M6 Leadership Spotlight: Chris Burns Part I

M6 Leadership Spotlight: Chris Burns Part I

M6 is proud to introduce a new Leadership Spotlight series where we will profile the talent we have the privilege of working with and for. Our first interview is with Brig. Gen. Christopher Burns, U.S. Army, Retired, who is a member of our Advisory Board. Learn more about Chris and his role on our Advisory Board here.

Chris was extremely generous with his time, and our conversation was wide-ranging, so we’re going to share it in two parts. Part I is below. Look forward to Part II soon!

Who do you admire as a leader – past or present – and why?  

There are a lot of amazing leaders, and I say this as the Leader in Residence at VMI, where I teach leadership to the cadets from a tactical standpoint. To me, your leadership style is a mosaic of the things that you’ve learned from different people that you feel make you the most authentic person you can be. So, there are a few who stand out to me.

First, Secretary Gates, who was the Secretary of Defense. He managed to be apolitical in a very politically contentious world. I worked with him a few times when I was assigned to the Deputy Director for Special Operations and Counterterrorism, the Joint Staff, as a Current Special Operations Officer, where we had some very unique missions. He knew what we were doing, which I always found to be amazing when you think this was a man who was responsible for the entire Department of Defense.

General McChrystal was very much the same way. He was just an incredible leader with strategic vision and insight and the ability to make you feel like you were important when you were talking to him while knowing that he had the most important job going on. He would take the time to coach and mentor his people.

That was the same with General Mattis. I found him to be incredibly impressive, especially in terms of his knowledge. But, to me, how you treat your staff is a good indicator of how good a leader you are. We were going through Capstone, which is when all the new generals go and sit with him – he was Secretary of Defense at the time – and there was a lot going on. He was as calm as a cucumber, and so was his staff. You set the tone as the leader. At that moment in time, there was good reason for his staff to be stressed out, and he treated them with respect, and I really admire him.

And then someone who I’m very lucky to spend a lot of time with and who I consider my mentor is General Nagata, who was the Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) commander when I worked for him. He later finished up as Director of Strategic Operational Planning for the National Counterterrorism Center. He is just a brilliant man who has the ability to think strategically and then communicate in a way that’s easy to understand and in a way that you can just execute and get behind. He mentors me even today. I’m very lucky to have him as both a friend and a mentor.

As an expert in leadership, how would you describe your own leadership style? What’s important?

My own leadership style is really a confluence of attributes. I started as a private with no rank – no nothing – and worked my way through the ranks. I have learned from every leadership experience that:

  • You have to be able to inspire people because we ask people to do hard things.

  • You have to care about your people. Unfortunately, in this world today, because we don’t do a lot of leadership training (except for the military), we train managers just to be managers, and caring for people is not really in their vernacular.

  • You have to have a vision, which also is really hard for a lot of people today because they don’t have that leadership training. So they’ll manage, but they have a hard time setting that vision to drive people and get them where they need to. Vision creates ownership.

  • A leader is someone who needs to take risks because today’s world moves faster and faster. Unfortunately, management, by nature, is risk-avoidance. We have to make mistakes and learn faster.

  • You need courage along with risk. You have to have the courage to know that I’ll take this risk and I’ll own it from that side because someone has to be able to advance what we’re working on. That’s where General Nagata and all my previous leaders really truly have inspired me because they’ve done things that nobody else would do. They could have easily not done them and just moved on to the next thing, but they chose to risk their careers and their reputations to take chances and change the status quo.

When I coach people, my goal is to make them the best versions of themselves. Part of that, and people love this, is that I know I’m doing a good job when you get recruited away from me. And that’s what I look for. That’s how I know that I have developed you into the leader you need to be.

What, in your opinion, is the best way to determine if someone’s a good leader? 

It’s cliche, and what I’m about to say is not literal, but it can be in the kind of work we do. I look at it as whether that leader is someone I am willing to fight and die for. Also, do they treat me and my team with respect? The rank doesn’t matter. The position doesn’t matter.

In a multi-generational work environment, you also have to understand the types of people you’re talking to. In today’s society, as fast as we’re moving, some of the best ideas actually come from the youngest people in the organization, not the oldest. The oldest needs to be smart enough to listen to the youngest and ask questions to understand what they’re talking about.  Especially as we accelerate and move faster and faster with transformation technology, you have to be able to learn and lead faster and faster. You can’t just direct, direct, direct. Ideas come from everywhere today.

What quality do you value most in the people you work with? 

Teamwork sounds like a cliche, but it’s because teamwork is the hardest thing to accomplish to be successful. To be a successful team, you need to rise above your self-interest and be about the team’s interests, which a lot of people say they do. But it’s very hard to do.

What professional experience did you learn the most from?

We grow our leadership through experience. In middle school, I learned I could be a leader when my social studies teacher asked me to go work for his day camp. That was the first time someone gave me an opportunity to be a leader as a camp counselor. I gained confidence there. Then, I joined the military at 17. Between my junior and senior years of high school, I went to basic training. There, I was selected to be a squad leader. So, then I started to learn what leadership means. When I went to ROTC, again, I learned it. It’s through those crucible moments that I saw I might have the potential to lead.

Obviously, the qualification course to becoming a Green Beret is probably one of the most arduous things you can do. Through this process, I learned a lot about myself. And the biggest thing I learned is that limiting beliefs are just that: limiting beliefs. Our qualification course is designed to not give you a lot of handrails and have you just do the best you can. And, that’s what we tell everybody to do. So you have to figure out how to optimize yourselves for success over a series of weeks with grueling events every single day. You can’t go too hard, and you can’t go too slow. You have to figure out how to sustain yourself through that environment and be able to do that on top of the fact that you have additional challenges being thrown at you like doing 26 miles of land navigation starting at 2 a.m.

And then there are the combat and deployment experiences. I was in Afghanistan with the 5th Special Forces Group right at the beginning of the war. I’ve gone through a series of scary moments where I had to cut away a parachute or be in a rollover, for example, and I acted instead of just freezing. That helped me understand that I could handle stressful situations. Not everyone can – I had some senior people who couldn’t handle it, and so I had to send them home.

What assignments helped you to develop as a professional?

I’m a planner. But, as I moved up in the ranks, I developed into what I call selfless service professional because I kept being asked to do things that were really hard, but they were really important. These things weren’t necessarily part of my plan. Because of the asks senior officers have made of me and because I believed in them and in the mission, I put my self-interest aside and did what needed to be done for the greater good. This meant in my 40s I was continuously deployed, along with my team.

On the corporate side, I was very lucky to be a senior executive as well. Being a financial advisor taught me how to work hard to achieve goals and be successful in a role where you don’t get paid unless you make the business work. I also had the opportunity to help build our executive coaching program for our top 1%, which enabled me to understand that if it’s your goal, you’ll take the action. If it’s not your goal, it’s either you don’t do it or it’s a limiting belief. And, if it’s a limiting belief, I can talk to you about it and hopefully get you to let go of that limiting belief. So, this has allowed me to approach people from a leadership perspective. I like to figure out the motivation for you to be successful.

What lessons from your Special Forces training have you carried through your career?

In Special Operations, we cultivate a mindset of ‘Never Give Up’ because you’re put in environments where you don’t get to raise your hand and say, “I don’t want to do this.” You have to find your way out of the problem. The U.S. Navy SEALs will talk about burning your boats and just going forward. So, my mindset is always ‘I have to go forward. I have to accomplish this.’ This has been powerful for me because I can’t let the limiting belief of me being scared prevent me from solving the problem or getting my team to where they need to be.

You know, I get nervous every single day I get up because my main goal in life is to add value to any organization or people I’m with. So, I am nervous that I will let them down every single day. And I would say that to my men and women when we were in Iraq and different places. But here’s the deal: that’s what makes me exceptional because I can either rise to the occasion and be the best version of myself because I don’t want to let you down or I can sit in the room and not get stuff done, and move away. So, I use this fear to thrive.

How has the nature of military service changed throughout your career? 

This is a fun question. I joined in 1983 when we were coming out of a draft army and becoming a volunteer army. Everybody was very nervous that we could fill that out. On top of that, you had a lot of senior officers and enlisted who were from the Vietnam era, which was a very different time that had a different leadership style. So, the military was also trying to wrestle with transformative leadership, which I didn’t understand at the time because I was a private.

Culturally, the military has changed in other ways too. For example, when I was up to about Captain, it was about hanging out with the battalion commander. That’s how you built your reputation. You had to have capability, too, but you better also be able to hang with the battalion commander at the bar. Then, that all changed and the military became more merit based as we moved forward.

As we made cuts from our military forces, we also became a zero tolerance military where risk was frowned upon. And the way they got rid of people was they looked for outliers. Well, if something bad happened, then you became an outlier. And, you’re out. We ended up with a lot of leaders who survived by not making decisions, which was different from what I was told when I was a young officer. I was told we had to make decisions.

Then, 9/11 and Afghanistan happened, and the military changed direction again. You also had the change from this very directive leadership style in the 80s, which was kind of a Vietnam era thing into the 90s, where it was very punitive, you know, zero defect kind of leadership mentality, to where after 9/11, we started to evolve because we were we were learning hard lessons on why that leadership didn’t work.

We’re now in a ‘How do I lead an intergenerational workforce’ phase. The leadership has changed. If I have the time, I want to develop you. I joke with the cadets at VMI all the time and ask them, “What’s the one thing you guys want?” They always answer, “The Why.” Exactly. But, there are times I can’t give you the why because maybe we’re in a combat environment or whatever. Sometimes I need to be directive. With an older person, they generally don’t need The Why. They just want to be told what to do. But, generally, I want to give The Why to help my team to develop and be good leaders because the challenge today is you need leaders who can be fast in terms of taking in information, be able to train their people on technology that’s moving very fast, and work with organizations and brains that are designed to survive and thrive because now you have to be able to execute at a much higher rate within days and weeks. It’s really hard to figure out how you keep your people trained and inspired, and then not have them want to just maintain the status quo while technology changes everything so fast. So there’s a lot going on right now in that space.

What does the concept of ‘Warrior First’ mean to you? 

When we talk about ‘Warrior First,’ I think it’s important to understand what that means. Not everybody has to have that experience, but at least someone on the team has to have the context of what combat means, what the requirements are in that environment, and how your organization can fill that need for those people. At the end of the day, they need to understand that you provide value at the point when they need it the most.