[TODD DEVOE] Hey, welcome to EM Weekly. And today, our guest is Brent Gleeson, a former Navy Seal, a writer on leadership, a speaker on leadership, and we’re gonna talk about developing teams, and what that looks like for emergency management. Brent, welcome to the show.
[BRENT GLEESON] Thank you so much, I’m really happy to be here.
[TODD DEVOE] So Brent, tell me… I mean, a little bit about yourself and how you kind of got involved in this whole leadership thing. And I guess it starts back with the military time, right?
[BRENT GLEESON] Yes, it does. It’s been a life-long journey, as you can imagine, as it is for all of us. I grew up in Dallas, went to SMU, for undergrad. Got degrees in Finance and Economics, and then I actually worked for a year as a financial analyst for an investment firm. But I had a good buddy in college who was planning on joining the navy, and attempting to go into the Navy Seal training program pipeline. And we got more and more involved, and I got really intrigued with that journey and that path, and giving to something bigger than oneself. And after one year working in the finance sector, I quit my job, and I joined the navy. And this was, ironically, just before 9/11. So, we came out here, in San Diego, where you start all of your training. And had about 250 students. 23 of us graduated. And then, ironically, right after we graduated from the first six months, the training period is 18 months, but after you graduate the first six months, which is called BUDS, which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition Seal, a few days after we graduated, it was 9/11. So, that sort of transformed the entire mindset and culture of not only special operations, but the military as a whole, and we’ll get into how that transformed the mindset of our leadership, and how we approach leadership in a special operations community. But I went on to finish advanced training, went to Seal team five, and that being the first Seal task unit deployed to Iraq, in 2003, March. So, just after we had taken Bagdad, they deployed us, a Task Unit from Seal Team 5, of about 30 operators, to perform what we call capture or kill missions. We were hunting down the guys on the deck of cards, the blacklist. Another very (inaudible) faction leaders. And that’s when I really started to, obviously, cut my teeth as an experienced combat Seal. But then later on, and we can get into more detail later, but I applied a lot of those principles that I learned in Seal training and applied in combat to how you can really build high-performance teams of disciplined, resilient people, all working towards a singular goal, aligned with a singular mission narrative, and how that applies to the financial health of a business organization, or first responders, or any, basically, civilian industry. And how we can talk about concepts of trust, accountability, discipline, and team unity to align the team, to achieve goals that are seemingly impossible.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, I think that’s really key to a lot of what… as far as leadership goes in emergency management. I wrote a piece on my blog, and it’s: “Emergency managers: are we managers or leaders?”, and I kind of went back and forth about it. And I actually had a guy who, he sent me a message and he was like: oh, why are we rehashing this whole thing? They’re the same thing. And you know, right? You’ve been in the military, where we have true leaders that could be… you know, like a E-3, E-4, and you have a guy who is a chief, who is nothing more than just a manager in a body, that’s kind of useless. You know, and I tried to get that across, but I think most guys that are in the military, especially those of us who are in the navy, when things start happening, we always look towards those who are leaders to lead us. And how did that transition to you, from your BUDS time to your actual combat time, and then out into the real world?
[BRENT GLEESON] Well, it’s a good question, and a topic that I actually speak and write a lot on is the difference between those two disciplines of leadership and management. And before I go any further, I forgot, I should have mentioned this earlier, but thank you for your service, I much appreciate it. And it’s interesting. It’s a little bit different in the military, obviously. But when I talk about the variants between those two disciplines of leadership and management, the definitions for most organizations, both whether they’d be first responder organizations, and military or business organizations across the globe, those definitions are starting to take a dramatic shift. Because, quite frankly, we live in a new post-9/11, 21st century reality, where change and transformation is almost a constant reality. And therefore, leadership is taking on a whole new meaning. And leaders really need to understand… again, the things that you and I learn in the military, and the first responders understand is, need to understand how to lead teams in very dynamically, constantly changing environments. And very much it’s the same for today’s global business environment. It means something totally different. So, simply put, leadership, in today’s modern reality, is really about getting back to the basics of clearly defining and communicating a very distinct mission for the organization. What is our vision? What are we supposed to look like in a year? Two years? Five years? And emotionally connecting people to that cause, and giving them the tools and resources to understand how they can work backwards towards achieving that vision, collectively, as a whole. So, really defining that singular mission narrative. One of the things that I always equate to… from the correlation between the business world and the post-9/11 military, is if you think about it, and you know this, we essentially entered these conflicts after 9/11 as a slower moving, very hierarchical, old schools, top-down, command and control 20th century organization. And that’s not just special operations, that’s just military-wide.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[BRENT GLEESON] And we quickly realized that to move and communicate at the speed these wars would require, we had to transform our mindsets, we had to transform our structures and our cultures, to fight the more dangerous and very decentralized enemy. And therefore, we had to become more decentralized in the way we lead and in the way we structure our organizations. And the same thing applies in today’s more modern business environment. There’s a military acronym, I’m sure you’ve heard before, called VUCA, which refers to the Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous environments that we operate in. But ironically, that military acronym is now widely used in the global business community, referring to, quite frankly, the same thing. Every business organization across the globe right now is being disrupted by globalization, emerging technologies, the seemingly endless array of job opportunities now – which is a good thing. Unemployment is at a very low rate, at 4.4%. But ironically, and this affects pretty much every industry, employee disengagement is at a whopping 67%. So, there’s a problem and an opportunity out there, and that’s not just in business, that’s in all organizations. There’s a problem and an opportunity where leaders/managers need to understand how to better define and manage culture.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[BRENT GLEESON] The most high performing organizations in the military and in the civilian world are defined so because primarily they define, manage, and protect an organizational culture. And that culture is specifically aligned with their strategic vision.
[TODD DEVOE] I do see this a lot. Even today, with this recruiting into law enforcement, you see that there’s been a long time since we’ve had recruiters going out to all the fairs and stuff, trying to get people to come in. Because I think that there is a disconnect, sometimes, between what the street cops feel, and what the leadership feels. As a matter of fact, I was talking to a guy from LAPD the other day, and he feels that… to be hung out to dry. That the (inaudible) officers are being hung out to dry. And it’s gonna be hard to keep the good officers in, and it’s gonna be hard to recruit good officers in with that. And this is gonna be a problem, but I think, again, there we go back at management and leadership, right? Because you see that the political side of it is that this bureaucracy wants to manage issues, and not lead men and women into virtually combat, right? I mean, especially today with the whole thing that happened in Vegas the other day. This is what they’re on the line for. So, it’s kind of interesting that you bring up that dynamic with business as well.
[BRENT GLEESON] You’re right, it totally applies in every environment. When you have that… those vertical and horizontal silos, whether they’d be structural silos or behavioral silos, the people on the front lines will feel like they’re left out to dry. They’ll feel like they’re just ponds in a big scheme that they’re not part of, and they don’t feel an engagement and a connection to senior leadership, and that creates a total misalignment in what any organization, especially if you think about first responders, or police force, or military; they don’t feel a connection to a singular vision of what they’re trying to accomplish. They feel like they’re being managed, and quite frankly, maybe not well. And not truly led, to your point. And not being leaded into battle, so to speak. To speak military vernacular. And that doesn’t create alignment, and that doesn’t create a team of unified people that want to follow you into battle. And that’s one of the biggest problems with that type of disconnect. It almost guarantees, in some way, not to sound dramatic, but it almost guarantees mission failure. Or at least, falling well significantly short of the goals that you’re trying to achieve.
[TODD DEVOE] Just like anything else, you know, in emergency management and in first response, there are times when you sit around and you’re just doing busy work. You’re cleaning up, you’re doing this. In the sense of emergency managers, you know, you’re kind of re-doing plans, looking at plans, and then the big one hits; the large-scale earthquake, or the big fire, or the tornado, or the hurricanes, like we just had. How do you lead from the ordinary to the extraordinary in fast fashion?
[BRENT GLEESON] I like the way you put that, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, that’s great. I might even use that, at some point, but I’ll give you credit for it. But it’s an excellent point, and I actually touch on that, in the book that I have coming on February. Whether it’s emergency management, business, military, any industry, it’s not all glamorous. You know, we talk a lot about employee or team engagement, and making sure that everybody is connected to the cause, and feeling empowered. You know, like, they’re understanding that their work has a direct correlation to something bigger than themselves. And that’s especially true with today’s younger workforce, with the millennials, with the multi-generational work forces. It’s very important to help them understand how everything they do connects to the greater good, and connects to the mission of the organization. I was asked, and this kind of outlines the answer to your question, I was asked to come in and speak and consult with a global defense and aerospace company. And one of the things they wanted to do was, they were putting together a team of people, they were going to… they were basically glorified strategic HR managers within the organization, but one of their newest missions within the company was to make sure that everybody really understood how their work helped the war fighter on the battlefield. So, if you’re in research and development and engineering, you’re probably gonna have a pretty good understanding of how your work applies to helping our war fighters on the battlefield. But if you’re in finance, if you’re… you know, accounting, or some other (inaudible) of the organization, where you’re doing, most of the time, you know, a lot of mundane work, you’re gonna get in the weeds like we all do with every job. You know, regardless of what it is. Sometimes, we lose sight of how powerful every action we take, and every project we complete, and every task we do, really is contributing to the greater good of the entire organization and what we’re trying to accomplish. So, that one team, one fight mentality. Especially like we have in emergency management, like we have in the military, sometimes it’s easier to articulate that, in those types of situations, because… you know, we know, it’s very clear what our mission and vision are. And in a lot of organizations, it’s sometimes harder to articulate. But from my perspective, that’s one of the leader’s most important roles, is to really continually tell that story, but formally and informally, to the people on the team. So, it’s a constant communication to everybody about how everything they do aligns with the big vision, the big mission, everything they’re trying to accomplish. I read about that in a book, I call it “purposeful storytelling.” There’s a lot of different strategies that you can use, but one of them is sort of a more informal way of not just communicating once a month through a team-wide email, or a quarterly meeting. You know, it’s finding an opportunity, almost every single day, whether it’s through a formal communication in a meeting or the water cooler. You know, find a casual way to tell that story. “Hey, you know what? John did this, and I know it sounds kind of mundane or whatever, but this is how that mundane piece of work that he did connected to the bigger cause, and the greater good of what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.” And when you can do that, almost ritually, every single day, it keeps people aligned, and it keeps them energized, because… you know, the long-term sort of mundane activities that we do, day-in and day-out can create what I call change battle fatigue, and it can get people sort of disconnected from their jobs and from remembering how important everything they do is. And that’s one of the most important functions of a leader, is to remind people of that, every single day.
[TODD DEVOE] When I was a core man with the Marine Core, my marines, when they would get in trouble, was when they were down and there was really nothing going on, and they were trying to find things to do, you know? So, that’s always a dangerous time. That’s when they start doing silly things, you know? Basically, what you’re saying here too, is by doing this purposeful story-telling, you’re building a culture as well. And how important is culture when it comes to leading?
[BRENT GLEESON] In my opinion, it’s the most important thing. It’s something that gets pushed aside, and what people need to realize, and what most leaders need to understand, is you’re gonna have a team culture either way. It’s either gonna be a half-hazard conglomeration of everybody’s beliefs, actions, and rituals that come together over the years, or it can be by design. And my theories are that all high-performance teams or organizations in any environment, whatever it is, whether it’s sports, business, military, emergency management, high performance teams and great leaders do not leave those things to chance. They design a culture, they build a culture, they manage that culture, and protect it through proper recruiting and bringing people into the culture they believe and share on the same values. And that culture is aligned with a very specific vision and strategy. Most organizations out there, or teams that don’t succeed, in large part, is because their organizational or team culture does not align with what they’re trying to achieve. But… and that’s one thing that the marine core does very well, we do that very well in the SEAL teams, it’s one of the core fundamentals of how we recruit and retain great talent, it’s because we have a very distinct culture. As does the marine core. And we bring people in who fit that culture. That doesn’t mean we’re not diverse, we have very diverse people, just like we do in the marine core. But in large part, most of those people are what you might call a culture fit, to use the cliché term. But it’s managing culture, especially in today’s environment, and what I call the post-9/11, for (inaudible) military. Or the 21st century reality of most organizations, managing culture is the most important thing that leaders have to do. Defining it, managing it, protecting it, aligning it with the strategy. And a lot of times… and this, in large part, has a lot to do with… you know, the 2008 recession, and people managing out of fear and prioritizing other more easily managed and quantifiable metrics, still understanding how they can grow their business, or how they can regrow their team. These things are not (inaudible) management strategies.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[BRENT GLEESON] Regardless of what environment you’re in. They have a quantifiable and measurable effect on the success of any organization.
[TODD DEVOE] I’m gonna butcher this quote, but I read something somewhere along the lines of, “People don’t leave companies, they leave bosses.”
[BRENT GLEESON] Yeah.
[TODD DEVOE] And that’s kind of what you’re talking about, right?
[BRENT GLEESON] Yeah. It totally is. I think… I contribute to Forbes and (inaudible), and I think one of my fellow contributors titled one of their pieces on almost something along the lines of that. And it’s very true, and I know this from… not from all my successes, but from most of my failures as a leader. Not just in the military, but in the business world, and in sports, I was captain of a Rugby team in college, and I look back now, and I was a terrible leader. You know, I was respected and things like that, but you’re right. People don’t leave companies, they leave mainly, in large part, and I know this from reading dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of exit interview transcriptions from the companies that I built since I’ve been out of the military. Mainly because of primarily because of culture, communication issues, lack of upper mobility in the organization, lack of professional development resources, the managers they don’t align with, leaders they don’t see as having a real vision that connects with what the organization is trying to achieve. It’s always that stuff. It’s almost never about compensation or some of those hard cost realities that you might think, “Oh, I’m not getting paid enough.” It’s more so, especially with today’s… like I said before, younger generations coming in, they need to connect with what the team is doing, what the organization is doing. They wanna know that work matters, and it’s applied to a bigger cause. And typically, you’re right, people leave because of who they report to. Almost always. Not in its entirety, of course, but it almost always has something to do with that. But when people are led and really inspired by the person they work for, and work with, retention goes through the roof. And retention, and this is more so, maybe they aligned with businesses per say, but it’s kind of an interesting fact-based data point that applies to a lot of organizations, is lack of engagement and participation within teams because of lack of trust for leadership. And so, trust and accountability is a huge thing, is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities, and thus is the burden of command. But, in most organizations, they lack trust for leadership and management, or for peers. There’s low levels of accountability, and those have a direct correlation to engagement and lack of engagement from certain research and Gallup polls, causing the United States upwards of 550 billion dollars a year.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[BRENT GLEESON] Of lost productivity, because team members don’t feel like they’re properly being led by their managers and leaders.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, that’s pretty interesting.
[BRENT GLEESON] It’s scary!
[TODD DEVOE] I’m gonna ask you a question, and for those of you guys that don’t normally listen to me, we normally try to stay on the emergency management track, because this is what we do here. But this particular question is just about our veterans, and some of the space that I’ve noticed. We have vets that are volunteering with organizations, such as like, Team Rubicon, to go and do disaster response. And talking to some of those guys, they don’t feel appreciated or used properly in their civilian jobs, and there’s a lot of frustration with those guys out there now. There’s another group that I’m involved with, called Warrior Built, and it’s the same thing over there. They come to the Warrior Built organization to feel that… what we felt before in the military. How can organizations, specifically, even like, law enforcement and fire, which is probably a little bit better than other places, but they still have that disconnect. What can we do to engage those vets that are coming out with great skills and great motivation, but they can’t feel it here. What can we do to make that better?
[BRENT GLEESON] As you know, it’s a huge topic. Now, more than ever. I mean, we’ve got droves and droves of veterans entering the workforce, especially in the fields of law enforcement, emergency management, first responding. And it’s sort of a two-pronged strategy, in my perspective. But I’ve worked with a lot of… living in San Diego, very much a military town, we’ve got the special workers that are in (inaudible) amphibious space. Naval airbase, we’ve got (inaudible) of us. We’ve got a lot of veterans, obviously, entering the work force every single day. And from the employer standpoint, it’s working with employers, whether it be in law enforcement, emergency management. It’s just trying to help educate them, in business in general, educate everyone on the unique foundational skill sets that people who have worked in those environments have. And I had to learn this too, as an employer, as an entrepreneur, where… you know, I mistakenly always started trying to find employees and new recruits that have the technical skills that I need, but not necessarily the foundational skills. And that’s (inaudible) coming out of the military have, they have the foundational skills of leadership, working in high stress environments, communication skills, usually higher levels, in my experience, of higher levels of emotional intelligence, which has a direct correlation to success and upper mobility in any team or organization. Because they’re more self-aware, they understand how their actions, communications, and behavior affects themselves and the team around them. And they can use that to their benefit and the benefit of the team. Whereas, most organizations are still kind of scared of understanding that, and that’s kind of true in a lot of industries, where they maybe don’t necessarily have great professional development programs or development programs to teach people those technical skills. But looking back now, you know, 10, 11, 12 years as an entrepreneur and building successful companies, if I could do it all over again, whether I was building a business organization or consulting practice, in the law enforcement realm, I would have invested heavily in professional development programs to teach the technical skills that I need, but then I would just hire veterans. Because they have all the foundational skill sets of leadership and communication, and even not just downward, but I think we do a better job now than ever before, because we had to transform in the military. We do a great job of encouraging upper management, upper leaders. And not just your old-school downward command and control environment.
[TODD DEVOE] I got to interview the author of “Turn this Ship Around.” Have you read that book, Turn this Ship Around?
[BRENT GLEESON] No, it’s funny you mentioned that, I just saw it. I was looking at my own Amazon page today, for my book that’s coming out in February, but I have not read it. But I know of the book, yeah.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, he was a navy commander, might even have made to camp, but I don’t recall on the top of my head. But he actually just sort of reengineered the way you run a submarine. (inaudible) what it is, and you know, master and commander, you do it. And he actually started the bottom-up leadership on those ships, on the boats, I guess, that he was running. And it seemed that his retention was higher, the pass rate for sailors moving into Petty Officer, and up into Chief, was the highest on his ships, that he was running. And it’s that ownership that the lower guys get to buy into, and at a general… he was a coronel at the time, and he got promoted. And I would have followed that guy into a burning paper bag if he told me that’s where we’re going, because I knew he’d have my best interest at heart, you know?
[BRENT GLEESON] Yeah.
[TODD DEVOE] You see a lot of people that are kind of… I don’t know, I don’t wanna use the word half-ass, but they’re kind of half (inaudible) when they’re go into leadership, and it makes it really distressful for the people to not wanna go that way, you know? And I understand where some people are going. So, on that vein of the servant leader, how do you get people to buy in?
[BRENT GLEESON] Well, it really comes down to a few things. One, is accountability, and weaving accountability into the culture of your team. And to do that, you have to… and to build trust, you have to give trust. And you have to expect accountability. And to do so, you have to disseminate leadership responsibilities down the chain of command. You have to remove older hierarchical systems and replace them with networks and ecosystems of empowered frontline troops. So, you have to create a culture of leadership, a culture of accountability, where risk-taking and decision-making is acceptable, knowing that mistakes will be made, but you’ll use those mistakes as learning moments and move forward. And what that does, and we do this in the military now, I think we’ve had to transform our culture in our way of approach in this post-(inaudible) reality to fight a more decentralized enemy, we had to become more decentralized. The same thing in today’s higher performing civilian organizations, we have to disseminate leadership responsibility to our younger folks and to our frontline troops. But to do that successfully, you can’t expect accountability unless you really invest in their development and trading. Otherwise, you’re setting them up for failure.
[TODD DEVOE] Hey, so, if anybody wanted to get a hold of you, how could we get a hold of you?
[BRENT GLEESON] My website is BrentGleesonSpeaker.com. So that’s B-R-E-N-T G-L-E-E-S-O-N speaker .com, and everything about my company, my organization, my new book coming out on February 20th, which is called “Taking Point: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail Safe Principles for Leading Through Change.” There’s information about that on there, it can be pre-ordered now. But that’s, yeah, that’s my contact information.
[TODD DEVOE] Awesome, Brent. So, thank you so much for being here with us today. And you know what? I wanna have you back in February, and let’s talk about your book and how people can get a hold of it right now, pre-order it, I have it recommended. And yeah, I’d love to have you back in February.
[BRENT GLEESON] I’d love to join you. Thank you so much, it was an honor to be on here.
[TODD DEVOE] And thank you for your services as well, sir.
[BRENT GLEESON] Thanks, brother. Appreciate it, man.
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