Brent Gleeson (@brent_gleeson), author of Embrace the Suck: The Navy SEAL Way to an Extraordinary Life and founder of TakingPoint Leadership, joins Mark to talk about his experiences with the SEALs, leadership, how failures lead to success, and more.
- Transforming your team requires training the character of the individuals in your team
- You must lean into adversity and the inevitable pain and suffering
- Building emotional and mental fortitude is just as important as physical training
- “If you ain’t failing, you ain’t trying.” Micro-failures lead to success
Listen to this episode so you can learn how to face failure and lead effectively in our current VUCA world.
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You’ve probably already heard Mark extolling the virtues of the PowerDot to help with recovery. They now have a version 2.0. The PowerDot is an electrical stimulation device that allows you to increase performance, speed up recovery and overall achieve a deeper mind/body connection. Many stim devices can be clumsy and hard to use, but the PowerDot 2.0 achieves simplicity and is very small so you can take it with you when you travel, and it is also integrated with Strava and Apple Health.
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Mark: Hey folks, welcome back. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Super stoked to have you join me today. I do not take it lightly. I know your time is valuable and there’s a billion, million, trillion things vying for your attention. So I won’t waste your time.
We got a phenomenal guest and opportunity today to talk about things that are very interesting in these interesting times. Such as leadership, how to embrace the suck… how to think and lead like a navy SEAL and whatnot.
Because my guest is my good friend Brent Gleeson – another SEAL team officer… comes out of SEAL team five, which was our next-door neighbor down in Coronado. They were the scrappy ones. Seal team three – we were a little bit more polished – they probably agree with that statement too.
Brent: That’s why I chose SEAL team five.
Mark: (laughing) Right. Brent has an undergrad degree in finance and economics from SMU… studied English and history at oxford, so he’s another one of those brainiac SEALs. Got his MBA from USD. Serves on the executive board at the naval special warfare family foundation.
He’s married – three kids and about to bring another one into this VUCA world that we live in. (laughing) And we were talking about before, having more kids is just more incentive to help the world be a better place. So that they can grow up in maybe a little bit more positive of future than what we’re seeing right now.
Brent, welcome man. It’s really good to see you again.
Brent: Good to see you, brother. Hope all has been well. It’s good to catch up.
Mark: (laughing) All has been hell and well, because you know, we’re trying to deal with this type of stuff – it’s really been a quite interesting year. I’ve actually had a lot of fun, even though it’s been really frustrating just to watch the reaction of the government and what they’ve been putting small business owners and the public through.
I don’t know, we can get a little bit later into talking about that, but what a fascinating time, right?
Brent: Yes, it is.
Mark: It’s actually a good time for special operators who are in the in the real-world doing things, because we’re just trained to navigate this VUCA – the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity, ambiguity… and we actually thrive in it.
And we can find it a lot of fun, right? Because we’re just used to that. And I think that’s been one reason why you and I have really been in kind of high demand lately. Even if we’re doing a lot of work over zoom, because we’ve got some strategy and tactics to help people.
Brent: Yeah, so there is a silver lining…
Mark: So I know we did an interview back in ’17, but most people probably don’t remember that, because that seems like a lifetime ago.
So let’s get into some basics and talk a little bit about how you started your leadership journey – like here’s a guy who’s got his bachelor’s in finance and he’s at oxford – how do you go from that to being a navy SEAL officer?
Brent: It is kind of a bit of an interesting story, because – full transparency – even earlier in my college days at SMU I had no real vision or intention of joining the military. Again this was peace time very close to 9/11 but pre-9/11. So
Kind of a different mindset when it comes to having a call to serve. My dad served in the marine corps during Vietnam. But I had a path towards business and so, when I graduated, I was working in finance as an analyst there in downtown Dallas.
And interestingly I had a close college friend of mine who was a year behind me – so he was now a senior at SMU – he was one of these young men who did have a more or less childhood vision and dream to serve as a naval special warfare operator. And so his plan was to graduate, go to OCS and become a SEAL. Or at least be accepted into the pipeline. And hopefully succeed at that journey.
And so while I was out in the finance world and he was a senior, we started training together.
Mark: Did you know much about the SEALs at the time?
Brent: Not much – I held SEALs on the highest of pedestals – fire breathing, glass eating demigods who bench pressed 500 pounds…
Mark: (laughing) Well we are, aren’t we? I mean, c’mon…
Brent: Yeah, I found out later, that’s all true… which was glorious. But I had read a couple books in college about the SEALs in Vietnam and some of the history of the naval special warfare community. But that was about it.
But when we started training together, for me it was just a way to stay fit. And kind of help a friend for his journey. And I started reading more about the history and becoming fascinated with the mindset – the grit, the resilience, the mental fortitude, the discipline of what it takes to be a leader in that type of high performing organization.
And that growing fascination coupled with the somewhat boring nature of my entry-level financial analyst position…
Mark: (laughing) I know something about that too, by the way. I was a CPA before I joined this field…
Brent: Yeah. But yeah, ultimately made a decision – and it was kind of really my first pivotal moment in my life – where I decided to take some true calculated risk. And weigh those options.
And there was obviously some data analysis, so to speak, when it comes to what is the potential outcome of this decision. But ultimately, I made the decision to leave a relatively lucrative job in finance in Dallas and go on this journey. And hopefully begin that process of mindset transformation and evolution. And seeing where that could take my life.
And then 9/11 occurred and the journey began. Speeding freight train took off.
Mark: Right. Now I said in the intro that you were an officer – is that true? I’m not actually 100% sure…
Brent: Yeah, I was going to correct you on that. I actually enlisted as do as you know; I think it’s about two-thirds of our enlisted SEALs have undergrad degrees.
Mark: Yeah, 65% of enlisted SEALs going through BUD/S have either just a bachelor’s or even higher .which is pretty good.
Brent: For a lot it’s a strategic decision, based on the competitiveness of the officer pool… or just a choice… I just brought on a new mentee of mine yesterday. He’s about to graduate from a college in Stephenville, Texas. And he’s going to enlist as well.
Because he actually wants to do a career, and he wants to become an officer later.
Mark: Yeah, I recommend that for a lot of folks, too. You get to be an operator and learn the nitty-gritty tactical skills that kind of can get glossed over as an officer… and then as a mustang – where you convert to an officer later on – you have a little bit more strategic and tactical depth. As well as maybe trust amongst the enlisted guys.
Brent: Yeah, you get you get a good sense of some of the less sexy side of the job. But you can also extend your experience when it comes to doing platoons and platoon cycles. And operating.
Because then you go to OCS, and you start over again as an ensign.
Mark: Right. (laughing) That’s true that.
Brent: So in theory, you have the opportunity to operate even more…
Mark: Right, right. No doubt.
Okay, so you decided to go to BUD/S – or to enlist – and how did that work out? What class and what were some of the big challenges?
Brent: Joined class 235 – another notable… much more notable SEAL is David Goggins who was in our class. We were his third class.
Mark: (laughing) Right. Took him a few tries. Did you get to know David well?
Brent: Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve known him for 20 years, but we were in the same boat crew in hell week and obviously spent a lot of time together in those early weeks. And throughout the rest of the program.
And he was just beginning his journey towards mental toughness. He’s on a whole different level of lunacy.
Mark: (laughing) He is definitely at the highest level of lunacy in that area. Yeah. He’s a great guy. Interesting.
Okay, so you got through BUD/S in one shot?
Brent: Yeah. I fell into the – I’m just saying this for context – I fell into the first time every time category. Which was good, because I was really focused on doing this once and not again. I did not enjoy the experience.
But again, we’ve done a lot of research on this, and it really has nothing to do with – obviously you have to be super fit and have the right mindset, but outside of that the research that we’ve done comes back around passion and purpose and an emotional connection to giving to the cause of being an operator.
And that’s where we see guys being more successful. It’s hard to obviously measure that early on, but it’s an interesting social experiment to say the least.
Mark: That’s a great way to put it. For sure.
How many folks in your class? What were the stats like on start and finish?
Brent: We started – obviously, we had more when people were filtered in during pre-training… I think we started around 187. And graduated 23 of the originals.
We had a couple people filter in, obviously. Some rollbacks filter in. But 23 of our original class…
Mark: Almost exactly like my class. We had 185, graduated 19.
Brent: Yeah. You were the last hard class though, right?
Mark: (laughing) We were the last hard class, yeah. It has gone downhill since then.
Brent: Really has… (laughing) There’s millennials apparently in the SEAL teams now. God help us.
Mark: I’m not even sure what they’re doing with those guys. I’m just kidding.
What were the some of the biggest “a-has” for you in training, from a leadership or human kind of nature perspective?
Brent: I think really around the importance of accountability. Obviously personal accountability… having an accountable team without accountable leaders.
And leaders who are really, really good at clearly defining the mission and the why behind what we’re doing. Even if it’s the most mundane thing of running down the beach with a boat on your head – quickly clearly defining the objective in a concise, time-bound, measurable way…. “here’s what we’re trying to do. Here’s the vision of what’s gonna happen.”
And understanding seeing their passion, and also seeing them stay calm under pressure. I know a lot of these things sound seem cliché, but I’ve also seen these come full circle obviously this year in 2020. In a business setting. Where a lot of organizations that will fail and will not come out of this either healthy or just won’t come out at all.
And then there’s a big divide between that and other organizations that have taken stock of the current situation. They spent a very short amount of time in analysis, paralysis and causal thinking. And moved immediately into action-oriented execution.
And you saw that too, if you recall back when you see the boat crews that thrive, versus the boat crews that just do not do well… there’s a vast difference in leadership and culture even in the seven-person crew, right?
It’s really fascinating to watch. And I don’t know if you recall this – but sometimes the instructors would swap the boat crew leader from the crew that’s really crushing it, out with the boat crew that’s really just not doing well at all. And see what happens.
And interestingly, and this has been consistent – you see the boat crew that was not doing well under new inspirational leadership – a leader who knows how to bring the team together. Like, quickly change the culture and the mindset. Explain the vision. Stop the infighting, and the blame.
And get them moving. Almost immediately that crew goes to the middle or towards the head of the pack in these races and competitions.
And interestingly the crew that was winning all the races and our new seemingly lesser than great leadership continues to thrive. Because they have already built such a strong winning culture and mindset – that not one person could dismantle what they created.
Mark: And a lot of times they carry the officer or elevate the officer…
Brent: No, that’s always. That’s always.
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Always.
It’s almost like a failed experience, because those officers probably should have been washed out. That’s hilarious.
That’s fascinating. I agree with that. So getting right to execution – not getting stuck in analysis, paralysis – I mean, you can learn that running a boat down the beach – or you can learn it the hard way in business by failing, right?
I wonder if there’s any training that leaders can implement to get to action and execution quicker. Activate the OODA loop quicker than normal, because that’s certainly necessary in today’s world.
I’m sure there is, beyond just talk. We’ll have to come back to that topic a little bit later.
Brent: Well, I think it’s learning to develop resilience in yourself and others. Obviously as a leader… and yeah, we can definitely dive into that… but one of the things we coach and train executives on in our programs – we just did one this morning – is on resilience. And really understanding what it is. What are the core components? What does that mean for me in my organizational setting as a leader? And how can I develop that in myself? And more importantly, how can I develop it in the team?
I mean 2020 is a perfect battlefield to study and talk about where resilience plays a role in an organization. And in the leaders and managers within the organization.
Fear of Failure
So you finished BUD/S, you went to SEAL team five. And then what happened? What was that like?
Brent: Well obviously 9/11 had kicked off. So we had guys downrange in Afghanistan. And then very quickly during our workup obviously, Iraq became imminent. And then we got word right around this time – right around the holidays – because I remember all the officers stayed at the command to start planning ops over the over thanksgiving and Christmas holiday late 2002.
And our task unit… obviously team three – the more polished operators – were sent down range to take care of some business. And then our task unit from five was following them shortly thereafter, to operate around Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah. Doing capture kill type ops.
Mark: So in those ops – the early days of Iraq – it was still kind of like… the SEAL mindset was “we’re going to go in and knock out an oil field or secure whatever.” It’s kind of like more static. Wasn’t full-on hunter mode, was it? Where we’re hunting people?
Brent: For us it was. For us we were pure hunting. There was a blacklist. So basically, we were working back then outsourcing our ground intelligence to OGA. And we would work in conjunction with them on a daily, weekly basis on gathering intel, developing target packages.
And sometimes that target might be five minutes from the camp we were at. And sometimes it’d be a three-hour helo ride.
Our first op was actually a pretty complex, very matrix operation. We were still in Ali Al Salem Air base in Kuwait. So before we were even in Iraq, we were tasked with our first op, which was taking down a huge dam and hydroelectric power plant up in like central Iraq.
So deployed from Ali Al Salem. It was…
Mark: Is that because they feared sabotage of that asset?
Brent: Yeah, intel came down that appeared sabotage of that asset. And so we were there to secure it.
And so us combined with a troop of polish ground flew all the way out there… (laughing) Three and a half hour insert, right? Once you get there, your body’s so stiff you’re like “I’m not gonna be able to…”
Mark: Right. Did you meet any resistance on that op?
Brent: A little, but very light, compared to some. The intel was pretty spotty, so we didn’t know if we’d be coming in contact with a lot of enemy.
But it was nice. A little bit of resistance, but it was quickly thwarted. And then we held the target for three days, which was the plan. Until conventional forces made their way over there.
And then we after we secured this massive plant, for the next two days we searched miles of tunnels underneath that snaked underneath this plant. Guess what we were looking for?
Mark: Bad guys?
Brent: WMD, baby.
Mark: Oh was it? Oh yeah, yeah… and you found a lot of them, right? And you just kind of like buried it there and hid them?
Brent: Yeah, we did. We’re just like “oh, just leave it.”
Mark: (laughing) They never did find any WMD in Iraq.
Brent: On that same deployment, they had SDV out there literally diving lakes.
Mark: No kidding. Really?
Brent: I am not kidding. I remember we would drive an escort back…
Mark: They think they were just going to dump like a chemical weapon in the lake? Fascinating…
Brent: (laughing) I don’t know if I’d use the word “fascinating” for that thought process.
Mark: (laughing) Well, it’s fascinating how stupid it is.
Brent: Fascinating in some ways.
Mark: Amazing. So, that’s pretty cool. So you went really quickly, early in your career, right into combat. What did you learn that was like an eye opener for you that was different than your early leadership lessons with a seven-person boat crew and BUD/S?
Brent: I think it comes back down to – not to sound cliché – but it comes back down to the critical elements of adaptability… planning is good, preparation is far better than planning. Because as we all know one of one of the best quotes is “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
That applies equally in business, or in your personal life. And having good plans, well thought out contingencies…
And not just a plan for adaptation, but the mindset. To have agility built into the culture of a team. Talking about it, practicing it, rehearsing it… dirt diving it.
One thing that really resonates with me was seeing how well-trained operators, who know had never been to combat before… we had more or less veteran guys during peace time and obviously during peacetime none of us had ever been to war before.
But seeing how beneficial the extremities of our training are and it was fascinating to see. What happens when you put people in adverse situations. That they’ve never been in before.
But when that training kicks in. And the communication, the adaptability, the collaboration that you’ve been… and microways you have to have just to make it through BUD/S and SQT and all that stuff. And seeing it on the literal battlefield was fascinating.
And the other and the other thing is just seeing that philosophy of ownership and true accountability. One of one of the things that makes our culture great is how we debrief, how we perform after action reviews. And the level of transparency, and the openness to lead up, manage up – when the newest guy in the room can raise his hand and either ask a question or make a comment about something he possibly disagreed with.
It might always not be right, but it’s something that a lot of organizations in the business world don’t do well. Because there’s a fear of failure, there’s a fear of retribution. There’s always the loudest voice in the room…
But when you have a culture in an organization where it’s not just encouraged but expected for everybody to have a voice. That’s one of the core tenets of high performance.
And that’s something that was really, really interesting to see in a live setting… not just a training or classroom theory… but how it actually works in a very… we talk about VUCA environments. We can apply that to business all day long – which of course we can – but those are a few things that I really took with me. And have applied in my life.
Mark: Interesting… so you know a little bit about my career… I was in before you and it was all peace time. And we did ops and stuff. A lot of intel, fid ops… some sneaky-peaky stuff, but nothing like combat.
And then you had this experience of going from that environment, you’re on the tail end of the peacetime and into wartime. But then we’ve been at persistent war, and we’re just kind of coming out of that phase now.
And guys are starting to come back to where they’re not having just routine deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and Yemen and Djibouti. And getting ops all the time. And they’re starting to grumble a little bit and getting bored.
(laughing) We laugh at it: like you can actually be bored as a Navy SEAL, when you get to run, gun, jump and dive. And have the best job in the on the planet. And guys were like bored.
At any rate the culture of the SEALs changed a lot from 20 years or 18 years of combat. I’d love to talk about that for a moment. What are some of your biggest observations on how the culture has changed? From literally an entire generation who knew nothing but combat.
Brent: Yeah, it’s interesting. Obviously, like you I was taught by non-combat veterans. And you always say, “well, we could go to war together someday. So you gotta un-fuck yourself,” and all that stuff.
But I’m like “yeah, yeah. Whatever. We’re going to war someday.”
And then we went to war.
Literally my first boss – my LPO in my first platoon was our most hated instructor in second phase…
Mark: (laughing) Oh, no kidding. Who is that?
Brent: God, are you kidding me? I won’t say his name, but it’s interesting… one piece of that… I like to reference this… and it’s interesting with an organization. You see that organizations out there in the business world that have been around forever. Never really clearly defined their values, or their culture manifesto. Or the behaviors and guiding principles they expect of themselves and each other…
Or their “why.” Their real purpose. They’ve been successful, but they’ve never really taken the time to document that and make decisions based on it. Interestingly, and people have their own philosophies on the SEAL ethos and all that… but, as you know, that wasn’t created until ’05. We’d been running and gunning for four years plus.
And I remember Duncan smith actually kind of gave me some insight into how this came about. And if I’m correct, you may know more than I do. But the evolution of it was started at a very corporate off-site leadership event.
And I believe the thought process that was there was like, “we really need to define who we are as an organization and base our decisions on that. Who we bring in. What are our talent acquisition strategies? How do we apply this to how we train? And what core values do we want from people? And how do we define our culture, as an organization?”
And in theory of course, in a best-case scenario your culture should be designed to achieve a desired outcome – a desired result. And when that’s not defined clearly in any environment, you’re going to get a lot of haphazard decisions, a lot of haphazard behaviors. And therefore haphazard results.
Brent: But as you’ve said, it’s also evolved over time. I mean we’ve got the definition of a multi-generational workforce in naval special warfare. And so we’ve got super young people, we’ve got super old people – like us – and interestingly I’ve heard to that point about our culture, I’ve heard that some of the younger guys don’t connect with the SEAL ethos. It’s too long, it’s too much. It’s too wordy.
It should be something short…
Mark: They just want some TikTok video…
Brent: Yeah. They want a 30-second… exactly. Short consumption. “I don’t have time to read this whole thing. I’ve got stuff to do.”
You make a good point though. I literally think it comes from the absorption of technology and the constant distractions where you give me something, I like reading it. I like thinking about it.
Mark: Me too.
Brent: I don’t know. I read it and said it out loud probably hundreds and hundreds of times and I still connect with it.
Mark: Me too.
Brent: Yeah, these younger generations… some of them… we’ve done some surveys and stuff… and some of them don’t, it’s too much.
But just like a business organization or civilian organization, when you have multi-generations in there it is gonna affect the culture. And one last thing – you probably know this – but one last thing about the ethos is the powers that be decided to rewrite it. Just small snippets, but rewrite in to take out the gender references and that kind of thing because of the strategy and goal of opening up special operations to female candidates.
And everybody’s got their different philosophy on that, but the feedback that I got from active-duty operators was that it crushed morale and guys don’t know why this happened. And I think one of the things that’s frustrating when stuff like that happens in a business organization or in the military is when a few people come together and make a decision without the input of others.
Not that you’re going to go get them do an employee engagement survey in NSW. “What do you guys think about this stuff?” Then you’re just going to create an uprising.
Brent: When a few people come together behind closed doors and decide certain things and then just roll it out, obviously sometimes you’re going to get some dissention…
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that. And so obviously, in response to what’s happening in the broader culture it looks like a fear-based, reactionary thing… like all the people… who the cancel culture… I had a friend told me yesterday that his wife was fired after 34 years at JP Morgan… she ran come out global commodities she did a phenomenal job, they’re having a banner year.
She got a call from her boss said “okay, it’s time to make a change.”
And they blamed it on some technical thing that she might have done wrong, and I believe… and I was talking to her husband about this – my buddy – that her political views and her attitudes were suddenly a little bit kind of too far to the right, let’s just say.
Mark: And so some people complained. Some of the younger generation and the cancel culture within the organization got her. Isn’t that interesting?
So you see a little of that going on. And that’s kind of a cancer by the way for broader culture that can infect organizations. So I’m sure you agree with that.
I’ve been down at BUD/S, recently, talking to one of my friends – master chief Magaraci – don’t know if you remember him. He’s now a civilian as the mental toughness mentor.
Brent: Didn’t know they had that.
Mark: I know. They have. And he’s brought in a lot of Unbeatable Mind training to BUD/S, and they’re now practicing it. And he does this big session – he showed me a video of this big session where they’re teaching the big four skills. And they do a teach back.
And the quality of the training has gone through the roof. Like, they just literally had a hell week where 65 people graduated the class or the hell week. He said they can’t break them anymore.
And it’s because they’re starting to do breath control and visualization. They’re not just… I don’t know if you had it, but we had one PowerPoint and that was the last time we ever talked about it.
Brent: (laughing) Yeah. It was very simple back then.
Mark: Very simple. Now, before every evolution they’re practicing breath control, and they’re visualizing it, and they’re talking about strategies for failure. And the training has just gone through the roof.
And so we had this conversation about character and the ethos. And he said they’re starting to see some improvement – there’s still a lot of confusion about how to train character. Now they figured out how to train mental toughness, and they’re getting some like real quality through.
And so that’s now the next holy grail is how do you train character to literally uphold an ethos? And the value system? So you don’t get things like Eddie Gallagher downrange playing whack-a-mole. Which could be another corrosion to the organization. So how do you train character?
With your work and your new book that seems to be kind of where you’re heading. And it’s a big part of my work, as well. Character development, evolution of sense of self to be more authentic, more caring and also more culturally aligned to get the mission done.
So we would call that in the teams, to be a good teammate. Which is not… it’s not normal, and it’s not taught in the business or the civilian world.
So tell me why you titled your book – I mean this is a term that I’m well familiar with – but why did you title your book “Embrace the Suck.” And just give us kind of the big picture first.
Brent: Yeah, throughout my journey as a business leader and then obviously running an organization that does a lot of leadership development, organizational development… obviously, as you know, you cannot transform a team unless you transform the mindset, the behaviors, and the rituals of the individuals in the team. To become responsible, empathetic, communicative, collaborative, open-minded, open to feedback – if not craving transparent feedback. Being willing to change, being willing to transform…
And really, that starts with us within – but a lot of your work has really inspired my thought process behind the research that I did for the book. And yeah, it’s titled “Embrace the Suck,” kind of an edgy title. It’s obviously born – I believe – in the marine corps, and we’ve adopted it across the military in general.
The philosophy obviously is simple – leaning into adversity, leaning into inevitable pain, inevitable suffering that we all have as humans from the day we are born to the day we go over the great divide.
But also being thoughtful and intentional in the art – the fine art of comfort zone expansion. This is where a lot of your research, and your study, and your practice goes into when it comes to mental wellness, and physical wellness, and the intimate connections between those.
And then how we can use that to really align our values with what we want out of life. Assuming… like I talk about in the book – assuming your values don’t suck. A good moral compass.
Because a lot of people out there have a lot of convictions, but their convictions are evil.
Mark: Or they change day to day depending on what’s popular, right?
Brent: But also being more thoughtful on how we practice expanding the comfort zone, but also being more disciplined. Being more personally accountable. Having better relationships. Being a better steward of your responsibilities, both at home and work. Giving more of yourself to causes greater than yourself. Giving back to more things.
So all this coming together to also engage in purposeful suffering. Understanding that we are inevitably suffering humans, that will have obstacles, pain and adversity in various stages throughout our life.
Mixed obviously with joy and other types of things. But if you look at culturally… in the eastern cultures, they tend to embrace suffering on the meandering path towards enlightenment.
Mark: (laughing) That is the Buddhist prima facie principle… life is suffering…
Brent: Whereas we have a tendency to run the other direction from pain and suffering. We don’t talk about it, we medicate it. We do anything to avoid engaging in any type of suffering when at all possible.
But, as you know, when you can really like embrace it lean into it and be strategic and tactical in how you intentionally expand your comfort zone it’s more fulfilling. It’s that sort of Jocko‘s like “discipline equals freedom” type of philosophy… disciplined people who are more accountable – and this goes in a team setting too – achieve more of the goals they set. And therefore are more fulfilled or happier and have greater emotional connection to their purpose, because they’ve defined it.
A lot of us just kind of meander our way through life like a jellyfish floating at the whim of the tides. Realizing “five years went by, and I haven’t accomplished any of the goals I sort of said I would.”
And we procrastinate a lot, and we don’t manage the relationships that we have in our life. We allow negative relationships to impact our lives as well. So it kind of goes through all that journey.
There’s obviously some SEAL stuff and stories in there. But I started doing some research on the self-help category, which is arguably probably the biggest – if not one of the biggest genres when it comes to content and books – and as you know – I mean, when you look at the stuff out there, there’s a lot of fluff, there’s a lot of happy talk bs. And none of it’s actionable.
So the way people like us think is like “great. What now? What is the process? What’s the plan? How am I going to execute against these principles?”
And so I tried to be diligent in the fact that each chapter has what I call a “mental model.” Which is basically a tool or a framework that a person can use to “okay, we’re talking about avoiding temptation.”
Well here’s a tool to use to limit your choices. Limiting our constraints has a tendency to automatically put temptation to the side, so it’s not even an option. And limiting those constraints so they align with our values, and they align with our goals, so that we’re less deterred and distracted by the shiny objects or the things that will distract us from doing the things that are most meaningful to us.
Mark: So if someone has avoided suffering their entire life, and they thought that was a pretty normal thing to do, but they’re inspired by your work – like how do you go? Like you’re obviously not going to just sign up for our 50-hour Kokoro camp at SEALfit as your first activity.
Brent: (laughing) You could. Well it’s a good question and you’ll understand this for sure – it’s easy to equate this to fitness and wellness. Because it’s an easy thing to wrap your mind around, because building emotional and mental fortitude is like developing a muscle. It takes work.
It takes not just practice, but intentional practice with intentional goals. And consistency and discipline and doing it over and over and over and over again. Just like developing yourself as a runner or a fitness guru or becoming a yoga master… or like you, all of the above.
And so I make a lot of references to fitness goals as examples, but also, it’s easy to say well “I want to become an ultra-marathon runner.” You don’t start by running 100 miles…
Mark: (laughing) Unless you’re David Goggins,
Brent: Only David. Which nobody else is. You start with small incremental goals. But you have to be consistent with those goals.
And we’re coming to the end of the year and all people out there will be making new year’s resolutions – which I just despise – because this is about lifestyle choices and lifestyle changes not “well, it’s the end of the year. I’m gonna make some choices and decisions that I won’t stick with…”
Mark: “because this year really sucked… I went off the rails…” and a lot of people did go off the rails this year. They’re going to fix it all in January.
Brent: If they want to call it some new year’s resolutions, fine, whatever… but thinking about it in the context of having a plan. Having accountability partners, or mentor or coach if need be. And executing against that plan.
And making it something that’s digestible – the eat the elephant one bite at a time mentality. But then it goes down to discipline and consistency, but we found that if someone can start with small incremental goals and choices that will not cause them to… just think about dieting someone’s like “well, I’ve got to lose 20 pounds. I’m just going to stop eating.”
It’s like, no. Two days from now you’re going to be gorging yourself at in-n-out. You start small – slow is smooth, smooth is fast…
Mark: You’d be like another SEAL Chris Sajnong, I think or something… did a 30-day water fast. There’s one for you. (laughing) I dare you to do that. Let me know how it goes.
Brent: No I’d be an angry person.
Mark: I’d be an angry person too. 30-day water fast. That’s a good one.
Mark: You say, “if you ain’t failing, you ain’t trying.” Talk about that a little bit.
Brent: That really goes into the fact that…
Mark: And we used to say, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” I like that new version…
Brent: Well I got it from that. I’m just gonna say I got it from the instructor would be like “you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” I mean, yes, we have the rules, but you’re not being creative. You’re not innovative you’re not taking risk.
And that goes into any context, of any type of high-performing person, or high-performing team environment is the fear of failure. And that’s why a lot of guys don’t make it through BUD/S. They fear failure so much – they get so distracted and so consumed in that moment – that they can’t see past the adversity towards their original emotional connection to the vision of what they wanted to accomplish.
And that goes into business, it goes into entrepreneurship – if you’re not willing to fail then you’re only going to go so far. And we have a tendency of course to – especially in this digital world we live in – we follow all these people on Instagram with millions of followers and we assume this and the greatness of this – and you look at Oprah or jerry Seinfeld or walt Disney or some iconic, successful people.
But we rarely think about the arduous journey and the road just pock-marked with micro-failures that led them to their ultimate success. Like anybody pursuing any lofty goal. There’s going to be pain, there’s going to be adversity, there’s going to be what I call micro-failures – an ultimate failure is just giving up. That’s failure.
But the obstacles… I mean Thomas Edison said it best… I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10 000 ways that something won’t work. It’s that mindset of just continuing to move forward, despite the inevitable obstacles that you’re going to face.
But if you’re not willing to fail then you’re only going to take whatever pursuit you have in mind so far.
Mark: Right, yeah. So learning attitude, right? Instead of an obstacle, it’s an opportunity. Instead of a failure, it’s another way to learn how to get to victory, get to your success…
Brent: One of the one of the things we teach in our development programs is Carol Dweck’s – she’s a professor at Stanford – decades of research and teaching – her fixed versus growth mindset. You know about the growth mindset… fixed mindset, of course, we believe that when it comes to skills challenges these types of things that we believe that “I can do this and that’s about it. Effort’s not worth it, because I’m not going to achieve that goal.”
Whereas the growth mindset is the bedrock of resilience. Challenges are opportunities, setbacks are just a learning moment. Feedback is imperative for development.
Mark: Yeah, I love that.
One of the things that I’ve noticed that really holds people back is a victim mentality. Like their suffering is bigger than someone else’s suffering, or their outrage is bigger than someone else’s outrage, right?
And you just say “yeah, get over it. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand, so who cares? Move on.”
Brent: Yeah, I was inspired – and that’s one of the chapters is “you got dealt a bad hand, get over it.” – and I was inspired by my friend and one of our teammates Jason Redman. Great combat leader and then shot in the face, neck, chest and arm multiple times by a high caliber machine gun, and survived and continued to… his team, obviously led on and his team leader was phenomenal JTAC, thank god. But when he was conscious, he was continuing… can’t help being officers. Continue to ask for a head count. What’s the time on the medivac helicopter?
While he’s face down bleeding out in the dirt. With bullets raging over his head.
Point being – a horrific situation – but in that moment, in that time that he was at Bethesda hospital he became – this was an interesting part of his transformation – he became so frustrated with people close to him – teammates, friends, family coming into the hospital – who were just crying over his wounds and all these things that have happened.
And they were the ones having the victim mentality not him.
Mark: Right. But the thing is in your vulnerable moments, that can seep into you, right? And you get treated like a victim – and this is a problem with our culture – and then you start to believe it.
Of course, he didn’t believe it.
Brent: He did the opposite. And he’s now an entrepreneur, very motivational speaker and teaches his overcome philosophy to organizations, executives all over the world. And he took that list of things the doctors told him he would never do – and used it as a to-do list.
Mark: That’s killer. So, again we want to embrace the suck. How do we choose our suffering wisely?
Brent: It’s really… the purpose behind that the part of the book is to first of all like understand our suffering, find ways through root cause analysis, or through reflection, or journaling and being thoughtful and understanding what we’re suffering for.
Oftentimes I feel that we spend a lot of time in kind of wallowing in the “why me? Why now?” Or when bad things happen to loved ones – friends, family – and understanding what is this suffering all about? And potentially what can we gain or what can I gain from the suffering that I’m engaging in right now? Is there enlightenment to be gained? Are there lessons learned to be applied to my life or to other opportunities?
Or to find ways to turn this arduous situation into – not always something positive – I mean there’s things that will happen to people where… we’ve lost many teammates, and people lose spouses and children. And people get cancer or get blown up by terrorists.
And you’re never going to embrace those things fully. But also understanding one thing that I think we have that’s an interesting part of our culture that we’ve unfortunately had to learn over many decades of crappy situations is learning how to for example celebrate life. As opposed to lengthy mourning.
Now again, we’re not all good at that and we have a tendency to put all our boxes deep inside and compartmentalize things. Like many people do.
But at the same time learning how to better not do that.
Mark: Like, learning how to move on, right? To get over the grief process…
Brent: Don’t stuff it down here. But I also talk about we’re meant as humans – I believe – to suffer with social support whether that be a spouse, or a friend, or mentor, teammate – not in isolation.
And then of course there’s suffering that we don’t choose. You know what I’m talking about. And there are ways to deal with that.
And there’s suffering that we do choose. The purposeful suffering that really is sort of the bedrock of embracing the suck and knowing that – and I talk about kind of like David’s philosophy of doing something that sucks every day. It’s a very simple philosophy, but identifying for example a goal, understanding the suffering that’s going to come with achieving that goal, the obstacles the things that make you uncomfortable.
And having a plan to – as we say – get comfortable being uncomfortable. Tackle those challenges head on. Practice them with purpose. Simple thing like as a leader on the battlefield I’ll run towards the sound of gunfire. But one of the things that I struggle with – and I’ve gotten this through 360 feedback and direct feedback sometimes from peers or direct reports – is that I’m more of a conflict avoider. I don’t like having stressful conversations with my business partner or the board or the angry client who wants to cancel their contract.
So I’ll put it off. Might delegate it to someone else or I’ll just go like “oh, it’s getting late in the day. I don’t want to bother that person. They’re already pissed, so I’ll call them tomorrow.”
Like, no dude. Like, I’ve been intentionally trying to practice that. Because I suck at it.
So call him right now. Hit it head on. And then you realize a lot of these problems we face in business and life they’re not as big and scary as you thought. The person’s not as pissed as you thought. And it doesn’t take as long to navigate that VUCA environment as you possibly thought. Maybe there’s some hard and soft costs associated with it.
Once you’ve dealt with it, then you move on. And you’re like “oh, I should do that more often.”
Mark: I agree. That’s interesting. I love that as an example of embracing the suck, because we’re not necessarily talking about physical suffering. A lot of it is just psychological resistance to something that’s perceived to be hard, right? Or something that you don’t have a competency around.
Of course, if you don’t lean into that you’ll never develop the competency. And you’ll never learn – like you just said – that most of what we perceive to be hard, really isn’t that hard.
Because you can break it down and you can practice the skills and… crawl, walk, run. Suddenly you’re great at having those crucial conversations. And it releases so much energy cause you’re not holding onto it…
Brent: And then you move the goal post, and you do it again. Within that comfort zone expansion, the things that used to seem insurmountable become normal. And become part of your everyday existence. They become easy, and you’re like “well hell. I can move those barriers again and do it all over.”
Next thing you know, your comfort zone’s this big.
Mark: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love that you get into almost existentialism and eastern philosophy. Because this last thing I want to talk about… you say we’re all going to die so get off your ass and execute, right? And one of the things we teach is to acknowledge that at the end of your life you’re going to have regrets.
But you can choose right now to eradicate the large number of them that could happen from here on out. So that your only regrets are the things that you screwed up before now, right?
So we’re all going to die.
Brent: You said that much more eloquently than I did. I should have had you write that chapter… but, yeah.
Mark: Tell us where did this come from?
Brent: It’s what you just said. In essence it’s obviously there is the philosophy of accepting the fact that we humans have a 100% mortality rate. (laughing) That’s research-based…
Mark: (laughing) Pretty much. Yeah, not just you.
Brent: Yeah, I read that somewhere.
But really it does. It’s like Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” number two is “think with the end in mind.” Act and behave with the end in mind.
Or in business we’d call this an exit strategy. An exit strategy for a business for example doesn’t mean you’re necessarily planning to exit, or sell the business, or merge with another company. It means “who do we want to be, if and when we did want to sell? Like, what is that plan and how do we work backwards towards making the right decisions now?”
Same thing with an individual. Not just thinking from now forward like “what are my goals for my family? For professional life? My personal life?”
But also to your point managing your list of regrets. Why not start now? Think about it.
At the end I provide basically a little chart. It’s just a beginning point, but it says what do I want when it comes to family, career, relationships… and faith and love and all these different things. And really reflecting on that or journaling about it or hell putting a mission plan together… and thinking about “okay, what do I not want to regret?” And basically documenting that and making decisions based on that.
Again we’re all going to have regrets when the end comes. That’s inevitable. But like you said basically, when you can whittle that list down with some intention, with a goal in mind, then I feel that we can make better choices. And it goes back to kind of limiting our constraints based on the list of regrets we don’t want to have.
Mark: Awesome. I love it. I love this progression of Brent Gleeson from the warrior, to the leader, to the philosopher.
Brent: I’m trying to be more like you.
Mark: (laughing) I love it. Protégé.
This has been a great discussion, Brent. Thanks so much. When does this book come out, by the way?
Brent: The book comes out December 22nd. Obviously, it’s available for pre-order anytime, but yeah December 22nd is the official drop date.
We talked a bit about David… David Goggins wrote the forward.
Brent: I’m gonna warn the readers. The forward’s a little gritty. There might be a couple f-bombs in there.
Mark: (laughing) Expect that from, David. That’s awesome. He doesn’t do that for many people. I got him to write at least a blurb from my book and his wife Jen is like, “I doubt he’ll do it, because he says no all the time.” But at least he wrote me a blurb.
I didn’t ask him to write a forward. He may or may not have. Who knows?
Brent: Yeah. Well, I’ll take the rest of that conversation offline. (laughing) I’ll just say it was quite a journey.
Mark: I believe it was. I believe it.
Awesome. And where can folks learn more about your work? Your other work at taking point, and on social and stuff?
Mark: Me too…
Brent: And so I’m Brent Gleeson on Instagram and of course I’m on LinkedIn and twitter as well.
Mark: Awesome. Well my friend, as usual it’s been an enlightening conversation…
Mark: Congratulations on the new addition to your family. Do you guys know yet? Male or female? Are you waiting…?
Brent: Another boy so we have we’ll have a full fire team if you like four-person fire teams. Some officers prefer five-person fire teams, but we’re gonna keep this to four. So we’ll have three boys and a girl.
Mark: Awesome. The girl will probably be the leader of that fire team.
Brent: She already is and she’s 6.
Mark: Awesome. All right, good luck with the new book. Good luck with everything. It’s great talking to you, let’s stay in touch.
Brent: Thanks brother. Hope to see you soon in person.
Mark: Yeah, likewise. Post-COVID.
All right folks. Brent Gleeson. Check out his new book “Embrace the Suck” coming out December 23rd 22nd. Pre-order it. Help him out with that.
And he’s also involved in a charity “Navy SEAL family foundation.”
Brent: The SEAL family foundation.
Mark: What’s the website for that? Where can we learn more about that?
Brent: Sealfamilyfoundation.org. Essentially our main mission there is family resilience within the NSW community. So programs for the active operators and obviously the families of our fallen.
Mark: Okay, so people can support the families by donating or getting involved in that.
Mark: Awesome. Cool. All right. Thanks again my friend.
All right, folks, that’s it. Go support Brent Gleeson – what a great guy – and also the SEAL family foundation. And yeah, stay focused and embrace the suck everybody. You only get one shot at this. Nobody gets out alive.
Brent: (laughing) It’s not a dress rehearsal.
Mark: It’s not a dress rehearsal.
This is the Unbeatable Mind podcast.