On a sunny July day last year, I arrived at Team Rubicon’s National Headquarters in Los Angeles to begin my orientation into the Clay Hunt Fellows Program. I walked in, receiving welcomes and smiles from all the staff. I immediately felt at home.
I waited until all the other Fellows arrived, and then we gathered at a conference table to be welcomed by CEO Jake Wood. He spoke about the program, the organization’s growth, and leadership, and opened up the room for questions. One of the members in my cohort asked him, “When did you know you were a leader?” For Jake, he said there was no exact moment because it just happens over time. That’s probably right for most people, but while I had no exact moment either, I can at least narrow the transition down to the last two years I’ve spent volunteering with Team Rubicon.
I never considered myself a leader. I spent six years in the United States Army and achieved the rank of E-5, a Sergeant. I was proud to make the ranks of a Noncommissioned Officer, but in the three years I spent in that role, I was never given any sort of command. That is except in 2005, when I was asked to keep tabs on a soldier in our Battalion who went AWOL for nearly a month. I woke him up every morning before physical training and kept him near me while I worked in our battalion headquarters as our command staff’s administrative assistant. To me, this experience amounted to babysitting. I didn’t feel like a leader and was beginning to accept that I wasn’t going to get to live up to my ideals about Army leadership because I just wasn’t getting the right opportunities.
I separated from the Army in 2008, and I spent a lot of time trying to readjust to civilian life. I moved to Virginia for a job, and for the first time in six years, I was within driving distance from my family and close friends in Connecticut. It was great to see my parents more often, but strange to reunite with old high school friends who were now adults with families of their own. Life without a uniform on was scary and complex. Although my family and friends embraced me, I still felt out of place. This feeling persisted for several years, but I learned how to navigate the civilian world. Throughout this period of my life, I never quite felt like I belonged, and I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin.
That all changed about a month after an extremely casual conversation in a bar in Philly with my best friend, Jenna. Besides my brother, Jenna knows me better than anyone. We grew up together; we sat next to each other on the bus, completed science projects, talked about boys…you get the picture. I remembered seeing all this stuff on her Facebook page about Team Rubicon – especially a picture of her in Oklahoma cleaning up tornado debris. It really struck me, and I was curious about it. She told me she thought I’d like TR.
So I went to my first Team Rubicon service project. I had no idea what to wear, but I saw it was a veteran-based organization, so I put on my Army boots, jeans, and my old grey PT shirt. I felt I had to prove I was actually a veteran. I was totally wrong. I was welcomed immediately, and then given a new grey shirt to wear. Then we split into two teams and began clearing a hiking trail at veteran retreat in western Virginia. I didn’t think there was any way we could finish this in two days, but we did! The trail looked amazing and of the TR members I met that day, a good number of them have since become my closest friends in my life. After that project, I no longer felt lost – I felt inspired!
I decided to look for more ways to get involved with TR. Once I started, it didn’t take long before I found all sorts of leadership opportunities. I led an open source team from my home computer for Operation Whipcrack, and we collected and structured information for TR’s recon team in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiguput. I was later selected to join the third cohort of Clay Hunt Fellows, where we’re empowered to design and manage projects to improve processes and establish best practices throughout the organization. On top of this, we also went through a year-long curriculum focused on leadership and self-discovery. At this point, my confidence, sense of purpose, and desire to lead was growing faster by the day.
Jake was right. My maturing into a leader didn’t happen overnight, but if forced to narrow it to one moment, it would be just last month when I deployed to Operation Bankhead Blitz. We were responding to multiple tornadoes that hit the greater Dallas Fort Worth area. It was my first disaster operation, and I spent a week working on all kinds of response teams. I helped strike teams clean up debris, I conducted damage assessments and talked to affected homeowners, and at one point, I even found myself in charge of nearly 20 Southwest Airlines volunteers who were assisting us with the cleanup. That week, I felt more like an NCO than in any week that I wore the Army uniform. I finally found what I was looking for.
The difference between Team Rubicon and the military is that in TR, you don’t have to wait to become an NCO. If you take initiative and want to further the mission, they will put you in a leadership role faster than you can expect.
What I realized from these experiences is true leadership isn’t about titles. It’s about taking a chance, putting people first, and serving others.
Team Rubicon empowered me and trusted me to get the job done. Because of that, I am forever changed. Not only am I more devoted to serving others, but I’m confident I can lead others in a way that will affect real change.