M6 Leadership Spotlight: Chris Burns Part II

M6 Leadership Spotlight: Chris Burns Part II

Earlier this week we introduced you to our Leadership Spotlight series and shared Part I of our conversation with Brig. Gen. Christopher Burns, U.S. Army, Retired, who is a member of our Advisory Board. In Part I, Chris shared his thoughts on leadership, how the military has changed, and what M6’s Warrior First motto means to him. Part II focuses on other aspects of Chris’ career, his approach to service, his education, and the Rapid Fire portion of our conversation. Read the rest of our conversation below.

When you were integrated into different teams, what did you do to demonstrate that you would be an asset?

I find people fascinating, and I talk to everybody all the time. I build relationships. I have this conversation probably every other week with senior officers and senior executives within the DoD. For us to be successful in an integrated environment – meaning DoD, the services, the interagency – DoD has to be willing to lean forward and add value to those other organizations before having them add value to us. And the problem is, as humans, we, again, are more self-interested than we are about the greater good, which is why teamwork matters to me, in everything I’ve ever done, where I make a lot of money for people, and why I have a ton of relationships is because I always figured out how I could help them. I never thought about what I need out of you. It was always what can I do for you. And if I do that, there’s going to be a moment in time when I need something, and then you’re going to be like, “Chris, I’ll give you whatever you want because you’re the first person who didn’t want something from me and wasn’t gonna give anything in return.”

[This approach] has paid me dividends over and over for the different units I’ve been involved with for SOCOM and different commands. We need to be successful in the interagency, so we have to always ask, “What keeps you up at night? What are the things that are really bothering you?” Then I go to work trying to figure out how I can solve them for you, whether it’s an integrated approach, somebody I know, or a resource I can provide. Even if I can’t achieve it, the fact that I’m willing to put that effort into it goes a long way with people. People just by nature don’t normally do that, you know, but I will have a list of things to do and people to help and I’m not looking for anything in return.

Knowing your approach to service, how do you create boundaries?

In StrengthsFinder, I’m an arranger, which means I like to run things and I always want to make them better. So the problem is I always want to be in charge. I’m also a learner, which means I will sign up for anything. I took five different languages in high school because I just want to learn different languages. You know, if there’s an interpretive dance class, I will go take the class for an hour, just get the experience.

What I’ve learned, though, is 20% of what you do is responsible for 80% of your success. So, I have learned to cut back and think more strategically, signing myself up for the things where I can truly make an impact. The other side of it is I need to create time to think strategically to create better outcomes. To make things great, you need to be a bit more thoughtful in the process.

How did you advance your career? Are there pivotal assignments you had that helped you to develop as a professional that you can tell us about?

I always looked at where I wanted to be, and then I wrote the resume I needed to have to get there. I took assignments to make sure I was uniquely qualified [for the job I wanted]. By this I mean I always took the jobs that were uniquely hard, but also aligned me with where I wanted to be. For example, to be a TSOC commander, I needed to work in the TSOC a lot, probably within the Joint staff. So, I took high profile jobs that were hard, which a lot of people won’t do. They’ll take a high profile job, but then won’t take a hard high profile job. I took the hard high profile jobs with the idea that (1) I was going to learn, and then (2) I was going to get the experience I needed for when I went to TSOC. I worked at the Pentagon twice as Deputy Director of Special Ops, counterterrorism. I also worked in the so-called Washington office. I understood budgets. I understood the interagency. I understood some of the more discrete things that we do within our community. So, these types of jobs enabled me to have a set of experiences that are very hard to get that made me uniquely qualified for the job I wanted.

Are there any career decisions that you made that with more experience you would’ve done differently? 

I wouldn’t change a single thing. Every disappointment, every challenge, every joy, every learning experience made me who I am today. And, I’m very happy and very lucky to be where I am. I’ve loved every job I’ve had and have learned from every single one of them.

What are you bringing from your military experience to your work with M6? 

I bring a passion to be the best. When people talk about me they talk about a couple of things, which I didn’t realize until I got up there a little bit and someone introduced me on the floor of the Joint Operations Center at SOCOM. They said, “This is General Burns. This is the person who they use to solve the problems around here.” So, I’m very good at getting in, working a problem either to solve it or going from good to great. I am not going to maintain the status quo. If you put me in a job to maintain the status quo, I will figure out how not to maintain the status quo. My style is to constantly make things better and constantly adapt and innovate.

I’m also a high performance coach for teams and organizations. I can’t help myself – I’m always trying to make an organization better so I coach it to the next level constantly and help people understand what they need to do to be the best versions of themselves.

Finally, I’ve been a tactical, operational, and a strategic leader. Where I see my most success is in those things I do as a strategic leader. I look up and out about 18 months-to-three years. It used to be three-to-five years, but the world’s moving too fast. So, now I look at where this org needs to be in 18 months-to-three years to be successful and set those conditions and coach and mentor whoever I’m working with to help get the org to that space.

How did your M.B.A. complement your military career?

I look at the world a lot differently than most people in the military. My M.B.A., my business background, my military background, and my strong desire to learn a lot of stuff enable me to look at problems cross-functionally rather than siloed. I can look at different things and critically stitch them together to help people understand.

Any parting thoughts?

Celebrate. I coach a lot of leaders, and sometimes we get so caught up in the mission that we forget to take a breath. We need to pause and celebrate our teams and ourselves.


What’s the best title you’ve ever had – personal or professional?

Soldier and Senior Leader in Residence at VMI because I get to coach and mentor and give back to the community that’s done so much for me.

What’s the best location you were stationed or a place you’d wanna be stationed if you had the choice? 

Special Operations Command in Tampa because it allowed me to be in a crucible where you constantly get to see operational strategic success and failure and learn from them.

What can we find you doing in your free time? 

I love reading non-fiction, doing yoga, Sudoku, and movies. I am a big habits deck guy, which is James Clear. I coach people on flow states, so I take my five strengths and figure out how to check those off each day, too.

What’s your go-to news source? 

The Wall Street Journal.

Are there any books or movies that you’ve watched or read lately that you think are amazing that you wanna tell people about? 

The most amazing movie that has inspired me for the first time in a long time is The Boys in the Boat. I thought it was going to be about crew, and it was not – it was just amazing.

I’m a big book guy. I recommend:

  • Hidden Potential by Adam Grant
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
  • StrengthFinder from Gallup
  • Finding Your Why by Simon Sinek
  • Design Thinking by Avinash Prasad
  • Liz Weissman’s got two books I like a lot: Multipliers and Impact Players

I’m also reading a ton on innovation, leadership, and design because as we move faster and faster we have to figure out how to do that. So, frictionless experiences and helping people understand that.

Who would you most like to have dinner with or be stuck on a desert island with? 

Let me preface my answer. There are three types of leaders. There are people who go in and break things. There are super nerds. In the middle are warrior scholars. I like to think I’m a warrior scholar, but I’m probably more warrior than scholar. 

Secretary Gates – he’s a warrior scholar and is very pragmatic. I think he’s the most amazing person of our time because he didn’t compromise himself in any way, shape, or form. He was truly authentic and navigated his way to create advocacy for both parties. Staying in that role is impossible and somehow he was able to do it. The more I look back on him the more impressed I am because you can see how hard that is to achieve.

Jamie Dimon on the corporate side. Because of where he sits and he’s been there so long. When you hear Jamie talk, he’s not talking about things that benefit the bank. He’s talking about what will benefit the nation and the world. He is someone who looks for the greater good.