“I’ve learned from my many attempts in the civilian world that leading leaders and teams on the battlefield of the corporate world is harder than it is in the world of Special Operations.” – Mark Divine
Mark has revamped his Unbeatable Mind coaching program to incorporate virtual learning to get your start. You then have the option of starting the full, year-long coaching program so that you can start helping others to achieve and to become part of your team. Go to unbeatablemind.com to check it out.
Commander Divine dives deep into his upcoming book, “Staring Down the Wolf: 7 Leadership Commitments That Forge Elite Teams.” Mark discusses the differences between leadership in the Special Ops community and being a leader in business.
- Commander Divine recounts his transition from the SEALs to the Business world
- How teams in both realms require that you learn to manage your fear
- How moral and spiritual character as well as authenticity are required beyond tactics
Listen to this episode to get deeper insight into how you can use lessons from Spec Ops to improve your leadership ability
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Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is mark divine. And today I’m going to continue with our discussion of “Staring Down the Wolf.”
But before I do – thanks for being here. I super-appreciate your time. And I just want to make a note that we’re launching a brand new version of our coaching program. Which is virtual, and also you get a free pass to our Unbeatable Mind experience.
So you could become a level 1 certified coach. And if you’re interested in going further then you would do the year-long program, which we’ve already launched – and we’re two cohorts into that – to become an Unbeatable Mind executive coach and facilitator.
So go to unbeatablemind.com to learn more. It’s a really wickedly cool program. Some great faculty, and it’s a way to go deeper both personally, as well as to learn how to bring the tools to your family and team in a coaching environment. Or to build a practice as a coach.
Alright. So back to the story. “Staring Down the Wolf,” is a book for leaders to develop full leadership capacity at the integrated – or what I call the fifth plateau – point of view or perspective. Recently I did a reading of the very first chapter – which is an introduction -where I introduce the five plateaus and what I mean by “Staring Down the Wolf” – so if you haven’t listened to that then I highly recommend you go back to that. Because it’ll make more sense to you.
But the general gist is that as leaders we need to engage our teams to be able to operate together – leader and teams – so you’re a leader of leaders. So lead and your team to grow to this fifth plateau. This integrated world-centric leader perspective.
And to make the team the center of gravity of your efforts. And the team becomes the center of gravity for your growth. And helps you become a better leader. And they’re your accountability and they’re your growth petri dish.
In order to do that we’ve got to embrace and embody seven commitments and those commitments are courage, trust, respect, growth, excellence, resiliency and alignment.
Now chapter 1 is still preparatory. We’re building the foundation here. And the title of chapter 1 is “fear: failure is expected – are you ready?” you’re not perfect, I’m not perfect. So what?
I took certain things for granted when I was a young leader in the SEALs. This became evident in my first attempt at building a team in the world of business – which was an unmitigated disaster.
Prior to the SEALs I had a shortened career in the corporate world. I was as clueless as everyone else as to what made a good team in that environment. I was another cog in the wheel – and I kept my eyes open though. Though I couldn’t articulate it. What was a good team or what was a bad team at the age of 21. I knew I didn’t like what I was seeing.
And what I saw working for large companies like Arthur Anderson, Coopers & Lybrand, and Paine Webber, was a great deal of self-serving behavior. Building aligned teams, a culture of excellence, moral character – nope, got no attention. Everyone was off for their own hide. Improving their own position, while ignoring how that could impact others. Or the collective.
And I felt no connection to my team there. And the whole culture was out of sync with the utopian ideas I held about leadership. My interests even then were not so much on external things. Money, home, toys weren’t that important to me.
I was looking for a coherent sense of self and a more visceral leadership experience. Becoming a real leader seemed like a foreign concept, though I could see becoming a good manager here in this environment. Solving the formula, to climb the corporate ladder.
Once I put enough time and had the tactical skills, I’d get the promotions and more peeps to manage. It’s not very inspiring to say the least, so I bailed and joined the US Navy SEALs. I mean, why not right?
The four years that I spent as an MBA, CPA on Wall Street was not all lost time. After all, I came into direct contact with the great wisdom tradition of Zen – which changed my life. Under the watchful eye of Master Tadashi Nakamura – I took to the Zen bench like a moth to the flame. The training allowed me to take control of my unruly mind and get painfully aware that the mental loop I was running – programmed by my family and small-town upbringing – was in desperate need of a software upgrade.
I was waking up and activated my growing up muscles. It was as if I was meeting my real self for the first time. After taming my mind, the next order of business with Zen was to shitcan the stories that weren’t serving me very well. And that was most of them.
As I did that, my self-concept began to expand dramatically. What was possible and who I was were shifting to be more creative, responsive, and spontaneous. I began to see that my future became more clear. And I did not react as negatively to life challenges.
This is a humbling period in my life, and in retrospect I was achieving the “beginner’s mind” that the Zen master spoke of.
And then at age 25 I emptied my cup of all that learning – flew across the country to become a real leader as a navy SEAL officer. At basic underwater demolition SEAL training – or BUD/S – I was with a group of hard chargers seeking the biggest challenge that they could find. Immediately I could see that they were all aspiring leaders like me. Also I saw that the organization was methodical in the way it developed leaders and teams.
It was drastically different from the Wall Street I had experienced. The SEALs were very interested in the growing up aspect of development. While cleaning up came more as a result of getting smacked down by your screw-ups.
Regardless, I felt as though I had landed on a different planet and was now learning from a new species. I was put in charge of a small team called a boat crew – named so because we went everywhere with boats on our heads. The boats were called an IBS – I was told that stood for “itty bitty ship.” the SEALs love humor to take their minds off their constant stress.
I emphasized to my team that we were in this together and that although I was their appointed leader, I intended to be a team player first and to help each of them get to graduation day. I asked that we adopt an attitude of “they’re gonna have to kill us all to get us out of here. If at any moment they felt the urge to quit, they agreed to get with me or another teammate to help them through the challenge.
This was different than how I was treated in the corporate world. And it felt good, like we were leading from our hearts and not our heads.
BUD/S is a nine-month selection course designed to weed out those who don’t have the leadership character to be in the SEAL teams. That meant the character to lead the self, the character to lead others, and the character to be led. The training is constantly checking all three of these aspects of character.
Candidates who lacked any of the three quickly quit, while others were dropped and the boat crews reorganized almost daily.
The point was obvious to me. And it wasn’t to prove how tough we were. Toughness was a prerequisite. The point was to prove your willingness to grow, to be both a good leader and a good teammate.
I started buds class 170 with a hundred and eighty-five absolute studs. By the end of training there were only 19 leaders left. Yet all seven of my boat crew were standing tall with me. Big smiles on graduation day. And I was voted the honor man in my class.
Without fully recognizing how or why I had done it, I had built my first elite team. One that had the capacity to win the most demanding physical, mental, and emotional training in the world. Each teammate had displayed courage, created trust, fostered respect and grew better – while aligning in full focus on our mission.
I repeated that experience several times as a leader in the SEALs. I thought I had grown to be an authentic leader. So when I left active duty to start my first business, it stood to reason that I’d have no problem replicating that level of success, right?
I left the active duty SEALs for the reserve force in 1996. Just before doing so I had formed up my first entrepreneurial venture. It was to be a brewpub in the SEALs hometown of Coronado, California called the Coronado Brewing Company or CBC for short. Navy must have drilled in me the need for yet another acronym.
My brother-in-law who I was just getting to know, and who had tickled me with the idea of doing a bar together, was to be my business partner.
Now, naturally it made complete sense that this venture would involve beer. I grew up with beer. I had another master’s degree in drinking it. Alcohol was part of my family of origin shadow, that would soon provide food for my fear wolf.
But business-wise craft beer was an excellent opportunity. We were early in the space as the fourth brewery in San Diego. Without much thought as to my “why” behind this idea, owning a brewery sounded pretty freakin’ awesome to me. Maybe you can appreciate that.
Anyways, I certainly had no desire to go back to public accounting, finance or my family’s business in upstate New York. And the SEALs had given me a lot of confidence to strike out on my own.
Though I knew nothing about making beer, running a restaurant or starting any business for that matter – I knew that I could “find a way, or make one,” as we were fond of saying in the teams.
Now my partner wasn’t willing to run day-to-day operations, because he had another business to run. So I had to decide whether to leave that navy active duty to take this role on. I was seeing how challenging SEAL life was going to be as a married guy, and I reflected that if the navy had wanted me to have either a wife or a business they would have issued them both to me.
So I grudgingly left the excitement and camaraderie of my elite SEAL team to take on the role as CEO of CBC. Welcome to the new battlefield, mark.
I put in my no quit badge on my sleeve and went to work. I thought that my SEAL focus and proven leadership skills would be the secret sauce for success. Armed and ready, I liquidated my small IRA and raised six hundred thousand dollars in seed capital from my family and teammates.
Then, with my previously hard earned MBA and CPA and a business plan in hand, I secured an additional eight hundred thousand in a small business administration loan. I got the real estate nailed down and I got the place built like I was on a SEAL op. Opening the doors with a massive party, six months after I left active duty. Mission accomplished.
Hardly. The insurgency started soon after. I’d learned in the SEALs about the importance of shooting the targets, while not losing sight of the team’s need.
Also keeping the “why” of the mission and the clear vision of the battlefield constantly realigning with those drilled into me. But somehow, in this new battlefield of the corporate world, I couldn’t do that. Something was missing. I was so focused on the constant crush of needing cash, revenue, operations that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. And I didn’t have the elite team by my side to check my thinking.
The selection, training, culture, ethos and system of the SEALs was not backing me up now. All’s I had was a tabula rasa or a blank slate every day. And it was filling up fast with negative bullshit. My fear wolf was licking his chops.
Even before opening the doors, my partner made his first power move. He declared that he was bringing in his brother onto the team as a full equity partner. My codependent mind offered no objection, because codependence was a juicy, unresolved, family of origin shadow issue for me.
This third partner wasn’t gonna buy in or really work for his stake after all. He was just written in. Soon we were the three brothers who started the Coronado Brewing Company. Though I was the outsider to them. We even had a beer named “three brothers pale ale.”
And like that, my ownership and power went from 50% to 33%, which after dilution from the outside shareholders was closer to 20%. And I had put in all of my savings, raised all the outside capital, was the full-time CEO.
And my partner’s put none of their own money in, didn’t raise a dime, and didn’t work in the business day-to-day.
What the heck was I thinking you ask? Good question. With no recognition at all, I had started the business with third plateau thinking – that’s the achiever mindset – but was now acting out of the negative conditioning of my first or survivor plateau and second protector plateau. I kept hoping for things to be different, but it slowly dawned on me that I had recruited a bad team and would need to fight my own teammates. I was failing fast.
And I let it all happen. It was my blind spot, my fear wolf ruling my inner wolf pack.
By not being clear on what I stood for, and then standing my ground, I had established a new standard. And that was to let my brothers-in-law define the rules and culture by default. Staying in my strengths by focusing solely on operations like a navy SEAL sniper, while ignoring the seven commitments of this book, I allowed them to negatively infect the entire company.
I did not confront them, because avoiding confrontation is another shadow that I hadn’t learned about. So I cowardly went to the board of directors with confessions of a leadership team gone to shit. They would handle it, I thought.
Not a chance. That just perpetuated the dysfunction. My partners received the news back-channel and immediately assumed war footing, lining up their stories and their war chests.
Meanwhile the business was running short on capital, so I brought in another big investor to shore things up. And – incredibly enough – begin to expand the business. When the partners indicated they would vote against expansion and instead wanted to buy the investors out at a deep discount – I knew that we had a real gap in our views and our standards.
This was suddenly more than a personality conflict. I tried to talk with them to align them with my vision and plan. And to ensure that the investors would get a generous return on their investment.
No go. Instead they mounted an all-out war against me, and the company. Forcing family members to take sides. In a heartless fight for the valuable asset they estranged their sister – my wife – as well as their father, who is a former marine, who backed me. Their self-proclaimed scorched earth campaign drove an indelible wedge between the family, that has never healed. What an epic fail.
None of this was worth all the money in the world. I tried to sell the business, but nobody would touch it with the legal entanglements. My wife begged me to walk away, so I finally threw in the towel and negotiated a buyout with the brothers, at far less than the company was worth, and I walked away. I had built and then handed them a business worth millions.
Pays to be the nice guy, right? Despite all of my training in confronting an enemy head-on, I lacked the skills to see my own gaps and to confront my deepest subconscious fears. When I say that the fear wolf is leading the charge here, what I mean is that the failure of leadership was predominantly due to my conditioning, and not my tactical skills. Negative conditioning from my upbringing and the shadow that I had never dealt with, tripped me up.
And in my work since CBC with thousands of leaders and hundreds of teams, that is the main reason I see that they fail, as well. And this case study showcases the soft underbelly of leadership that few want or know how to address. That is – that no matter how smart and skilled you are, it’s your emotional awareness and depth of character that will define you as a leader. And your character will define how your team responds to you. If you have unresolved negative conditioning, you will not succeed at the highest integral level that you aspire to.
Most leaders and others I know have unresolved negative conditioning, yet are not aware of it. It leads to one obstacle or failure after another.
These are all taken in stride as “life lessons.” but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Failure is Expected: Are You Ready For It?
Becoming a leader of leaders. What you see on TV is that the SEALs excel in training the fun stuff. The tactical skills of swimming an ungodly number of miles in the ocean with sharks all around, shooting things from miles away. Blowing shit up. Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Going around corners fast in high-speed boats. Crossing denied beaches effortlessly. Nailing the worst of the bad guys with a smile.
However what they don’t show is the considerable chunk of time spend developing the skills of mental and emotional control.
To say the SEALs hold an uncommonly high standard in those areas is also an understatement. Brutal honesty is sop or standard operating procedure, which allows for a remediation to occur immediately after a standard is breached. Things are not swept under the rug and the temporary discomfort of dealing with emotional charge issues is always deemed better than the long-term pain of ignoring them.
In the SOF community – special ops world – everyone is both a leader and a teammate. The leaders lead teams of leaders. Everyone carries their weight and character is deemed king. In any role – even commanding officer of a team – if you’re the source of dysfunction and can’t overcome your shortcoming, you’re invited to leave.
This happens from the earliest stages of selection and training, and continues for an entire career. The radical focus on the character of the individual and the culture of the team is fundamental to the SEALs success. And other special ops.
That is what I mean when I say cleaning up happens through the mess ups there. The structure of the organization forced some baseline level of emotional development.
But clearly from my story about CBC – special operators fall prey to the same human faults as everyone else. I certainly did and still do.
Everyone struggles with their fear wolf, no matter how well-trained they are in controlling their mind and their emotional expression. The special ops community isn’t quite sure how to develop moral and spiritual character.
When I say spiritual character I’m referring not to religious concept, but to one’s essential nature of goodness. The ongoing discussion in the SEALs is about whether moral and spiritual character can be trained at all. And if so – how?
Many believe it’s just part of someone’s wiring, and only by making the individual aware of their gaps can they self-remedy. That’s why the debrief process is so valued as a self-referential tool.
Now it’d be hubris for me to say that I have the definitive answer to this important issue. But I do personally believe that emotional, moral and spiritual character can be developed with the right tools. Though many leaders and teams in the SpecOps battlefield fail miserably on character flaws – as a whole the force dominates the enemy. That’s because the organization is structured to shape culture around the seven commitments profiled in this book. When the culture and structure of an organization can shape the courage, trust respect, growth, excellence, resiliency, and alignment of its individuals and teams, then it’s much more likely to route out issues arising from the negative conditioning of any individual leader.
The organization becomes responsive to volatility rather than reactionary. It’s confident amidst uncertainty. It’s fluid and can navigate complexity. And it will fail forward fast to deal with ambiguity. That’s how special ops deal with this VUCA world.
Now my first corporate VUCA experience with the CBC was painful, but also caused me to step back and ask myself “what the hell went wrong?” I saw that what went wrong was within me. Which limited my moves externally.
I decided then to make the study and development of leadership and teamwork my life’s work.
Now it would have been far more comfortable for me to open this book with what a badass navy SEAL leader I was. And then introduce other stories of elite SEAL leaders, leading elite teams. However, I’ve learned from my many attempts in the civilian world that leading leaders and teams on the battlefields of the corporate world is harder than it was or is in the world of special operations. I learned more about authentic leadership from my civilian screw-ups than I ever did in the military. Failure is expected, be ready for it.
Commit to courage. Stare down the fear of consequences. It was October of ’93 when United States is trying to bring stability to Somalia. Forces were in Mogadishu working with a warlord named Aidid on a peacekeeping support mission. We had one joint special operations task force stationed at the UN peacekeeping compound, staffed with the 75th ranger battalion, along with a bevy of communicators, admin, intel, and logistics folks. There was a small contingent of other special ops on site, one of whom was leader Eric Olson.
The rangers routinely patrolled the city in a show of presence, as well as a search for hidden weapons, caches, and bad guys. One day the situation with Aidid broke down quite suddenly and the city devolved into VUCA in a Wild West shoot-out. Just about every Somali in Mogadishu had a weapon including the children. A weapon in someone’s hand was as common as a cup of coffee, and easily accessible. Residents slung them over their shoulders like yoga mats.
Problem was that most them had no real training in using these weapons. There were countless instances of individual shooting friends – even themselves – by mistake. It was lawless.
The rangers were on patrol when called to respond to a helicopter grounding. The pilots needed an extract. Disaffected locals began taking shots at the rangers and the pilots and it soon turned into life-and-death combat for all the US operators.
As so often happens in situations like these, the sound of gunfire attracted more gun-toting quote “freedom fighters,” like moths to a flame. Before long every local with a gun was running toward the fight.
Now the rangers are highly trained warriors, but this situation was not in the ranger handbook. It’s definitely in their team DNA to shoot, move and communicate. And dominate. But they soon got overwhelmed and were taking casualties. Men were wounded and without medical attention, they’d soon bleed out.
And the pilots weren’t faring any better. Their unfortunate plight was later profiled in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The story behind the story however has not often been heard. That’s how the small elite team stare down the fear wolf to stand their ground. Back at the joint SpecOps task force where the United Nations peacekeeping force was stationed, there was a quick reaction force or QRF. This unit was from an allied nations military and was to assist a crisis in an ongoing mission. The QRF had armored personnel carriers, and were ready to go the moment they got the call. And at that moment the rangers called. And the QRF stayed put.
25:07 there’s an ironclad military ethos – an American military ethos – that you never leave a teammate behind or in the field in danger. You do what you can – even at great risk to yourself to rescue them.
QRF apparently did not share that ethos. They deemed the situation as extremely risky – which was definitely true. Regardless their leader elected to keep them safe and sound in the compound, while the rangers bled out and fought furiously to get to safety.
Captain Olson and the other American forces watched this scenario unfolded with distress. He’d been trained to lead by example and his stand was that in the midst of a crisis the warrior steps into the breach. The other elite special operators in the compound were another navy SEAL and two delta force operators.
Olson’s assessment was simple. They could sit back and watch the ranger die or they could get into the fight. Good news was that the Somali shooters had zero training. The bad news was that there were quite literally hundreds of them. 4 more Americans simply represented 4 more targets to them.
But Olson and his three troops were hardened by years of training for combat. They had put in their dirt time, shot millions of rounds of ammunition in all sorts of environments. They were masters of the game. Knew how to push the envelope when it came to risk. They understood where the edges were in terms of their skills, weapons and tactics.
With a comfort level for risk like that it’s easier to find physical courage to engage the enemy when a crisis hits.
This is not to say that these men didn’t experience fear. That wouldn’t be normal. That existential fear – like I said earlier – will always be present when there are high risks of loss. Olson and his men had trained for the high-risk situation of this sort and were able to operate effectively with a pickup team in an ad-hoc situation. Though they hadn’t teamed together before, they shared a common background, training, purpose and ethos.
This sharing of experience and purpose is seen in the seventh commitment of alignment later in the book, and demonstrates how each commitment reinforces the other.
Alignment amongst a team allows them to move beyond physical courage to activate moral and spiritual courage. When the moment came for decisive action they were able to enter the fight without hesitation. They didn’t know if they were gonna survive, but they did know that they were gonna give all they had to get their teammates out.
So the four men grabbed their battle gear and as many grenades, rockets and ammo as they could carry. After a brief chat with the QRF leader, the four loaded into their hardened Humvee and left the protection of the compound.
The QRF stood and watched. I’m sure you could have heard a pin drop. I may be making this up, but I think the reaction force was shamed into action. Not that Olson was trying to shame them, but shamed they were. It’s a big deal in their culture.
They quickly overcame their inertia and stepped up to act, because they were shown a different way of acting.
Action is the best way to eliminate doubt. The QRF mobilized with the special operators, and fought their way to the rangers.
Courage is a commitment, but it’s obscured by fear in the conditioning of self-preservation. To overcome it and stare down the wolf, you and your team can, 1) develop an unusually high tolerance for risk, 2) make training as close to reality as possible, and 3) align around a stand or code of conduct – one that includes courage.
Playing it safe can get you killed. At first Mogadishu seemed relatively stable. The warlord Aidid gave the impression he was in control.
But then he wasn’t. And Somalia descended into chaos. Where have you seen that movie before? Venezuela descends into chaos. Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan – who’s next? Which industries have disappeared overnight and which will do so soon? Massive volatility and uncertainty will continue for the foreseeable future – perhaps forever.
The QRF team was paralyzed by fear and uncertainty brought on by volatility. Rangers were on patrol, and then they’re in the middle of a massive firefight. The black hawk pilots zipped off on a routine sortie and then they’re fighting for their lives in the middle of a city in chaos. Uncertainty of that magnitude will paralyze anyone not trained to tolerate a high degree of risk.
To mitigate uncertainty and overcome your subconscious fear, you must train for it. Even if you don’t operate in a high-risk environment you can train to handle rapid change and existential threats to your team and company. Call it what you want – “crisis response,” “risk mitigation,” or “scenario based training.”
In the later chapter on resiliency, I discuss my work with shell oil. The leadership at shell is aware of their need to train for risk. They know from experience that the culture and the bottom line will be negative impact, if they don’t. Risk training is sop on their rigs and it happens daily.
As a result shell is one of the more courageous and resilient companies that I know of. The volatility and uncertainty won’t go away, but they’ll respond in a controlled manner, rather than react in a negative way when the shit hits the fan.
We have a saying in the SOF community, “the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” preparing for high risk requires you press the edges of the team’s comfort zone. If you’re gonna have a major fuckup, my SEAL mentor – William McRaven, you’ll read his story in the next chapter – taught me that it’s best to have all that fuckup in training. A protected failsafe environment will give you and the team the confidence and the resourcefulness when the real world crisis shows up. Where things are breaking down rapidly.
You won’t freeze in fear and be able to stand your ground and respond with courage. Risk is ratcheted up every time you visit the training. This ratcheting frames your mindset to take on more and more risk. You and the team are able to self-regulate stress and fear – giving you a greater perspective and appreciation for what you had the capacity to deal with. To take on a risky mission in the SEALs we used the crawl, walk, run method to ratchet-up risk tolerance.
Learning the parachute jump – for instance – required we start from a three foot high wooden table. We practice the parachute landing fall on the ground, then we jump from the table over and over. Once we mastered that, we moved on to a small 30-foot tower. Then a 200-foot tower that was like a zip line with a parachute.
From there it was the static line jump from a height of a thousand feet. And when we were proficient with that risk – after many more jumps – we proceeded then to freefall training. There we learned how to maintain situational awareness, stabilize our body, pull the ripcord at the right height, deal with any malfunctions. And we repeated the crawl, walk, run for this entire phase.
We didn’t embarked on the first high-risk freefall jump out of a perfectly good airplane until after all that training. Eventually teams were able to freefall jump at night with o2 and full equipment load into enemy territory.
Ratcheting up risk tolerance one degree at a time is like slowly boiling a frog. Sorry to my frogman friends for that sad metaphor.
This simple, but brilliant tactic dramatically improved skills in volatile and uncertain situations. It cultivates the team’s capacity for facing risky situation with courageous action. In other words we habituated the behaviors and actions that appeared courageous to others. In order to be courageous you must do courageous things.
Greek philosopher Aristotle considered courage to be a core virtue to develop in a leader. In his Nicomachean ethics he explains that courage exists as a middle path between extremes of fear and boldness. Being too fearful leads to cowardice, while fearlessness can make one rash. The dance is to find the middle ground through trial and error in a setting as close to the actual mission condition as possible. That requires realism in your training. We’re not looking just to add risk for the sake of cultivating risk tolerance – we must also train with as much realism as possible to simulate the conditions for failure.
Using our crawl walk run example you will learn the boundaries of bravado and cowardice through practice in a realistic environment where you can habituate the thoughts and behaviors of authentic courage. You’ll stare down the wolf of fear through practice, through failure and because your team will expect you to grow. They will be watching you and helping you. They need you to be courageous and are rooting for you as you are to them.
Aristotle says “the courageous man withstands and fears those things which it is necessary to fear and withstand. And on account of the right reasons. And how and when it’s necessary to fear or withstand them. And likewise in the case of being bold.”
What he’s saying is the courageous individual can be fearful and bold at the same time. But they won’t let fear paralyze them. At the right time and for the right reasons they will act.
Training for risk realistically helps develop a keen eye toward what failure points could compromise your mission. Let’s call those the critical nodes. Observing which nodes or points are the critical nodes during your high-risk training allows you to build redundancies and quick responses, to avoid a cascading failure. That break that leads to another break until the whole system is compromised.
In the parachuting example there are several critical nodes. Clearly, contact with the ground is an important one. In that final moment – that last inch – if you don’t flare properly, bend your knees, or execute a parachute landing fall – you can break bones or worse. Never mind compromising the mission.
However this one is not the most critical of the critical nodes. One that’s considered by the SEALs to be most critical that is. The moment of chute deployment is even more important. Imagine that.
Worst case scenario, that thin canopy never opens, or partially deploys. What do you do in that moment? You train for it relentlessly and you have redundancies built in.
Every critical node in your process requires a contingency. If your team, no matter the profession, is heading into volatility, they can reduce uncertainty and cowardice by having a plan for when things go wrong. Practice that plan to gain certainty and habituate the courage muscle by upping the risk incrementally. Sweat more in peace.
Eric Olson later became a four-star admiral and the commander of special operations command or SOCOM. In that role he was quoted as saying “what you do and what you tolerate in your presence best demonstrates your standards.”
What you do relates to demonstrating the standard yourself – leading by example. If Olson had ordered those operators to go out, but he hadn’t endured the same realistic and risky training, they wouldn’t have been happy. “Hey, go ahead guys you lead the charge. I’m sure the QRF will follow. I’ll hold down the fort here.”
Well that doesn’t work well in high-risk situations with SOF leaders. SOF leaders know that they have to lead by example and they’re comfortable doing it by training the risk and realism alongside their troops. Olson knew that in order to inspire courage in his men that he had to demonstrate that courage. And he had to demonstrate a standard for courageous behavior.
What you tolerate in your presence is important too. Olson had no authority to order the QRF out. They were strategic partners, not his subordinates. But he did know from experience, that people can be inspired to action through the actions of others. He set a standard for them through the example of his small team. Had he not led through his own example, he’d also given a stamp approval to the QRF’s lack of engagement.
You can see that not holding to an agreed-upon standard for courageous action has become an issue in our world today. Standing for what you want or desire in the moment is not always courageous. It’s equally likely to be a fear-based, conditioned response. Until we examine those deeply conditioned behaviors that leads to our fear-based reactionary thinking, we’ll lack the conditions for courage.
Because we have walked away from any universal standard in our western culture, everyone stands for what feels right versus what is right. And what feels right is bias, so everyone is fighting each other’s biases without seeing or admitting their own.
Often it’s not you as a leader who lacks the courage. I’m confident many of you reading this or listening to this, hold yourself to an extremely high standard. One requiring courageous behavior.
But your team could be locked in fear do you know if they’ll stand the ground with you when the crisis hits? Does the culture or legalism of your organization restrain bold action? Can you take forceful action to demonstrate the move forward, showing the team your standard?
Or will you end up surrendering to the lower standard of the culture or the group? This is a tough one, right? Sometimes it’s a matter of not wanting to make people feel less than comfortable, not wanting to rock the boat or the status quo. Everything’s working okay.
Perhaps there are gender or ethnicity considerations that make the leader worried that challenging to a new standard could be assessed as biased or discriminatory.
The point is definitely tricky. I believe everyone has the potential for courageous behavior when they stare down the wolf. Regardless of age, race, gender or sexual orientation everyone can aspire to and achieve a higher standard through training and practice.
However in our postmodern corporate world, that notion has fallen prey to a misdirected political correctness and cultural sensitivity. One that is not always truly sensitive and pays respect to the ways we are different. This has led to a weakening of overall standards of excellence, making courageous behavior a challenge.
In the SEALs, the risks are so high that this issue is diminished greatly, though not eliminated entirely. Communication through words and action has to be brutally clear and honest. Risking, clarity, and honesty are hallmarks of elite teams. It’s how courage is displayed, by taking a stand – making a stand through the team’s action. Building a culture of courage is not easy but it’s definitely worth it.
Courage flows from the heart. It makes sense that the courage wolf is said to reside there in the heart. I used that synonymous Japanese word Kokoro in my Unbeatable Mind coaching program. Which can be translated as merging heart and mind into your action.
It’s similar to courage, but it speaks to one’s permanent character at the fifth plateau. It’s not just a single action. From that place your actions flow from a deep awareness of who you are, why you do what you do, and because you have overcome negative conditioning. When you consider the second part of the word courage –age, I suggest to you that we’re in the age of heart. It’s what Olson showed on that battlefield. It’s important for you as a leader of leaders and as a teammate to lead with your heart and mind merged into your actions. Only then can you take a stand in a crisis and know that your teammates will mobilize with you.
Take a Stand
When you lead from the heart, you understand why something needs to be done at an emotional level. Emotions are why we do hard things. Thinking precedes action, but should not prevent action.
Once the thinking is done your heart and emotions will lead the way. Developing a stand requires that you think first through all the consequences of your decisions to all parties and the environment. Those consequences likely could include some personal or professional failure. Sometimes a big one.
You appreciate that those consequences won’t just impact you as a leader, but the team and the entire organization. As a result, knowing where you stand and committing to acting from the heart through courageous behavior is risky business.
Olson and his team were clear about their stand and knew what needed to be done. They were able to link their vision to the mission to the current situation where the rangers were pinned down.
It wasn’t just about the immediate mission, however. Those rangers were their teammates in extremis if Olson didn’t have a code of conduct to save them not only would more have perished, but the entire Somalia mission could have been an abject failure.
But he and his team had absolute clarity about what needed to be done. And they would have done it alone if necessary.
In order to take a stand you must make decisions from the head and the heart only then will you act and not cowardice or rashness. You must have a strong vision about what needs to be done. And a definitive stance on why it needs to be done. And why you’re the one that needs to do it.
In addition, you must be aware of the consequences. And be willing to accept them, because it’s that important to you.
The failure of my ability to form an elite team in my first business venture had a silver lining it forced me to clarify my personal mission and my stand. And to step into my own courage again. I had to risk it all by standing my ground.
After the relationship with my wife’s family devolved into nothingness, I gained deeper clarity around my vision of what I wanted to do.
I mentioned earlier that I’d brought in an investor and mentor whose name was Jim. Jim and I began to discuss expanding the business and he was going to help finance the expansion. He had already dumped $200,000 into the project, and was to put in a lot more. So I revealed to him that when he first invested I had acquiesced to my partner’s demands that he not be allowed into the real estate partnership that owned the CBC property.
So he now knew suddenly that he’s gonna be exposed to a lot more risk and had even less security to back his investment than he was privy to. Situation got even more VUCA when my former partners decided to wrest back control – or to try to wrest back control of the business from me.
I was forced to take my stand. I’d put my personal reputation on the line with Jim, and with many other friends, and my family back east. I owed them every ounce of energy I had to get a return on their investment.
Jim’s money and my vision for expansion was the best chance for this. I thought to move forward I had to rectify the wrong that had been done to him, with the real estate partnership and with that clarity I stared down my fear of confrontation and acted with my heart guided by my moral compass. This led to our last stand – our OK Corral moment – which I won both on moral and legal grounds. But at great personal cost.
A terrific way to truly appreciate what you stand for and what you tolerate in the presence of others is by observing closely when you and your team get pushed to the edge in a crisis. When you realize you’ve crossed an unspoken red line, you’ll be able to identify that unspoken rule for why and how you need to do things. This is your integrity revealing itself in the moment. You just know you cannot stand for it and ultimately you have to take courageous action.
In my case, I organized a buyout for a very small gain for my shares and most CBC investors. Except that my partners would not include Jim just to spite him. It was a deal breaker for me. But Jim persuaded me to take the deal anyways, and not worry about him. It was chump change to him. He was happy that I had done all I could to protect his interest. Jim was a good man.
As mentioned earlier, I sold my interest in CBC for peanuts and walked away. I was walking away from my baby – my first successful business venture and millions of dollars in the process.
But by clarifying and taking a stand I learned things more valuable than all that money in the world. The reputation was temporary tarnished by these assholes, but my integrity remained intact. I was empowered, because I had learned to connect to my heart and find the courage to face high risk in the business world. Truth has a way of finding the light and my reputation has been much strengthened since those days. Not only that but this epic fail provide the spark of insight into how building an elite business team would be more challenging than what I had experienced in the SEALs.
Boldly going where no one has gone before – in May of 2019 I was invited to speak to the launch team at SpaceX, which was started by my eccentric hero Elon Musk. When I think about SpaceX, the concept of courage immediately comes to mind. Elon and his team are elite operatives by any measure. They are courageous. Know how to navigate VUCA, and have developed an incredible tolerance for risk.
They train and test realistically and relentlessly. And are willing to see epic fails on their way to success. SpaceX tests everything they build at every stage of development. In their early days they experienced 50% fail rate on their rockets. They would send one up and it would explode or crash.
Yet they would call that launch a success. Larger companies would take hits that serious and retrench. Go back to the drawing board.
Not SpaceX. They expected to fail from the get-go. They knew that they had to learn how to do things differently and better if they had a prayer of meeting their mission. They knew the problems were ridiculously complex, but this just fueled their passion. They had to accept unbelievable risks, train relentlessly and improve by testing and failing forward faster and faster until they had nailed it.
And then they continued on to the next big mission. They’ve mastered the military tool for handling VUCA – the OODA loop. OODA looping is how teams find their way or make it through VUCA. The acronym stands for “observe, orient, decide and act.” I’ve written about this in detail in my book on mentally tough leadership “The Way of the SEAL.”
SpaceX utilizes it by forming a test, and then observing and measuring what happens to all the systems. Then they’ll reorient to the new reality that the data reveals. Then come a new set of decisions.
Finally they take the courageous action, don’t wait for a perfect plan or conditions to execute. Then they repeat the process. If there is a system or mission failure, they observe and orient themselves to the new data that went wrong, create a new set of decisions, and take action again. Rinse and repeat.
The OODA loop allows them to constantly speed up their process improvement and their execution skills. Learning accelerates while the failure rate decelerates. That’s a winning combination.
Does that mean that they control the risk? Absolutely not. In fact, it allows them to work with even more elevated risk. Up until May of 2019 they’d been launching hunks of metal up into space.
Now they intended to perform their first human spaceflight. And sending humans up into space is an entirely new level of risk. One that makes many of the engineers and scientists very nervous. Their fear wolves are howling. But I know that they’ve trained their risk tolerance and have the courage to send real humans into space. They’ve taken a stand and developed a “failure is not an option” mindset.
Many misunderstand that saying by the way. I see it to mean that we embrace failure to find our way to success. When we’re knocked down seven times, you get up eight and stronger. It doesn’t mean you can’t tolerate failure.
That’s how the SpaceX team sees it too. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have negative conditioning that could cripple their individual leaders decision-making. That’s why they’re adamant about developing and leading with an integrated perspective. It’s also why they invited me to speak to the team.
The elite wilderness firefighter smokejumpers code applies to SpaceX – “we do today where others won’t, so we can do tomorrow what others can’t.”
Right now what no human led company can do is send a manned spaceship to another planet to colonize it. That however is SpaceX’s mission. To make the human species a spacefaring, multiplanetary species. Starting with mars.
Elon said that he would like to die on mars, just not on impact. They have to perform their first manned space-flight, but there’s no going back. And that takes serious courage. They have to throw their heart into that action, because their vision and stand is set to change the course of humanity.
I mentioned that I was asked to speak to the launch team because they were scared and they were willing to admit it. They were being human, and not acting like bureaucratic robots. They wanted me to teach them mental toughness and emotional coping skills. Which they knew I did for special ops and elite teams.
Interestingly enough, I think it’s easier for the actual astronauts heading into space to face the mission with a mentally tough, emotionally resilient attitude. That’s because the astronauts are like navy SEALs. They’ve trained relentlessly since the early 20s in extraordinarily realistic and high-risk environments.
My story is that this is their next grand adventure. And they understand the stakes and the consequences of failure. I know that’s how I would view it.
These astronauts have ratcheted up their risk tolerance throughout their career. And taking on this mission is a stand for them that makes it worth their personal risk.
However the engineers who had developed the technology and the launch team who sends rockets into space aren’t trained like that. This is a defining moment for them, where failure could have dire consequences. While the risk – for this part of the team – isn’t to their life, they feel it almost as acutely as the astronauts. How are they going to deal with that as a team? We talked about how to learn to control what they can control. How to train their mindset and emotional capacity to manage stress – the way special operators do.
I feel honored to have the opportunity to work with this fifth plateau team.
Courage is the first commitment. The one thing that can destroy courageous behavior however – in a heartbeat – is a breakdown of trust.
And in the next chapter we’ll discuss the second commitment of how to build trust.
Hooyah. Thanks folks. Appreciate your time. And I hope you enjoy the podcast and find some value. If you’ve got any questions or like to send some feedback, please send it to info(at)unbeatablemind.com. That’s email. Or use one of our social media channels – twitter is mark divine or our SEALfit or Unbeatable Mind Facebook pages.
Okay, so see you next time. Till then, stare down that wolf, cultivate courage.