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Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us on another insightful episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are joined by retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Rich Ramsey. Rich is a highly experienced coach and facilitator with a focus on supporting the development and performance of individuals, teams, and organizations across various sectors.
He is an accredited coach with a rich background, including 22 years in the Army with operational assignments and three combat deployments to Iraq. Rich’s post-military career involves contributions to the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development and running Maximize Potential Coaching and Consulting to tailor experiences for clients.
With that said, let’s jump right in.
Firstly, Aram wants to understand how Rich would describe his focus, particularly in the context of his work with leaders. He asks Rich to share what could be considered a thesis statement for his approach to this work.
Rich responds by highlighting the importance of recognizing leadership as fundamentally human interactions. He underscores the need to remember that leadership involves connecting with other human beings rather than merely focusing on what individuals can produce or accomplish.
Furthermore, Rich highlights that conflicts and disagreements are inevitable in the pursuit of objectives, leading to a defensiveness that can obscure the human aspect of interactions. He describes a tendency in business environments for individuals to “armor up” to protect their ego or maintain their stance, which hinders effective communication and connection.
Rich’s thesis revolves around the awareness of one’s “armor” during interactions and the importance of being willing to drop that armor to foster genuine human connections in leadership.
Next, Nolan seeks further insight, asking Rich to share the particular experiences that have molded his approach and philosophy on “dropping the armor” in leadership.
Rich mentions that his perspective on “dropping the armor” in leadership and interactions was significantly influenced by his experiences during a 2008 deployment to Iraq. He provides context by explaining the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region, particularly in Solomon Pock, just south of Baghdad.
The area, historically Shia but used as a resort for Sunni government officials under Saddam Hussein, became a fault line for conflict after Saddam’s fall, with Shias wanting their land and homes back.
Rich recounts how, as a military officer, he and his team were literally armored up for protection in these conflict zones. He noticed that the armor not only made them look very different but also hindered genuine human connections. That’s because in Iraqi culture, eye contact and seeing each other’s faces are important for building trust and having intimate conversations.
Realizing he was being excluded from crucial after-meeting discussions where significant progress was made, Ramsey reflected on his appearance and the message it sent. He understood that to truly help and have the impact he desired, he needed to metaphorically and, to an extent, literally drop the armor.
By doing so, he found that he could engage more effectively and humanely with Iraqi leaders and citizens, making a more significant difference in his efforts to support the region’s improvement. This realization underscored the importance of vulnerability and genuine human connection in leadership, even (or especially) in conflict zones.
Moving on, Rich addresses the challenge of overcoming the natural inclination to “add armor” in difficult and complex situations by emphasizing self-awareness and acceptance. He acknowledges that the desire to protect oneself, whether from physical threats or psychological ones, is a natural response rooted in our brain’s instinct to keep us safe.
Rich suggests that the first step in combating this inclination is to recognize and be okay with these protective impulses, understanding that they are normal and not inherently negative. According to him, the key is to become aware of when we’re being defensive, blaming others, or making others out to be wrong, and then to acknowledge this behavior without self-judgment. He argues that it can be a powerful tool in breaking the cycle of defensiveness.
When we accept our defensive reactions and the reasons behind them, we can begin to explore different responses. Rich implies that sitting with this awareness and acceptance, without rushing to change or judge ourselves, can create space for more constructive interactions.
It helps foster a shift from self-protection to self-awareness, enabling individuals to choose how they engage with others more consciously. This, thereby, helps shed the figurative armor that hinders effective communication and connection.
Rich also discusses the obstacles to building genuine human connections, focusing on the propensity to judge others, highlight their mistakes, and the imbalance between trusting ourselves and distrusting others. He points out that these behaviors serve as forms of armor, protecting us from vulnerability and responsibility but ultimately hindering genuine connection.
On that note, Rich highlights the common tendency to judge others based on their actions while judging ourselves based on our intentions. It leads to unfair assessments and a lack of empathy. He suggests that to overcome these barriers, one should become more aware of their judgments, striving for a balance by considering others’ intentions and the impact of our actions on them.
Once we step into others’ shoes and reflect on the possible intentions behind their actions, we can foster deeper understanding and connection.
Next, Rich shares an inspiring example of the power of empathy and self-awareness in leadership through the story of Colonel Shocker, an Iraqi commander he worked with. Colonel Shocker exemplified the ability to impact others positively by consciously choosing how he presented himself in interactions.
Rich highlights that Shocker was acutely aware of the limitations imposed by physical armor in establishing trust and connection. By approaching villages without heavy armor or protective gear, Shocker demonstrated a commitment to genuine human interaction, which allowed him to engage more effectively with the local population.
Shocker’s actions extended beyond symbolic gestures; he deployed soldiers to protect churches in Baghdad on Christmas Eve, emphasizing the commonalities among people despite differences in beliefs or ideas. It highlighted his belief in collaboration and mutual respect as foundational to achieving peace and security.
Shocker’s approach, as described by Rich, illustrates that recognizing and treating others as human beings, regardless of differences, can lead to significant positive outcomes regarding stability and peace. The story underscores the argument that awareness of one’s impact and a willingness to engage openly and empathetically can promote one’s beliefs and values more effectively than defensiveness or aggression.
Moving on, Rich shares an example from his post-military work with a leader of a small organization, highlighting the transformative effect of dropping defensive armor in a corporate setting. The leader faced challenges as his team began asking questions and challenging decisions in ways they hadn’t before, which he initially interpreted as opposition or even a desire for failure. The situation improved once he recognized that the questions were not attacks but expressions of concern for the organization’s success.
The key turning point for the leader was becoming aware of his defensiveness and the narratives he had constructed about his team’s intentions. Acknowledging his defensive behavior and reevaluating the narratives, he realized his team was genuinely interested in the organization’s welfare and success, not undermining him.
This shift in perspective allowed him to listen and respond to their concerns more effectively, leading to a positive change in both his leadership approach and the overall organizational dynamic.
Rich’s example underscores the importance of self-awareness, openness, and the willingness to challenge one’s assumptions in leadership. Leaders can foster a more collaborative, trusting, and effective organizational culture by dropping the armor and being empathetic with team members.
Lastly, Rich highlights a crucial technique in helping leaders reframe their approach: recognizing and reassessing the narratives or stories they tell themselves about others’ actions or requests. He cites the example of an employee asking for more money not as an act of greed but potentially as a necessity for fulfilling their responsibilities. Ramsey emphasizes the importance of bringing awareness to these stories, understanding that the initial narrative one creates may not reflect the true intention or need behind the request.
Once leaders acknowledge that these narratives are self-created, they can reframe or recreate their stories in a way that is more aligned with reality and less influenced by assumptions. It involves exploring and examining the facts to confirm or refute the suspicions that underpin the original narrative.
Through this process, leaders can develop a more empathetic and understanding perspective, fostering trust and open communication by addressing their team members’ actual needs and concerns rather than reacting to perceived motivations.
Thank you for your time!
Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I'm your co-host and co-founder Nolan Martin. With me as always, co-host, co-founder Aram Donigan. Aram, kick it over to you for today's interview.
Aram Donigian : Thanks, Nolan. It is a huge privilege to introduce a very dear friend and colleague to today's show. Someone who I will say has had a profound impact both on my thinking professionally, but also on my personal life. US Army Lieutenant Colonel Retd, Rich Ramsey is a highly experienced coach and facilitator who works with corporate, not-for-profit, education, and military clients to support their development and performance as individuals, teams, and organizations.
He's an accredited coach to the International Coaching Federation and a trained executive coach through the Center for Executive Coaching. Rich retired from the Army in 2016 after 22 years having served in numerous operational assignments, including three combat deployments to Iraq, conducting operations as a Cavalry Squadron operations officer and as an advisor for Iraqi Security Forces. As both a tactical officer at West Point and an air officer commanding and academic faculty member at the Air Force Academy, rich contributed daily to the development of future military leaders.
I had the opportunity to serve twice with Rich. The first time in the early 2000s at the National Training Center in California and the second time at the Air Force Academy, both before and after he retired. After retiring, Rich continued to serve in the Air Force Academy's Center for character and leadership development, fostering staff and faculty growth, while also working with NCAA Division one athletic team captains to create successful conditions for their teams.
Through his company, Maximize Potential Coaching and Consulting, Rich combines his vast expertise to create custom experiences for every client. He is committed to ensuring the wellbeing of his clients is top of mind because he believes when this is present, high performance results quickly follow. Rich holds a Master's in Counseling and Adult Development from Long Island University and a Bachelor's in Political Science from University of Michigan. Go Blue, that's a shout out given their recent championship when he is not working with clients, Rich enjoys all forms of outdoor activities, especially trail running and kayaking with family and friends. Rich, thanks so much for joining us today.
Rich Ramsey : Well thanks Aram, man. Thanks Nolan and Aram, I think the impact is mutual. I'd say you've probably had more of an impact on me than I could have ever hoped to have on you, and just what I've learned from you and watching how you do life and how you work is amazing. And Nolan, it's great to be here with both of you today.
AD : Thanks, Rich. That's very kind. Hey, as we get started, I'm wondering if you might share with our listeners how you'd frame your focus, maybe even what we might call a thesis statement when you go about this work that you do with leaders.
RR : Yeah. I think the first thing to consider, at least that helps me in the work that I get to do, is remembering that anything about leadership is ultimately a human to human, a human being to human being, interaction.
Leadership is a human affair, and that's a starting point, but I think sometimes, at least I'll speak for myself here, I can maybe forget about that and start to see people as more what they are able to do or what they produce, but maybe not as I lose sight a little bit of that I'm interacting with another human being. So I think one is keeping in mind that you're interacting with another human being. And anytime we're out to do something out to make something happen, there's likely to be some sort of breakdown. There's likely to be some conflict, maybe some disagreement, things that we need to work through. And I think that's when defensiveness starts to set in.
I can get defensive that maybe somebody's not doing what I expected them to do or what I thought they were going to do. They can get defensive that I'm not pleased with what they're doing or how they're doing it. And when that defensiveness sets in, I think that exacerbates the issue of not really seeing them as a human being. And for me, it's like we all start to armor up. We all start to kind of put on this armor in today's business world, business to business type conversation. Sometimes I don't want to look bad, I want to be right. I don't want to be wrong, whatever it might be. I put on this armor that gets in the way of me really having those effective human to human interactions. So I think you asked about kind of a theme or a thesis, it'd be around knowing when you're wearing armor and knowing when to drop that armor.
NM : Yeah, that's a pretty powerful statement there. And definitely easier said than done from experience. So I think many listeners will be surprised to hear a retired military officer talking about dropping your armor. Could you share a bit more contextually about experiences that have impacted this thinking and approach?
RR : Yeah, I'd like to say that it was before, but I think I really got present to this around 2008 on one of the deployments to Iraq. And just to kind of back out into the bigger picture a little bit, what we were primarily dealing with in Iraq at that time is fighting between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. And while they have many, many things in common, they also had some differences. And those differences rose to the surface and it was causing problems.
Not unlike what we see in other countries around the world when two groups of people, two or more groups of people just can't seem to agree on enough. Bringing it in a little bit closer is we were particularly operating area, it was called Solomon Pock. It was just south of Baghdad and it was a region that was historically Shia. Iraq is predominantly Shia, back into the earliest of times of Islam. It had been inhabited by Shia Muslims.
When Saddam Hussein was put in power and Saddam being a Sunni, he took this area actually to be kind of a resort or a vacation area for Sunni government officials, his friends, his colleagues. So the Shia got pushed out and then we were there soon after Saddam had been deposed as the ruler of Iraq. And the Shia now wanted their land back, even actually their homes back that Sunni’s had come to inhabit. So it was, we called a fault line between Sunni and Shia conflict, where there was daily, anywhere from a small skirmish of some kind to just some all out fighting between large groups of people. And these weren't military people, these were common Iraqi citizens. So we found ourselves in anywhere from intervening in these skirmishes or these fights or maybe at a lunch with different leaders, village elders, village sheikhs, military, civilian alike to large gatherings of hundreds of sheikhs. And I'm thinking both of you are well familiar with what these types of engagements might look like.
And we were armored up, quite literally armored up from the helmets to the tinted eye protection to the flack vests with the neck protection and the shoulder protection, groin protection, knee pads. Not to mention the different weapons we carried. So we looked different, very different from Iraqi Sunni’s.
So in these very rural areas, and obviously predominantly interacting with Iraqi men, wearing dish dashes, no armor at all, just being themselves in the areas where they lived. And here we are, we look like out of this world that, I don't know, I don't think we look like human beings maybe to them. And I didn't see this at first, but what I saw is we'd go to these large gatherings of hundreds of shakes and there would be the meeting that happened. And then there's after the meeting that happens in our world, it's surrounded in the break room or back in our offices or whatever, where the real conversations take place and maybe some of the real work gets done.
And I was being excluded from those. I didn't have an in and I was really blaming the Iraqis like, do they not realize that we're here to help? I'm here to help them do what they're trying to do. And then I looked at myself and I realized that what do they see? Who am I? I am this person. They can't even see my eyes. And in that culture, being able to look somebody in the eye and have an intimate conversation with them is important. And I was preventing that because of all this armor I was wearing. And I realized that if I really wanted to have the impact I wanted to have and be able to help the way I wanted to help.
And we went around and at that time saying to ourselves every day before we went out on a mission, we'd ask ourselves, what could we do to help make Iraq better today? That was just something that we asked ourselves and I had to drop the armor if I wanted to have any impact and help make a difference in the area we were operating. And so I realized once I did that, things started to shift. I started to be able to have more human to human interactions with the people I wanted to interact with.
AD : It's a significantly complex environment that you're discussing here, Rich, multiple parties involved, which just makes it difficult. But then you add in deep divisive histories, strong ethnic differences, incredibly high stakes, life and death. How does someone in that situation fight the natural urge to add armor?
Can you say a little bit more what that kind of figurative statement? I think we get the literal armor you were wearing, but how do we fight the figurative statement of wearing armor when interacting with someone, when your advice, right. If my inclination is actually to add the armor on, become more protective, your advice is we need to shed this.
RR : Now, I think first it's just realizing and being okay with wanting to add the armor is a natural, as you said, Aram, it's a natural urge. Our brains are wired to help keep us safe, to help protect us. And so when we're in a situation where we feel some sort of threat, whether it's a physical threat we potentially experienced in Iraq or a more psychological threat where we may not look good in a meeting, we may not have the right answer. I think it's first just kind of realizing that it's really natural and there's nothing wrong or bad about wanting to add the armor.
So I think that's one thing. I think another thing then is that we're doing it, awareness that I'm being defensive right now, awareness that I'm blaming somebody else for something, awareness that I'm making somebody else out to be wrong or just not as prepared as I am, or whatever it might be for you. Just having that moment of awareness that I'm doing this. And the challenge is that we're often quick then to judge ourselves. And this can kind of spiral a little bit in the wrong direction that I kind of beat myself up a little bit for it, when in reality the best thing to do might be to just say, yeah, this is what's happening right now. And just bringing that awareness and that might be all it takes.
I think another useful thing is to accept that that's what I'm doing. Yep, I'm blaming them for being wrong or I'm blaming them for not doing what I expected them to do by when I expected them to do it. I'm aware I'm doing that and I accept that that's what I'm doing. I think those are a few things that can help us realize, one that we're putting the armor on, and in this case, protecting ourselves from not looking bad or protecting ourselves to be right. And then just kind of sitting with it a little bit, not feeling necessarily like I need to do anything or the other, but being aware of it and seeing what happens then.
NM : So Rich, Aram often says, and I know that he got this from you because it's way too smart for him to come up with on his own that, ‘our pathetic need to look good gets in the way of our ability to grow as leaders’. When it comes to human-human interaction, what else gets in the way of making real connections?
AD : And I got to interrupt and just say Nolan, that's just one of many Rich Ramseyasams that I have stolen over the years. Okay, so you got that one on target. Sorry to interrupt there. Go ahead, Rich.
RR : I don't remember that maybe the exact moment that Aram heard that from me, if you did hear from me first, but I actually got that from after I left the military and worked for a short time, sorry, after I left the Air Force Academy and worked for a short time for a company called Granger Network. I got that from Carrie and it hit me that, one and if I haven't said this yet, I have mastered armoring up and I have mastered this pathetic need to look good. If there's anything I can do well, I can have this just really weird need to look good. And I find myself giving myself a lot of opportunities to practice not needing to look good. So yeah, Aram, I guess we'll go with you heard that from me, but I'm not sure.
So, I think a few things get in the way of making these really kind of genuine human to human connections. One is judging others, and this is a type of armor that we can put on that I'm going to judge you for what you are doing or how you're doing it because it's going to be a safety of sorts for me to not maybe have to take responsibility maybe for me to not look bad in that situation. Another one is seeing others' mistakes before I'm willing to see my own. And this is something that over time I've really had to work on myself is constantly pointing out, constantly highlighting, constantly talking about other people's mistakes that they make. And then a third is assuming that we're trustworthy all the while not trusting others. It's this kind of weird thing that happens that I see myself as I'm very trustworthy, but I can find reasons not to trust you. And I think for me, there's an expression that I'm sure you've heard and many listeners have heard, that we often judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions.
And this is something that comes in quite handy for me in asking myself, what am I basing my judgment on? And when I'm looking at somebody else and judging somebody else or pointing out their mistakes or highlighting why they can't be trusted, I'm speaking to their actions and I'm looking at what they're actually doing and I'm completely blind to their intentions. I don't even consider their intentions until I bring some consciousness to it and actually think about, well, was that their intention? Was their intention to make whatever mistake they may have made was their intention to not get something turned in on time, whatever it might be.
So I think bringing that back to awareness, bringing awareness to, I'm judging them by their actions and all the while I'm judging myself by my intentions and doing a little bit of rebalancing there and considering looking at the actions I'm taking and stepping outside of my own shoes for a moment and standing in their shoes and doing my best to see from their perspective what's the impact of the actions of my actions on them and what do they think my intentions might be. And I think that's a valuable exercise. It's something that I find myself doing sometimes when I'm driving somewhere or something, I might just pause to think, well, what might their intentions have been and how might my actions have impacted them?
AD : I think that's such an interesting thing that you say, rich and I know in previous conversations this awareness of how I'm showing up and engaging with that first doesn't need to come at the compromising of my own beliefs or values and actually probably helps me promote my beliefs and values that much more effectively when I am aware of how I show up. And not to lead you too much, but I know that you've shared in the past that you actually saw this in action with one of your fellow Iraqi commanders that you were working with as he demonstrated the ability to make these human interactions. Do you mind just saying a little bit about this individual and what you saw in practice as he kind of practiced these things?
RR : Yeah, for sure. But first, Aram, you made a really important point that I don't want to take this too far, that it's not that all of a sudden I'm making myself out to be wrong or making myself out to be bad. There are things that happen where mistakes get made and they need to get corrected. So some of that, again, that judgment keeps us safe and things like that. So I just want to note that I don't want to take this too far, that this is all about we're screwing something up and the other people, there's nothing to work on there. It's a both and there's probably things that I can work on and things that others may need to work on as well.
But back to the question about the Iraqi commander I worked with, his name was Colonel Shocker, and he really more so than maybe anyone I've had the opportunity to serve alongside or do some work with, had this self-awareness of the impact he was having on others. He knew that if he drove into a village in heavily armored vehicles, heavily armored himself that he just wasn't going to be able to have the impact he wanted to have that no matter how good his intentions were, others were going to see his actions and judge him for that. So he was very, very careful and very intentional about how he showed up for others. Now, I can remember times he and I getting out of our vehicles together as we drove into a village where maybe there had been an incident the night prior and he would get out of his vehicle wearing only his uniform, that's it. Nothing more, no headgear, no eye protection, nothing I wasn't.
But he was able then to have the interactions, the engagements that he wanted to have. He even kind of [inaudible] out a little bit, this is a commander who prior to he and I working together, he had served on division staff, which is a very, very large organization in an Iraqi army division in Baghdad. And he actually would deploy soldiers from the division around churches in Baghdad to provide security on Christmas Eve because he saw that one, we're more alike than we are different.
Two, that if I want you to work with me, then I need to be able to work with you. And that basically finding fault in each other, even in this case going as far as to hurt each other, just wasn't going to solve anything. But learning to work together first by him seeing others for who they were, seeing others as the human beings they were, even though they had different beliefs, different ideas on how things should go or how things should be, he saw them as a human beings, they are and had a tremendous impact on the stability, the security, even the peace in that area of Baghdad.
AD : So Rich, transitioning from the military example now to the work you've been doing post-military with mid to senior level organizational leaders, can you share just another example? I love that one of someone you've worked with who was able to drop their armor in a different setting, and what was the impact on both their ability to lead and the team they were leading?
RR : Yeah, for sure. So one particular client who comes to mind leading an organization of about 30 to 35 people. So a small organization, I say organization because it was him leading, he had four direct reports, has four direct reports. Each of them lead their teams, and he's obviously responsible for the whole thing. Like in many organizations, teams, even families, this conflict started to arise, things started to go south a little bit from his perspective. And what his perspective was being informed by was people asking him questions that they hadn't asked before, challenging him on things that they hadn't challenged him on before, wanting him to be able to explain things before apparently didn't require any explanation. And he saw this as that they were against him even out to get him or maybe even wanted to see him fail.
And a couple of things that supported him were realizing, one, that no one was saying, Hey, I want you to fail. I want you to leave. I don't want you to be the leader of this organization. But asking the questions that they were asking and the way they were asking it obviously wasn't comfortable for him or wasn't the way he would have wanted things to be done if he had the choice. But in this case, this was his people, the people he was leading, and they were making the choices on how to interact with him.
And once he was able to see that they were simply asking questions, they weren't trying to upend him or run him out, it supported him. But first he had to be aware and going back to that awareness, bring awareness to that, he was so armored about how he was interacting with them and he was becoming so defensive towards them.
And then he was a little surprised as he felt them getting more and more defensive and it was continuing to help him with the awareness that with the more defensive that you get with them, what might you expect in return? And when he could see that, well, I would expect defensiveness in return, then things started to shift a little bit.
The thing that really supported, I think, him turning things around both for himself and really ultimately for the whole organization, was being able to see that he was kind of making up some narratives about the people he was leading and how they were interacting with him. When I had the opportunity to meet with his people, I heard stories about wanting the organization to succeed, wanting the organization to continue to have an impact in the world and make a difference in the world. And yeah, there were some questions about how things were being handled, decisions that were being made, things like that. So there were things to work on, both on how team members or organizational members were bringing things to his attention, and then how he was responding.
And the thing that really helped shift was him realizing that the narratives he was creating, the stories he was making up about what they were saying, how they were saying it, the actions they were taking, and when we could recreate those narratives from the narrative of they want me to fail, they don't want me to lead this organization to, they want the organization to succeed, then he was able to hear them, able to listen to them in completely different ways. He heard they were saying the same thing and he heard something completely different.
NM : So those are both great examples, Rich. Thank you for sharing that. And it seems so easy to say, but I imagine it's harder to actually do. But in addition to reframing narratives, what other specific techniques do you use when helping a leader reframe their approach and try practicing some things that you shared?
RR : One of the main things is going back to really realizing what are the stories we're telling ourselves. When somebody comes to me with a complaint, if they come and basically might say something like, I need more money. If I hear that as, that you're being greedy, and this person doesn't obviously come to me and say, I'm being greedy. I want more money. They come to me and say, I need more money to do what you're asking me to do. I start adding that.
Well, they're greedy. Well, they're inefficient. Well, they want to stand out compared to their peers or to be different in some way. Their peers aren't asking for this. Bringing awareness to the stories that are getting created by that person or by me in cases where I'm working on myself, I think is critically important. Once somebody realizes that they're creating the stories that they're telling themselves, they can also then bring awareness to recreating the stories.
And the example of somebody asking for more money, a bigger budget, the story that they created wasn't true. It's not true that that person is greedy or is inefficient, or whatever it might be. And that goes back to there's things that we need to explore. There's things that we need to examine to confirm or deny different suspicions we might have, or there's going to be things to look at.
NM : Hey, everyone, Nolan here, going to have to jump in and end today's podcast. If you haven't already, please rate review and subscribe and NEGOTIATEx podcast, and we'll see you next week as we continue Part B of this show.
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