if they sit down with themselves, they know exactly why they're feeling the way they're feeling,” Brooks says. “And they'll tell you ‘I'm working too hard. And what do I do, doc?’ Well, you need to not work as hard.”
Prevention is the best medicine, right? And leave it to a doctor to point to preventative measures as the best way to combat employee burnout. Using vacation time to mitigate stress is one way to prevent burnout before it happens. "Instead of taking that two-week or one-week vacation, what about just a three-day weekend? A short drive away from where you live, away from the madness. No phone, no Email. Three days with you and your loved ones, or alone if that's what you want," Brooks says. "Sometimes that little refresh is all you need. You always have something to look forward to. And that's always that little dangling carrot in front of you. That's self-care. That's helping you in your day job," he says.
“The cure is the prevention of the problem,” Brooks says. “The key is setting yourself up early to avoid getting there. But once you're there, I think it will take some major changes, and you’ve got to be ready for it,” he says. Dealing with burnout once it happens is another ballgame altogether. “I hate to say it, but often the best thing is you’ve got to change the scenery. It could be the same company or the same profession, but it may not be,” Brooks says. “So, the key is having all those things in your life, you know, the exercise, the daily 30-second-deep breathing exercises, the social activities, or whatever is for you. All that stuff's important,” he says. “And it needs to be non-negotiable for you to have a long and healthy career.”
Having an open dialogue between companies and their employees can help combat burnout, whether it recognizes it before it happens or helps team members handle it after the fact. “Maybe having that conversation with the leader in your business and saying ‘I'm burnt out. I need a change of scenery.’ Just being honest,” Brooks recommends. “And maybe they'll have an option for you. And maybe they don't have an option. So, you’ve got to always keep that in your mind that this may mean me leaving my current situation,” he says.
Six Tips for Aspiring Leaders Watch for those who are struggling.
“As a leader, you have to know that there's always someone in the group who is struggling somehow. And you have to be looking out for those people. You have to be trying to find them,” Brooks says.
“I always ask employees and business partners, ‘how can I help you do your job better? How can I help you enjoy your time here?’ Most of them will come up with something,” he says.
Be a Good Listener
“You've got to be a good listener. I've learned more about leadership from the people I was leading than anyone else I've ever been around. Simply by listening. So, you need to be a good listener,” Brooks says. “Give them opportunities to speak their mind. And don't get defensive. If you're going to go out and give people opportunities to voice their opinion, expect to hear it.”
Have a Thick Skin
“As a leader, you have to be very thick-skinned. Not everyone's going to love you. Not everyone's going to hate you. But you're going to have both," Brooks says. "And if you want to be everyone's friends, don't be a leader because there will be people that just don't like you. That doesn't mean they won't follow you. But they may not like you."
Always Act With Integrity
“You need to have integrity. If you say something and you expect people to listen, you better be doing that same thing. Integrity will destroy you,” Brooks says.
Take Care of Yourself
“You've got to take care of yourself. You can't be falling apart at the seams. It's really hard to follow someone falling apart,” he says. “So, you got to take care of yourself, then allow your people to see you taking care of yourself. It's motivational to them. For instance, if my employees see me going for a run or on my lunch break, going to the gym, they are more motivated to do that for themselves.”
Love What You Do
“Love what you do," Brooks says. "If you don't love what you do, it will be tough to get people to follow. If you don't believe it and don't live it, you don't love it. People will quickly see that you're essentially a fraud. No one wants to follow a fraud."
Be The Person You Expect Others to Be
The role of a leader is an important one in any company. Research shows that 83% of companies point to developing employees as a vital part of their business, yet only 5% implement strategies that seek to accomplish this. And really, that’s what a good leader does. They grow their team, help them aspire to be greater than themselves, and inspire them to work toward a goal. If the leader crafts that goal to benefit both the employee and the company, they have succeeded.
“It comes down to this,” Brooks says, “you have to be the person you want everyone else to be. If you're not there yet, that's fine. But you need to strive to be that person that you want everyone else to be."
Cover photo courtesy of Dr. Tony Brooks.