Accepting the Risk of Leadership
Thomas Beers left the Army two years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For over a decade, he battled bouts of survivor’s remorse until he agreed to help lead a chapter of a veteran nonprofit organization few had ever heard of. This past Sunday, Thomas handed off the reigns to one of the most successful chapters of Team Red, White, and Blue to a new set of leaders, and he’s hoping you might also have what it takes to accept the risk of leadership.
Blog written by Thomas Beers
I am letting go…
I’m not leaving, just “letting go.”
And it is not easy…
I started going through old pictures on my Facebook page of when I first started running again, back in 2013, just after I had found Team RWB.
I was searching for motivation—something that made me run for a larger purpose. At the time, Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) was the only veteran group I knew about. I looked up WWP running groups on Facebook and found some guy in upstate New York, a dentist who had a “13.1 for Wounded Warriors” group. It was a cool little piece and I started to run around Cleveland—through a dentist in Rochester who was trying to raise money—so I could raise awareness of veteran issues.
Let me back up for a moment. I served in the Army for a brief time in the 1990’s and left in 1999. Like many other veterans, I was in a love-hate relationship with the Army. Uncle Sam and I parted as “just friends,” and then I started moving straight to another uniform: firefighter. A decade and a half later, I found myself wanting to get back into running to give back to those who served in the war that I “missed.” I had some demons about that…the failure to serve with my friends in combat. In a way, while I wanted to help through advocacy, I didn’t realize at the time that I was running to help me, too.
One day in 2013 I went back to the dentist’s Facebook group only to find what looked like a psychedelic stencil of an Eagle. I called the dentist and asked what this change was all about. He was between patients so the good doctor gave me a few minutes of talking points about Team RWB, a whole new group I had never heard about before. He told me he had run across (pun intended) them at some race in the Midwest. He gave me their address and I went to work.
I made some spreadsheets, picked some races, and began asking friends and family to “sponsor” me as I ran with a new shirt I received in the mail—a red Brooks brand tech shirt that I wore everywhere. I was the only Eagle I knew at the time. I was unaware how that name, Team RWB, was eventually going to consume my life.
After raising a few hundred dollars and sending the money I raised to Florida—and hosting push up contests in our fire station—I received an email from one “Blayne Smith” who informed me that there was a whole community of Eagles in Northeast Ohio and that I needed to become an “official member.” Apparently, they were scratching their heads wondering who “this dude” was and thought it best if I left the fringes of the organization and became an “official” Eagle.
I met Matt Kisil, the captain of the Cleveland Chapter, while he was putting together his leadership team. Matt asked if I was interested in giving a little more of my time and leadership to the chapter (technically a “community” in 2013 and 2014). I went home and thought about it. Matt wanted me to be a “Veterans Outreach Director.” It sounded fancy enough. Plus, I found out that they’d be giving me some cool business cards, so I accepted and began my Alice-in-Wonderland-style introduction to the world of Team RWB. I was also Matt’s “go to” for filling in as a chapter captain when he could not, making me a quasi-co-captain. The company “executive officer.”
I discovered that there were so many veterans who were clamoring for “something more,” who wanted to reignite the sense of camaraderie they lost after leaving the service. I learned of veterans who had sacrificed so much for the nation, and I learned that some of their wounds, the unseen ones especially, needed healing.
Never to be the type of person that does anything half-assed, I dove into the role of the new outreach director and began to make connections, both for the organization, and personally. I started to feel rejuvenated. I realized that I had not come to terms with myself for serving in a peace-time Army, and as an officer, I felt the need to serve “my soldiers” still and that this leadership role, however small, seemed to fill some of that void and quiet a demon I did not realize I had.
Through the collective efforts of the entire Cleveland/Akron leadership team, the RWB brand was becoming recognizable. We were rolling across Northeast Ohio and picking up “our people” at every race, every WOD, every interaction, week by week.
Then Matt got orders from his reserve unit to deploy (insert record scratch here) and then something even crazier happened. Matt asked if I would like to step into the chapter captain role for the one year he would be gone (restart record but at 10x speed!). Because I didn’t think I was “the right guy” for the job, I hesitated. There was too much at stake. Matt reassured me that I was a natural fit for the job, that all I needed was passion.
My biggest fear was that I would fail miserably and ruin Team RWB for the people in our chapter. They were counting on me in a way I had not experienced before. Peoples’ lives, or at least the quality of their lives, were at stake. Another concern I had centered around the budget. “What if I go over the budget?!?” I laugh at that too now…
Anyway, right about the time when Matt asked me to up my game for Team RWB, my personal life was starting to fall apart. My wife of nearly a decade filed for a divorce and the law firm she worked at assured me that I was headed for a meat grinder. What do I decide to do during this crisis? Take the reins, of course. Seems logical, right? Little did I know, again, how logical a decision that would turn out to be.
With so much going on in my life, I needed Team RWB as much as Team RWB needed me. A few weeks ago, I listened to Mike Erwin on the Team RWB podcast and he was talking about how volunteering and giving back to others is not as altruistic as it seems because when you give to others, the reward goes to you. You feel better, you act better, and sometimes you get as much or even more out of volunteering than the person you’re trying to help. In the middle of my divorce, between motions and hearings, parenting plans and evidence, I worked on Team RWB. When I had no time to spare between two jobs, the divorce, kids, and meeting my new running partner (who eventually became my wife and biggest Team RWB supporter), I worked on Team RWB. The worries of my personal life, while important, were not so scary when I focused on Team RWB. They became the positive in my life that I could turn to for relief. Giving back kept me sane. Volunteering and meeting other soldiers, and sailors, and airmen, and marines, all kept me straight. I felt like the demon of missing my war and of not being able to take care of “my soldiers” was fading. I realized we all had struggles, and if I was able to keep Team RWB together, and not ruin it, or let it fall apart, then we would all make it together. My team would survive. I would survive.
I had an idea that to continue our chapter’s success, we needed to grow. The leadership team began to map out where we wanted to grow and after the first year at the helm, we more than doubled our size. Ohio has 88 counties, and our chapter now spans 21 of them. We got big fast! So big that I needed to make a smart decision and find a chapter co-captain. Honestly, one of the best decisions I made as Chapter Captain was asking Lexi Grum (Lexi Sharp back then) to step up as a chapter co-captain. I realized Lexi needed Team RWB as much as I did. That’s her story to tell though…
By the way, did you catch that I said the “first year at the helm”? It turned out that Matt’s deployment was extended beyond a year. 2015 was amazing and our members were out and proud and flying the Eagle every day, literally. We rolled and harnessed that energy into 2016 and came out swinging with more activities, expanded leadership roles, more outreach, the right people in the right roles, and we continued to collect more civilians and more veterans into our chapter.
If raising our chapter were akin to childrearing, Matt gave birth to our baby. It was my job to see it through adolescence (the teens), and now that the baby has grown, I realize it’s my job to let it go. The last thing I want is to be a dictator seeking a third term.
In 2017, one of our members got lit up with some Eagle fire and started seeking responsibilities and asking the right questions. If I had to let “my teenager” go off to college and be mentored by a professor, Nick Billock was the right man for the job. I asked Nick if he was interested in being the next chapter co-captain. Lexi and I both began to plan for a leadership change and map out a process for the future that would allow us to never deplete both co-captains simultaneously and hurt the chapter.
And now this…This writing process. The cursor is blinking and I don’t know how to end this story. All I can hear is the air conditioner droning. Maybe this is the way to end.
At one point on this trip, I had to give a lecture on Team RWB to a national medical conference at the Cleveland Clinic. They wanted to know how Team RWB was succeeding at helping veterans transition into civilian life. What was our formula? There were Admirals from the Public Health Service in the crowd, as well as Kevin Laci of American Sniper and my Veteran Outreach Director and consigliore, Jeremy Komasz. At one point, I mentioned that I had worn many uniforms in my life: Eagle Scout, US Army Officer, Firefighter, Paramedic, and Team RWB member and that in reflecting on those uniforms, wearing the Team RWB Eagle was by far the uniform I am most proud of. That was true then and still is to this day.
Why? Because even though “my baby” is in good hands and I am leaving “my baby” behind, “my baby” will always be there for me—and for so many others. While this little story is mine, the story of Team RWB is not. It’s not Mike Erwin’s or JJ’s or Blayne’s. It is all our little stories together, from peace-time to conflict warriors, from veterans to civilians, from West Coast to East. The Eagle is a tapestry of stories that make a community, a chapter, a team, a nation.
Thank you, Team RWB. Thank you…
Are you ready to accept the risk of leadership?
If you’re not a member of Team RWB and would like to join, you can sign up here.
If you’re already a member and are interested in taking on a leadership role in your local chapter, you can reach out to Team RWB leadership here.
When you’re ready to lead, Team RWB will be here for you. It’s never lonely at the top when you fly with Eagles!