Jack Briggs – His Leadership Journey from Fighter Pilot to Three Star General to Rescue Mission CEO

You have choices in how you react. There are very few situations where you have no choice.” -Jack Briggs

[00:00:00] Jack Briggs: Hubris is the death nail to leadership. It’s the poison dart in the heart of leadership because you’ll believe the things that people tell you and you will be manipulated.  You will get yourself into situations with finances or with power or with relationships that will be detrimental to the organization and your own personal development and career.

[00:00:25] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Jack Briggs, the President and CEO of the Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs. Jack enjoyed a 31-year career in the United States Air Force, retiring as a major general. His final role in the Air Force was Director of Operations for the US Northern Command Headquarters in Colorado Springs.

Jack is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He ultimately got his doctorate in education from NYU. Along the way, he picked up master’s degrees from Troy University, Budapest University of Economic Science, and the Air War College. Prior to joining the Springs Rescue Mission, Jack was a Vice President for Global resiliency and Security at NYU.

[00:01:08] Tommy Thomas: Jack, welcome to NextGen nonprofit leadership.

[00:01:11] Jack Briggs: Thank you. Great to see you again.

[00:01:14] Tommy Thomas: It’s good to see you.  I remember you and I met several years ago. You were, you and your family were visiting Nashville around Christmas time and I think a mutual friend of ours, John, and I’m drawing a Blake on his last name now, but he said, you need to have lunch with Jack.

He’s thinking about what’s after the Air Force, and it might be higher ed and I guess since I worked in higher ed a lot, John thought that would be a good idea. And as I remember it, you were two-star then and maybe up for your third star. I guess aside from the fact that I was having lunch with a two-star general, and he was asking me questions about his future, the thing I remembered that day was your family your wife and kids.

I don’t remember the ages of the kids, but I remember their demeanor. I thought it was so impressive for them to sit and we spent an hour, probably an hour and 15 minutes at a Mexican restaurant and they just, they were engaging, and I thought, wow that’s what a family looks like, so thank you.

[00:02:10] Jack Briggs: That’s all their mom that has nothing to do. That’s all their mom.

[00:02:13] Tommy Thomas:  I’d like to start at the beginning. I’m thinking back on people’s upbringing. What’s your most beloved memory from your childhood?

[00:02:21] Jack Briggs: Wow. A lot of different things come to mind.

I think the thing that stands out more than anything else was on my mother’s side. My grandfather was an immigrant from England. He was an orphan and came to the United States and was a dairy farmer, and we would go to the dairy farm in Vermont. my dad was in the army and so we were in a variety of different locations, but we always rallied there as a family.

And I just remember that very distinctly. I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I I was a kid. But now I look back on that time where it was essentially our grandmother would kick us out the door after breakfast. We could eat outside for lunch and then we’d come back in for dinner.

But we were outside just enjoying being around family and playing as kids, and it was just really a wonderful time.

Tommy Thomas:   Expanding on that a little bit. So maybe two or three things that you think shaped your career

[00:03:13] Jack Briggs: Yeah. I would say that probably the things that shaped me most when I was growing up, one, I was raised in a Christian family.

I think that foundation of respect for faith, respect for people. I think that was very pivotal. I think my decision to join the Air Force at a young age, I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force. And so that’s what I ended up going to the Air Force Academy and then spending little over 30 years as an active-duty officer.

Obviously that was very influential and shaped who I was marrying somebody that compliments me, meaning she fills in those gaps that I don’t have real solid in my own life. She does. And that helps a lot. I’d say those three things probably.

[00:03:56] Tommy Thomas: If your dad was in the army, a career Army Officer, how does the guy get the vision of being a fighter pilot in the Air Force?

[00:04:02] Jack Briggs: When I was a little kid, I was about eight years old, I saw the Thunderbirds fly and I said, I want to do that. And  I was the kind of kid who was pretty focused. And so I started asking around, like, how do you do that? And my dad had some friends that had been in the Air Force and they talked about going to the Air Force Academy.

And so I looked that thing up in the World’s book Encyclopedia. And said, okay, that’s what I want to do. And took a trip out to Colorado Springs when I was in my, maybe early teens or 12 or 13, and said, okay. And so, whatever I did in high school, whatever I did as a teenager was to try to get to the Air Force Academy.

And then I did and graduated and got to have the career that I dreamed of. I got to be a fighter pilot.

[00:04:46] Tommy Thomas: Did you think going in it would be a career or did you think it would be a four-to-six-year stint?

Jack Briggs: My initial intent was for it to be a career. And then over time it, it grew into that.

[00:04:57] Tommy Thomas:  What do you remember about your first command? the first time that you actually had people reporting to you?

[00:05:02] Jack Briggs: That weight is interesting. It’s the weight of command. It’s hard to describe of but when you do it, you understand it.  It was challenging. It’s people and people can be challenging. But if you can develop them it’s thrilling to watch somebody develop.

[00:05:17] Tommy Thomas: Did you have a, a mentor or somebody that you looked up to in the service as a model or did you, were you winging it part? Pardon the pun.

[00:05:25] Jack Briggs: There’s no winging it. They’re variety of, I, I could give you 20 names of folks. 15 of ’em. I wanted to do exactly the way they were doing it, and five of ’em, I wanted to do it exactly the opposite of the way they were doing it. But it was a learning experience at each level.

I think you have to maybe take things as they come at different levels of your own capacity and capability to really grasp what you’re being presented. Some of the things are over your head when you’re, when it’s early in your career you think you’ve got it, but you just don’t have enough experience for it to stick.

And getting out ahead of your own headlights a couple of times we’ll teach you, maybe I need to go at a pace where the organization helps me to develop as I go.

[00:06:06] Tommy Thomas:  What did you learn as an Air Force Officer that’s maybe been most helpful as you moved into the nonprofit sector?

People matter and projects don’t

[00:06:11] Jack Briggs:.  Projects are a thing to do. And I think if we look back in our lives, maybe to the last thing you ever, you did at a place you’re probably not thinking about that slide deck you created or that paper you typed up or that product you put together.

You’re probably thinking about the people you worked and interacted with, either positively or negatively, but the people is what matters. And so taking that one step further as a leader, I think you have to frame your approach to people this way. I did it. I would always say that we’re gonna advance on the mission because the mission is why we’re here.

[00:06:52] Jack Briggs: We’re gonna focus on the welfare of the people that we lead.  We’re gonna focus on their welfare. Now that doesn’t mean just holding their hand. It’s challenging them. It’s creating an environment where they can grow where they can gain more self-worth and responsibility and confidence in themselves.

Last thing is being a good steward of the resources you’re provided. You get time, money, equipment, people. As a leader, you need to be a good steward of those so that you can focus on the welfare of the people that you lead. So they will advance the mission. If you can get that, that sauce together, right?

The problem becomes going too fast. And now you’ve gotta regulate how quickly the organization moves because people are bought in, they’re committed because they know that you’re after their welfare so that they can go do what we’re supposed to do.

[00:07:50] Tommy Thomas: If you invited me to a staff meeting next week and I got a chance to talk to your senior team and maybe we excused you and if I were to ask them what’s the toughest part of working for Jack Briggs?  What do you think I would hear?

[00:07:53] Jack Briggs: Oh gosh. Huh. I guess I would say maybe the, and this is my own, this is my own issue. Sure. That this is my issue. I have a perfectionism streak that I have to make sure I don’t apply to everyone else around me. Not that I am perfect, but I am the hard part, the thing about it is I am hard on myself.  When mistakes happen and those sorts of things I don’t typically transfer that to the folks that I lead, but I can.

I can react negatively to that if I let somebody down. That, that’s the thing maybe I would say is that I’ll take things very personal if I’m, if I’ve come up short I try not to transfer that to the folks that, that I’m working with. But I think they can see it.

[00:08:33] Tommy Thomas: So let’s flip that question around.  What do you think they’d say was the most rewarding thing of working for Jack Briggs?

[00:08:39] Jack Briggs: Now this is something I have been told. Not that I would say that I believe this so much. It sounds true but I think externally I’ve been told this is that I have an ability to put the current situation into a broader context, whatever’s happening.

I’m able to bring it up and to not focus so much on the issue but get to the principle of what we’re trying to do in a broader context of where we want to go. And that’s, that is to relieve the pressure of people trying to just slay the immediate dragon that’s right in front of ’em, but to put their own decision making into the context of where the organization is trying to go, so that then they can make independent decisions so that they’re moving in the same direction all the time, even though I may not be there to help them with their deciding.

Because if I have to decide everything, then I don’t need them, right? I want to empower them with the framework of context and then let them go do their expertise.

[00:09:39] Tommy Thomas: How far along in your Air Force career do you think you were when you began to think like that? Does that happen as a Captain or do you have to have 20 years in before you have the experience to conceptualize that way?

[00:09:51] Jack Briggs: I would say it’s earlier than that. I think it was my upbringing with my father. Huh. He was a coacher.   He was a coach kind of guy. And he saw leadership traits in me, and we would talk about those sorts of things if, know, it was a sports or boy scouts or, whatever it happened to be.

Taking the opportunity to exercise those leadership muscles and figure out that it is, it’s never about you. You know that I think that he instilled in that, in me at an early age was leadership is servant. It’s about serving those who you lead. Now you have to have a framework and you have to have a vision.

But really then you need to support your, the folks that are gonna go do it. And that, again, that’s focusing on their welfare by being a good steward of the resources you’re providing.

[00:10:36] Tommy Thomas: What skills or competencies did you use in the latter part of your career in the Air Force, and how does that compare or differ from today?

[00:10:45] Jack Briggs: I think they’re very similar. Again, people matter. Projects don’t.   We have all kinds of projects at the rescue mission.  That’s not why we’re here.   

We’re here is to help people meet them at their point of need and then help move them along a pathway away from homelessness, addiction, poverty and so the programs are tools that, but they’re not the thing and the people that we’re working with are the thing.

And so, people matter. Projects don’t. If a project isn’t working or a program isn’t working to achieve the objective with a client, then what we need to change the program to meet them at from a different angle. one of the things that I think makes us successful is we’re very transactional with our clients.

We’re not we’re not we’re not based on altruism. I’ll just put it that way. I know that sounds weird but we’re not we’re based on mutual respect, dignity, and transaction. Meaning for our clients, we want to elevate their selves, and help them rediscover their own worth to do that.

You transact with them.  You have something they want, they have something you want and you transact with them. And in doing that you level this sort of power gap that can occur in social services where if you just give things to people, you create a power gap because you’re the one who has everything, and you have worth and they don’t.

We don’t like to do that. We like to engage in transactional things. It starts off with their very first moment at the rescue mission when we do our first transaction is they want to come in because they want food or shelter or medical care or whatever. We, they have something we want.

And that’s this. What’s your name? Not your street name, but your real name. We’d like to know your name. Now, on the street, a name is a commodity. Because if I know your name, I can find out if you’ve got an open warrant, I can find out if you’ve been a sex offender, I can find out all kinds of stuff about you if I’ve got your name.

That’s a transaction. There’s a first trust moment right there. And so it’s people, and it’s incentivization of people.

[00:12:42] Tommy Thomas: What was the hardest thing you had to learn, coming into your current role from the military and from higher education? What was the maybe the biggest difference or the hardest lesson

[00:12:54] Jack Briggs: Speed. I think speed is the is one of the things.

You have to have a little more patience in this world of social services and nonprofit. It doesn’t move at the same speed as a military organization for a variety of reasons.

It seemed obvious.  But think for me it was understanding the cycle, the rhythm of decision making and that sort of thing.

[00:13:15] Tommy Thomas: How did you know, or how did you get an inkling that this job was right for you?

[00:13:20] Jack Briggs: I have a family history of some addiction and being on the streets a little bit.  And having been around that in my family I, my eyes were open to it early. And then when I was here at the, in Colorado Springs, in my last assignment, I was on the board of directors at the Rescue Mission. When I retired and moved to New York, I stayed in contact. And when the then CEO wanted to retire, they called me and asked me if I might be interested in coming back and interviewing for the position.

My wife and I had considered coming back to Colorado as our final destination. Regardless, it just seemed like good timing.

[00:13:56] Tommy Thomas:  You mentioned a few minutes ago that you probably weren’t always ready for the for the next assignment in the Air Force. Maybe can you share with us a leadership position that was different than you anticipated and how you came out of it?

[00:14:10] Jack Briggs: Oh, I think they were all different. I think this is different. But again, I don’t tend to really worry too much about that anymore after those experiences because I try to do things based on principle and not just the circumstance or issue of the day.

It’s what are the principles involved and when you focus on those, then the leadership tends to be very similar.

[00:14:31] Tommy Thomas: When you think of the, maybe the leader that maybe had the most influence in you on the Air Force, can you gve me some words and phrases that come to mind about their leadership?

[00:14:40] Jack Briggs: Integrity and humility. I think the particularly in senior level leadership, whether it’s the military or business or in a nonprofit if you if you can’t, if you can’t have, be integrated, that’s the word, right?

Integer meaning whole. Yeah. 1, 2, 3. Those are integers, right? They’re whole being integrated is whole and having integrity is whole. It means that you’re consistent, transparent, you’ve got a principal base for decision. that, that piece of it. The second is humility, because it’s easy.

Oh, so easy to get wrapped up in yourself because everybody laughs. They all stand up when you walk in the room, they’re gonna say, yes, sir. There’s this sort of thing around it. Not very many people will argue with you. I used to tell folks, look, hey, if you disagree with me, you need to speak up because if we both agree all the time, then one of us is extra and I’m not leaving. , I don’t know. Let’s, be polite about it, but if you disagree with me, do it. So the humility piece, because on the bad side of that hubris is the death nail to leadership. it’s the poison dart in the heart of leadership because you’ll believe the things that people tell you, you will be manipulated.

You will get yourself into situations with finances or with power or with relationships that will be detrimental to the organization and your own personal development and career.

[00:16:11] Tommy Thomas:  Would you say, I you probably answered my next question, but would you say that’s the biggest threat to derail a leader’s career?

[00:16:17] Jack Briggs: Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely hubris.

[00:16:20] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. Let’s talk about hiring for a minute. What are you looking for when you hire somebody? Maybe go back to the service and there or now what do I need to be successful under Jack?

[00:16:32] Jack Briggs: It depends. Am I hiring for a technical position? That requires expertise, something engineering finances, so part of it is do you have the requisite experience for the level of the position that you’re being hired into? But the bedrock of that goes back to those other, those two things that I mentioned before, integrity and humility.

It’s just one of those things that you’ve gotta try to understand. And it’s hard in an interview to do that.  There’s a variety of different ways that you can ask questions. There’s a sense to it. If you’ve made a bad decision when you recognize that maybe early on in the relationship, then you have to make a decision to about whether the person can develop those traits or if it’s just not gonna work, if the fit’s not good, right?

You talk about fit, right? Fit goes both ways. Do we fit the organization?  Does the person fit the organization and you have to be willing to make those decisions if you’ve made a poor choice. Yeah. The other thing I ask people when I’m interviewing them is “which kind of person are you”?

Are you the kind of person that likes to come up with the idea and then give it to somebody to execute? Or are you the kind of person that likes to hear a good idea and refine it, make it better as you execute it?

Typically, people are one or the other. There are some people who are both, but typically it’s one or the other.

[00:17:54] Tommy Thomas: I know you’ve had to do this probably several times in both the military and all around. Think about giving somebody a second chance. What goes into your thought there?

[00:18:06] Jack Briggs: I don’t mind people making mistakes. That’s not an issue. Now, if somebody routinely makes mistakes, they continually show bad judgment in not in the moral sense, but in the I had two options to pick, to make this bridge, and I keep picking the wrong one.

[00:18:22] Jack Briggs: Okay. That’s a, that’s an issue, right? That’s a skills issue. Can those skills be elevated to the right spot where they can be successful? I don’t mind people making mistakes, but they, can’t be their habit.  On the other hand,

If it’s a moral or ethical or in an integrity kind of an issue we have to have a much deeper discussion about what’s going on.

I work at a homeless shelter. People come here scared, cold, tired, afraid injured, traumatized.  Their integrity is not their first thing. Their survival mode is their first thing. And so, they’ll do what they can to survive. That can be manipulation, lying, stealing, because that’s all they know at the time, they’re at their base.

Maslow hierarchy of needs, if you will. Yeah. So, we have to replace that mindset with more positive basic survival skills. We’ll help you eat we’ll, help you sleep we’ll, help you be safe and get some medical attention. But in return, we’ve gotta start rebuilding the concept that you can be trusted.

[00:19:25] Tommy Thomas: Let’s talk about risk for a minute. Frederick Wilcox says, progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.  Any thoughts there?

[00:19:37] Jack Briggs: Risk is and that’s something that I talk about a lot with people. What is at risk, I think is one of the key questions you must ask. If it’s not a big deal, whatever’s at risk, then you’re the value proposition of taking a chance might be very high.

On the other hand, if it’s something of incredible significance is at risk you need to be taking some steps ahead of time to protect that asset or that decision making process or those people because something catastrophic could happen. So I think it depends on what you mean by risk.

And again, I would go with the severity of whatever that is at risk.

[00:20:11] Tommy Thomas: if you could go back in time and tell a younger version of Jack one thing, what would you say?

You have choices in how you react. There are very few situations where you have no choice.

[00:20:17] Jack Briggs: You may have to walk away from the situation. Maybe that’s the choice that you have to make. And in that you can start to build a habit pattern of responding versus reacting. to situations because reaction is right now, it’s the temporal.

Now when you react it’s almost physical, right? So, your body sits in the now. Your body is feeling the now your mind is capturing the past, the now and the future. And so, when you have something happen to you and you react bodily or in the now, and you don’t bring your mind into that, you don’t pause enough to get your mind into it.

To remember the influences of the past, to to assess the situation for today, whatever it is in the moment. And then think about the impact for the future. You can be lucky and react well, or you could be unlucky and react very poorly. And typically, in those reactions. I tend to react poorly.  I do better when I respond to something.

Tommy Thomas: You’ve been listening to my conversation with Jack Briggs, the President and CEO of the Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs. Next week, we will continue this conversation. I’ve asked Jack to give us an abbreviated version of a workshop that he gives on Crisis Management, Mitigation, and Leadership.

Until then keep up the good work you’re doing to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.

“Hubris is the death nail to leadership. It’s the poison dart in the heart of leadership.” -Jack Briggs


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