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Every day we hear someone say something like “we’re living in unprecedented times.” If there were ever an “oh, duh” comment, that would be it.
In the age of a worldwide pandemic, it’s hard to find an adjective that does justice to the heartache and damage. As of this writing, some 2.8 million people have died from Covid-19. Literally billions of jobs have been affected. People everywhere are dealing with hardships they never saw coming.
Wherever we find ourselves on the scale of adversity, all of us are having to adapt.
Jason Redman can tell us a lot about dealing with tough times. A retired Navy SEAL, he was severely wounded in war. He’s now a bestselling author who coaches business people and others how to use Navy SEAL tactics in leading, building elite teams, and dealing with severe adversity. His latest book is Overcome: Crush Adversity with the Leadership Techniques of America’s Toughest Warriors.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You advise people facing a life ambush to “get off the X.” What does that mean, and how is it done?
Jason Redman: In September 2007, my team and I barely survived a vicious enemy ambush in Iraq. We survived because of one key principle that I’d been taught throughout my special operations career: The focal point of any attack, crisis or ambush is called the X, and in order to survive you have to get off the X as quickly as possible.
My team, with the help of an AC-130 gunship, did just that and it enabled us to not only survive, but thrive. Today, working with individuals and companies from across the country, I’ve found that everyone gets “ambushed” and can get stuck on the X. The principles that enabled my team and me to “get off the X” from our ambush are the same that apply in any life ambush, whether personal, physical or professional.
Duncan: So, what’s the behavior formula that you’ve seen work?
Redman: In order to overcome any crisis, you have to REACT. REACT is an acronym for the immediate steps to take.
R – You must recognize your reality. The faster you stop denying the problems and accept that you are in a crisis or ambush, the faster you can start moving forward.
E – Evaluate your assets/inventory. What tools do you have to bring to bear on the problem? In major crisis or adversity, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You must focus on what you can control and what assets or tools you can immediately bring to the problem.
A – Assess possible options and outcomes. Pause, gather your team, and assess what are the best options and outcomes. Think through the problem and what the outcome will look like. Also accept that the hardest, most uncomfortable path may be the best long-term solution—additional short-term pain for long-term gain.
C – Choose and communicate. Choose a direction and communicate to your team. The X in any crisis has its own gravitational pull. No one is ever on the X alone. Family members get pulled onto the X. Teammates, employees, staff, even clients may all be at risk as well. Choosing and communicating enables accountability in the leader by his or her articulating a path forward, and it gives others hope of a way forward out of the crisis.
T- Take action. Stop waiting for the perfect moment or plan. It will never come. In a crisis, the time to move is now. A good plan swiftly executed will always beat a perfect plan never used. The X is like quicksand: The longer you sit on it, the more it pulls you down and the harder it is to get momentum.
Duncan: PTSD can consume people who’ve never even been near a literal battlefield. What can cause PTSD in the workplace, and what’s the best self-treatment?
Redman: Any caustic, ongoing negativity or traumatic event can lead to post-traumatic stress. As a matter of fact, the human brain and body, when dealing with high levels of stress, doesn’t limit the release of different chemicals to just when bullets start flying.
The best self-treatment in my opinion is threefold. When a crisis, injury or ambush occurs, it’s easy to think that there’s no hope, that there’s nothing that can be done to improve the situation and that it’s all outside your control.
But the reality is this: there’s always hope. Hope is created from within. It’s a relentless belief that you can affect positive change in a bad situation. Hope is a powerful force.
Number two, regardless of how overwhelmed a situation may make you feel, there are always things you can do. They may be small, but even if it’s just staying positive and encouraging others, there’s always something you can do in the midst of crisis.
And lastly, there may be some things outside your control, but you can control your mindset and the outcome, recognizing that the outcome may not always look exactly how you’d hoped or expected it would.
Duncan: How can people most effectively clarify their personal missions?
Redman: There are two parts to clarifying your mission. Number one, it should be based on your honestvalues. Why do I say honest? Because a lot of people say their values are one thing, but they do the opposite. We have to be honest with ourselves about what we find valuable. Because if we say it is, but don’t really believe it, we won’t put the time and effort into it. You must be honest with yourself about what’s truly important, or “valuable” to you.
Number two: Once you’ve defined your values, you now build your mission around those values. Your mission statement should be your light in the darkness, what guides you day in and day out. Test it on those who know you. If you tell someone your mission statement is “to be a Saint” yet others view you as a sinner, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish. You may be able to convince people over time, although that might require considerable effort toward making lasting change. You must live your mission statement day in and day out in order for it to become a powerful force and keep you on course when life ambushes come along.
Duncan: How can a person take advantage of a life ambush to clarify purpose?
Redman: Life ambushes are devastatingly painful and uncomfortable when they come, but the good news is that they accomplish two things. They pressure-test your mission. If you’ve done a good job of laying out your mission, then regardless of the life ambush, like a lighthouse in the darkness, you know where you need to go.
Second, life ambushes clarify purpose by reaffirming your mission or helping you understand that a specific life ambush may cause you to change your mission. For instance, I’ve seen families who suffered the devastating life ambush of losing a child, and that ended their prior mission but started a new mission to raise awareness surrounding childhood cancer. So even though life ambushes are hard, they can help reaffirm or redefine your mission.
Duncan: What do you see as the relationship between life purpose and life mission?
Redman: I define a life mission as the who, what, where and when of our lives. I define a life purpose, or life objective, as the end-state of executing our life mission.
My life mission is as follows: I want to motivate and inspire others to lead themselves and achieve greatness. I want to be regarded as a “Pointman” for my own life and for others. I want to be a positive role model and mentor of leadership, the Overcome Mindset, health, compassion and communication always. I want to be regarded as someone who holds himself and others accountable. Lastly, I want to be a good father, son, husband and friend.
My life objective is to impact others to say, “He made me better.” If I execute my life mission effectively, almost everyone I come into contact with will feel that way.
Duncan: A person’s success, you say, begins with self-leadership. What does that look like in observable behaviors?
Redman: Self-leadership is how we manage structure, discipline and motivation with ourselves. It’s recognizing that our ability to motivate and inspire others is built directly on how we lead and run our own lives. If you’re having issues within your team or company, take a pause and look at yourself. Are you setting the example in all you’re doing? Fix yourself first, then watch the impact on those around you.
Duncan: Effective leadership of others begins with effective self-leadership. How do you explain that reality to people who tend to focus on other people’s failings?
Redman: Many leaders focus on the failures or mistakes of their teams or individuals when things go wrong. Many fail to assess themselves and whether they played a part in the failure. Jocko Willink and Leif Babin talk about this principle in their book Extreme Ownership. It’s the idea, the leadership mindset, that everything that happens within the team or organization goes back to the leader. If something goes wrong, then the leader should be assessing himself or herself: Did I provide the right training, guidance, resources or even motivation for them to be successful? About 95% of the time, the responsibility for outcome falls on the leader and not the team.
Duncan: What kind of behaviors enable leaders to build and maintain the trust of their teams?
Redman: Communication is the number one skill for building strong teams. One of the biggest strengths of SEAL teams is that we teach everyone, from the most junior new guy to the senior man, that everyone is a leader. When we plan missions or debrief, everyone has a say, and anyone can be called out for a mistake. We don’t take it personally; lives are on the line with the job we do. When a decision needs to be made, then the leadership states this is the direction we’re going.
Most leaders in business are unwilling to expose themselves to this level of communication. But if you encourage it within your teams and business, others know that their opinions are valued by you, the leader, and that everyone is working toward the best outcome for the organization and its teams.
Duncan: You suggest that when leaders fail, they should “fail forward.” What does that mean?
Redman: So many leaders are afraid to fail. We associate failure with negativity, so we become risk-averse to trying new things. Sometimes you’ll fail, but you can learn from it. When handled well, failing actually builds resiliency and experience. And if you can fail with a smile on your face and use it as a tool to make you and your team/organization better, then you’ll also build a stronger culture. This is failing forward.
Duncan: I can imagine that some people may find it hard to identify with your experiences and wonder if you can identify with theirs. What do you tell them?
Redman: I meet so many people who say, “Well, you’re a Navy SEAL. Of course you’re resilient and a leader. You have cool stories, but they don’t apply to me.”
The interesting thing I’ve come to find throughout my life is that regardless of where I’ve gone in the world, leadership is leadership. Teamwork is teamwork. And the ability to overcome adversity is the same in business as it is on the battlefield. Everyone can be a better leader or team member or have a better Overcome Mindset. It’s a choice to apply these things in your life, and you don’t have to be a Navy SEAL to execute them. At the end of the day leadership, teamwork and resiliency are human traits.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.