Episode 338: Colonel John Spencer. Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War

Episode Summary

In this episode, we delve into Colonel John’s journey in the military and how serving his country and traveling the world changed his perspective on life, purpose, and vision. He describes his realization of how writing can change lives, his passion for studying, researching, and teaching about war and its intimate connection with leadership.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. I’m so excited for our guest today. He is an award-winning scholar, professor, author, combat veteran, and internationally recognized expert and advisor on urban warfare and other military-related topics. He’s considered the world’s leading expert on urban warfare, and he served as an advisor to the top four-star general and other senior leaders in the U.S. Army as part of strategic research groups from the Pentagon to the United States Military Academy. He currently serves as the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point and as host of the Urban Warfare Project podcast. He also serves as a Colonel in the California State Guard with assignments to the 40th Infantry Division, California Army National Guard as the Director of Urban Warfare Training. Welcome, Colonel John Spencer! 

Colonel John Spencer: Steve, thanks for having me. And thanks for reading all that. That was a mouthful. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, my goodness, man, what a background. That is amazing.  

Colonel John Spencer: I’ve had a blessed army career and really blessed life. I can tell some stories. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I’ll bet you could. First of all, before we get going, a heartfelt thanks for your service to your country and all that you’ve given.  

Colonel John Spencer: Thank you. It’s been an honor and I appreciate all the support all around the world, actually, but especially from Americans. 

Steve Shallenberger: Before we get started today, I would like to tell you a little more about Colonel Spencer. And we’ve already told you, like he said, that’s a mouthful, but there’s more: Serving over twenty-five years in the active Army as an infantry soldier, Spencer has held ranks from Private to Sergeant, First Class, Second Lieutenant to Major. His assignments as an Army officer included two combat deployments to Iraq as both an Infantry Platoon Leader and Company Commander, a Ranger Instructor with the Army’s Ranger School, a Joint Chief of Staff and Army Staff intern, a fellow with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, and Co-Founder, Strategic Planner, and Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. So, John is one amazing guy. He holds a Master’s of Policy Management from Georgetown University, and his accolades go on and on. He lives in Colorado Springs. He was, just before we started, telling me about his wife, perhaps we’ll have the chance to talk about her and some of her assignments, and three active, right in the middle of it, young children. 

Colonel John Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. The mouthful is those three.  

Steve Shallenberger: Exactly. Well, John, to kick us off today, just tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. What’s your story? And how did you end up in the military? How did you make that decision and end up where you’re at today? 

Colonel John Spencer: Thanks for the question. I’ll try to keep this short. I joined the Army at the age of 16, mom had to sign me a way, she signed the contract, I joined at 17. Grew out of a small town in Indiana because I’m from a lower-income family, really didn’t see a path after high school, and agreed with the Army’s message about giving you something else. And I really joined with no idea what was ahead of me. And I just had a blessed career from my first duty station in Panama City, as you’re coming out of Indiana, what an amazing opportunity they gave me. And then I led a full Army career, had two amazing opportunities, had great bosses. I learned something from everybody that I was with, but really, it was opportunities. And I think I’ve had a unique army story. But then you to go to combat. Lots of people who serve in the army, never get the chance. But I was a part of the 2003 invasion, actually jumped out of a helicopter in northern Iraq for the invasion into Iraq, liberated the country from an evil dictator. Had a whole year there, came back, and then returned to Iraq in 2008 into Baghdad, basically, a whole nation about to hit Civil War, a very interesting time, key assignments. And then finished out at West Point, actually, teaching at the United States Military Academy. I met my wife in Iraq, which is its own story. I met my wife in Iraq, and she was teaching at West Point as well. Really, where I learned why the dream job that I have now is because of that last assignment, I helped stand up a research center and learned about how writing can change your life, learned how to ask the right question and how to do research. So, now I have a dream job where I travel the world studying war, get to talk to amazing people all around the world, get to go on TV and talk about things like Ukraine that we’re seeing now, writing books, and I just had a book come out on July 1st, I have another one coming out in a few months from now. An amazing life. Some of my friends say, “Pull up a chair, Grandpa, tell us some stories.” But a lot of it is just opportunities that I’ve been given, sometimes you’ve got to take the opportunities you’ve been given. But such an amazing life, after joining the army at 17 and not knowing where life would take me.  

Steve Shallenberger: That is quite the story. So, if you have young men or women about that age, is this something they ought to look at? Let’s talk about that just for a moment. 

Colonel John Spencer: I think so. I won’t constrain it to my army blood, but the military just has so much opportunity for people in teaching them about the world, teaching them about leadership, teaching them about how the world works, really opening the aperture. And it can be for a short amount of time, or it can be like me who to decided to make it a career, not everybody has to, but I’ve been blessed by meeting people from all around the world just being in the military, but also learning about the world, how it works, seeing the world do much more of a broader spectrum because I’ve traveled the entire world, lived in Italy, have traveled to countless countries and seen the world. I don’t know of any other profession that gives you that opportunity, but there are lots of paths people can take. But absolutely, if I was talking to 17-year-old, 16-year-old people like I was, I would, unfortunately, pass the message that I was given about the great adventure that somebody can find if they spend a little time with the US military. And it is an opportunity to give back. We live in the best country in the world, and I can say that after having traveled the world. And sometimes you don’t know why you live in the best country, and one of it is because of the people that serve in the military that are there serving for the country so that it can continue to be the greatest country in the world. And of course, we have our ups and downs and issues but it is because that we’re so great that we can then approach those issues. And I tell you, I’ve been around the world and I’ve never been so grateful for living in the greatest country in the world until I’ve traveled the world and seen what other people don’t have. 

Steve Shallenberger: If there’s a young person of that range, 16-17, what advice do you have for them as they consider that option? 

Colonel John Spencer: Yeah, they have to weigh all their options; the pros and the cons. And what I said and what I did and what I tell people to do is to do their research. So, just like when somebody is researching what college they want to go to, and of course, that’s an amazing opportunity, you always have to do your research. So, whether it’s which service or the pros and the cons of going into this service for a short or long amount of time is, really, they have to do their research. Don’t listen to one person or one group of friends, they have to make their own decision.  

Steve Shallenberger: That’s really good advice. Well, let’s shift to your book, Connected Soldiers. Is that the one that’s just coming out now? 

Colonel John Spencer: Yeah, it came out on July 1st, actually. So, we’re right in the throes of it. 

Steve Shallenberger: Tell us about your book. Why did you write it? What’s in it? 

Colonel John Spencer: That’s been one of the hardest questions — why did I write it? So, I learned towards the end of my career that I had experienced a lot of things in my life, but there were a lot of people that wanted to hear it. And really from being at West Point and being around those motivated young people, the cadets, they always wanted to hear the real stories of leadership. You can be taught leadership, but to actually put that in context of whatever stress, whatever adversity. So, that’s probably the main motivator of why I wrote it. Corrected Soldiers is first and foremost a memoir of the ups and downs of my leadership time in combat — so, both my 2003 deployment and my 2008 deployment. But I also put in there my 2018 experience, where my wife, who’s in the military, went off to war and I stayed at home, and basically took care of our three kids while she was at war. I put the academics, I’m an academic, so it’s hard for me not to do research, and then weave that in through my own experiences. So, the book is about the way the war has changed, the way the world has changed, and now we live these virtual lives, and telecommunications and social media have changed everything, from your work life to how we lead, and how we lead our lives. But what war taught me and what I tried to explain in the book is that we are social beings, we need physical connections, and they’re important things that we’ve learned in history that work, both in war and in our lives, that we can’t forget about. And my book came out– I wrote it before COVID. But COVID, I think, just reemphasized and showed me again why some of the messages in my book became so important is that we are virtual beings and we went into the virtual world because we had to, but we also realized that we need a physical connection. So, in my book, the main thesis, of course, is that soldiers have to be cohesive teams to achieve their mission. We’ve learned that in the history of war, that cohesive teams can do great things. But what I found is that the line between home or the outside world and war is gone — there’s no more writing letters and there’s a separation between what’s going on in war and what’s going on at home. So, those worlds have collided, and I show in the book, even in 2008, how that was having an impact because there are both positives and negatives in war and in life to have any social connections but we can’t forget the fact that there are basic things that we have to hold on to even as we get more and more virtual. What I tell people is that we’re more connected in our lives than we’ve ever been in history. And in some ways, we’re also more alone, and that’s dangerous. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I noticed the subtitle of your book is “Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War”, I expect that you could also have “Life, Leadership, and Social Connections.” And there’s a lot of overlap. So, I’m really interested in talking about this. A couple of themes, if you don’t mind, from your experience. First of all, on the point of leadership, I’m sure that you’ve had the opportunity in your military experience, whether it’s on the battlefield or not on the battlefield, to maybe be given an assignment where you did not have a cohesive team — maybe it was a unit that wasn’t performing very well. And I’m really interested, what can you do to bring exercise leadership to bring a team together that hasn’t been that way and get them on the right track? What have you found or learned to do?  

Colonel John Spencer: So, the entire section of my book, really, the majority of my book is my experience in 2008 of being flown into war to take a company that had been completely destroyed and was completely ineffective, and then just been put in as a new leader saying, “Okay, now fix it.” While you’re at war, while building the plane in flight, I was told to get in there and fix it all. I tried to break down a book how I tried to– Within the military, there are military things, like you said, a lot of it is just basic leadership. And the previous leadership had been so bad and had left the organization, basically, Lord of the Flies, creating new ways of doing things that were self-governing, no leadership, no purpose, no vision. So, I came in with this long list of things that needed to be done. But I, of course, had to prioritize. I had learned that in the military but under the greatest amount of stress, it really gets exposed that you have to give people priorities. You can’t tell them everything’s important or nothing’s important. So, I had to go in and that’s what I did — I brought everybody, together every subordinate leader on the night I was brought in and said, “Look, day one, we’re going to start anew but we’re gonna start with these things that are most important.” Like the protection of soldiers or really the number one thing which, I think, translates to everybody as I said that nobody will go anywhere without knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing. Some people say, “Well, that’s easy in war.” But it actually isn’t. So, I would not let people go outside the wire or start the day without being told why they were being told to do something, that became really the starting point, and those became priorities. And there were lots of things I had to fix. But the organizations that are made up of multiple levels of leaders always say, and I learned this from the military, that day one, the first thing that a new leader has to do is assess. There’s no way you can understand what’s going on if you’re not assessing. If I would have came in and just started changing everything, it would have been too much. So, I had to assess, and that’s what I did. I tried to access and then that way allowed me to identify the priorities of what was needed. And one of the biggest priorities I saw was that the organization had allowed informal leaders to take charge. So, like in Lord of the Flies, which is the lesson of that very old book is that without leadership, leaders will rise, power will be imposed. So, I had to identify these informal leaders and I had to really remove their leadership power because there are many forms of power and we study that in the military. There’s legitimate power, I can tell you what to do, that’s really not the most powerful form of power. Even in the military, people think that I can tell somebody to do it, and they’re going to do it. Well, you can read my book and figure out really quickly, that’s not the way it works. People follow leaders because they respect them, they respect their expertise, they know that they have authority. When I saw these informal leaders that were using reverent powers, the younger people respected them, they thought they were cool — I had to reduce those individuals’ ability to influence others. 

Steve Shallenberger: So that has to do with creating a cohesive team which is much more powerful together than you are as an individual or diverse groups that are going in different directions that diffuse your energy and strength. That’s one of the reasons I just love the 12 principles of highly successful leaders from Becoming Your Best, which is based on 40 years of research, is whether you’re on the battlefield or a coach, there are certain things you do that create this excellence. John, that’s exactly what you did; you went in there and created a moral authority, you assessed, you listened, and then you created the vision and a plan, and then you’re starting to get on your way. And I’m sure you did the other things, too. 

Colonel John Spencer: As I looked through that list, I saw it all. If anybody reads my book, you’ll see every principle is there in some way. It is amazing — prioritizing your time, setting the vision, all of that. It’s in there. It may not be titled that but you’ll see. A team has to have wins. There are lots of translations to business, into sports, into the military. So, I knew as a leader, I had to figure out ways to get my team wins because like you said, a cohesive team is always going to be more effective. There are two forms of cohesion — and I break those down in the book — there’s something called task cohesion and there’s social cohesion. In the military, we need a lot of social cohesion because we need people so bonded that they’re willing to face harm or die for each other. But in order to do the job, there’s got to be task cohesion, they had to agree that the mission that they’re trying to accomplish only can be done if they work together. Absolutely, the principles, every one of them is there. Like you said, research shows it’s all there, it’s all what needs to be done to create effective teams, which even more people think it’s an individual act because we watch movies and things like that. But absolutely, it’s a group activity, and they’re only successful when they’re working effectively as part of a team. 

Steve Shallenberger: As you reflect back, John, what are some of the most satisfying experiences you’ve had in the military? That’s probably kind of a hard question to ask because there are not a lot of good things about war. But if you look back and say, “Man, there are some satisfying things that bring me satisfaction.” What would some of those be? 

Colonel John Spencer: I think 2008 really is both the highs and the lows of my entire 25-year career — to be given a completely dysfunctional team, a team that the entire organization thought were the black sheeps, the bad news bearers, you name it. Literally, they had been taken out of the picture, to be given that, to form a team within them, where they respected me, they knew that I had my primary goals was their interest and protecting them when I needed to protect them, but then to take that within three months to turn them into the most effective team in the entire organization of brigade to where we’re being given the highest missions. Basically, from the last place to first place. And then one day — and I wasn’t even there — one of my subordinate teams captures one of the most important people in the entire Baghdad region by working as a team. And each individual actually sacrificed themselves, as in making a decision with no thought because they knew they were a part of this team. It’s all the definitions of cohesion. So, that day, when they captured that guy, of course, I got a lot of accolades, which I then transferred to them. But they’d achieved so much in such a little amount of time — to go from the worst to the best using those principles, to be sure. But to see that, that was the greatest moment of my 25-year career was when that team achieved that. And I wasn’t even there, but they achieved it because of what we had done as a team. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s awesome. Congratulations. That is awesome and fun to see that happening because it makes a difference, not only then at that moment and the results that you get, but it’s also on the lives of those people forever. In other words, they now see that, and as they move forward out in the world, they realize that’s what I should be doing. 

Colonel John Spencer: I think this is what I learned, too, in my Army career, and I never knew until I reflected back is that we’re all searching for an identity. I was looking for an identity in my people, understanding people because we’re leading people, that’s why you can’t do it virtually. They’re all searching for something, a meaning, and a purpose. And being a part of that team. Everybody knows in the military, you see old guys with t-shirts and hats because it becomes a part of their identity for the rest of their lives that they were a part of this special team. Even in a failing organization, they want to be a part of a great team. So, as a leader, I had to understand not only that I wanted the identity and purpose, but I had to give it to them. And that was a big part of where I spent my time was creating that identity, creating our group identity so that our company whether it was the motto that we used, whatever, that’s the true aspect of cohesion, when you start to identify yourself with the group more than you do all your individual identities. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you for that reflection. Now, you talked about the world is at a whole new place in regards to military and warfare and family, and the connection that you have, you said it will never be the same. Do you mind talking about that? And how does that work? And what do you see as the best way to use that? Because I agree, I think it’s a tremendously positive thing because you keep those connections close and they know what you’re doing and you know what they’re doing, and that gives more meaning to life. But maybe you could just elaborate your perspective on that and how to use it in the right way. 

Colonel John Spencer: Sure. So, it’s a double-edged sword is what I say. The connections between an individual and their family can be omnipresent now. We’re seeing this in Ukraine, where we can all watch the battlefield in real-time and live cameras, all of that. From the individual families, that means I don’t have to no longer wait for news about my soldier, I can watch on TV. In 2018, my kids could FaceTime my wife almost every day unless she was in Iraq or Afghanistan. But what it does is it causes the individual to have a foot in both doors. So, if you’re at home like I was, my family was experiencing war, not only because we could watch it on TV, on the internet, but we were talking to the soldier every day, the same thing with the soldier. 

Steve Shallenberger: Timeout just for a second so our listeners know. John’s wife was a bomb disposal expert. She still is. So, John came home from his deployment and she goes out and she probably still is. So, that’s a little background and what he’s talking about being at home and she’s out there. 

Colonel John Spencer: So, what I experienced in that experience, which is really what I’m trying to say in the book is that when an individual has to lead in two worlds — and it works in the business world as well, your business trips — there’s both a huge positive. We had 15-month deployments when I was in. And you change in a year — your family changes, the world changes. You go back and you feel it’s really hard to get back. So, now we have the ability to be a part of our family’s lives every day. But as an old soldier, I was trying to hold some things from my wife, and she wanted none of that. She wanted to hear everything that was happening every day. Well, what I experienced in 2008, from leading soldiers who were receiving messages from home that would have taken months to get to them — like their pregnant girlfriend is having problems and that’s affecting their ability to do their job. There used to be a time gap. Now there’s not. So, that meant as a leader downrange, and then later, my wife had to deal with not only personal issues, but the personal things that are happening to my soldiers in my teams that could impact my ability to do my job where you need to be focused. So, what I figured out as a leader in combat, and even with our family we do now, is that even though you’re connected and you live in multiple worlds — you live in these social media worlds. For us, it’s worn and home, and it impacts both, but we still need connection. So, for all my soldiers downrange, when they came out of a stressful situation, I made sure they sat around together and talked about it because I found that they were coming back from that experience and just immediately going online.  

Colonel John Spencer: So, in our family, what we do is no matter what we’re doing all day, we still come together, usually it’s around the dinner table, which is biblical, it’s ancient that you form bonds at the dinner table, you break bread together. As a family, we have a technology-free– and it translated to the military the same; the militaries eat together, they sleep together, building these bonds, you have to know the people you’re serving with. Of course, in our families, we have to be a part of our family lives every day, all day, and that’s my job as a mentor and a leader in my family. In the army, we want our leaders to be that as well. So, you have to know that you have to spend time. Actually, there are two ways that you form bonds in people; one is you experience hard things together, whether that’s a great victory — like you win something — or you had a hard training event, it forms bonds. But research shows, actually, you form stronger bonds by just spending a lot of time together, learning about a person where they know you understand them, you care about them. So, if there’s a lesson in the book, it’s that that attribute of leadership of our daily lives won’t go away no matter how connected we become in our lives. So, I actually tell people just now to stay connected to what’s most important. And that translates to war, to business, to our personal lives as you need to stay connected to what’s most important because we need it. We need it to perform our jobs, but you actually needed to live. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I love the different dimensions and the levels of thinking about connections. That’s really a wonderful concept. And for the leader to be close enough to those that work together with him, that he or she can be supportive of that person and create that connection professionally, and you kind of help bring these worlds together so we can be better at everything that we do. I love the thought. Well, we’re so running out of time. I can’t believe it. We’ve just been scratching the surface here today. We’re watching what’s happening in Ukraine. I’d be interested in your take on what’s happening there. I mean, especially in your field of urban warfare, we read quite a bit about that. Do you want to comment on that at all? And then I’d like to wrap up with one other question.  

Colonel John Spencer: We all get to watch war now. Like I said, we watch Ukraine in a way that nobody’s ever been able to watch war. And really what war is it’s just the most stressful human experience that a person can ever go through. But what has mattered the most in Ukraine is the people; it’s the motivation of the Ukrainian people; it’s the will to fight. That’s about leadership. We’re seeing one of the world’s most memorable leaders in their president. I just got back two weeks ago from their smallest groups. It’s about people, not weapons, not technologies, it’s about people fighting together. And that’s what the Ukrainians have that the Russians don’t — it’s motivated, well-led small groups, and they’re going to win eventually. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, it’s a tough thing. I know Russia is grinding it out on the eastern side over there, and it’ll be interesting to see how this comes out. But I love your faith and the spirit and the hearts of people and the desire to be free. Well, thank you for that perspective. Any other thoughts on that before I hit my last question? 

Colonel John Spencer: My personal thought is it is a fight between good and evil. People want to be good. So, that’s why you see Russian teams falling apart at the seams because — going back to leadership — you can’t give them a purpose that’s not just in their mind. If they don’t agree with it, bad things start to happen. And that’s what you’re seeing on the Russian side.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, here’s the last question. It’s been a great discussion today, John, thank you so much. Any final tips from our listeners that you would like to offer? 

Colonel John Spencer: My final tip is to you have to understand yourself and you have to understand others, that we’re all searching for a purpose in life. Even in our whatever job it is, we’re bringing those thoughts to the day, every day that we live. I have multiple identities now; I’m a dad, that’s my biggest identity; I’m a researcher; I study war; I’m a husband, all of that. But still, every day, I’m living for a purpose, and that’s what people need to understand. 

Steve Shallenberger: Great advice. And when they have that clear, it makes a lot of other things really much easier because you can focus and get after it. Well, it’s been so fun having you here. Please, if you don’t mind, tell our listeners how they can learn more about what you’re doing. 

Colonel John Spencer: So, I’m big on social media and all of them. On Twitter @SpencerGuard. I have a website called You can get my books on Amazon. Just look me up and you’ll find me. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Colonel John Spencer, for being part of this show today. What a great and productive visit this has been. We certainly wish you the best in all of the things that you’re doing.  

Colonel John Spencer: Thanks so much, Steve. 

Steve Shallenberger: To our listeners, you have just the very highest respect and admiration that we could give. We’re honored that you would join us today, and join us in this pathway of learning and improvement and becoming your best. And we wish each one of you all the best today and always. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Colonel John Spencer

Chair of Urban Warfare Studies with the Madison Policy Forum

Award-Winning Scholar, Professor, Author, Combat Veteran, & World’s Leading Expert on Urban Warfare

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