Today Mark is talking to Mike Hayes (thisis.mikehayes)—former Commander of SEAL Team TWO. Mike had a 20-year military career, was a White House Fellow for both the Bush and Obama administrations, and is currently working as the Chief Digital Transformation Officer at VMware. He is also a speaker on leadership and author of the book Never Enough: A Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning. He and Mark talk about the leadership principles that he has learned from years in government, the private sector, and the military.
- You must not be afraid to aim high and miss—be afraid to aim low and hit
- In decision-making, the first decision is not the decision—it’s when to make your decision
- It’s necessary to have diversity in the decision-making process—it’s better when we hear opinions/experiences different from our own
Listen to today’s episode to hear leadership insights from very different contexts.
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That’s where BetterHelp comes in. They offer online therapy from certified, professional therapists. You can start with them in less than 48 hours. Go to betterhelp.com/unbeatable to take advantage of 10% off the first month for Unbeatable Mind listeners.
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Hey folks, welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. My name is Mark Divine.
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I am super excited to have Mike Hayes with me today. Mike was a teammate, retired in ‘13 as a commander – extraordinary career – I’m really excited to talk about it.
And I learned really about Mike, because he put a book out recently. I’m going to hold up the cover -called, “Never Enough.” What a phenomenal cover – and the subtitle is “the navy SEAL commander on living a life of excellence, agility and meaning,” which are the three major themes that he kind of digs into. And helps kind of elucidate, through some great stories of time in the SEALs, time as the white house fellow… his time heading up digital operations for VMware.
Anyways, yeah Mike… I mean, I was going to read what my producer put together… but I think we’ll just kind of get into the stories. I want to hear about negotiating with the Russians on the start treaty… I was reading about your time in Bosnia…
I mean just extraordinarily cool career. So, at any rate, let’s talk about that stuff and who you are and kind of your ideas and leadership. And see what else comes up. Super-stoked to have you here, my friend.
Mike: Hey, Mark. Thank you, brother. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause first and say thanks to you for all the incredible, positive impact that you’ve had on people, the nation, and the planet…
So millions and millions of thanks to you. And you’ve got an incredible reputation for a great reason and so I’m more stoked to be here, my friend.
Mark: Yeah, as I mentioned to you – that is really good to hear… because I’m in my own little bottle. Sometimes I don’t read the label very well. I just like it one day at a time – get up, put the pants on, and rinse and repeat.
And you never know, right? Because early on as you know, especially after the bin laden raid and those books came out about that – there’s a lot of angst about people who have written books…
And I know you hesitated – I read in your forward, you hesitated to write your book. Probably for similar reasons.
And so I’ve never really known – I knew I was having an impact with special operators and the trainees… because we kind of introduced a whole different way of training through the mind training, we do, and BUD/S is now using those techniques – so I knew we were having an impact.
(laughing) but I didn’t know if I was liked or not. So it’s good to hear that anyway. Everybody wants to be liked.
Mike: Yeah, it’s true, man. And it’s really a great connection, actually, to the title of the book – “Never Enough.” A lot of people think it’s about fame and fortune and all these cool things. And in reality, as you know, because you’ve read it – it’s about meaning and impact.
And one of the key themes – which you know better than anybody – is about excellence. And you say, “well, gosh. The real path to excellence is trying really hard things.”
I like to say, “failure is only failure if you fail and don’t learn.” If you fail and learn, you’ve just succeeded and you say, “well, why was I slightly hesitant to write a book over the years?”
And when I really boil it down, I think it is like what you just alluded to, we care a lot about what our community and just people who we’ve never even met think of us. And I got to the point where I said “you know what? I’ve got a lot of great stuff to share, and if anybody thinks less of me for sharing any of this” – which by the way, I haven’t experienced – but if those ghosts are chasing me then so be it – “and if somebody thinks less, then that’s not somebody I need to be around. So forget them.”
Mark: Yeah, exactly. I’m with you on that. I’ve gotten the feedback from people I respect – like mags, who’s former master – you probably know Mike Majiacci – a great guy. And others like bob schoultz – people that I stay in touch with who are still involved down at BUD/S.
And they actually appreciate guys like you, and even me, and even jocko who have written books that are actually very useful for young leaders. And for actually leaders of all stripes, within the community.
Because it helps distill lessons learned and knowledge that otherwise would be kind of bottled up somewhere in someone’s head.
They don’t appreciate the guys who go out there and beat their chests and talk about how cool they were. And they were the reason that that the team won the day. Taking credit where credit was not due.
And I think you and I can share that, so…
Mike: Yeah, I think, Mark it’s… one of the things I also wrote about is thinking about confidence and humility not as a point on a single line. But there’s two axes – you have varying degrees of confidence, and varying degrees of humility.
And I haven’t met any SEALs that lack confidence, and so the thing that sometimes I find people confuse is they conflate confidence with lack of humility. And as I wrote the book, I really tried to separate the humility part.
I’ll always come into a room with an idea, but I’m also very open that I rarely have the best idea – the power of all the experience in the room is always going to outthink or outclass or out act me. And so really that that was that was one of the key themes.
And as you know, if you write a book where you’re the president of your own fan club, that’s not a book. And so I really tried to open up and share more of the things that I’ve done wrong over the years, than what I’ve done, right.
Mark: Yeah, I’m with you on that. And that’s a great model.
Tell us your journey into the SEALs. Like, how did that come about? That’s always very interesting.
And what were some of the formative lessons you learned even at BUD/S?
Mike: Well, first of all I had to start with my grandfather, who was US naval academy, class of 1940 – and was at pearl harbor on the day of infamy December 7, ’41…
Mike: I just grew up in a family that had an indelible Mark of service through the generations. And so nobody ever pushed me into the military. As the oldest of four I said, “if I get this ROTC scholarship, then I can leave some room for my younger siblings to go to college, etc.”
And so that’s really where it started was at college of the holy cross in Worcester, Mass. And the ROTC program.
But I was a freshman, Mark, in 1989, when we invaded Panama and there was a SEAL named John Connors…
Mark: Was just going to ask you about him. Yeah. John Connor, the Holy Cross guy…
Mike: Well, yeah, he was holy cross ROTC… Worcester Polytech was his college. And of course I never met him. He graduated the year before I entered.
But there was a memorial service for john after the invasion of Panama. And as a freshman I saw really what the SEAL community was about. And I didn’t walk out of that service and say I want to go be a SEAL, but three years later as I was needing to make my selection of what to do in life, I was – like many of us -perversely attracted to the challenge of, “okay, what’s this really hard thing in front of me?” But also definitely attracted to the sense of community.
Mark: Yeah, I love that. In fact, I was at officer candidate school when the Panama invasion went down. And I remember staring up at a tv, looking at john’s name – and there were three other SEALs who passed away in that operation – and thinking, “wow. This is real. There by the grace of god go I.”
Because I’m going to BUD/S in two months, and john wasn’t that much older than me. It was really kind of a similar moment in my career… to come face-to-face with that as real.
And it reaffirmed my commitment to the teams. And that I was doing the right thing.
So, it didn’t scare me. It just kind of woke me up – which is interesting…
Mike: Yeah, I had a similar experience. I mean, we lost guys in training here and there over the years – and every single one of them really rocks the community – and post 9/11, it even got a lot more real. Every SEAL of my era who did 20 years – we’ve all buried 40 or 50 friends and teammates. And so at this point there are a really good number of guys that I know – or I should say knew – better than my own brother – and I’m very, very close with my blood brother. So it’s been a challenging 15, 20 years of combat.
Mark: Yeah, for sure. I was a reservist after 9/11. And I served active duty for a couple recalls, and went to Iraq and everything…
But I didn’t experience that as acutely as you did. And as our other teammates did, who were on active duty that whole time. I have been to a few funerals, but I wasn’t a commanding officer, like you. Where I had to attend as their boss.
And I’m curious on this point, how did that change you? It’s one thing to deal with it once or twice, but to deal with it 40 times…
What effect did that have on you? How did it make you more humble or more whole as a human? Or more fractured and desensitized, possibly?
Mike: Yeah, Mark, it’s a wonderful question and I appreciate the question. Because just to really run wide open, it unquestionably fractures you.
However, it also drives the give back and help those less fortunate – today’s July 6th – I lost Jason Lewis and two other non-SEALs that were an equal, if not more, part of our task unit in Baghdad in 2007. And so we’re all reminded of days like today, when there are anniversaries.
And what it does for me is it drives me and gives me energy. I can either look at my feet, or I can stay shoulders back, chest out, and look at the horizon. And keep driving forward and try to do great things on the planet.
And look, I have my hard days just like everybody does. But I just try to really center and focus on giving back and helping those less fortunate.
We’ve been through a real hard year and a half, even with this pandemic. Let me draw a parallel there.
As you know, in the SEALs we don’t think in absolutes. We think in relative terms. And so while the whole team or the whole nation – both metaphorically the same – we’re all going to have absolute bad days.
But what matters is – do the people, do the teammates who are relatively up go help the teammates who are relatively down? And that’s what life’s about is we pull people up on our good days, and when we’re the person who’s down, not surprisingly we have a whole group of people whose energy are ready to help pull us up. Because that’s what we’ve been doing the other time. So that’s how we live.
Mark: I love that. That speaks to one of the things I loved about the SEALs – they really taught me how to willingly receive help and support, right? Because in the teams – like you said – everything is hard. And you can’t be great at everything. And there’s going to be times or moments that either you’re the weak link, or there’s just something not going right. And you have to be able to accept and receive help.
That’s actually a tough skill for a lot of people to learn in leadership. And it kind of ties to this idea of being ready to lead, ready to follow, right? People think, “yeah, I’m a leader. I’m ready to lead.”
“But that following part, no. I left that behind long ago.” Nope, right?
Mike: Yeah, totally I think it does tie back a bit to ego. Well, what I’ll tell you first though is look – I’m 6’4”, 225 or 230 when I went through BUD/S.
Man alive, I was not god’s gift to the pull-up bar. Me and the pull-up bar did not get along. But just like everybody, we’ve got our weaknesses.
But then, I was gonna draw the parallel – as we think about going forward, how do we lean into those weaknesses and know them. And then say, “hey, I’ve got a bunch of other friends who can do the things that I’m less good at. And how do I not need the credit or the ego of being the person who does the thing?”
Leaders don’t need to make the best decision; leaders need to make sure the best decision gets made. And there’s a big difference as a mindset, as a commanding officer – if you would have asked me when I was second in charge of a team in Iraq and say, “do you know what it’s going to be like when you’re overall in charge?”
I would have said, “absolutely. I totally get it now.”
The truth is in retrospect, once I was in command and running a whole special operations task force of two thousand people in Afghanistan, there was an extra weight on me that’s a little bit hard to describe. And it really is important to – like you said – know what help you need, recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.
Mark: Yeah, I agree.
Mark: There’s so much we could just dig out of that one. But I want to go back to something you said – one of the reasons that you and I, and our teammates are excited to go get our asses kicked in the hardest training in the military.
And I think there’s something inside of us that just recognizes that hard equals growth, right? If you don’t go for hard – if you don’t challenge yourself – you kind of don’t grow. You get stuck or you’re stagnant.
I figured that out early on through my endurance sports, and then through my martial arts. And I really loved the suck-fest right? So there was nothing besides the SEALs that I was going to do in the military. I had zero interest in the military, until I learned of the SEALs. And I said, “that’s it. That’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Because that’s the place I could do the hardest freaking thing possible so I could grow the most. Was that your experience or what’s your thoughts on this?
Mike: Absolutely. I’m not sure I was as mature as you were when you made the decision. I mean, we might have been the same age, but I was probably developmentally, or mentally or something like eons behind you.
But through time unquestionably that’s how I feel. And I’ve really just said, “don’t be afraid to aim high and miss. Be afraid to aim low and hit.” And so go for the hardest thing you possibly can…
But then I think, Mark, what often gets missed is don’t just try the hard thing. But be objective and reflective afterward and be really true to say, “what could I have done better?” When things go sideways, I’ve experienced almost a proclivity, a natural tendency for people to point the figure externally.
And maybe they point it at themselves eventually. Or maybe they don’t point it to themselves at all. And say, “what could I have done better?”
And in the SEALs one trait or habit that I picked up and I think really drove whatever success I’ve had which is that I might be 100% wrong, or I might just be 1% wrong… but even when I’m 1% wrong, I start with myself. And I say, “what could I have done better? Could I have communicated more clearly? Could I have thought more crisply, or been more logical? Or done something different?”
And then you never miss the opportunity to say what could I have done better and feed that back into the rest of your career.
Mark: I love that. That rigorous self-assessment where you’re always starting with your own mind and looking at what did I learn? How did I grow? What were my weaknesses? What could I have done better?
I think that’s a great lesson for all leaders, right? Just start there, and it’s almost applying the OODA loop internally, right? On everything you do… every decision, every action.
And then let that inform kind of how you bring the next set of words or choices or opportunities to the team, or to the situation. I love that.
Mike: Yeah, the way it translates in the business world now is that… we see things where people say, “hey, I had a playbook for that.”
And if something went wrong, they have a playbook to take off the shelf and go follow the playbook. We know from the SEALs, that the only thing that’s good about a playbook is that you have a place to start from. And the only real playbook that matters is what I describe as the meta-playbook, which is that playbook for creating the playbook in the moment… and so the crisis is like define the outcome you’re trying to achieve. What are all the strategies that you can use to get there? How do you mitigate risk on each of those paths, so that you can then make a resource decision and say, “are the resources we need to go achieve the outcome, worth the risk that we’re going to assume?”
Only assume the least amount of risk we have to in order to achieve the goal. And like that rigorous, systematic way of thinking is what ultimately drives success. Whether it’s SEALs or business.
Mark: That’s terrific, Mike. I love that. That’s your next book meta-planning, right? Planning how to plan on the fly.
Mike: Well, I don’t have the corner market on that. I mean, everybody in special operations or even DoD understands… what’s the saying? “Plans never survive first contact with the enemy.”
Just that in the SEALs we were always thinking three steps ahead whenever we could.
Mark: That’s right. I love the term “fast twitch iteration,” which kind of speaks to that. It’s like the plan is to figure out the plan in the moment, right? When you get punched in the face or things don’t go as well as you thought they would.
I want to come back to and just draw some distinctions about accepting hard things – whether it’s SEAL training or whatever you want to do that’s going to challenge you… getting comfortable with the discomfort of that.
But also not conflating that with being hard. Or a hard-ass, right? Or thinking everything in your life is going to be hard… because what my experience was, is if you try to be the mighty oak all the time and you put out the image that you’re invincible or invulnerable, eventually you’re going to get smacked down, right? And you’re not going to be able to get back up. It’s going to be tough.
So you need to learn to project the mighty oak when it’s appropriate, but also you need to learn to be the reed that can bend over and be soft.
It’s like the yin and the yang, the hard and the soft need to go hand in glove. And I think some of our teammates kind of forget that, right? And even some of our teammates in the public eye – I’m thinking of my friend – our buddy Goggins, right?
It’s tough to go all one speed and especially if you’re heading toward a wall. It’s not going to go so well if you hit that wall. So you need to be able to find the softness, find the recovery… be the reed, instead of the oak all the time.
Mike: A million percent. It resonates a lot with me. In 1996 I was a 23 year old SEAL on my first time overseas in south America. And got held at gunpoint and ultimately threatened with execution and torture and a bunch of bad things.
And if I would have tried to be the oak tree in that situation and be all tough and beat my chest – I wouldn’t be here today. There’s no question about it. Me and my swim buddy lived through it, and we had to be the reed that bent… I go into the story in in the book “Never Enough,” but through life, there are so many different times where that being facile and being nimble and agile is really what gives you more tools in the toolkit. So you can figure out that fastest or easiest path to go achieve the goal. And again, it’s just setting ego aside.
And to put it in career terms – it’s like that third phase of a career that I think a lot of people don’t get to. These are my words – but first phase of a career are just really learning foundationally something – whether it’s a SEAL, a doctor, a lawyer, accountant – whatever it is.
Number two – the second phase – is trying to prove to the world how that you’re really great at whatever you picked. We go through that phase of like, “hey, I really want the world to know what I’m doing.”
Like, remember on that second platoon that you’re on in the SEALs you’re like, “hey, I’m not a new guy anymore. I really know my way around a little bit.”
But that third phase is when you no longer have anything to prove to anybody. That’s when you’re really liberated to go even be better, because you don’t need the credit, you’re not scared about blame. You can stand in front of a room and say, “I’m not embarrassed to say that I have no freaking clue. But you know what? I know a lot of smart people who do.”
And so in my view, that third phase of the career is really what accelerates us to your point, Mark.
Mark: I love that. My last book “staring down the wolf,” was all about that. And coming at it from a different angle, and how leaders are – I was going to say “often” – but pretty much always the limiting factor in their own teams.
And it’s because they haven’t learned to get out of their own way. They haven’t learned to assume that perhaps they don’t have the right answer. Or perhaps their plan isn’t the best plan.
And to be able to step back and to stare down their own judgments, their own perfectionism, their own righteousness – it’s the way that we’re conditioned to behave and react when you’re operating purely out of ego.
And you’re right most people in that second phase – which is what has led to a lot of the messes that I think in America is like everyone – not everyone, but a lot of people are acting out of ego. And they’re making decisions that have second and third order consequences that are negative. Both for their team, their organization, and society at large.
So I think that’s one of the things that you are trying to shed some light on with your book, and certainly something I’ve been working on. It’s like, “hey, let’s move forward together as a team of teams.” Let’s get out of our own way, do our own work… do that rigorous self-awareness to recognize that we all have value, and the best idea comes from the collective.
When the collective group – the team – has the ability to express itself with that psychological safety and that willingness of the leader to be like you just said. “Guys or ladies, I don’t know what the right answer is, but together we can figure this out.”
That’s the kind of leadership we need I think in this country.
Mike: I couldn’t agree more. And I emphasize everything you just said – I’d layer on top of it as being a little bit more data-driven with our decisions. And so I had the privilege of leaving the teams after 20 years, and I went to the world’s largest hedge fund – Bridgewater associates – where I learned from some people who… we’re the average of the people we hang out with, so I always aspire to hang out with people who are smarter, faster, stronger, etc. And then I not so mysteriously get pulled up.
Of course, I try to pull other people up in the areas where I can. But one of the very interesting things that I learned at Bridgewater was really to separate your data, from your logic, from your opinion. And let me describe really briefly…
If you just come in, Mark, and say, “hey, Mike. I think we should do x.”
Like, okay, that’s great. I know what you think.
But if you come in and say, “hey, here’s the data I’m looking at. Here’s the logic I’m applying to the data. Here’s why I think that we should go do something. And here’s how it’ll play out.”
Now what I can do is say, “hey, Mark… I don’t know if you’re looking at the right data. You might have missed XYZ…. So I could have like a discussion at the data level… or the logic level. I can say, “hey, Mark, actually I don’t think the logic that you’re applying that data is the same way that I’m thinking about it. Let’s have that conversation. Let’s bat that around a bit.”
Or I can say, “hey Mark, when you apply your logic to that data, I don’t think it leads us to a, it leads us to b.”
But in all cases separating that data and that logic and that opinion, now we enable a richer conversation. Everybody… America is so polarized right now. There are some very… interesting, I’ll just call them – just to be the center of the highway – kind of opinions on “was the election stolen?”
Not to get political, right now – I won’t.
But let’s look at data. Like, everybody’s just offering opinions – or should the infrastructure bill be 2 billion or 2 trillion or 1 trillion or 900 billion…
Like, let’s think, what’s the return on the investment of this? And really think about data when we’re making our decisions. It’s really easy as humans just to jump right to that opinion, and say, “here’s what I think should happen.”
But being able to get to the deeper “why” really helps all of us.
Mike: Yeah, I love that. Kind of where my mind is going is like – when I was in the teams, we really didn’t have access to great data, right? And I’m sure you saw probably similar – because you got out in ‘13 -certainly not the level you probably experience at VMware or Bridgewater, right?
And they’re getting better. With ai and the cloud and all that…
But I think the older leaders have difficulty with what you just described. Because they grew up thinking their opinions were gospel, and without great data. So it’s the new skills…
It absolutely is. And there’s room, obviously – life has to be a combination of quantitative and qualitative assessments. The qualitative is like a gut – and intuition and gut happens for a reason. Your brain’s actually pattern matching with lots of things that you’ve seen over your life. It’s just hard to articulate that data and that logic in the moment.
And so a lot of people say, “oh, I’m working off of my gut….” But it’s really that still is… to some degree, it’s data… but you can’t deny that when you can create an actual data set to look at different things, you’re going to derive insights that we can’t do very well as individual humans.
Mark: Yeah, I agree.
Let’s talk about the three themes in your book – and I know we’ve already hit on a couple of them, just inadvertently here – but excellence, agility and meaning. And maybe if you could highlight what you think are the most important kind of ways to achieve excellence, agility and meaning. And a story that kind of helped you understand those concepts.
Mike: Yeah, well, I think for me the last third of the book is the most impactful and the most important – which is around meaning – but you have to build on foundations of individual and organizational excellence. And then the agility that we’ve previously described. And that can help you land the meaning points and impact.
And a lot of us go through life incredibly busy. We’re caught up in the day-to-day. The SEAL team equivalent is I’m the commanding officer of a team that is going through seven different outstations in direct combat with the Taliban – and I walk into the operation center.
And two things are true – number one is – I don’t have a job. I’ve designed the organization so that I walk in and don’t have to do anything. And that’s intentional, because then I can listen and absorb and think about that negative space. When I walk into a fortune 500 organization and I say, “who’s in charge of what you’re not doing?” No one raises their hand. Humans don’t think like that.
And so as a SEAL commander – I have to think like that. I’m going to walk in that room and say, “what are we missing right now?”
And there are dozens of stories of when that really, legitimately helped us mitigate risk. And may I be so bold… I mean, I’d say once or twice, it definitely saved lives.
So it’s fascinating, because the organizational design is so inextricably linked with the outcomes that an organization creates. And then you say… sorry, I’m drifting a little bit into the excellence and agility…
Mark: Can I pause you? Obviously, the military is biased toward action, and I think all of us – the western business world – is biased toward action. And we have this saying, “doubt is eliminated through action alone,” right?
But I believe – and I think what you just articulated there – is equally rationale for inaction, right? And so sometimes the best action is no action. And how did you learn that? And how do you kind of think about that nowadays?
Mike: Well, it brings me to one of my favorite topics, which is decision making. Mark, I think about decision making maybe a little bit differently than some. But I think in decision-making, the first decision is not the decision – it’s when to make your decision…
Mike: And a lot of people don’t understand that, because that bias to action causes you to think you need to make that decision in 0.2 seconds. When a lot of times you’re better off waiting two weeks.
And the way I think about it is when I’m either in a business leadership role or commanding officer of a SEAL team running operations – there are a series of inputs that have value – “how do I get better, faster, more rich inputs into a process?”
Then on the flip side of that equation, there’s time. Which has a cost. When the time associated with getting better or more inputs costs more than it’s worth, that’s the inflection point where you have to make your decision.
And so that’s the first thing to think about is how do you surround yourself with people who don’t think like you. I’ve been talking about diversity in the decision-making process and in the workplace for a really long time, and I deeply believe that we are better – much, much, much stronger when we have opinions and experiences that aren’t like our own.
I wrote in the book about how artists tend to hire artists and engineers love to hire engineers. It’s kind of metaphorical, little whimsical – but like, if I’m the artist, I want to be around an engineer – lunchtime might not be as fun, but when we’re going to make really awesome… really big picture decisions, like the ability to see behind you in the spots where you can’t see… it happens from surrounding ourselves with people who don’t think like us… that’s got value in an organization. And that’s the first way I think about it, Mark.
Mark: Yeah, I love that. I know there’s a big move to increase the diversity of the military and the SEALs in general…
Let’s talk about different ways you saw really good leadership kind of express itself. You described running a business, which is very different than running a SEAL platoon… but then you are also a white house fellow. And I’m kind of curious… you spanned two administrations – Bush and Obama – but what does leadership look like through that lens compared to let’s say the other two or three that you’ve been exposed to?
Mike: Yeah, it’s really connected to the decision point we just talked about. The beauty that I saw in both Bush and Obama white houses was how to govern…
Everybody’s got a different style, they’ve got different approaches, etc.…. And certainly different policy positions…
But setting aside policy and just saying substantively, how do you make your decision? I saw two different administrations do it very, very well… and go around the room and say, “what do you think? What do you think?” And make sure that you’ve got the inclusivity in the conversation.
It’s also – in many ways – how I ran the SEAL team – when we have time to draw out those contrarian opinions, you’ve got to build that into the culture. The expression – what is it – “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
That’s a cliché for a reason, because if you build into your culture this appreciation for bringing ideas forward and building people up, even when their ideas are totally stupid – like you appreciate that and then you’re sure you’re gonna get the ideas in the future. And that way you have more to choose from.
And so I saw it in both white houses. I’ve seen the absolute best our nation has, and do things really, really well. And then candidly I’ve seen the flip side – where the egos and opinions and process breaking down… so I’ve had the benefit of learning what to do and what not to do is the succinct way to say it.
Mark: Yeah, I understand. One of my commanding officers and mentors was admiral McRaven. He was my CO at team three, and then I worked with him when he was a Commodore, group one.
Did you have any interaction with him? I think I read or heard somewhere that you and McRaven had some interaction… and maybe was with the Banan raid or one of those high-profile raids when he was JSOC commander?
Mike: I was not involved in that – let me just put that out first – I’m a huge, huge fan of admiral bill McRaven… I think he’s a national treasure… he’s one of our absolute best that we have. I hope one day to see him back in the front lines of creating policy for the nation – in whatever role makes the most sense – whether it’s national security advisor, or president, or secretary of defense, or something… but he’s got my vote for sure.
I think – and he did endorse my book, if you flip it over, there’s a nice statement from him – he’s a man who has a very, very grounded way of approaching situations. And I never worked directly with him on deployment… I was always around him, and in the ecosystem trying to get closer, and a few times – definitely know him well enough to feel confident in what I’m saying – but I know there are a lot of people who had the benefit of years and years overseas with him, because he was deployed so much.
Mark: He was, yeah. That’s interesting.
Mark: What did not translate well to your civilian roles – either at Bridgewater or VMware – that you learned in the military that was a must? Like, a necessary skill?
Mike: Well, Mark, if I could take the liberty of flipping that question and say what doesn’t translate in the military, that happens in the civilian world? I have a good example to do it that way, and it’s in the book.
But I came from The White House and so when I went to Afghanistan, I had just been in the sit room the previous two years creating Afghanistan policy. So I wasn’t like your average o5 commander running a task force.
And so I had maybe a little bit of… maybe even too much confidence on how everything worked. But we as a nation created a policy called “boots on the ground” – BDA, battle damage assessment – for a reason. Like, I was the last person – as the commanding officer – to decide what operations are people in on. And when we drop bombs on buildings or people…
Proud to say we never harmed anybody that we shouldn’t have harmed. And this particular evening – there was a policy where… we’d dropped bombs on a bunch of Taliban, stopped them from doing bad things to good people.
And the leadership – the head general staff – called and said, “hey, you have to go do your boots on the ground battle damage assessment to prove that you didn’t kill anybody that you weren’t supposed to.” And I fully support that – of course I do – it’s a smart policy…
However comma – no policy can be enforced 100% of the time. You need judgment to happen on the ground. And on this particular night I said, “hey, it doesn’t make any sense to go back in there. I know for a fact, it’s a single chokepoint road. It’s got improvised explosive devices…
And I’m going on too long on this story, but the punch line is this – I said “no.” I told the general “no, I’m not going to do that.”
And that’s great personal risk when you’re a commanding officer when you’re an o5 and the o8 – the general – is telling you to go do something. But what happened was he said, “look, we’ll deal with that ‘no’ later. I’m going to go tell the Afghan national army to go do the assessment and get that done.
I was going to say “check that box” because that’s what it was. It’s really sad but three vehicles went in, and two vehicles got vaporized and the Afghans lost four or five guys. And Mark, I’ve had a bunch of emotional days in the SEALs, but certainly one of the top ten or twenty was flying the next day by helicopter out to that station, which was an ODA team – army special forces team. Closing the door with these guys and just me and 10 or so of them.
And having them say “hey boss, there aren’t too many leaders in the military that would have said ‘no’ to the general. Most of them just would have sent us back in. And quite legitimately five or six of us wouldn’t have been here today, if you didn’t make that decision.”
And those are the kinds of days when you’re like, “wow, I’m glad I did what I did.” And so the point that that you’re raising is we need to be agile in our decision-making, also. And that’s what I wrote about in the book, “Never Enough.”
You brought up Afghanistan. So you had a big part in that war and I’m gonna ask a question that kind of veers off topic, but it’s been puzzling me…
We’re pulling out now and we have 20 years of treasure and blood and sweat and tears and time away from families… I’m not going to ask, “was it worth it,” because it just happened – it is what it is – and we did it and now we’re moving on. But what good came out of that for us? From your perspective? What’s our return on investment?
There’s always something, right? But most people aren’t going to be able to see it. And I think we could use some help from you.
Mike: Yeah, thank you, Mark. And I wrote an op-ed that was published in time about a month ago, supporting President Biden’s decision to end the war. And I think there are a couple premises of the “why” – number one is it’s not in our strategic interests anymore… we went into Afghanistan because it was transnational threat central. And while there certainly is a local component, the transnational threat is not really there anymore. It’s in so many different spots.
You’re a very studious man… remember the sunk cost… the principle of sunk cost is “look, if I spent 20 bucks to go to some event, and I would later on decide I’d rather be on my couch and stay home and chill out – I should stay home. And that 20 dollars is the sunk cost. Because I’m going to do whatever gives me the most happiness in the moment.
And so that concept of sunk cost – when you’re looking at Afghanistan and lives – is really hard to walk away from, because when you’ve got 3,000 Americans who’ve given their lives there, you tend to make a decision that’s backward looking.
The truth is you have to make decisions that consider the past – for sure – but that are forward-looking. And so it’s just really hard when these are literally friends and brothers that that have given their lives there.
But my opinion is it was time to move on. Your question was “what good came from it?” Look we indescribable amounts of good by liberating areas that did not have the ability to have peace and prosperity and happiness – prosperity, of course, is a different standard there than here.
But when you when you give a village the ability for the women and young girls to be educated, for example, that feels great. And of the best gifts I ever received was a fruit basket from a village elder that said “thank you for clearing the Taliban out of this village. Now our women and children can come out and play in the streets. And we can open our school again.”
There’s a lot of good that came that didn’t get much attention, Mark.
Mark: Yeah, I agree with that. And even if the Taliban goes in and reasserts control – there’s a generation of youth who experienced freedom. And so they will come back and lead Afghanistan in the future…
It reminds me of like one of the greatest tragedies people think – if you’re in the eastern spiritual communities – I spent a lot of time studying that – and it infiltrates my work – was the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the destruction of all the monasteries… treasure trove of just unbelievable information.
Yet the positive ROI on that was that that culture got spread throughout the world. And it took root in Europe and united states, and now is kind of really infiltrating all the thinking in terms of bringing kind of softer that reed-like thinking into western leaders. And mindfulness meditation. And essentially that the yin to the western yang.
It never would have happened had the Chinese not invaded Tibet. It’s completely off topic but it is related…
Mike: It’s conceptually related. Because like you point out… it is spreading wisdom and knowledge and alternate approaches…
Mark: Right. And so I’m just kind of relating that to Afghanistan. We don’t know yet what the positive impact of the coalition forces and our actions in Afghanistan – and probably Iraq, to the same extent – will be for another generation or two. So that’s fascinating.
Speaking of forward looking and forward work – you’ve started a foundation – I think it’s 1162.org? Is that what it’s called?
Mike: It’s the 1162 foundation. Yes.
Mark: Yeah. And that’s a reference to the date that JFK founded the naval special warfare community… SEAL teams one and two.
And you donated all the proceeds from both your advance and royalties of this book – which is not insignificant, when you told me before we started here – that’s extraordinarily generous of you.
But what do you see…? I know you’re trying to help families – you feel beholden to help families – what’s the future of that organization? And what’s your future in terms of where your passion and your meaning really is pointing toward? Your true north?
Mike: Yeah, I think it’s a good question. The future… I don’t know. I just keep building my foundation and I’ll figure out the walls and the roof later. I think that the foundation really has to be giving more than you take. And so living a life of giving more than you receive is the only way to be.
And whether it’s good experiences or bad experiences you have to see it all as… because it’s learning and it allows you to give back to others… and the 1162 foundation doesn’t have a website – no fanfare, no full-time employees – like, literally if you drill in you can find on an IRS website somewhere that it is a legit employer identification number, etc.
But we – I say “we” – it’s really myself and two board members – because that’s what you have to have to be incorporated. Because of some of the success of “Never Enough” and the generosity of a few people as well, we’ve paid off five mortgages for widows of gold star families – fallen service members…
And Mark, around thanksgiving time we were able to tell a woman who lost her husband in the middle of the war in Afghanistan and got back on her feet – but then lost her business during the pandemic and she and her children were legit homeless… we were able to tell her that she’s now got a home.
And we’ve done this five different times. And Mark, I tell you it’s one of the best feelings in the world when you can really change a life. And that’s what it’s about.
And so that’s why, for me, tying back to what you said earlier asking for help is a sign of strength – like, I’d love help getting this book out there – because again, I’m not profiting – not one penny on this thing. And if anything I put a lot of time and effort and energy into the book, but it’s all to give back.
And I think that I’ve been very fortunate in my life… and this is my passion project right now, which is helping those who aren’t as able to help themselves, or who have just paid that ultimate sacrifice of what our nation has asked. It’s really, really very hard to describe…
Mark: I agree. It’s amazing. Well, I’ll help you in any way I can…
And I was mentioning earlier that our foundation – the courage foundation – I donate a ton of time, a ton of resources, and we’ve raised about a half a million dollars through initiatives that induced a lot of suffering. (laughing) you probably never heard this, but we did 22 million burpees in 2018. And raised a quarter million dollars for the foundation.
In the process we got a world record… like, because if you’re gonna do that many burpees, you might as well get a world record for the most number of burpees done in 24 hours, right? A three man and three woman team I was on, and we did 36,393 burpees in 24 hours…
Mike: Oh my god.
Mark: Crazy amount of suffering, right? Just our feeling is that these vets are suffering with post-traumatic stress, and with suicide… and the reason the 22 million number was 22 vets committing suicide a day, on average.
So I’ve got another team guy who just took over as executive director – Commander Sid Ellington – I don’t know if you ran into Sid during your career… mostly west coast and so he wasn’t playing in the same territory as you. But great guy.
So he’s now ed and we’re spooling up to do another Burpees for Vets’ Challenge on and around Veterans Day this year.
And it’d be great to tie in your book to the challenge, because we’ve got a bunch of partners and that’d be a great way to raise awareness. So I’m going to hook you up with Sid, and I think it’d be great to have a discussion. See how we can support you in getting your book out there – which will support your organization.
And then maybe there’s some way that that’ll pay back to the vets who are suffering with post-traumatic stress, which is our mission.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely… I’m appreciative of any lead. Been fortunate… the book was number two on porch light’s best seller for non-fiction last month. And then JP Morgan independently said “hey, out of the ten…” they have a summer reading list, and “Never Enough” made their summer reading list.
And so there’s been some good momentum, but in the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish here – it’s Never Enough.
Mark: (laughing) Never Enough. Yeah. Awesome.
Well, there’s never enough time, either. We could go on forever and ever, Mike, but I really appreciate you contributing your time to this podcast and sharing your stories. And talking about your book and leadership and…
It’s been a great honor and I really had a lot of fun doing it. I hope we can meet in person soon.
Mike: Mark, like I said, always have looked up to you. You’re such an inspiration and incredible person. And thanks for all the impact you’ve had on people you’ve met – and people you haven’t met. It’s really wonderful to spend time with you…
And like you said, I could go on for another hour or two, but I think we might get in trouble…
Mark: Yeah, I agree. Hooyah. Thank you very much. And we’ll talk…
Mike: Thank you, my friend.
Mark: All right folks. Mike Hayes. Go check out the book “Never Enough.” Like I said – I mean, I can’t say enough good things about this book. The writing, the humility, the stories…
If you’re a leader or on a team or just interested in military spec ops – it is just a really, really well written book, so you won’t be disappointed. “Never Enough: Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility and Meaning.” Mike Hayes.
Hooyah Mike. Mike, do you have a social media handle or anything like that? How can people find out if they want to reach out to you and say, “hey, come speak to my organization?” Or “I want to buy a thousand books,” or something like that.
Mike: Absolutely. Twitter is @thisismikehayes. One big word. Instagram is thisis.mikehayes. And then LinkedIn is just Mike Hayes and SEAL or something like that will pull me up. I’m not hard to find on there.
But totally appreciate that. Just looking to give back in whatever way I can. So thanks for that, Mark.
Mark: Yeah, hooyah. All right, my friend… we’ll see you soon and everybody out there, thanks again for your support, really appreciate it. I couldn’t do it without you. So until next time remember it’s never enough and stay focused and be unbeatable.