Personnel in the military and special operations require unbreakable minds and bodies. Peak cognitive and physical performance can mean the difference between life and death, between a successful mission and one that comes up short.
In his podcast debut, we sit down the the person responsible for founding Seal Team 7: Ret. Navy Seal Admiral Alexander Krongard. Between reaching one of the highest ranks achievable in the Navy, serving in President Barack Obama's National Security Council Staff, and now doing business in Silicon Valley, Alex has deep insight in human performance from a very unique angle.
Alex, really excited to have you on the program.
I'm excited to be here Geoff and your new digs.
Yeah, so we were breaking into a new HVMN podcast studio and you're the first one to break it in. So I couldn't think of a better guest. So I know that we've had so many different conversations touching upon philosophy, business, life approach. But perhaps to frame up the conversation here, a lot of I think your mindset really comes from your background as a Navy SEAL, and a Navy SEAL admiral. Perhaps we best start from your background, how you came up, how you grew up, the surrounding there, and how the Navy experience began.
Okay. I won't go all the way back to the beginning. So I was getting to the end of college and pretty challenging shall we say college experience after four years of intense boarding school. And I was looking at going to law school, and the last thing I wanted to do on the planet was three more years of school. And I was looking at options and one of the options was the military. And, I did some stuff with the Marine Corps first and then I found out about the SEAL teams. And I talked to a bunch of SEALs and I thought this sounds good and I think I can get through training. And I signed up for this SEAL teams, and I think the day I got accepted which was say February of my senior year, I went home and that night I lay awake thinking, what did I do to myself?
You got accepted for the SEAL teams before you graduated college.
Back then you had to get accepted by the SEALs and then the Navy would accept you. If you did not have a spot in SEAL training, you could not get a commission in the United States Navy. And it was just an odd way they did business back then. And actually I think they may still do it that way for certain people.
For officer candidate.
For officer candidates. And it all comes down to manpower management really. So I graduated in June, I waited a couple months. Went through Navy officer candidate school. And in January of 1986, I started SEAL training. Basic underwater demolition SEAL training, BUD/S. And, it was probably the greatest experience of my life. I say I had a good time. Good time is relative, but it was fun. It was incredibly challenging. But the best part about it was at the end of the day, the day was over. You maybe polished your boots, got your uniform ready for the next day, maybe some other equivalent. And then you went to sleep and you may not get a lot of sleep, but you woke up in the morning, you faced a new day with new challenges. But every day ended. And that was something different than college had been where you could never ... And I was an English major and I was supposed to read 3000 pages a week and there's no way I was going to do that. And so it was just a better lifestyle. And I expected to stay three or four years. And I tell people I woke up one day and I'd been in 31 years. And my motivation for staying changed over the years. My first, five to 10 years, it was just flat out fun. We were jumping out of airplanes, diving, shooting, blowing things up, traveling all over the world. It was really, really interesting. And I liked the people I was with and like I said, it was fun. And it was also physically and mentally challenging. And then over time you start to, I'll call it professionalize.
You become part of the profession of arms. You learn how to do things and you learn what your strengths are within the institution and within whatever organization you're serving.
And so by the time I had been in 15 years, I had worked with not the same group of people that whole time, but with a lot of the same group. And I felt obligations to them and I wanted to do a good job for them. And, I think around the 17 year point I was selected to start a new SEAL team, SEAL team seven, and went out to Coronado, California right after 9/11. I think I got there the last couple of days of October 2001. And there were eight of us, and we were supposed to start this SEAL team. And everything was overseas supporting what was going on in Afghanistan. And then later on by 2003 it was overseas supporting Iraq. And somehow, we slowly built the team from the ground up and had a lot of discussions of what we wanted the team to be like and that kind of thing. But while we were having our discussions the world around us is changing a lot. The Iraq War was kicking off, we are now fighting two wars plus there was other stuff going on in the Pacific and down in Africa. And we weren't sure where we were going to end up. We went to overseas in September of 2003, and we came back in April 2004. And in that time period, we consolidated SEAL team seven in Iraq for a period of, I don't know, four or five months. And it was just fascinating carrying out operations each and every night that we had been training forever to do. And, it wasn't quite as exciting for me. I was the guy who is I put it, their day ended when the sun came up and my day started taking advantage of whatever they accomplished the night before and explaining why it was good or why it wasn't as bad as it seemed, to the people I worked for. And then the sun would go down, the guys would go out again. And sometimes I would go out with them. But at this point in my career it was pretty obvious that I had to be there sometimes just to see what was going on and make sure things were going right. But if I was there every night, I'd be in the way, and it wasn't my job. And that was a really hard realization to come to that my job was not what I had trained my whole career to do. It was actually something different, and it was to take care of the it was about 280 people, make sure they had what they needed to do their job. And in April of 2004, we all came home. It was a great feeling to step off the airplane in San Diego and realize what SEAL team seven had accomplished in that time period. And since then, what we did in that deployment has been eclipsed multiple times by SEAL team seven itself and by every other SEAL team. But, back then we were just starting out and it was a great way to start.
Yeah. That must have been a huge honor to be selected to stand up a new team. There's what, eight, nine, 10 different teams depending on how you count them. So being one of the few founding commanding officers, that's a very selected fraternity, I would imagine.
It's funny. On the face of it, it seems that way. But obviously, I know the guy who started SEAL team 10 roughly the same time we started SEAL team seven and I don't know, we never thought of it that way. It was an honor, but it was as I put it in, I'll go back on my walker to the 25th anniversary of SEAL team seven's founding and I might get recognized that one time. And that's about it. I don't think SEAL have short memories. And I think it's one of our greatest strengths that we don't dwell too much on the past. I think we take lessons from it, but we doesn't try to be whatever it was in the past every day. We look at what the problems are right now and we solved those problems.
Yeah. And that's something I think is important because, I think before getting to know you over the last year, year and a half, two years and interacting with folks in the SEAL community and in the special ops community, I think in the media, a lot of these commandos or super soldiers are alpha individuals. And I think the biggest takeaway that I've seen is that, and I think you probably would attest to this. It's not about the individual, it's about the team. And it seems that's reflecting into not having a hero worship for any specific SEAL, but just about the whole mission about the whole team of SEALs.
It's all about teams. And from the first day of BUD/S they teach you that. And with the officers, they're really hard on that. I can remember in one port at one time and training, something happened and some guys who were in my boat crew did something, they didn't obey and order quickly or I don't remember whatever it was. And the first time the punishment was that I was put in a rubber boat and they lifted me over their heads. And that was to show me that they were carrying me, literally carrying me and also figuratively and that I better make the right decisions, that kind of thing. But the second time something that happened, the guy's got it, they got their little time in the barrel so to speak. And their punishment was a little different than carried around in a boat. But it's all the instructors going through SEAL training. And then, and back in the teams itself, the last thing you want is as an individual, you're looking for a good team player. And as a matter of fact, there are some phenomenal individual athletes and great, on the outside they do great things that they're not so great in the teams because they're not team players. And team player is a different sort of person.
Yeah. I think that's a valuable lesson that crosses into just life in general. I think we're in a society where problems are so complex that it's very rarely the case of a lone athlete or lone genius that solves the world's problems. I mean the most impactful organizations are tens, hundreds, thousands of people working in the same joint missions. I think it's a culture that hopefully we inspire and bring to the broader society or less people that are selfish and individualistic. One point I wanted to bring up was that you described BUD/S as fun, and I think very few humans would describe it as such. Right? There's one of the most hellish difficult selection programs. What is the past rate, sub 10 percent?
30 percent roughly go through. Historically.
Okay. But it even enter SEAL training yet there's a selection. And then once you're even selected for BUD/S, there's a pretty high attrition rate.
Yes, but I'm not the only person on the planet who thought it was fun.
But I feel only the top SEALs that come out say it's fun. I think everyone else that's a normal person, God damn, I'm running miles a day. I'm not sleeping. I'm going through hell week, which is five, six days of not sleeping and just doing obstacle courses and boat races, and running and having bombs explode around you.
There are several ways I think it was fun. The first is that you hear all these stories about hell week, and I the one I remember is-
Can you describe hell week?
So hell week roughly starts, I don't know what it's like. I'll describe it in 1986 or what I remember, and I don't think it's changed tremendously. You 'go to sleep' on Sunday night and about an hour after you go in your 10 or whatever, there are all these explosions and blank machine gunfire and people yelling at you, and you can't see anything. And they do all these drills just to get you disoriented and see how the people who are supposed to be in charge in that situation gain control over the situation. And they get you wet. They have you roll around in the sand and all kinds of other unpleasant things. And then you start a series of events. And the events are handed down from class to class. The stories or the narrative. You know what's coming, but you don't necessarily know the order and you're so disoriented that you can't remember everything anyway. But the first or second night, and one other thing really important thing is if you can make it to the, so you start Sunday night. If you can make it till Tuesday morning, you're probably gonna make the whole thing. I think the majority of the people quit the first night and then some the second night. Anyway, there was this thing, I don't even know if they do it anymore called the steel pier.
I can't remember if you took off all your clothes or you have a pair of triathlon shorts underneath. And you jumped in San Diego Bay, and we did this in February. So, the water is probably in the low fifties. And you did survival floating, and the real reason you're doing spiral flooding is so that you get your head in the water. And you go survival float. And then they say, "Oh, we got to get you warm now." So you get up, you lay on the steel pier, which is called too. And guys come around and they have blankets wrapped around them and they rub the blanket to us, "Doesn't this feel nice sir? Wouldn't you want to be in the ambulance?" And to me, I'd heard the stories about it and I was cold, I'm not saying I wasn't hurting. But it was also funny that oh yeah, they're trying to get me to clean ... I could understand what was going on and, and I was finally living the story instead of just hearing the story.
I was one step closer to joining the brotherhood of all the people who had gone through that. To me, that was fun. There were tangible rewards every step of the way.
I made it through another evolution. One of the big tricks to make it through BUD/S is if you think about it as six months or 12 months of training until you get to a SEAL team, you'll never make it. But if you think of it as six minutes or 60 minutes, I gotta make it through this, you'll do fine. And it's actually not such a bad way to get through difficult things in life either. If I can just make it through this, I'll be fine.
Yeah, just decompartmentalize the problem, right? Just one small portion of the time.
Exactly. And there were other events that in training, and there's some real famous hell week events, steel pier is one of them. Taking your boats through the obstacle course is another. They have this long paddle around Coronado island. That is another thing. And as you went through these things and you mentally checked them off you were like, "That's pretty fun." And they make fun of people and you have fights where you throw mud at each other. It's childish at times, but when you haven't any sleep for five days, you'll laugh at anything.
Yeah. I think when we talked about this before, you mentioned that you thought yourself through BUD/S and it sounds you very much took that approach where you realized that these were tricks, gimmicks, little stunts that they were playing on you. And it sounded like you were able to rationalize and process that and power through that way. Where I think if you listen to some of the other folks that went to BUD/S, it might've been more of a simplistic, animalistic, just I'm going to power through this. Would you say there's just different approaches to tackle a problem?
Everyone uses whatever tools they developed over the course of their life up until BUD/S to get through things. After training we had, all the officers who had made it through hell week, our class and the classes before us. And we're meeting with the captain in charge of BUD/S. And he had this theory that everyone who made it through hell week had gone through some trauma in their life. And they're going around the table, and everyone had had some trauma. They get to me and I go, "You know sir, I just haven't had that. I had a silver spoon in my mouth my whole life." But what I did have was I had a series of challenging academic situations. I mean it sounds stupid, but it's showing that, I had done a lot of outdoor stuff and I enjoyed it and I could understand what was going on. And in that understanding, I knew that I could make it through. And the other, they tell you this in training, there are two things they tell you. One is they'll never do anything with you that they don't train you to do first. And the second is they don't do things, you're not expected to do things that you're not physically capable of doing. And if you could believe that which I did, you could make it. And, maybe I was too credible with the instructors. I don't know. But every time we did something, I was like, "I can do this. And, they wouldn't have us do this if it was going to kill us," or whatever. And I think that's how I would describe thinking my way through it. And then understanding not to take it as a big chunk, a six month chunk, but maybe a six minute chunk at times.
Yeah. No, that's fascinating. I know that just applying that to even the business world of our startup. We've been running HVMN for the last four plus years and if you just think about how we've come since it was just me and Michael two of us together till now in a new office and a bunch of talented people around us launching really cool products, that would have been unforeseeable.
People obsess over failure, but they never think about what they're going to do if they're successful. It's funny, the worst day for a lot of people in the SEAL teams is the day they report to their first SEAL team because they've been so focused on getting through BUD/S that they don't know what they're going to do after they get to the sale team. In business, people don't think enough about what am I going to do if I'm really successful in this? And that's why I think you have a lot of these companies that have problems after they hit it big too.
The failure of leadership.
I mean people are hesitant to think about hey, what am I going to do if I hit it out of the park? But I think you need to think about things, just like you need to think about if I strike out to.
Yeah, that's fair enough. I think it's almost the good problem to have. I think people have enough actual problems and think about where it's like okay, if I'm matching a position where we're really successful, I can figure it out. But I think what I hear from you is that don't take that too lightly because if you're actually doing it right, there's a big chance you can maybe actually hit it out of the park. So you should be thoughtful about that case as well.
And be ready too, organizationally. You have to hire the right people to do that, the guy or the man or woman who got you to the point you're at might not be the person that gets you to the next level. And, there's a whole bunch of business literature about this. People read it, I don't think they do it.
And did you see that yourself in the SEAL teams? In some perspective, you hit it out of the park as a Naval officer. You were one of the most senior SEALs period. Going from starting team seven to commanding warfare group one, all the west coast SEAL teams. Did you have this vision of how you would be a commander and leader of SEALs as you were going through this process? Did you plan for your happy case?
I lucked out in one sense, or I guess they actually in two senses. The first is my father was a CEO of an investment bank and I grew up listening to him. I mean I've had a 50 something year conversation about leadership with him. It just gave me a lot to think about and a lot to fall back on it. And then the other thing, I went to War College right after SEAL team seven and there was just fascinating course in War College called so you want to make a difference. What the course was basically we were all let's say halfway through a potential career of 30 years. We all at a little over halfway, we were all at 17, 18, 19 years.
These are career officers?
All of us are career officers. Army, Navy, Air Force, marines and foreign officers. And this retired Australian four star admiral who had been head of their, the Australian armed forces, the chief of their joint staff. He taught this incredible course that I could best sum up by saying if I had fallen asleep then or anyone in the class that fallen asleep and woken up 10 or 15 years later as a four star in charge of the US military, how do you approach that? Because it's a different kind of leadership. It has different problems. It is not at all what the officer who steps foot into BUD/S and in my case, 1986 faces. And in the process of thinking through that, I think puts it really well it's not the answers that matters. It's the asking of the questions. And so Admiral Barry, Chris Barry, he gave us good questions to ask. And so at each stage I haven't known what to do, but I at least had a good idea of what the questions were.
What were some of these questions?
Can you share some of these good questions?
So one of the questions is what motivates the people around you? Why are they there? And that changes, one of the biggest differences between being a SEAL team seven Co, when I was a SEAL team seven CO, I may not give orders to run the team on a day to day basis. That's the number two guy, the executive officer's job and the operations officer. But I had my hands on the controls. But then later when I go to group one and it's teams one, three, five and seven are working for me, each of those community officers, that's his team.
I can give a direct order, but he is going to execute it the way he sees fit. And that's a whole different kind of leadership.
And understanding those guys and how they functioned and asking myself what does SEAL team three need vice what does the commanding officer thinks it needs that question over and over again. And also just listening more than talking made for, I think hopefully, I'm not the best judge, more effective leadership at the group level. And a lot of it was letting people do what they wanted to do and see how it worked out and only interrupting them as sporadically as possible. Or asking them the right question and getting them to think about it. And they may not do what I wanted, but in answering the question for themselves, they started down that path.
Yeah, that's sorta the meta leadership. You're not giving the direct orders, but you're helping the functional leaders or the sub leaders make the best possible decision along your strategy.
Exactly. And that's the other thing is your strategy, I used to tell people if you go to a rifle range, you don't shoot past a certain distance or certain angle on the left and a certain angle on the right and those are called the range limits or something. Anyway, you got to give them the arc that they're going to fire on and you have to stay inside that, but you let them wander around inside that arc. And, a lot of people can't make that transition up, because they want to tell the person what specific place to shoot out. They don't want to let them pick and choose on a generalized 30 degree arc or something.
Is that the biggest gap from folks going into the senior ranks you did versus the people that didn't quite cross that chasm?
That and accepting ... Some people frankly and honestly and for great reasons aren't interested in higher leadership because either they're capable of it just doesn't excite them or they know they're capable of it, a whole bunch of reasons. But, some people like, I enjoyed it. I reached my level too, and you wake up one day and now I've arrived in time to do something else.
What was that realization? I imagine it wasn't just you've rolled over on one side of the bed one morning and you're like, I'm done. Or was it or is it a combination of factors?
If you're in any organization long enough, you understand what the organization is seeking in its leaders and who they promote. And while I think I was perfectly capable of going further, there were guys who buy experience and talent were better suited than I was.
In terms of command positions, in terms of deployment experience?
Mostly deployment experience. And also, it all depends on what jobs do you have. And I had stayed in a couple of jobs. I had really stayed in one job of probably a year longer than I should have. I liked it, I thought I was good at it. Frankly, we needed someone to stay in.
Which job was it?
It was at the National Security Council Staff. But National Security Council staff makes you great at policy, and frankly SEAL admirals, they're not really paid for policy until a much higher level than I was at. So, there was that dimension of things.
Sounds like politics basically, like the institutional politics a little bit where-
So there's institutional politics involved, but the guys making the decision, the generals and admirals, they had good reasons for picking someone else over me. And sometimes frankly, it's just timing, you're at the wrong place at the wrong time. And, I certainly had a little bit of that going. But, at the end of the day, the best way I can explain it is I think it was the USS Greenville. It's a submarine. and they had three commanding officers in a space of, it's like six months. And three guys had various mishaps and I think it was the middle guy, he was only there for a month. And he said he wouldn't trade that month for anything, he was just honored to have had the opportunity. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to have been an admiral for three years and serve as I did. And, I'm not going to cry over what could have been, do I think about it? Yeah, I think about it. But at the end of the day, things happen for a reason and perhaps I'm way too big a fatalist. I'm happy with how things turned out, and if they had really needed me, I sure I would still be there.
Yeah. That just reminds me of a recent conversation I've had around stoicism, around the acceptance of mortality in one sense, but I think what's more applicable as the acceptance of things you just cannot control, right? You just cannot control the timing of when you entered BUD/S or what officer positions. And you have to just play the cards you're dealt, right? Move forward. You've served alongside some of the most interesting people that are out on the podcast today. I know that you worked with Jocko Willink who has a great podcast. You've worked with David Goggins who is the ultra marathoner SEAL with a great backstory. And a lot of the SEAL celebrities that you see that have done amazing missions. I'm curious to hear your personal experience with those guys or any fun stories, with some of the team members that people might have heard of about.
I'll start with Jocko, it's the most colorful. So I've worked with Jocko, I'm almost positive it's three times now. And so a couple of things, I've told you some of this stuff about Jocko. So first is he really is who you see, that's not an act. He gets up that early, he works out that hard, and he talks that way. But with the second thing is in the 31 years I was in the Navy, I met one SEAL officer or SEAL period who could write better than Jocko, who was a better master of the English language than Jocko. Jocko, phenomenal writer, or at least in my experience he was.
He is one of the best people I know, training and preparing people for arduous conditions and challenging situations. He is about as passionate as possible for a human to be.
And we have a saying and the teams that, I've heard people say that if that guy called me at 2:00 AM to rob a bank, I'd go rob the bank with him. I'd probably do that with Jocko. I don't think he would want me on his bank robbery crew. But if the opportunity came up, I might take him up on it. Goggins I just know by reputation. One of the guys who worked for me was very close to him. And like you say it's an amazing story and he is a true master of endurance, athletic events. And he was a guy who was able to leverage the experience of being a CO in his own personal, we were talking about how you get through BUD/S. His personal motivations to take him even further in endurance world. And I'm trying to think of some of the other thing ... One of the sad things I've found in the SEAL teams, and I may be completely wrong on this. But when I came in the SEAL teams, it was full of characters. In the SEAL teams back in the day, you used to do what's called circle PT. We didn't line up in ranks to do PT like the rest of military. We were in a big circle on the asphalt outside the SEAL team, and everyone from the lowest ranking guy to the highest ranking guy would be in that circle doing PT. And I'll never forget getting to SEAL team one. And there was this guy and tremendous character nicknamed Bison Head. And Bison Head, which he would never PT with everyone else. He would walk around the circle and yell at everyone from the lowest ranking to the highest rank. I heard him correct the commanding officer of the team whose nickname was to the Hulk, I might add. And he was an AAU powerlifter and wrestler and pretty famous SEAL team one guy from Vietnam. And, he would correct the Hulk on his pushups and stuff like that.
Who's Bison Head. He was a master chief or something? Who was this guy?
He was in E6 at the time. So he was well below, he wasn't even a chief at the time. And he was just his personality and he had a role to play in the team. And that was who he was and he's great and I miss all those guys. I'm sure they're still out there, but the world doesn't seem as tolerant of a characters anymore in some ways. And so anyway, the guys like that. Obviously the guys that everyone looks up to, the incredible heroes. But they're all part of the team. The guy who I think is, I don't want you call him, the most competent operator ever is this guy Tom Norris who received the medal of honor for actions in the very late stages of Vietnam. And I'll never forget sitting in the SEAL team two classroom in 1988, or '99. And he was telling the story of the operations that he received the medal of honor for. And he would punctuate his story every so often by saying, "But anyone in this room, there are 200 of us in the room. Anyone in this room would do this." And I remember thinking to myself over and over again anyone in this room would have done what you did because we're all team guys, but almost none of us would have thought of doing it. He had a certain, I'll call it tactical genius. He just knew what to do in a way that most of us would do, had we thought of it, we just never would have thought of it. And so of all the guys, he's the guy I think-
Did he rescue other guys? What was his-
So I'll get the story wrong. But the gist of the story is they're at this, the guy bat 21. This Air Force I think lieutenant colonel or colonel with some really valuable information gets shot down over, bails up real up close near the border between north and South Vietnam. And they kind of know where he is, but they need someone to go pick them up. There's a north Vietnamese invasion coming. And so the first night these guys leave this embattled firebase and let's say there are eight of them, and it's really hairy. They come back, and the next night only five of them go out. And finally on either the third or fourth night, it's Tom Norris and a Vietnamese SEAL go out and they paddle upstream in a sampan. They find the guy, they grab him, they hide him in the bottom of the boat, and they paddle back down. And everywhere they look, there are just Northern Vietnamese tanks and soldiers and everything else. And they just paddle calmly just back through this. And they get the guy out, and I'm sure I've done a complete injustice to the story. It's just an amazing story. And the thing that I find so incredible is one, what he didn't do. He didn't call in air strikes because they would have known that he was there and that kind of thing. He just bluffed his way through. But also that he knew what the odds were and that the odds were getting worse, and yet he kept going out night after night. And it's amazing.
Yeah, these are heroes. These are stories that one hopes that they can make some sort of impact at that scale. Even on just saving one particular person's life. I think that's one of the biggest missions that the SEAL teams see right [inaudible 00:37:16] rescues or rescue missions. One thing that, in a recent conversation that we've had I thought was interesting was this notion around public service, national service. Where you have some like in a previous generation, I like to think that there's still that patriotism today in our current generation. But do you think that there's a gap between patriotism or this notion of public service that existed in our culture, in American culture 30, 40, 50 years ago versus today?
If you'd asked me that question maybe a year ago, I would've said yes. But what I am seeing now, and maybe it's just some weird dynamic and Silicon Valley is there are a lot of people who want to serve in some way. Now their notion of how they're going to serve I think it's different. But, I would say that this libertarian bent in Silicon Valley combined with a real passion about technology and driven by a notion of being of service to others is having people create solutions to really hard problems. I think people are frustrated by doing it through, certainly not my generation, but the generations before me. They did it through military service or going into government or that kind of thing. And I think people are doing it now by trying to create solutions for government or maybe serving episodically in government. And I think, I see more and more that I talk to more ... I don't talk to a lot of people my age who are interested in serving the government. I talk to a ton of people from say 18 to 30 to 32, 33 old who they want to serve some way, shape or form. And so I think service is coming back, but it's a different concept of service.
I think that rings true to me in the sense that even with typical employee, employee relationships that used to be you serve at a company for 30 years, got the gold watch. And perhaps the new model of a gig economy where people are driving for Uber or driving for Lyft, being a contractor. Could you have that similar model in government where there's more of a fresh blood of full cycle? I think we can get into a whole can of worms of what we would do to update government and governance. but I think one aspect that I thought was interesting and perhaps is more obfuscated for a lot of our listeners is the National Security Council. One of the most important national defense bodies, I guess essentially led by the national security advisor who. Today is, John Bolton. Advising the president on national security. What was it like beyond the council? So you were on the council serving Obama, right? And what's the experience like? What can you tell about that apparatus?
So I was technically on the staff. The National Security Council, just because I think few people appreciate it, is actually when the president and certain cabinet level officials meet, and the national security advisor John Bolton as you said, is in the room too. And then they have levels below that where the cabinet meets but not with the president.
Like the standing committee?
There's standing levels. And then there's a level below that where it's the deputies of the various organizations. And deputy is a broad notion. It's not necessarily the number two guy, it might be the number three or number four person in a department or agency. And so the first thing I would, and I don't mean this by way of excuse. I mean this sincerely, is that if a problem gets to the National Security Council level, by its very nature, it doesn't have an easy solution. It has, you picked the least bad thing. And I was amazed at the number of times, I mostly went to deputies levels meetings. And it was amazing the number of times I went in the meeting and I thought there's an easy solution. And then some goofy thing would come up from some agency you never would have thought would have been impacted. But their reason was super sound, and you had to take it into account. And you ended up with a less, on the face of it less optimal solution that everyone who is in that room knew that that was the best solution you were going to arrive at. And then the problem becomes executing the whatever decision is made. I think the decision's made were usually pretty sound. But execution, as soon as you make contact with the real world, the best laid plans go awry. As someone who might greatly respects says if you go in a football locker room, every play on the whiteboard goes for a touchdown.
But in the real world, in a football game it doesn't happen. Why is it going to happen to the real world? So the National Security Council in these meetings, they come up with good plans or good guidance to make the plants is a better way to describe it. But when they execute it, the real world tends to throw wrenches into the things. The only politics, aside because obviously politics is gonna color or it's going to be the basis you make the decision on.
People act like it's so easy to make these decisions. It's hard to make these decisions, and these people spend a lot of time.
And I guarantee you the Trump administration is spending as much time trying to figure this stuff out as the Obama or Bush before them, or Clinton before that. And, the model exists for a reason. It's I think Eisenhower brought it in back in the fifties.
So the apparatus is broad and the talent is broad, it's not just a few people in a room masterminding the world?
No, they can't. The cabinet level people tend to be, and the deputies, they are smart and they're great decision makers. And they have very competent staffs underneath them. But you're only as good as the information you have, and sometimes you're making decisions based on incomplete information. You can wait to make a better decision with better information, but the value of decision decreases or the opportunities lost may do bad things to you.
Yeah, I mean I'm just imagining the scale and the layers of decision making to even get to that level. Any tips or lessons learned from that experience? Even in our very, very small dealings with the government, there's such a large entity with so many moving parts and structures, and organizations. Any tips, or experiences learned from that experience within that apparatus?
Well, I always start with a simplistic version which is I'll go back to SEAL team seven in Iraq. I used to say that the intelligence officer, she wanted us to do the mission now because she wanted the intelligence gain from whatever we brought off target. And the operations officer wanted to delay the mission because he wanted to know more, so that it was safer for the guys. And so I always used to say these are two devils, one sitting on each shoulder. And I would have to split the difference. When do we have enough information to execute the operation at the risk level it was to gain whatever we were going to gain from an intelligence perspective. And sometimes we were just flat out told shut up and do it. But most of the time, I could pick the timing. So the first piece of it is there's always at least two conflicting things that you're trying to, there's a word satisfice you're trying to satisfice. And then when you ratchet that up multiple levels from the SEAL team level up to the presidential level, you get 10 more of those things. The stuff I saw or at least that I appreciated, I'm not a decision making expert. But one, the people in charge who listened to people argue and then, they make a decision. And then the first thing that should happen is whoever lost the argument should become the biggest supporter of whoever won the argument. And I don't see that happen enough. And that's a follow up.
A lot of it is not the decision made, it's the follow up. Do you hold people's feet to the fire to get the decision done? Do you make sure that the person who lost the argument doesn't submarine the person who won? A lot of times when a decision is made in a forum that, people leave the room and that's the start of the argument, not the end of it. And it should be the end of the argument. And that's where a good chief of staff comes in or just people like I said who hold their feet to the fire. And so the ability to listen and the ability to follow through are the case. I watched General Petraeus in Iraq, and I remember one of the first morning see came in and was running things. People would brief on something and General Petraeus would say something like, "Okay Bill, I want you to follow up on that and I want you to go back and tell that reporter that that fact was wrong. Or I want you to follow up with that commander and tell him I want him doing this, not that." And then at the end of the thing, they were 30 followup items if you will. And I thought it was all just Petraeus saying do this. And it turned down, I got on the phone back to my two star I was working for. I told him the story and he goes, "Petraeus will follow up on every single one of those things." And Petraeus, one of his many, many abilities was he could just track all that stuff in his head and follow, and he would hold people's feet to the fire. And that's why in so many instances he was a very effective commander. And he had not so great things. But that was one thing he was just phenomenal at.
Yeah. I think one of the thing that stuck out to me was rally after making the decision. And I think that if you had this infighting where people feel like their feelings were hurt when someone else's decisions was made, I'm going to torpedo this operation or this decision now, that's just destructive to the overall goal. And I think that's something that I think all organizations can really define as part of their culture. Okay, we're gonna have a very argue it out, put it on the ground, be aggressive in the argument. But once a decision is made, rally behind the decisions and execute it.
I guess people would accuse me of being manipulative or whatever, but there's an expression in the SEAL teams, throw the boys of bone. Sometimes, if enough decisions have gone the wrong way, it's not necessarily ... A lot of times they're not right and wrong decisions. They're just different decisions.
Sometimes you decide in favor of the person who's lost all the decisions to throw them a bone and keep their morale up. Show them that sometimes it's going to go their way.
And you don't do that obviously with matters of principle or morality, or anything that. But if it doesn't matter and, you got to keep everyone's morale up. And that's how I've always viewed things. And yeah, I guess it's manipulative. But it also, it keeps the organization together and it keeps the team together.
I don't know if it's manipulative other than just it's intuition. I think we've talked about this. Any organizations dealing with people and you have to work with a group of people and keeping that group as a whole moving forward. And if it's showing a bone or manipulating, it's just like no it's not good for the whole group to have these decisions in this way. And I think a lot of it's going to come down to intuition. What's the feeling between how this person is operating? If they have another decision denied or another go against their way. Perhaps that's the most important thing. You have a pattern matching database of 31 plus years, plus now your business career into into how you think about decisions going forward.
And knowing your people is the other piece. That's part of the intuition factor and just being available so people can come in and talk to you. I remember many times solving really hard personnel problems because those are the worst problems easily. Someone thinks they were screwed over basically. And, excuse me. Half the time it was just about listening to their story. And if they felt they were heard and the decision was the same, they were happy.
Yeah. Obviously one of the biggest things in our audience here is around human performance. And I'll have to say that SEALs obviously everyone looks up to as pinnacles of human specimens. As recently talking to the current SEAL team seven CO. And he was saying that we're not necessarily like Ferrari's, we're fine tuned engines. We're dump trucks that can handle a ton of load and just keep plugging away. I'm curious to hear your thoughts about that, and how human performance and the optimizations of the mission goes into play in Naval special warfare.
So one of the things that I always used to argue with the guys about was everyone was always like, "SEAL teams need to be more entrepreneurial." And I was, "Are you kidding? If the military were entrepreneurial, we would fail our mission nine out of 10 times," or whatever the current rate of startup failure is. And so I kind of agree with the SEAL team seven guy, dump truck. We have to be reliable. The metaphor I would use would be different though. I was talking to an Israeli SEAL once, and they did not carry at the time the M-4, the US weapon rifle. They carried, a lot of times for especially swimming through the surf and all the sand, everything. They carried AK-47s, the Russian weapon. And they told a story. He told me two interesting things. One, they had dropped an AK-47 off the pier one day by accident and they found it six months later. And it still worked after being under salt water for six months, which I don't know if I believe that, but it's a good story.
I could believe it. There's so many AK's in Afghanistan being trucked through desert.
They're overbuilt, certainly. But the other thing he told me was he I guess his father, they had immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel, his family. And they said that like a Soviet of vacuum cleaner or whatever. When you bought it, it didn't work. But if you could get it to work, it would work forever. It was just so overbuilt and robust. And I think the stuff, it isn't elegant but it worked, and that's how I think of the SEAL team. We will do things elegantly, but what we you to do it elegantly isn't always elegant. And we tend to, be like dump truck-ish I guess. BUD/S gets us to work, and once we're working we worked for a long time. We're definitely not a Ferrari. Ferrari is great on a nice flat road. But as soon as you get even remotely bumps or stuff that, so low. Maintenance. But it looks wonderful. And I think you have to be careful then distinguished between effectiveness and looking wonderful. And, anyway that would be my thought on that.
Yeah. I mean, to me that's a lot of it's recovery, preservation of the force type notions beyond just hey, let's make what already elite athletes even more elite. I think there's always some part of the discussion. But it seems the bigger question is okay, how do we get these guys to last longer? How do we keep them healthy?
Yeah. What you said elite athletes what sprung to mind was I think the only group of people or type of group of people on the planet, watching them play basketball. It's worse than a group of SEALs is as a group of wrestlers. And many SEALs used to be wrestlers. And so SEALs tend to be good athletes but not great athletes. And the SEAL, the number one trade is just endurance, enduring. They just make it through stuff. And back to the dump truck theory, you have some guys who are elite, truly elite athletes. But generally speaking, the guys that are just dump trucks or can just can keep going and going and going and going and going, and they'll get there eventually.
That's kind of war, right? Just duking it out day in, day out. On the psychological impact, obviously I'm sure you could go quite far into that topic. But, obviously people come back, sometimes changed from combat. What's your experience there? Physical resiliency, endurance, can you speak towards the mental side, the mental endurance, the mental resiliency?
First of all as for far as heavy combat, I'm not the guy to talk to. I was in my mid forties by the time 9/11 hit and at a rank and job that didn't exactly lend itself to going out on ops every night. The number one inoculation against the stress is the training itself. The fact that you made it through and that you learned to deal with stress in training and in learning how to do your job. There's a lot of mindfulness training out there now, and their teams have thrown a lot of stuff against the wall to see what works in terms of helping guys with stress.
A lot of guys are just predisposed to dealing with stress in a positive way. Instead of posttraumatic stress, they have posttraumatic growth.
And I think the template for that is laid down actually in BUD/S. And then you keep going through training. The more training you go through, I think the more ready you are. And then there's the brotherhood, if you'll call it. You can talk to guys. And I think guys since 9/11 as the war goes on, while people are learning about the importance of actually opening up to their comrades and their fellow SEALs. And I think having that group out there to talk to helps. I think talking is a big thing. We have various mechanisms like checkup from the neck up and stuff that where guys have to talk to the psychologist before they go home. We have procedures to try to decompress guys from a combat zone back to home. We've done a lot of work. Or they, I guess no one longer we on the family side of the equation. Because families can be stressors too. Not intentionally, but there are expectations your family has, there are expectations your teammates have and trying to make those two meters, it doesn't happen. You can have balanced with it sequentially, but not simultaneously. Maybe there's one percent can do that. I don't think very many guys can do that. And so we work with the families about what their expectations can be. Before the guys deploy, they talked to the families. After they come home, they talked to the families. They brief the families on what to expect when the guys go home before they talk about communication strategies, financial. And then there are, I don't know how many charitable foundations there are. There are these charities that help the families as well, and the SEALs afterwards. There is no one answer, and there's a whole bunch of potential solutions and guys are working with everything from retreats in Montana. It's a great program. To things where they give the wives break. When their husbands are overseas, they take the wives to a spa for a day with childcare. Just things like that to give people, because a lot of times it's just people need a break, and that's the key. But there is no solution. There's only many, many, many solutions.
I think that's well said. I think when we as citizens see the headlines, you see the specific operation, there's such, the family life. The kids, the wife, the husband. I guess there's no husband, there's no female SEALs.
There are women who they're going into combat with SEALs or near combat situations. So yeah there are husbands now in the mix.
Yeah. So there's the impact, and the services is broad. It's basically the iceberg analogy, right? You don't see the vast 90 percent of really what's going on.
So what's next for you? So in the business role, I now you got your series 63, you're officially sanctioned, qualified in the finance world. What are you looking forward to?
The number one thing and I think this is a longer term thing is when I went to work in my last few jobs as an admiral, I was ready every day. I kind of had enough experience in the military that I could take whatever came my way and craft a solution. The business world, I still don't have those reps. And I have to learn a lot of new stuff so that I can take the intuition I've built up over years in the military and adapt it to the business world. And some of the stuff is remarkably similar. Some of the stuff is radically different. And a lot of expectations I've had, I've had to basically throw them aside because they weren't correct about the business world. But as I go through this, the one thing I'm finding that's really helpful as being here in this area because there's a certain intensity and obsession. I like the tech. I like the startup world. And so it keeps me intellectually curious and it keeps me learning. Oddly enough, one of the things the military is really good at is making you a lifelong learner. And, I'm basically in full learning mode now, and I'm trying to figure out, I have the best way I can describe is I have a bunch of puzzle pieces on the table right now. And I think I've got the edges done and I have one or two buildups in the corner, but I still don't know what's in the center of that business puzzle. An, I'm working towards it. But it's not a picture. And so I don't know what it is. I have no idea what I'm going to be looking at.
No, but I think it's super refreshing. I think just seeing you progress and evolve. I think it's cool. I think very few people can have a story illustrious career 31 plus years, and then basically start a brand new career. So I think that resiliency just really shows, and I think that curiosity really shows as you're almost attacking this new challenge as probably with a similar fervor as you tackled your initial challenge.
I wish I had that energy.
But I think it still carries through. I mean obviously there's a little bit more years, a little bit more experience. But hopefully the experience and wisdom accelerates that.
Yeah. The whole wisdom, we've talked about. The whole notion of wisdom I'm fascinated by. It's really not well defined, and I guess some sort of weird combination of emotional control, experience, knowledge, judgment. And how do I, I think I have some level of wisdom in the military and how do I turn that into business wisdom? Can I turn it into business wisdom? I hope the answer is yes, obviously.
Yeah. Well, I'm really glad that introduced to you Alex to our community here. I mean, I think just knowing you personally for the last year, couple of years been probably one of the top, I don't know. One, two, three people I've over the last couple of years and I know that our audience is probably have a lot of questions for you around your experience, but also your stories and leadership skills. So really happy to introduce Alex to the audience and I'm sure we'll have you back on to continue the discussion.
I look forward to it.
I appreciate your time. Thanks so much.
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