Bryan Buckley Talks Leadership and the Ultimate Mission

Hemland Valley Growers Co

Bryan Buckley is a proven leader in civilian life and on the battlefield. He ascended into leadership and succeeded in such because of his ability to recognize the mission and put the mission first. In leadership, it is essential to see the big picture. As Buckley’s story demonstrates, that begins with finding purpose behind the grand picture and mission. Finding purpose is a human experience that everyone faces whether or not they want to. There are certain situations in life where you must decide on what you are doing in your life. This decision comes from your family, a tragedy, or your wildest dreams if you’re lucky. In life and business, it is important to know the mission. And to find that mission, you must make a choice – perhaps that choice is to earn your citizenship.

When the tragedy of 9/11 occurred while he was a college football player at the University of Massachusetts, Buckley made that decision. After seeing the towers fall, Buckley said to himself, “it’s time for me to go earn my citizenship.” His thinking was simple. His mission was clear. Amidst these trials and tragedies that can force someone to make a decision that sets them on a path for the rest of their lives. Buckley describes the moment of his decision to join the military as “the first time I had clarity in my life.” As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to have clarity in your mission. What are your goals as an entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur is not easy. Buckley started a medical cannabis company called the Helmand Valley Growers Company. The company serves to help veterans stay away from opiates and other harmful medicines, yet it took years of medical mountains to climb and even interviews before Congress. But Buckley’s company has a strong mission, and he can communicate it well. This company wants to not just make sales but “end the opioid and suicide epidemic plaguing our Nation’s Heroes.” As you will learn throughout this article, having a mission is essential to your success as an entrepreneur.

During our conversation, Bryan Buckley teaches us that being an entrepreneur requires you to be a leader that prioritizes brilliance in the basics, quickly resolves conflicts, and knows how to lead others to find their purpose.

Bryan Buckley
Bryan Buckley / Photo courtesy of Bryan Buckley

Brilliance in the Basics

It is important to be brilliant in the basics among all the hats you wear as an entrepreneur. You must be the builder, the salesman, the marketer, the accountant, and even the IT guy. The journey in entrepreneurship takes you along many different paths that you can easily jumble and get lost in. But do not despair! There is a solution, and it begins with the mission.

As Buckley told us, “You must always be in love with the mission, but you don’t need to love the plan.” Early on in entrepreneurship, or even after years, you will face times where the work you are doing does not seem productive or is not exactly what you had in mind. As Buckley has demonstrated throughout his career, these are moments when you must simplify your thinking. Amidst the chaos and intense decision-making, Buckley has often suggested and practiced the fact that “the best course of action might be for you to go to the gym for an hour, and just kind of unplug and just kind of get your body working out.” And this is quite true from a medical standpoint on stress as well. Having control of your body in a tough situation is one of the first “basics” you can master. This is as simple as learning to breathe in stressful situations. One of the first things Buckley mentioned that he did when faced with stressful situations was taking a break, focusing on his breathing, and meditating. These examples are simple. And they’re supposed to be. Unfortunately, living as an entrepreneur can quickly turn complex.

After serving in the military and being in combat many times, Buckley assured us that “nothing goes as planned.” Because of this universal fact – from the battlefield to life – you won’t be able to control everything that happens even if you plan for it. You need to be able to adapt, but you can only do so within a certain context: the mission.

Throughout our conversation with Buckley, the mission and its importance kept popping up just as it has in this article. As an entrepreneur, what is your mission? Do the people you work with know the mission? Your mission forms the basis of your focus. Your mission is the foundation of the basics you must become brilliant at. As a college football player, Buckley’s football experiences helped shape how he sees and interacts with the world. For example, his high school football coach gave him a foundation for understanding the importance of mastering those mundane fundamentals. His coach taught all the players that “if you can’t do the fundamentals and be amazing at it,” don’t try the tough stuff. And Buckley was quick to mention that his high school team was a top ten team in the state every year. However, that excellence in the sport was not built upon creative strategy or tools, but rather on the basics. And this isn’t isolated to Buckley’s high school football team. The great and late Bobby Bowden, former head coach of the Florida State Seminoles and two-time National Champion winner, always said that football came down to the blocking and tackling. Blocking and tackling are the basic building blocks of the game of football, yet that is the focus of champion coaches and players.

When Buckley started Special Ops training, guess what they focused on? The basics like taking a weapon apart over and over again and putting it back together over and over again. The Marines must be experts at the weapons and tools they use before starting to strategize and scheme. Nothing is important until they’ve mastered the basics. Not to overdue the analogies and comparisons to football, but the great Green Bay Packers head coach, Vince Lombardi, was reported to have started his 1969 training camp by holding up a football and saying, “this is a football.” That season the team won the championship 37-0.

Another example of brilliance in the basics is interacting with people, especially people you do not know and perhaps look different from you. In the military, particularly in the wars fought in the Middle East, this factor came up repeatedly. Once again, however, the mission rises to the top of the hierarchy in terms of focus. Buckley said, “if you get bogged down, or you start lumping a whole group of people in as one thing…it’s just not going to be effective.” So instead, whenever he meets someone, he just wants to know what kind of person they are, if they’re a good person. And how do you know if they’re a good person? Of course, it revolves around a mission – are they aligned with the mission?

Diversity of thought is another focus that Buckley advises for everyone in leadership roles. This focus stems from his favorite leadership trait: humility. And this isn’t just some opinion he holds; it’s something he believes and acts out. In his first year at Villanova University, the school he transferred to so he could join the military, he enrolled in Arabic classes. This decision wasn’t just to learn the language so he could communicate in combat, but rather “to learn about the culture and to understand the Quran.” This type of behavior is not just humble but empathetic as well. This Forbes article informs how important it is to prioritize and practice empathy as a leader. The article argues that “people will trust leaders and feel a greater sense of engagement and commitment when there is alignment between what the leader says and does,” and Buckley is evidence to this argument.

These traits of humility and empathy find themselves rooted in Marine training. Buckley told us that the Marines taught the leaders that “you worked for your enlisted, the enlisted did not work for you.” And this teaching showed up in simple everyday activities such as mealtime. The officers would serve the enlisted, and then eat last. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines servant leadership as “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” As you endeavor in your entrepreneurial pursuits, you must think about the people under your command. If Buckley teaches us nothing else, focusing on the people with you on your mission is the ultimate basic act that you need to become brilliant.

It is also important to note that being brilliant in the basics is not an excuse to simplify or dismiss the complexities in life. Running a business or starting any entrepreneurial project is not an easy thing to do. You have surely run into numerous conflicts. But as Buckley demonstrated in his actions, humility and empathy are the basics that you need to master to become an effective leader. With these traits mastered, you can start building your identity as a leader – and hopefully a servant leader. 

Bryan Buckley
Bryan Buckley in uniform / Photo courtesy of Bryan Buckley

Resolving Conflicts

As a leader, you will face conflict. This conflict will arise with other people, clients, employees, or colleagues. If you want to make it out as a leader that people can trust and follow, you’ll need to become a master at resolving conflicts. Buckley learned how to do this throughout his time in the military and shared tons of information on how he has managed conflict in the past and still uses those techniques today.

Once again, Buckley revealed that the basics are at the forefront by suggesting that you need to “always take three deep breaths and just slow down for a second.” Having this type of emotional control can separate you as a leader. We’ve all been there when someone says something or some disaster occurs, and our first instinct is to lash out at the involved person. It’s easy to say that the first thing that comes to mind is to put someone in their place and let them know how they messed up. But a leader does not do that.

Buckley always says to focus on yourself first. You should ask yourself questions such as, “How did I contribute to the problem?” “Did I explain my expectations clearly?” As a leader, you’re directing others toward the mission. It’s your job to be able to communicate the mission and how others should act to get there. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, Buckley is exactly right. To be an effective communicator, a leader must first “think with clarity.” This point means that you must evaluate your thoughts and actions just as much and if not more than the people you are serving (remember servant leadership?). For this very reason, a building block for Buckley is asking himself the question, “How can I get better to support my team?” This perspective allows him to be a better communicator because he is honest with himself, leading to honesty with his team. And what better foundation is there to build communication habits on than honesty?

Another important point in resolving conflict that Buckley taught us is speed. In his exact words, this is the ability of leaders to “fail fast.” However, to pull this off, you must take extreme ownership of your role as the leader of a group of people. Of course, it will be awkward, uncomfortable, and perhaps even painful to address conflict and attempt to resolve it. But as Buckley says, “you have every right to go in everyone’s lane and address what’s going on.” You must recognize and act in the role that you have. This is especially true if you have built the leadership for yourself as all entrepreneurs have. When things get busy, and you feel like you just have so many menial tasks to accomplish, you must remember to focus on the basics again. As an entrepreneur, there are many opportunities to get distracted from real problems because you have to do so many things. However, you cannot disregard the discomfort of conflict. You must embrace your role as a leader and the job that comes with it – resolver of conflicts.

Another reason you need to “fail fast” is because conflict resolution takes time. As this Forbes article demonstrates, “conflict is layered in complexity.” The people within conflict all see the situation differently. Also, emotions can quickly run high, complicating things making it difficult for everyone to focus on the basics. Not to state the obvious in such a simple way, but conflict is best when short. And as a leader, the length of any conflict is directly in your hands. For this exact reason, Buckley says that “if you are afraid to right the ship or get ahead of conflict before it becomes a big deal, then you’re just not cut out to be a leader.” As an entrepreneur, or perhaps this is for aspiring entrepreneurs, you must be real with yourself: How willing are you to be the person who dives head-first into the tough, awkward, and uncomfortable situations to right your team’s ship? This is why Buckley constantly stresses prioritizing the relevant players within the endeavor. He stresses that you must remember that “it’s not about you, it should always be about the mission, the team, and then yourself.” But this, of course, requires you to be in line with and fully understand your mission.

To illustrate this point further, Buckley likes to use the analogy of a compass. He says that “if you are a degree off, with each foot you go, you’re just going to keep going off and getting away from the axe, and you’re going to be far off by the time you think you should be there.” This is such a great analogy because it puts things in perspective about how important it is to know and prioritize the mission. If you are not acutely aware of your compass and where it needs to be pointing, then a tiny misstep might go unnoticed. Next thing you know, you are far off from where you wanted to go. And this is not just about you as a leader. Buckley also says that “if you start seeing someone isolating themselves, you don’t know where they are and what they’re doing and what could be happening, what could be manifesting in their mind,” then you’ll start to see more and more conflict because constant communication is not happening.

With all that being said, you must still be a humble leader willing to admit when you are wrong. As the leader, you are not immune to being perfect and without fault in conflict. To demonstrate this point, Buckley told us a story from early on in his career when he wasn’t in the highest leadership position. His company leader was walking them through a plan, and Buckley believed it was taking them through a bad area because one platoon got ambushed there and another had their Humvee flipped. Buckley let the company leader know he thought this was a bad idea, and things got heated, with the company leader even throwing a marker at his feet. But, taking his advice, they all stopped and took a break for five minutes. Eventually, they resolved the conflict because the company leader was humble enough to acknowledge that Buckley was correct. This event had a lasting impact on Buckley. He stated that as a leader, you must “be humble enough to take input from people underneath you because they might see things you haven’t seen or experienced things you haven’t experienced.” He describes it as a two-way street because as a subordinate, if “you feel something is not right, and you want to go out there as an overall help to the team, you need to speak your mind.” Once again, the theme of humility is ever-present. This story further proves that humility is such an important trait for leaders to have.

Resolving conflicts as a leader and entrepreneur is essential if you wish to get things done. You must focus on clarifying your purpose and thoughts. In other words, define your compass. When you do this, you’ll be able to communicate better and set expectations. Being humble will empower the people in your charge to speak their minds and help your team reach their potential. And as the leader, you’ll be better suited to lead others to purpose.

Hemland Valley Growers Co
Hemland Valley Growers Co. / Photo courtesy of Bryan Buckley

Leading Others to Purpose

It has been mentioned numerous times throughout this entire article, but one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to know the mission and then communicate it. For new veterans, this can be a difficult task. That’s why Buckley’s non-profit, the Battle Brothers Foundation, exists. They state their mission as such: “There is a complex challenge facing our nation’s veterans: a striking number are taking their lives, the medical care offered through standard treatment facilities are often addictive, opiate-based substances, and many find themselves stagnated from the impactful community and meaningful economic growth. Concerned for our own, The Battle Brothers Foundation strives for change with our unique threefold approach.”

This mission is what this entire article has been building to Buckley’s mission and how that is the ultimate driving force to leading others to purpose.

Transitioning from life in the military to civilian life is a well-documented struggle – it’s why the Battle Brothers Foundation exists. There are three points of life that the Foundation addresses: personal, medical, and economic. Buckley explained how drastic the transition for veterans is. Quite bluntly, he said that “you lose your identity.” And as one of the leaders of the Battle Brothers Foundation, his job is to lead those veterans who feel as if they have lost their identity on to the path of finding an identity in the civilian world again.

Sometimes, veterans tend to do something similar to what they did in the military because it is comfortable. The Economic stage of the Foundation seeks to “give them that sense of purpose like they had in the military.” However, this does not happen for veterans without some conflict.

Buckley remarked that he sometimes has to sit veterans down and say, “what you did during your time in the military is amazing, it’s special, and no one can thank you enough for it. However, there’s always another chapter to your life…find your second act.” As a leader, you’ve got to be the one to center them on the mission. Buckley’s Foundation is serving veterans as they struggle through turning from a strict, rigid way of life to freedom in the civilian world. The transition is overwhelming. But as Buckley has demonstrated in his endeavors, it is possible when you put the mission first, your team second, and you last.

Once again, we can relate this point to football. Buckley recalled that his high school football coach, amidst all the top 10 finishes and championships, always told them that if “this is the best thing in your life, I failed you as your coach.” That high school coach knew the mission. When young men are playing and winning big football games, it’s easy for them to lose perspective. Winning games gets them everything they could have dreamed of. But the high school coach knew that they had their whole lives ahead of them. More importantly, he told them. Buckley must be the high school football coach for many veterans he helps in the same vein. He explains that they “can do more than just carry a gun.”

As a leader, you must be able to inspire people to make changes in their lives. Now, these changes might not be as serious or drastic as Buckley’s daily situations, but they are important in people’s lives, and you should not take your influence lightly. Leaders exist to take people to places they did not know were possible. According to this article published by the Journal of Anxiety Orders, the fear of the unknown is behind a lot. And you will experience that often as an entrepreneur. But you must remember your mission and understand that you are inherently a risk-taker. This is what Buckley often has to remind the veterans he helps.

When you are a leader, you must break down the big picture so that everyone can see their role within and with clarity. Buckley says that “you have to learn how to push the right buttons with people and try to see what will just click and give them the confidence.” Sometimes, that big picture might not be enticing to people. As the leader, you must focus your team on the mission and get them to believe in their abilities to accomplish the mission.

Buckley stated that “if they don’t believe in what they’re doing or don’t believe in themselves, it won’t turn out well.” And according to this Forbes article, that’s what leaders do. They not only believe in themselves but get you to believe in yourself. The article mentions that people can easily recognize when leaders do not believe in themselves. And this can mean a variety of things. Sometimes it means they do not believe in their abilities, or perhaps it is the mission itself. But that does not stop leaders from leading. As an entrepreneur, you will face adversity as you reach your goals. Amidst all that, you must bring your people with you.

When new veterans try to enter the workforce, they often get stressed finding jobs that give them purpose and make them enough money to survive. Buckley has to slow them down and remind them of the fundamentals and teach them that there are ways for them to find success. He says that they’ll get wrapped up in details, and he will say to them, “Well, hold on, let’s take a look at your disability. What’s your retirement? In reality, you could go work at Home Depot and be a greeter, and you’re going to make about the same amount of money you made in the military. So, let’s not stress about that.” This ability to put things into perspective is another example of brilliance in the basics. It is very easy for us to get lost in the details of everyday life. But as mentioned, you must see the bigger picture not only for yourself but for your team. You must communicate that to focus your team on what matters: the basics.

Hemland Valley Growers Co
Hemland Valley Growers Co. / Photo courtesy of Bryan Buckley

What about you?

But what can Bryan Buckley’s expertise in leadership teach you at its core? That being an entrepreneur who wants to make change must be brilliant in the basics, be a master in resolving conflicts, and be able to translate those skills to other people so that they can act with purpose. As you have learned in this article, everything is built off the fundamentals and the basics. Without mastering them, it is hard to master anything else, let alone lead other people.

As a business owner or entrepreneur, you must first establish your fundamentals. In other words, you must quantify what matters and what does not matter. There must be ways to uncover the building blocks in whatever your pursuit. It is as simple as when you were a young student learning math. You started with learning to recognize the numbers on a sheet of paper. Then you transitioned to counting on your fingers. Then you learned to subtract. In entrepreneurship and life in general, it is not uncommon to lose sight of the most fundamentals. This leaves us without a firm foundation. And like a building, without a firm foundation, nothing matters. Even if steel beams are the best in the world, they will fall if they are not planted on a firm foundation. And when a conflict arises like a steel beam falling, you must be able to work through the mess for your people.

As Buckley demonstrated from his expertise, the ability to resolve conflicts efficiently and effectively is a key skill for you as a leader. And just as you need to be humble enough to go back to the basics and master them, you also must be humble when dealing with conflicts. There is no room to thrust your ego about when you have real people you are dealing with. And yes, conflict resolution is often messy, awkward, and uncomfortable, but you need to master it if you wish to be the entrepreneur you want to be. So, you must do some reflection. How well do you resolve conflicts? How can you improve? How did you handle the last conflict that came up? You must look in the mirror as the leader and own your role as the person who can enact change. Being a leader is more than just communication, it’s living that mission.

And as that person who can enact change, we learned from Buckley that you could indeed, and you must be the leader who can lead others to purpose. As we repeatedly learned throughout our conversation with Buckley, the mission drives this forward. As an entrepreneur, you must take your work seriously enough to put it into a greater context. You must establish your mission for your endeavors. Do not take your work lightly, or else it is not worth doing. After you know your mission and have set your compass, you need to communicate that well to others. Bryan Buckley taught us that it is possible to face extreme struggles in life, but if you are brilliant in the basics, know how to resolve conflict, and can lead others to purpose, you will find success.

View this article in the February 2022 issue of MP: Day 1.