20 Questions with Keni Thomas, Former U.S. Army Ranger, country singer, and motivational speaker
Originally published: 10.01.10 by Terry Tanker
Publisher Terry Tanker met with former U.S. Army Ranger, country singer, and motivational speaker Keni Thomas in Atlanta. Thomas was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor in the battle of Mogadishu and was the squad leader in the now-famous fight immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down. The two discussed the military, leadership, music, and his new album Gunslinger.
1. What was your major at the University of Florida?
Advertising. I didn’t think there was any way I could make a living as a musician, so I’d do something practical and write jingles for a living.
2. Any unusual requests from your country music fans?
Always, but I don’t sign body parts!
3. Do you have any hobbies?
I like old cars. I have a ’71 Dart, ’71 Charger, a ’65 Thunderbird, a ’65 Mustang, and a ’91 Jeep.
4. Do you work on them yourself?
Yes. But it’s very frustrating when you spend two months rebuilding an engine, and you turn the key, and nothing happens.
5. What is your passion?
Music, and being the spokesperson for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF). It provides college educations for the children of soldiers killed in training or combat.
6. You earned Master Parachute Wings with the Rangers and have over 400 jumps. Any lingering desire to jump out of planes?
Absolutely. I can’t even describe that feeling. The Golden Knights are the Army’s jump team. I run into them a couple times a year and have an open invitation.
7. Speaking of the military, how and why did you pick the U.S. Army?
I had just graduated, and the Gulf War was in progress. I felt a need to do my part. I was on the swim team in college, and thought the Navy Seals would be a perfect fit for me. But the recruiter didn’t know how to sell it to an overachiever like me. So I went to the Rangers. My dad was a Ranger, and ultimately that was a motivating factor.
8. What was the transition from the military to the music industry like?
I started the band Cornbread while I was still in the Army. I promised myself if I could pay just the rent with music, I’d find a way to pay the rest of the bills.
9. How do you manage the business of Keni Thomas Inc.?
I find the best people that I can afford, communicate my plan, and hold everybody accountable. It’s called tasks, missions, and standards. You have to let everyone know where you’re going, and what you want to accomplish. Most people really want to help you succeed, but you have to be clear about where it is you want to go.
10. Do you have a set plan for your marketing/ advertising/promotion for the year?
Yes. The new album is Gunslinger, named after our Black Hawk gunship. There are three things behind success and failure: planning, training, and leadership. When that moment comes, and the (helicopter) door is open, how well you’ve planned in advance makes the difference. Our mar/com plan is no different.
11. You recently received the VFW Hall of Fame Award. Can you describe what that was like?
I stood in front of all those veterans, and that’s when the level of honor hit me. Once you’re in front of those guys, you realize what a huge privilege it is to be recognized.
12. You went to Ranger school, Belgian Commando school, Cold Weather Mountaineering school, Path Finder school, Emergency Medical school, and Special Forces Combat Divers school. Is it fair to say you are a big believer in training?
There is a motto we have: Train as you fight. Fight as you train. It’s what kept me alive.
13. In the context of a small business, how do you keep in place that repetition and training that could become tedious, and keep your employees engaged?
By keeping people motivated, keeping morale up, and their focus on the task. This is why having a mission statement is so important. It’s what keeps people rallied around the goal.
14. So, you have to have a mission statement?
The 160th Special Operations Air Regiment is a very unique group of helicopter pilots. They have a unique mission statement on their website, but written on a wall at their command center they’ve simplified it to, “Put the customer on target on time.”
15. Without those kinds of tools, what tends to happen?
People start thinking this is boring, this is stupid, I don’t need to be here, and then the foundation of your business starts to erode.
16. Are you only as strong as your weakest link?
Exactly. It’s up to everybody, not just the boss. You’ve got to make sure that everybody on your team feels that they are the most important piece of the puzzle. Once they feel that way, they hold themselves to a higher standard.
17. Do you have a leadership philosophy?
Lead by example. Apply this to the big things, and then to the little things. It starts becoming infectious, and you’ll find you’re setting the example for your co-workers, family, community, and for your nation.
18. What’s the most important thing leaders can do when they face adversity?
Drive on. Good leaders find purpose, direction, and motivation even when the only person that they are leading is themselves. I can’t tell you when, and I can’t tell you where, but adversity is going to hit you. And, when it does, it’s all about how well you’ve prepared for the moment in advance. It’s the training, planning, practice, rehearsal, and self-improvement that gets you through. In the end you will only be as good as you’ve prepared yourself to be.
19. Is character built by responsibility?
Yes. Character is the foundation of everything. Character is the one thing that will keep you moving forward when everything around you is telling you to go the other way. In Mogadishu it would have been easy for anyone to step aside for a few seconds, just step out of the fight. That’s your brain telling you to run away, people are getting hit, this shouldn’t be happening to you, you need to survive. But not a single person did. At some point, when it’s really tough, you’ll find what you’re made of. Character lets you step up. It provides the purpose, direction, and motivation to say follow me.
20. Can you discuss self-confidence? How you get it, and where it comes from?
General Patton said the single most important characteristic in a great soldier is self-confidence. It comes from many different things. Leadership to make the right decision, training that will pull you out of any situation, but most of all, it comes down to confidence in each other, knowing that the person on your left and the person on your right has your back. That comes from constantly preparing, constantly training with each other, preparing for that moment, and bettering yourself every day.
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