As head of Fort Worth’s military base and two of the largest nonprofit organizations in the area, TD Smyers has had plenty of leadership experience in his career.
Smyers, 59, was formerly commanding officer of the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and served as president and CEO at United Way of Tarrant County and regional CEO at the Red Cross North Texas, but an experience in his youth sticks with him.
Growing up in Boyd northwest of Fort Worth, Smyers, like most other small-town Texas boys in high school, played football. He was a wide receiver, although he admits he had “cement hands.”
“I could not catch,” he said. “That’s bad for a wide receiver.”
But, otherwise, he was a pretty decent athlete and a good student. One of the assistant coaches approached him with an offer that was a dream for most small-town Texas boys: Consider being quarterback for the team.
“I didn’t take him up on that offer because I was afraid,” said Smyers.”I was afraid to fail in that very prominent role as a high school quarterback in small-town Texas.”
A quarterback in small town Texas can be a hero, or a goat, remembered for many years for accomplishments – or lack thereof, Smyers said.
Smyers missed that opportunity, something he regrets. But he quickly turned that missed opportunity into a learning experience.
“What it did teach me eventually was that fear is something that must be overcome to achieve leadership. You have got to be able to overcome your fear,” he said.
Smyers corrects people who say that this or that leader is “fearless,” he said.
“That’s foolish,” he said. “Nobody should be fearless. There are things out there that are worth checking out and being cautious about.”
Conquering one’s fears is the answer, Smyers said.
“Courage is being able to mitigate the risk that’s involved and make a smart risk decision,” he said, “and be bold enough to do it anyway.”
Smyers went on to be successful in sports, running track in high school and applying for – and being accepted – at the U.S. Naval Academy. According to the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges ranking, the academy ranks No. 6 among liberal arts colleges in the country with the most selective acceptance rate, 9%.
“I had four Naval Academy running records at one point,” he said.
But even getting into the Naval Academy took a bit of courage on Smyers’ part.
The academy originally sent Smyers notice that he was rejected because he didn’t meet its academic criteria.
Smyers had already looked at the criteria, but he checked again.
“It wasn’t below the minimum. It was the minimum acceptable score,” he said.
He wrote them a letter and pointed that out. The academy reconsidered, and he was in.
But even though he had been accepted, Smyers was hit with doubts about his qualifications to be where he was.
“I kind of felt like I was a small-town kid, that I lucked out getting an appointment to the Naval Academy,” he said. “As a young man, I thought that the world out there was structured by people who had been around a long time and people who knew a lot more than me and were smarter than me.”
At one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country, Smyers said, he was “scared the whole time that I was not going to make it.”
He says he “worked his butt off,” to meet his many obligations studying, running track and preparing for the military.
His four years at the academy were spent worrying about getting kicked out and working hard for that not to happen.
In 1984, he graduated.
“I threw my hat in the air, was an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and went into flight school at Pensacola and was a Naval flight officer in P-3 Orions,” he said.
Even though he had a list of accomplishments and a degree to prove it, he still had a problem with his confidence.
“Up to that point I had not really been a confident guy, which sounds funny to people,” he said. “I always looked at it like I was just hanging on.”
Smyers loves to relate that story to young men and women who are on that same path.
“They all feel the same way,” he said. “They’re all scared. They’re all nervous about making the cut.”
He even thinks those who appeared to have confidence in his youth were probably as scared as he was.
“I think that even the people I looked at that were the quarterbacks of the high school football team or the head cheerleaders, and they seemed very confident, I think underneath, we all are kind of squishy about who we are,” he said.
After graduating from the academy, Smyers headed to Jacksonville, Florida, where he eventually took command of a Maritime Patrol Squadron.
It was there, he said, that he discovered he was doing something right as a mission commander of a combat air crew searching for Soviet bloc submarines in the Atlantic.
During that process, he worked his way through several leadership challenges. It was also when he discovered, a little bit to his surprise, that “leadership was my deal,” he said.
He was called in for a report on how he was doing as a leader compared to others doing the same job. He found himself ranked No. 1.
“That’s what we called, then, the ‘Golden Boy,’ and I didn’t see myself as that,” he said. “I thought there must be some mistake.”
But there wasn’t, and Smyers superiors went through the process of telling him all the things he had done to get that ranking.
“That was the first time when I realized that my efforts at fumbling through and figuring stuff out were actually doing something positive for my country, advancing my role as a tactician and for the people that were on my crew,” he said.
That was when Smyers found the confidence in himself he had long sought. It was also then that he began to consciously work on his leadership skills.
“When I first got in the Navy, I was told Navy stands for ‘Never Again Volunteer Yourself.’ And at first, I bought that, but at that point I said, no, it doesn’t, that’s bull,” he said.
He took advantage of every opportunity the Navy gave him to learn and understand leadership.
In 2008, Smyers was appointed Commanding Officer of Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base where he served until 2011.
“It’s not often you get a chance to come home in a career like mine, so it was perfect,” he said.
But when the Navy prepared to move him somewhere else, Smyers instead retired and took a job as head of the local Red Cross.
“What I wanted to do was take what the Navy had trained me to do when I realized that leadership was my deal. That was my contribution,” he said. “
After several years at the Red Cross, he then became head of the United Way of Tarrant County. There, he faced several challenges. The organization’s revenues had been declining for several years, and the community was not always on board with the organization’s goals, according to Smyers.
Smyers and United Way officials held meetings in the community, 12 people at a time.
“If you look at the back page of United Way’s strategic plan, you’ll see all their names, because everybody that met with me and talked with me one-on-one and answered hard questions, was part of shaping the new strategy in a real way,” he said.
Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price remembers the work Smyers did to reshape the nonprofit organization.
“The organization had sort of lost its way, and TD really worked to re-energize the organization and, of course, bringing Leah (King, the current president and CEO) on board,” she said.
Smyers has a way of getting people to do things they might not do otherwise, Price said.
“He’s not going to ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself,” she said. “He has a way of communicating in a meeting that gets people on-board with what needs to be done.”
King, now president and CEO of United Way, attended many of those community meetings with Smyers and said he pushed people to really tell them what they thought.
“He goes right toward what the issue is rather than dancing around what sometimes people may not be saying directly, especially if they feel like it might be negative or something like that,” she said. “If he felt like someone wasn’t being forthcoming and they had more say, he would do all that he could to pull it out of them.”
In July 2019, Smyers left United Way. This time, the retired Navy man, who had spent most of his time in the air, headed to sea.
He and his wife, Barbara, spent about two years sailing the Atlantic Coast, Bahamas, and Caribbean Sea aboard their catamaran La Vie Dansante (The Dancing Life).
There were plenty of challenges, including COVID, during those months at sea, Smyers said.
“If something breaks and you’re at sea, you pretty much have to figure out how to fix it yourself,” he said.
When they returned, there were plenty of opportunities and he chose one related to leadership.
He became the new CEO of Simple Leadership Strategies, a Fort Worth-based consulting firm he had worked with at the United Way.
“I’ve worked with a lot of leadership training groups, but this one worked,” Smyers said.
Simple Leadership Strategies founder and president John Wright said having the experienced Smyers aboard the organization is a big asset.
“When I tell someone how effective our program is, it means something, but when TD Smyers says it to someone, it brings it to a whole new level,” said Wright.
Smyers has plenty of leadership advice, but he starts with one simple one.
“Don’t try to be something you’re not,” he said.
Some leaders do well because they are quiet and thoughtful people, he said, while others may be more verbose and rally a crowd.
“They’re two very different skill sets, but also two very effective leadership methods,” he said. “So helping leaders not become, but find their own authenticity is where it all starts with me.”
Along with his work with Wright, Smyers has also started his own consulting group, A Bold Leader. On the website he has written blog posts with more stories of his journey to leadership. He has also started a podcast.
“Here I am doing leadership development with John, I’m doing coaching and consulting under A Bold Leader. And I started a podcast to interview some other leaders,” he said. “I never thought I would be doing that, but I’m enjoying it.”
Bachelor’s degree in physics from the United States Naval Academy, and a master’s degree in resource strategy from the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School.
U.S. Navy Officer, 1980 to 2011; CEO, American Red Cross, North Texas Region, 201 to 2015; President and CEO, United Way of Tarrant County, 2015-2019; Skipper, La Vie Dansante, 2019-2021; CEO, Simple Leadership Strategies, 2021 to present; Founder, A Bold Leader, 2021 to present
Commissioning chair and founding president, USS Fort Worth Support Committee; Former vice chair, North Texas Leaders and Executives Advocating Diversity (NTXLEAD); Past president, Leadership North Texas Alumni Association; Member, Armed Forces Bowl Executive Committee; former governance chair, Tarrant County Homeless Coalition
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Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.