Team RWB Eagle Leader Academy – Houston

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Blog written by:  Isaac Fox Team RWB, Houston Chapter
I wanted to share a story about my experience at Team RWB’s Eagle Leader Academy.  For those who don’t already know, Team RWB is a largely volunteer-run organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. The team logo is an image of an eagle, and we refer to each other and cheer each other on as “eagles.”  If you’ve been to a running event you might have noticed the eagle shirts or heard people yelling to each other “go eagle!” as Team RWB members run past.  You may even have seen a man with an eagle shirt running onto the field during the NFL championship game in 2016, but if you weren’t already familiar with Team RWB you might not have noticed what was going on.  Every member of Team RWB has his or her own reasons for being part of it, but not everybody is comfortable sharing their “why” story.  These stories figure prominently in my experience over the weekend, and I’ll talk about that later.
I’ve been a member of Team RWB since 2014, and I’ve taken a progressively more active role within the organization during that time.  This year I was honored to have Team RWB invest in me as an “Eagle Leader” by sending me to their Eagle Leader Academy (ELA) in El Paso, TX where I met a couple dozen amazing leaders to share our stories and grow stronger and more competent together. My weekend adventure began with a trip to the airport and a flight to El Paso.  I met one of my fellow eagles as I got onto the plane, and met several others in the El Paso Airport as we waited for the shuttle to take us to the hotel.  Even as the introductions were being made (“Isaac, Houston Chapter”) we were laughing together and telling stories about the little things that had already happened to us on our way to ELA.  Andy had missed a flight (I hadn’t met him yet, but I recalled seeing him waiting in the hallway as they filled our plane and closed the door), and several of us had seen a man in a long trench coat entering the airport as we were leaving.  There was some debate about whether we’d seen the same man, as I took him for a monk with a stylized haircut and outfit, and others saw a regular man with very unusual clothes considering the warm and sunny weather.  We also talked about whether we should bother waiting for the shuttle or simply walk to the hotel, which was less than a mile away.  Eventually the shuttle arrived and a few minutes later we arrived at the hotel and met even more Eagles.
The weekend consisted of periods of classroom training broken up by exercise sessions, meals, and a service project.  The classroom training focused on how to be “EAGLE” leaders, meaning Engaged, Authentic, Genuine, Loyal and Effective. The training involved both lecture sessions where we learned basic concepts of EAGLE leadership, and breakout groups where we shared our own experiences with leadership and what we had learned from them. Authenticity and Genuineness were the elements that received the most focus, and I would explain them as follows:
 – Authenticity is knowing yourself so that you are able to be true to yourself and your values as you interact with others.  You may feel more comfortable putting forward a guarded version of yourself, but putting the “real you” out there is important because if you don’t then others will detect and be put off by your facade.  Being authentic will often require feeling vulnerable.
 – Where authenticity involves looking inward to understand yourself, genuineness involves listening to and empathizing with the others in your group. To be genuine you must try to understand the back story and motivations of the people you’re leading, and be empathetic toward them. People will respond differently to leadership styles and you should try to find ways to engage and motivate each of them individually.
In our groups we shared stories of past leadership experiences, why we’ve sought leadership and why we’ve avoided it.  We talked about some of the most important lessons that other leaders have taught us (mine was “the difference between the master craftsman and the beginner is that the master can recognize and fix his mistakes.”) In the room we had some very experienced and accomplished volunteer leaders with decades of service experience, and it was wonderful to hear their perspective on these topics.
Our meals together were where some of the strongest bonds were forged within the group, and arguably where the bulk of the personal growth happened.  We were encouraged to think about our “why” stories: the personal reasons we joined and stayed with Team RWB.  As the group became more comfortable with each other, and through the encouragement of the academy leaders, we also became more comfortable with the importance of vulnerability and shared parts of the deeply emotional experiences that brought us and bound us to Team RWB.  Many within our group had left the military with mental and physical scars, and quite a few had struggled with substance abuse as a means of coping with these issues.  There were stories about caring for loved ones with serious injuries, stories of separation from spouses, friends, children, and sharing of many other painful experiences.  A common thread in the stories was that through Team RWB we each had found a network of support and a way to engage ourselves in something larger which in the end was helping us to overcome our challenges and heal ourselves.  By understanding and being able to share our own stories, we took steps toward comfort in our vulnerability and moved down the path to greater authenticity.
On the final morning we had our service project at the El Paso Food Bank, and one by one we said our heartfelt goodbyes before departing for home.  It was hard to believe that in such a short time we could form such strong bonds with each other, and it was hard to let go of the group and go back to our everyday lives.  I know that I learned a lot over the weekend, but more importantly I was shown a direction for further growth and development and can begin to practice the harder stuff as I go forward.  Those who know me will (I hope!) attest to my authenticity, and when the situation demands it I can definitely be vulnerable without oversharing.  Understanding and showing empathy towards others will be the harder part for me.  I can be empathetic but sometimes struggle to find the right words for a situation.  Thanks to the ELA I understand how important it is to express empathy (not sympathy) and can work on getting the right words out.  As an example, the day after I got home from ELA a friend shared via Facebook that her parent had been diagnosed with cancer.  Instead of just saying “so sorry,” I said “I don’t know how you’re feeling but I’ve had a parent diagnosed with cancer and I’m available to talk if you ever want to.”  There was a little voice inside telling me that I’d better hope she doesn’t come around to talk – but I’ve learned the importance of taking those hard steps and being vulnerable or uncomfortable so that you can help your friends or team.  I heard at the ELA about people whose friends simply disappeared when they were in need, and I know that I want to be a better friend than that… even if it’s hard.
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Here’s to continuous self-improvement, and a big thank-you to Team RWB for their investment in us as leaders and the great experience.