“I’d say overall in life, once you get into the rhythm of whatever it is that you do, that’s where you start to become dangerous.” – Robert Teschner
The Unbeatable Mind Experience is the opportunity for you to train in person with Mark and other Unbeatable Mind instructors, and to experience physical, mental, and emotional training in person. You will have a chance to learn under the same conditions as Spec Ops and SEAL candidates in an unforgettable environment of sea and sand. To find out more, go to unbeatablemind.com/experience.
Robert Teschner (@RobertTeschner) was formerly an Air Force “Top Gun” jet pilot, instructor and commander, flying both the F-15 and the F-22. He’s also a consultant, speaker and the author of “Debrief to Win: How America’s Top Guns Practice Accountable Leadership…and How You Can, Too!” Today he talks to Commander Divine today about the importance of the Debrief. Robert had an exceptional military career, and is also a survivor of colon cancer. He explains how if he’d been using the same kind of Debriefing technique with himself as he used regularly in the Air Force, he would have been able to manage and minimize cancer’s impact.
The Air Force Debrief is very intense and focuses on four main topics:
- Intensive understanding and investigation of what actually happened
- Root cause analysis and recognition that it might be leadership rather than just an individual mistake
- Formulate a plan to succeed or correct
- Memorializing your process – one page synopsis so that you can duplicate your process
Listen to this episode to hear how Debriefing can work both for business and personal success.
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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine. Welcome to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Appreciate your time today. As you know – I don’t take it for granted.
As I’ve been asked to request from you if you have the time to leave a review on one of our new platforms. We are available now on Google Play, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Pandora and Spotify.
So if you listen to it from those leave a review, because it’s very helpful for other people to find the podcast. We’re one of the highest rated ones on iTunes with 500 5 star ratings, but a lot of people are finding it through other platforms now.
So thanks very much for doing that.
And recently I threw out a challenge to for 24 hours any time someone asked you to do something or to join them in a cause or for some project or commitment if you can just say “let me think about that. I’ll get back to you.” so start practice collecting no’s in service to your bigger yes. Let me know how that goes. It’s a powerful practice.
So I am super stoked today to be talking to an Air Force teammate – not that I was in the Air Force – but hey one team, one fight. Robert “Cujo” Teschner. Robert’s an Air Force fighter pilot. Retired as a colonel in ’06. Author of a new book “Debrief to Win: How High-Performing Leaders Practice Accountable Leadership.”
We’re gonna have a ton to talk about, cause I love Air Force guys. They have a really different world view… You imagine zipping around the planet in an F-22 at Mach 1 or whatever – we’ll find out how fast they go. What a unique perspective.
And then you know aerial combat at least practicing for aerial combat you have to really get into the OODA loop and master those real time like lightning quick reactionary – not reaction but pro-actionary and spontaneous, but good decisions. Wow. How do you do that? I’m curious how to do that myself. I mean, it’s something I’m always trying to work on.
Anyways Robert’s a really interesting guy. He’s also a cancer survivor. He’s a family man – he’s got five kids. Lives in St. Louis. And he’s got a really cool training program around developing authentic or accountable leadership.
So, Robert, thanks for joining me today. Super cool to meet you. And why do people call you “Cujo?”
Robert. Mark, thanks for having me. And yeah, the “Cujo” thing… That’s always an interesting one. It’s part of our ritual. So in our tribe basically you aren’t somebody until the tribe names you. It takes about four to six months usually until that happens.
Robert. And then it’s enough time for you to have done something silly. So that the naming ceremony can be that much more fun. But you know just kind of think generally speaking rabid St. Bernard, and there you have it.
It’s one of those that here’s the way it
Mark. Wait, was it something you did or something…? You know, do you look like Cujo? I mean, I saw your picture. I was trying imagine Cujo. I don’t see him in there.
Robert. That’s arguable. Whether I look like a rabid St. Bernard or not is arguable.
Mark. (laughing) Maybe after a long night at the bar, right?
Robert. That’s right. Yeah. The only requirement though for any story that’s told at any point on a Friday night is that it’s ten percent true.
Mark. (laughing) at least a ten percent, right?
Robert. Yeah. So you can imagine how that thing goes. But the takeaway of it all, is I ended up with a pretty good call sign. And your call sign, that’s how you’re known for the rest of your career. And the rest of your life.
Mark. I still have people who call me by a nickname. And they probably don’t know my real name.
From the SEALs. Although we didn’t have a naming ceremony. Did you actually do that? Or was that…?
Robert. Yeah. Oh yeah. It was something that you looked forward to. You look forward to as a new namee, and you look forward to it as someone that was going to be doing the naming. It was such a fun experience. And I mean the stories were hilarious. And then it’s a great sense of camaraderie at the end when you welcome the newest member of your tribe. And then they get their mug, and they get their helmet visor, and they get all their special stuff with their name on it…
Mark. Oh, how cool.
Robert. And that’s kind of the formal – that’s the point where you’re accepted.
Mark. So your helmet head “Cujo” on it? And you got a little nameplate that says “Cujo,” that goes on your little green flight jacket and all that?
Robert. Exactly. All those things. You have a coin that’s got your name on it. Yeah.
Mark. Dang, you do it right in the Air Force. I wonder how many taxpayer dollars go into this, by the way. (laughing)
Robert. (laughing) That’s all self-funded, too.
Mark. (laughing) Oh, is it really?
Robert. Oh yeah.
Mark. I’m glad we cleared that up right away. That’s hilarious.
So tell us about your formative years. Like how… Did you grow up in a military family? What was that like? What influences led you into an Air Force career?
Robert. Yeah, so I was blessed Mark. I did grow up in an Air Force family. My father was an Intel officer in Vietnam. And then won the Bronze Star volunteering to be in the backseat of anything that flew in harm’s way – cause he didn’t fly himself.
And then he transitioned into the JAG Corps and became a prosecutor. So I grew up around the Air Force. And we were blessed to have some really awesome assignments like Spangdahlem, Germany. So when “Top Gun” came out, I saw it on base with a bunch of F-16 and F-4 pilots.
Mark. No kidding.
Robert. You can imagine. Oh gosh. As a young boy you know listening to the roaring at the tail-end with the credits… I go “that’s what I want to do.”
So you know, and I come from a background of… My grandfather was a fighter pilot. Finished his training just as World War Two ended, but you know there’s some sort of an attraction to aviation in my family. So bada-boom, bada-bing, here we are.
Mark. Wow. So what year… Like give us the details of what that looked like? Getting into the Air Force? I mean probably obviously… You went in as an officer. You went to – does the Air Force have AOCS?
Robert. So I did the Air Force Academy.
Mark. Oh, Air Force Academy.
Robert. Yeah went to the Air Force Academy. Knew that would be the best shot of getting a fighter slot. Because as I came in, the Air Force was cutting back on flying billets. You could go any number of routes, but I figured that that was gonna be the best thing to do. And I was impressed with the service academies in general. And so that’s how I started out
So I got some outstanding leadership training for four years. And then started my active duty service in 1995. Came on as a second lieutenant after 60 days of vacation post-graduation and went straight to pilot training in Wichita Falls, Texas and learned how to fly for 13 months.
Mark. Okay, and you didn’t have an assignment except for the training squadron. And when you get out of the training squadron, what are the coveted assignments, if you want to be a fighter jockey in the Air Force?
Robert. Yeah, so the way that it works is always shifting. There’s always a different way to kind of navigate things. Because the rules are constantly being revised.
So when I was going through, the pecking order was your graduating status, you know? Number one got the first pick of whatever was available – the last person got whatever was left.
So I was the number one guy in my class. I got a chance to pick from everything that was there. And I picked the F-15. The F-15 C model. The air-to-air version.
And it was largely driven by the fact that I was sick and tired of having somebody else in my cockpit offering me their techniques for how to do this and that.
Mark. So that’s a single pilot jet?
Robert. That’s right. It’s a single crew fighter. And didn’t care where I was gonna be assigned I just wanted to fly that thing.
Which was a great call, because it turns out that the mission was perfectly suited for me. For my personality, for the things that I wanted to do…
Mark. And what was that? What was that mission?
Robert. So providing the defense for the folks that are out there doing the mission. We make sure that there’s no air threat. So if we’re going deep into bad guy land to drop bombs, well we’re gonna make sure that the bombers get there and back safely.
Mark. So air-to-air combat against enemy fighters, predominantly.
Robert. That’s right. Providing air superiority against anything that might move – airborne that could threaten us.
Mark. Wait. The F-15 was that the one that Colonel Boyd designed? Or that was the F-16?
Robert. So Colonel Boyd had his hands in all of the sort of early version modern fighters. 15, 16, 18. And so yeah I mean I think F-16 was more what it was that he was into but you know but he affected it. And the F-15, one of its claims to fame is that it’s a hundred and four to nothing right now in terms of overall air-to-air victories.
Mark. Is that right?
Robert. Several hundred guys dropped. No F-15c models dropped. It’s pretty cool.
Mark. How much of that is the pilots? And how much is that is the platform?
Robert. I think in that airplane, it really is the pilots because you have to do all the integration yourself. And that’s not a self-serving statement. I just compare it with the F-22, where the F-22 does so much for the pilot…
Mark. You mean the technology does?
Robert. Technology does. Yeah. It’s just so well designed, so well integrated… Whereas in the F-15 you have to kind of put pieces together a little bit more. That said the airplane is a masterful design.
I was blessed. A couple years ago I got a chance to meet most of the engineers that designed the eagle way back in the ’60s, and they’re still passionate about it. They still meet every other week for breakfast.
Mark. Do you think your airplanes are being made as well these days as they were back then? Because I keep seeing things about the F-35… Didn’t one of our elected officials just call it a piece of shit the other day or something like that?
Robert. Yeah. So there’s a lot of scuttlebutt about who said what with regard to the F-35.
So there’s two answers to your question, Mark. Are they being built as well? Yeah they’re being built as well. The folks on the assembly lines are doing a fantastic job. The engineering’s brilliant.
Is the procurement process working as efficiently as possible? Are things going the way that they’re designed to? That’s a different question. And I think there’s a lot of frustration about how it is that we procure the things that we do. How much it costs and all the rest.
Mark. Can I tell a quick story there? I love going down these little…
So one of my last active commands was a SEAL delivery vehicle team, so SDV team one – and they had taken delivery of the advance SEAL delivery system. Which was the first dry submersible that the SEALs had. And most people think “well SEALs have these mini-subs and it’s just like “The Abyss” or something like that. And it’s like comfortable inside until you swim outside.”
No, that’s not true. What I trained in and what we use mostly are these wet submarines which are like underwater coffins with an engine. And anyways this ASDS – back to your point – they put it out for bid. And guess who won the bid? Northrop Grumman. The same company that’s making your airplanes. Like, as if they’ve ever made a submarine before. And the thing was like a billion dollars more than they thought it was going to be. And it took twice as long or three times as long. It’s a total goat rope. And they used it like twice and then it blew up. It burned. Frickin’ nightmare.
So anyways, that’s my story about government procurement. So I get what you’re saying.
Robert. Yeah that process… It’s probably something that deserves a debrief or two.
Mark. (laughing) For sure. Total overhaul, let’s just say. Let’s trump it.
So how many missions and where did you fly the F-15?
Robert. So I actually never kept track of the numbers of missions.
Mark. Really? I thought that would be something that would be… Like you’d put notches on your belt or something.
Robert. No you keep track of your hours. And overall my flight time was just shy of 2,000 hours. It kind of… The time that you spend away from the airplane is unfortunate you know? So if your career is going well… Then you end up. You have to go to school and then you have to go to a staff assignment. Then you come back, you know.
And there’s good reasons for all of the above, but in terms of where I flew, I was privileged. I got a chance to be down on the coast in Florida at Eglin Air Force Base for my first assignment – formative years. And then up at Langley Air Force Base in a couple of squadrons out in Virginia. And then sort of the highlight of the whole thing was going out to the fighter weapons school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Both as a student and then as an instructor.
Mark. And that’s like the Top Gun in the Air Force, right?
Robert. That’s right. Yep. That’s the Air Force Top Gun program. And going through that and experiencing that and coming out in the back end was sort of one of those things I never thought was possible. And the next thing you know is there you are. And so it was awesome and such a privilege.
And then eventually transitioning to the F-22, late-in-life, for my command tour. Out at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. And then in between like I say a couple of master’s programs, a couple of staff assignments.
And then very suddenly my career was done. And now I’m a veteran looking back on the whole thing going “I wish it had lasted longer.”
Mark. I know. It’s crazy how fast… Did you do 20, 25 years? How long did you…?
Robert. I did 20. Just over 20.
Mark. So when you were flying the F-15 did you have any engagements with the enemy?
Robert. No. So my time frame in the Eagle was doing no-fly zone enforcement over northern and southern Iraq in support of the United Nations…
Mark. And they weren’t putting up a lot of aircraft…
Robert. No they weren’t. They were relatively smart about what they were doing. So you know we’d drill a lot of holes in the sky and got an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. But not too much action during the times that I was there.
Mark. Before we get into talking about like heady stuff like leadership and the debrief process and all that, I’m just curious like what’s it like experientially you know – to fly a freakin’ jet at Mach 3 or whatever… How fast do they go?
Robert. So the top-end speed depending on… Probably the Mach 1.75 range realistically speaking. So just shy of twice the speed of sound.
Mark. Yeah. What’s it like? I’ve always wanted to fly in a fighter jet. It’s on my bucket list, but nobody’s offered me a ride yet.
Robert. Well that can be fixed.
Mark. (laughing) Yahoo! Or I should say “Hooyah.” I
Robert. Yeah, the feeling itself – it’s more pronounced when you’re taking off.
Robert. When you plug in the afterburners and you go from zero to “oh my gosh. We’re accelerating up.” That’s the part that’s the initial rush. Things are just happening so fast – you know? You gotta raise the landing gear, because you don’t want to over speed it while you’re vertical you know? That’s kind of crazy. And then if you’re flying formation – which we often do on takeoff – you know that’s also a rush. Cause it’s a physical and a mental challenge all rolled into one. You got to be in position, you got to stay there, you gotta look sharp and tight, and then you got to deal with all of the changes that are happening.
Mark. Do you have a side view mirror that beeps when you get close to your guy to the right or left? (laughing) Seems like a practical thing.
Robert. (laughing) No, there’s none of those. You just have to use your mark one eyeball and figure this thing out.
Mark. Your head is on a swivel then, all the time, right? Probably?
Robert. All the time. That’s right, yeah. I tell you what else is pretty cool… So if you’re just flying along… If somebody takes you up Mark and get an incentive flight and you go “how fast can this thing go?” and off you go.
You’re gonna find it’s severely underwhelming to go super-sonic.
Robert. Yeah, because in relationship to what? It’s just like if you’re on the Autobahn and you’re going 150 miles an hour like “this is pretty cool, I guess.” but you know it’s almost like you can’t tell. Because everybody else is going 150 miles an hour. If you’re passing somebody that’s going 50, then you’ve got some perspective. So where it really comes into play is when you’re merging with an enemy. Whether it’s an enemy or in combat… At that merge A) you get a true sense for your speed, B) you realize now the game is on. And this is where it gets really fun.
So now you start turning and you’re trying to maneuver and you’re trying to stay alive and you’re trying to do all these things. And you’re fighting against gravity and the physiological forces of the blood rushing from your head down to your feet…
Robert. Yeah, and in one fell swoop you go from super-fast everything’s happy to “oh my gosh.” hair on fire. And the entire time that you’re doing that your adrenaline’s pumping. And there have been folks that have pulled well more than the airplane is safely capable of pulling, and they stay awake throughout the entire thing, cause they’re just on such an adrenaline rush.
So that’s where it really gets interesting. And that’s why it’s such a fun thing to do. You look back on it, and go “how could I not be doing that anymore?”
Mark. Exactly. “Why did I ever leave?” well they don’t let you fly forever, of course.
Robert. Unfortunately, no.
Visualization and Chair-flying
Mark. At Top Gun when you were doing the aerial engagements – did you have any close calls or times where you’re like “oh shit. This isn’t working.”
Robert. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean if you just think about when you pack a lot of airplanes in the same piece of sky, it’s inevitable that you’re not gonna keep track of everybody.
And every now and again you have this close pass where by the grace of God…
Mark. You’re like “where the hell did he come from?”
Robert. Yeah. That’s gonna happen.
And there’s a number of times where just doing the basic stuff you realize by getting a little bit complacent. You have a close call even on something as benign as a rejoin where you know things happen far too fast, you get far too close, far too quickly. You kind of scare everybody and then move out. It’s just the nature of…
Mark. A rejoin is where you come back into formation?
Robert. That’s right. Where you’re coming back and joining up with the rest of your formation mates in close formation. And that’s… I’d say overall in life, once you get into the rhythm of whatever it is that you do, that’s where you start to become dangerous.
Mark. That’s true in anything, right?
Robert. Oh yeah. It absolutely is and that’s where we have to guard against it… You know, complacency starts to set in you go “it’s just another day.” and the next thing you know, it’s not another day. This is a really dangerous business that we’re in. And so we’ve got to keep our alert up.
I’d say that the scariest moment for me was flying against somebody where we’re both pointed at each other from about five miles away. And the design is, we’re gonna pass 500 feet apart from one another at a really high rate of speed, and then we’re gonna try and maneuver and get into a weapon solution against the other person.
So it’s kind of like we’re flying into a mirror except that at some point you’ve got to maintain your spacing so we have a safe pass.
The guy I was flying against kept on mirroring me right up until the end. And then that day…
Mark. (laughing) It’s like playing chicken…
Robert. Oh yeah, it was like playing chicken. And at the very end I do a really high yaka maneuver to get out of the way. And he does the same thing. And he passes a couple of feet away from my cockpit.
Mark. Holy shit!
Robert. And time slowed down to where I counted each individual screw each individual rivet underneath his airplane. Which I had never paid attention to before in my life. And this thing’s going by and I’m thinking “is my canopy gonna melt?”
Because he’s in full afterburner, you know. So that was one of those days where again by the grace of God were both here to talk about it.
Mark. Holy cow. I had an experience like that in a parachute accident. I actually put it in one of my books – and it wasn’t even freefall. But I had a mid-air collision.
Similar thing. The guy came right at me. He was disoriented and we’re supposed to each turn right – like pull our right toggles. I’m sure you have some SOP like that. You know, you got to turn away from each other or else you’ll turn into each other. Which doesn’t go well.
Well he turned into me. Collided my chute, collapsed it. I go flying – literally – so you got vertically about a hundred feet per second. I was at 800 feet, so I had 8 seconds to live.
And it was like I had minutes. You know what I mean? Time was completely crawling and I had all this time in the world to shake my chute, and check it, and deploy my reserve, and all that. And I finally got my reserve – no my main caught a little bit of air – and I think “this is great, I got plenty of time.”
And I hit the ground. But it’s weird how your mind does that, you know what I mean? It’s really crazy.
Robert. Yeah and I mean those are the moments that you can recall in absolute clarity. Like, I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast this morning. But I could tell you exactly how everything looked, how it felt…
Mark. And how many rivets…
Robert. (laughing) There’s a ton. I could count them all in my mind.
Mark. That’s hilarious.
Wow interesting. Now did you have any strategies like breath training or visualization? You know, the things that I teach at unbeatable mind. Did you have any of that training in the Air Force? Or did you deploy any of those skills yourself?
Robert. We did. So first of all kind of a different take on what you teach. We ended up having to strain appropriately to keep the blood going up into our head. Which forced us to think consciously of how it is that we kind of mechanize ourselves for the oncoming stress. So similar, but different.
In terms of visualization, absolutely. And starting in pilot training, we would go through and kind of we call it “chair-fly” our missions. Where we’d kind of stimulate “okay, close your eyes. Here’s what we’re going to do. All the calls you’re gonna make.
We do that over and over again. And we maintain that process all the way through. And as an instructor with the weapons, I would visualize all the different elements of that.
Mark. Did you ever visualize things going wrong and your response to that?
Robert. Yeah, because that’s the reality. The reality is things never go the way you planned it. So the contingency plans are the ones that you end up falling back on the most. And if anything I would… If I was leading a big mission the next day, I would never sleep. My whole mindset all night long was just kind of thinking through all the possibilities. The things that I hadn’t thought about for contingency planning. And just kind of rehearsing how I’ll handle this, how will I handle this, how I handle this. The alarms off. It doesn’t matter. You go fly the plane.
Mark. And it’s not because… You didn’t want to sleep right?
Robert. Right, it’s just because your mind is so…
Mark. I have that too. There’s so much cortisol running through your system and your mind’s so active you can’t possibly sleep. So you just lay there mentalizing the whole thing. Robert. Exactly. And it’s actually a good thing. I mean, adrenaline’s gonna keep you going when you need it and you’re going to be so much better prepared for the inevitable, known-unknowns, that are coming at you.
Mark. So tell us about the F-22. How is that different than the F-15 and what’s its mission? Robert. Yeah, so leap in technology same basic core mission although they added the ability to drop weapons on the ground as well. But with the advances in technology you’ve got so much more than the core eagle – to include a stealth component. And when you’ve got a reduced radar signature it makes life so much easier than before. You combine that with some incredibly kick-ass engines that perform brilliantly at really, really high altitudes and you can get places really fast. Not be seen. Do your thing and get out of there.
Mark. Not seen by ground radar, but was this also aerial combat? Did it help in that?
Robert. Oh yeah. Absolutely. It’s just hard to see the new tech that we’ve got out there. And it’s in all the domains you know from the sea to the air. And on the ground.
So that part was really, really fun to see employed. And coming into that program late in life, as an old guy coming off of a staff assignment again – it compensated for my reduced skillset, because the airplane itself is just outstanding.
Mark. Right. Now you were gonna be a squadron leader right? When you went to the F-22? Is that how that worked?
Robert. Right so I was a squadron commander, I was responsible for the 7th Fighter Squadron for my first command tour.
Mark. But you still needed to learn how to fly the jet. And would you go out on tactical missions? Or were you just kind of like a chair guy?
Robert. Oh, absolutely. No, no, no, no, no, no. The squadron commander flies with the squadron. We deployed to the Pacific Theater. We got a chance to do all kinds of neat things from Kadena, Okinawa, to the Korean Peninsula, down to Guam. It was a wonderful… Yeah it was awesome.
Mark. That’s a big difference between SpecOps and your community. For our community if you’re an oh-5 or oh-6 like you go to combat, but you’re sitting in the JOC, you know I mean? If you’re an officer, you’re not kicking down doors. I mean technically I guess you could go out with the guys. But you’d be in the way and it’d be a real jerk thing to do you know what I mean?
Robert. Right. Yes.
Mark. So you get the play all the way through.
Robert. We still get to play.
Mark. That’s pretty cool.
Robert. It is. In fact, my former Wing Commander who was a bird Colonel when I came on as a squadron commander. So he was in charge of you know the entire kit and caboodle. Maintenance, operations, medical, logistics… Anyway, he eventually made three star and he was flying combat missions over Syria.
Mark. Really? As a three-star general? That’s impressive.
Robert. Yeah, it is kind of cool. So he has a true sense of what’s happening. How effective. How’s the planning process going? How are we executing? What’s the threat like? I mean, he gets all of that. Which is pretty impressive.
Mark. It is. Now I imagine most of your peers or I should say many go into some sort of flying job afterwards, right? Or consulting back with the Air Force.
That happens a lot with senior SEALs – they go back and work for a company that’s contracting and they end up in similar kind of staff jobs, but just with a suit on instead of the uniform. How come you weren’t drawn to that path?
Robert. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t drawn to it, Mark. I think I’m more a victim of circumstance. So my tenure in the Air Force came to an abrupt halt as a result of colorectal cancer.
Mark. Oh, man. Just the sound of that sounds horrible.
Robert. I mean, there’s nothing good about it.
Mark. We don’t have to go into detail, by the way.
Robert. Yeah. Trust me, we won’t. Okay? But I got my clean bill of health from the flight doc in January and then in February found out that I had colorectal cancer. So I was going back to the Raptor – I was going back to the F-22 in kind of a senior position and from one day to the next everything turned upside down.
And the worst part about it was that not only was everything kind of totally thrown apart from one day to the next. But my body was so broken for years after the surgeries because when you’re missing your lower colon, things just don’t go well. So I was overseas – we were in Germany had the surgery on the economy – ripped out 30 centimeters of my lower colon, and nobody really talked about what that was gonna mean.
And what it meant was you know being basically non-functional for a number of years. Just stuck in the bathroom at all times. No control over myself. And that was… Talk about whatever pride you have, that’s gone.
Mark. Yeah, to go from jet jockey to that, it’s got to be very humbling. Holy cow.
Robert. Yep. Very humbling.
And to know what it is that you were about to go do and then… In fact, when I got the call because when you get hired into those jobs as you know, it’s a very personal thing. So I get the call from the organization that’s going to bring me in. And they said “hey Cujo, we want you.” and my answer was “I’m in.” And then I said “just one little minor detail. You know, just two weeks ago I had this big surgery. And it’s probably gonna take me about a year until I’m ready to you know get rocking and rolling again. But I’m there, I’m with you if you can work with me.”
They’re like “uh, actually how about we take a few days to think about it.” And after that, that’s when I realized we were done.
Mark. Yeah that sucks. The grim reality set in.
Okay so how… Do you know how you got the cancer? Like where does something like this come from? Is it inherited? Is it genetic or diet or what? Environmental?
Robert. Yeah so it’s a combination of factors for sure. But there’s no doubt that it ran in my family. And I found this out well after the fact but it did run in the family. But the worst part about it, Mark, was that there were indications. My body was telling me something back when I was just starting out as an instructor at the weapon school.
Robert. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. But you see by that point I was kind of indestructible, at least in my own mind. So when the body was talking to me, I kind of said “yeah whatever.”
Mark. For those of us who think they might have or maybe it runs in the family – what are the signs? Like what did you ignore?
Mark. Well, if its. I don’t know… I guess the answer is you tell us if you think that it won’t tarnish the reputation of my podcast.
Robert. Right. Yeah. Look here’s the short story – if you’re bleeding in places you shouldn’t then you ought to take a look at it, okay?
Mark. Yeah, that’s generally true. With anything, right?
Robert. Yep. That’s a good rule of thumb in life, right?
And so I have some indications, but I realize or at least I think to myself “I’m indestructible” and I’m really busy. I’m going back through the weapon school. Now you’re going through the same five and a half month course you just graduated from a year and a half ago but you’re going through as an instructor. So you’re busy.
And I didn’t have time to go do these kinds of things. And doctors – I was taught from the very beginning – all they can do is ground you.
Mark. Yeah, in the military, the doctor is not your friend. That’s for sure.
Robert. No. Not at all, right? So you just avoid, avoid, avoid… And I was lucky because a couple of months into this “I will myself to be better,” thing you know the symptoms go away. Like see? Just like I knew?
Mark. I’m super-powerful. Master of the universe. I can heal myself.
Robert. Yeah that’s right. Until 2013 where the same indications came back. But the worst part was I never told anybody at all. I didn’t tell a soul about this. So if I reached out to my dad and say “hey, what do you think?” you know he could have then shared with me the details of “oh yeah. My entire generation got checked for this, because it runs in our family.”
But I didn’t do that. So, you know, 2013 comes along. My wife convinces me to go get a colonoscopy. It takes some cajoling – I’ll spare you the details – but eventually when I finally several months later get around to doing it the doc says “Teschner, I regret to inform you that you have the colon cancer. And I expect this tumor’s been growing for ten years.”
Robert. So yeah. That’s totally on me.
Mark. Yeah. Good job. Do everything all out, don’t you?
Robert. (laughing) Yeah, that’s right. Go big…
Mark. Go big or go home.
So you obviously survived, I think. Because we’re talking to you here.
So that also takes a lot of strength, so congratulations. I imagine you have a pretty strict protocol now? Diet, exercise? Like what do you do now to maintain your strength and health and make sure that nothing like this happens again?
Robert. Yeah, I mean it’s all of that. It’s the diet, it’s the wellness plan in general. You know, staying fit, monitoring… I get the joy of seeing my oncologist all the time. A lot of blood work. These kind of fun things. Lots of time and in little tubes, you know… You’re getting MRIed, and whatnot. So I get a pretty good sense of where I am at any one point in time.
But out of all of that one of the things that was most powerful to me, Mark, was the fact that the training that we both were privileged to have received during the course of our careers – it paid off in ways that I didn’t expect.
Mark. Yes. I bet.
Robert. Okay. Like, I mean, totally shocked… And it’s kinda like you know the first time that you’re actually on a real mission. You don’t know how you’re going to respond to it. You think you’re a badass, but until something’s actually happening, you just don’t know.
And so in this case, I didn’t know how I was gonna respond to “hey, your life’s upside down. You don’t have a job. You can’t get one. You can’t function. Your wife is basically a single parent for your four kids, because you’re out of the equation most of the time.” how do you deal with that?
And I would say that everything that we went through – and I just lump us together as fellow brothers in arms’ – prepared me to have an outstanding mental attitude with all of this. Prepared me to have a “we’re gonna win no matter what” kind of mindset. And the discipline to go forth and to do what needed to be done… And as they teach us in parachuting – you know, you don’t look at the ground as it’s rushing up at you. You keep your eyes focused on the horizon. And then you’re gonna have a good landing. If you look at the ground, you’re gonna crash, and break your legs, and it’s gonna be horrible, right?
So it kept my eyes focused on the horizon and that’s really been working.
The other piece of the discipline piece is understanding that okay when your body’s broken and the hope of recovering is low… Well then, you don’t accept that as an answer when everybody’s telling you “this is the best it’s gonna be.” you go “okay, that’s good for you.”
Mark. That’s your story.
Robert. Yeah, yeah. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is how I’m gonna do it, you know?” and it’s interesting. I’ve met some people – just as you have, and I’m sure you’ve interviewed a lot of them on your show – where I mean the odds were really stacked against them. And they said “Chuck you Farley. I’m gonna do this.” and they overcame.
So I had a small version of that. And part of my rehabilitation plan is forcing myself to do the things that are really uncomfortable – like flying for example. Ironically, not one of the best things to do in my condition. So the more I can do of it, the more I feel like I can do it okay. And the less the anxiety builds up in advance, and the more comfortable I am with it.
My goal… One of my goals here for the near future is to get back in the cockpit of some airplane and I definitely want to show my kids how to fly.
Mark. That’s cool.
Accountable Leadership and the Debrief
Mark. So let’s shift fire here. Thanks for all that fascinating information about your career and your personal life. But you teach leadership development. You got a program that you call “accountable leadership.” which sounds like right up my alley.
But also your book is about the debrief, and I know all air jockeys have this intense brief and debrief process. We have a pretty intense one in the SEALs, but our missions are different and so it’s a little bit more informal. At least the debrief.
So tell us about why this is such a powerful practice. And how you’ve used it and taught it to civilians, and business leaders so that they can use it. And then the impact of that.
Robert. Yeah, okay. So a great question, lots there. I’ll kind of break it down this way – when you fly a mission there’s so much that happens, okay? So if you fly for an hour, you can talk about so many different components – the getting there, the coming back, the basic administrative functions in the flight. How it is that you communicated. The tactical portion. What it was that actually mattered.
And so there’s a lot to decipher and to pick apart. So you got to figure out how to use your time wisely, and that’s one of the things that a debrief methodology does. It focuses you on the things that actually matter. Because not everything really is that important. If you treat everything in life at the same level you’ll be wasting a lot of time.
Mark. You’ll get bogged down.
Robert. Really bogged down, yeah.
The other thing is that we fly so infrequently that you have to mine those experiences for the things that really matter. So that you can figure out how to duplicate success the next time that you go. Or how to avoid making the same mistake.
Mark. You’re not flying every day and just getting that repetition.
Mark. Interesting. Most people would think that you are, but it’s too expensive to do that.
Robert. It’s incredibly expensive to do it. And it takes its toll on the fleet. And there’s only so much that can be accomplished.
So you’ve got what you have and so where do you get the most value? It’s actually going back and taking a look at how things went. And studying it and learning from it.
Mark. So each mission… Each training mission is a big deal. And a lot put into it.
Robert. It is. Yes. Absolutely.
All right, so there’s a lot at stake. And then the other piece of this – as you’re very well aware – you’re always bringing new people into your tribe. So just about the time that you think “wow. This is perfect. We’ve got the right team. This is awesome.”
You know, your best person is gone. New person comes in straight out of training. You’re constantly rebuilding. So the debrief services that thing… It sort of accelerates learning and advances those who are least capable up to a mission-ready level faster than you would otherwise do. And keeps everybody in a state of readiness, which is good.
So that’s why we practice it. We’ve got a really good methodology that we’ve refined. We started this process… The Germans were the first that did it in World War One. They did pre-mission briefings, post-mission debriefings and when they were the only ones to do it, they kind of commanded the skies. Once we figured out how to do it, then we kind of took over. So this goes back… Traces its roots, its origins to 1917 for our crowd.
Mark. Red Baron.
Robert. Yeah, exactly. And that’s kind of cool. And we’ve learned how to use this in a very efficient way. A very practical way. And one where at the end of the day we build each other up.
So we could have had a horrible mission. Disastrous and whatnot. But we can break it down and go “look Mark. Do you realize that if you had made this decision at this time and this other decision at this time a little bit differently we would have had an overwhelming victory.” and so you take somebody that’s just trying to get their mind wrapped around the speed and the complexity and go “wow, I can actually do this thing.”
And they’re inspired – the next time that they go fly – to do remarkably better.
Mark. That’s fascinating. So I was gonna ask what are the practical steps of the debrief? Like how does it unfold?
Robert. Yeah. So this is the part that universally applies no matter where you are. Organizations truly love it because it fits in any domain.
It starts with something that’s counter-cultural and that is a reconstruction of what it was that happened. And I say it’s counter-cultural because usually when you look at your device, somebody sends you a picture of something you go “dude, I know exactly what that’s all about.”
Well you may not, right? So and I’d say the further up you are in your leadership domain, the more likely you are to kind of jump to conclusions a little bit hastily about what went down. So we take the time to map out collectively – gaining the perceptions and perspectives of everybody on the team – what actually happened. The truth of what happened.
If you had 10 minutes to debrief, spend six minutes trying to figure out what exactly took place.
Mark. And who leads that? The mission commander or the squadron commander…?
Robert. So whoever the mission lead was for that mission leads it. I was the overall mission commander the day after the September 11th attacks here in the States. I was in Saudi Arabia running the whole show for the mission that was scheduled for southern Iraq. So I had a one-star general who was the package commander for the F-16s that day.
But in the debrief, he was sitting down, while I led the thing. Because I was overall in charge.
So the leader leads it, but then it’s a collective process of “alright – what did you see? What did you see? What am I missing here?” once we agree that we’ve got the truth as good as it can be, then we set our focus on what we’re going to talk about. We could talk about anything, but we’re gonna really go back to if our objective was to do this – did we do it? And we have to ask why we succeeded to make sure that it was because we made the right decisions. And we didn’t just get lucky, you know? Because that can happen.
And the flip side of that is if we didn’t succeed, we need to figure out why. So we’re gonna do some root cause analysis.
And that would be the next step is figuring out likely answers to our “why” question and then ultimately looking at the root cause. And here’s where when you talk about owning things… You know, the great book “Extreme Ownership” from your tribe. It’s all about, as leaders, not just saying “alright Mark. You screwed this up. Look right here, see? You see? That’s the point where you should have shot this person…” or whatever.
It’s the leader asking himself “alright, I got it. Mark made a mistake. But was there something here that I contributed? Did I not train enough? Did I not explain enough? Was the pre-mission briefing not comprehensive enough? I own the fact that this is my team. And if one member of my team fails, then we have all failed.”
Which is one of the indicators of a high-performing team. And your teammates feel the exact same way. So we go into that root cause analysis and it’s really neat. Especially looking at from a commander’s lens – to watch a bunch of young Americans almost fight over who was responsible for what happened.
Mark. (laughing) “No, it was my fault. No, it was my fault.” I love that.
Robert. Yeah, and it doesn’t get truly to that level, but it’s kind of… It’s the mindset with which you go into this. Do I have any culpability in this? And could I have helped save the day?
And then the last two phases include taking the time to organize a plan for how it is that we’re going to continue to succeed. Or how we’re going to correct. And then being accountable for implementing it.
And then the final piece is memorializing your process. So writing it down, so that we can look that anybody can look at. So that when they plan to go forth and do something they can come in here and quickly digest… One page, one page synopsis – so that they can not make the same mistake, or they can duplicate your success. If you’re in the habit of you know flying a mission once every year, well then you sure… You absolutely need to take a look at the book before you go do it. Because for sure you’ve forgotten everything.
And that’s really what it is. I mean it’s remarkably simple in its construct…
Mark. So did you have like a debrief software tool that you used? Or was it in like a paperback binder?
Robert. No, it wasn’t either of those. It’s just we knew what the steps were and then the art is applying it the right way. And that art form takes a little bit of effort, because if we’re gonna sit down… Let’s say that things don’t go well. When things go well, it’s awesome to sit there and highlight. “Mark, you’re a superhero. Look at this. Right here. This is where you saved the day.”
Mark. But even when things go well, there’s still lessons to learn, right? You’re still looking for refinement. Could have gone better. Good but this would have been better.
Robert. Yes. Because we’re always in the pursuit of excellence. So it’s not sufficient just to hit the objective. We need to do it excellently.
But in broad terms the good conversation is easier to accomplish on this side. When things don’t go well, you might have hurt egos, you might have people say “wait a second. Look at what you did.”
And so managing those kinds of challenges. That’s part of the art.
Recognizing that after you led horribly… You know, you had a miserable day… Still having the traction and the gumption to come in and go “this one’s on me, but you guys did awesome.”
And that takes a little bit of character, and a lot of effort to conscientiously and consistently apply properly.
Mark. Yeah, in the SEALs similarly we made sure that whatever the fuck-up was that the individual who did it didn’t feel like we were coming down on him as a bad person. But coming down on the process. Coming down on the training. And looking hard at what he and the team can learn from it. And improve as a team going forward. So that that issue doesn’t happen again.
Because there by the grace of God go I, right? It could’ve been any one of us who shot the wrong guy, you know what I mean?
And so the debrief process was very impersonal. There was never any “hey, you fucked-up and you’re a shithead because you ruined our mission kind of talk.
Robert. Yes, exactly. And actually the best examples of this are when the leader can sit there and go “dude, I’ve done the exact same thing.”
Mark. Right. “Been there before.”
Robert. And look at where I am now. So that part’s amazing to see, because it gives you the hope that “hey, I can do this,” you know?
Mark. I get how this could be a really valuable tool for corporations or you know business leaders. Is there any refinement or how do we bridge this from the military setting to the corporate world? To make it really effective?
Robert. Yeah. I mean, the methodology – it transfers over very, very nicely. I mean, I’ve worked with young practitioners with backgrounds that might surprise you who have adopted it immediately and seen great results from it. And the reason is because if you just have the discipline to do it, you start to see its effects.
If you’ve got challenges within your team… Your people aren’t fulfilling their requirements… Well if you debrief regularly, that’s gonna be the motivation for some people to start doing what it is they signed up to do.
And if you start debriefing regularly, those people that feel like they’re giving their all and they’re not getting any traction from it – that’s going to come to light as well. So there’s a sense of satisfaction there to where people are clamoring for it.
And just it comes down to “do it.” the transfer process is just taking the time to do it. And those individuals and organizations that debrief regularly using a systemized process like the one that I just described to you – individual and team performance improved 20 to 25 percent.
Robert. Oh yeah. That’s from the meta-analysis – Tannenbaum and Cerasoli – to get technical there. They researched this and found that – no kidding – if you do the stuff the way it’s designed, it works.
Mark. Sweet. That’s very cool. And I can see how just that process… Getting into this learning loop… It’s an OODA loop for learning is what the debrief process is really. In my opinion, anyways.
Robert. It is. It’s actually an OODA accelerator. Because if you’re debriefing regularly you’re getting through that cycle faster…
Mark. You’re tightening up the loop. That’s what Boyd said was the key for air-to-air combat, right?
Robert. Yes, that’s right.
Mark. And so that’s gonna make everybody more accountable, and have more ownership. You know, all these principles start to tie together. And it doesn’t take much in terms of behavioral change right? So I can see that’s something about the military models is that the risk is so high, that you can’t not do this stuff. You know, you’re dealing with millions and millions of dollars of equipment every single operator right has it in their hands so to speak. And that joystick. And your lives. And success of the mission. I mean there’s just…
So if business leaders could pretend to have that same level of risk, you know? They can get a lot. Forward leaning into this idea of accountability. And authentic or accountable leadership.
Robert. Oh yeah. And then there’s this skill transference, Mark, from the business environment into the personal arena. And that’s the part that’s even more interesting to me in the long run, okay?
So yeah, we work with organizations. But every organization that I’ve ever worked with, I’ve been very clear, “this not only works here, but it works in your personal life.” and I use myself as the example. If I had been… Because, you know, the debrief is linked to your mission objectives, right? Did we achieve it or did we not?
So that means you have to start off with having objectives, which suggests that you have a plan to achieve the objectives. In my case – in my personal life – I did not have a personal wellness plan. I had the assumption that I was gonna stay healthy forever. And I would always be in a cockpit.
And so by not even having a focus there, then when symptoms came up… When during execution – if you will – things kind of went amok, I just willed them to go away. And then I was lucky that they did – but they didn’t need to.
And then I never debriefed on a regular basis. So ultimately I allowed my circumstances to get the better of me. If I had applied this in my personal life, then we probably would not be talking today. I’d still be on active duty.
You should plan. And this cross-applies everywhere. Every domain of human existence. Mark. Right and if you’re not squared away in your personal life, then guess what? You’re not gonna be squared away in your team or professional life. So they go hand in glove.
That’s awesome. I can’t wait to read the book. The book is out now right? “Debrief to Win?”
Robert. It is. It came out on the 5 year anniversary of the removal of the cancerous tumor on the 15th of March.
Mark. Congratulations. So “Debrief to Win: how high-performing leaders practice accountable leadership.” I’m gonna go to my trustworthy Amazon app and order it right now.
Robert. No you’re not. I’m sending you a copy as soon as you send me your mailing address.
Mark. Okay. I’ll do that. And I’ll send you my book.
Robert. Awesome. I’ve already got it. (laughing)
Mark. (laughing) Awesome. Well I’ll send you a couple more for your kids. Spread the love.
Robert. That’s cool. Yeah.
Mark. Awesome, Robert. That was a fascinating conversation. I wish we had more time but I’m cognizant that you’re sitting in a closet at an airport. I want to get you out of there before something weird happens. (laughing)
And good luck with everything. And I look forward to meeting you in person.
Robert. Thanks a million, Mark. Likewise over here. Thanks for running such an awesome podcast and thanks for having me on.
Mark. So can I call you “Cujo” now that we’ve done some stuff together?
Robert. Absolutely. Please do so.
Mark. Cool. You can call me “cyborg.” there you go. We’re teammates.
Robert. All right, cyborg. Cool.
Mark. All right Robert, thanks very much – or Cujo – there you go. We’ll see you around.
Robert. Cheers brother. Okay.
Mark. All right, folks. Man that was fascinating. What a great guy. Robert “Cujo” Teschner. Highly encourage you – especially if you’re a business leader – to check out his book “Debrief to Win.” I can’t wait to read it, and I’ve got great respect for him and all of his challenges, and his service, and everyone in the Air Force. And everyone in the US military who does that type of work. It’s extraordinary that we have people like Robert out there.
And now he’s teaching this to the world. So if you’re also looking for a keynote speaker then I hear Robert/Cujo is outstanding. So go to his website. Just Google his name you’ll find it. That’s what I did. I think it’s his name – robertteschner.com. But don’t quote me on that. It’ll be in the show notes.
At any rate, thanks for listening. I hope it was worth your time. I know it was – because it was worth mine. And yeah – day by day in every way we’re getting stronger and better. Hooyah-hey. Until next time we’ll see you. Train hard, stay focused, debrief. And be unbeatable.
Join the discussion 5 Comments
Enjoyed listening to a friendly chat between two exceptional individuals, respectively. Really appreciated Mark’s perspective on putting reputation of podcast above Cujo’s disclosures. I have had the pleasure of being referred to an oncologist and there is no doctor’s office that speaks of death more than that type of visit. Fortunately, my leukemia is in “remission”. Very happy for Cujo and his recovery. Great info on brief/debrief
It was really good at listening to two Experts in their fields and hearing their rapport with one another. Sharing experiences, learning from success and failruea dne being transparent enough to let us mortals in. Good Podcast!
that’s suppose to be spelled “failure” – not failruea –
The intensive understanding and investigation of what actually happened = I screwed up in my typing …
Root cause analysis/recognition that it might be leadership – Yep! I’m the guy = I can’t type fast worth a nickle.
Formulate a plan to succeed or correct = get someone who can type for me or get the dragon tool …
Memorializing my process – one page synopsis so that I can duplicate my process = Slow down when I am trying to type …
See! I’m already using the debrief model …
Well done. Very informative, great job Mark and Robert!
Well done. Very informative, great job Mark and Robert! Will definitely pick up the book.