Last Sunday a few of us completed a GORUCK Challenge event, one of many that I have done over the past few years. In trying to count them all, I’m coming up with 10 GORUCK events that I’ve been a part of, although there may be more. It started when someone at GORUCK HQ called me not long after we opened our doors at CFKI in 2012, looking to partner with CrossFit gyms on this new “Challenge” event they had come up with. I asked them what it was all about, they said basically to bring a backpack full of bricks and you’ll find out when you get there. And bring as many friends as possible, this is going to be a team event. 12 hours overnight in Baltimore, getting wet in the Inner Harbor and then sandy at the base of Federal Hill, carrying a giant telephone pole through East Baltimore, and bringing 15 individuals together as a team through shared suffering, and I was hooked. Well, maybe not immediately — if you would have asked me right after the event I would have told you that was the hardest thing I had done to that point in my life and I should probably settle back into 15-minute AMRAPs.
But I was hooked, apparently, and not because I enjoy pain (I don’t) or even rucking long distances (I don’t think anyone really enjoys that). It was the leadership lessons that I learned from being temporarily in charge of the group (the instructor would make people the Team Leader for a while, and then rain down criticism and a chance to try again when you messed up), and also the leadership qualities I admired in the instructor, Cadre Chris Sanchez, a Recon Marine veteran. Chris taught me, and all of us, the value of tenacity in getting things done — he had to ask several Inner Harbor-stationed police officers before he found one that would allow us to get in the water. He reinforced in me the value of humor when you’re going through a difficult situation, shouting “how are those kipping pull-ups helping you now, CrossFit?” when I was struggling under the log.
Overall, the instructors at GORUCK all have different leadership lessons that they are hoping to impart on their crews during a Challenge event, and I have benefited greatly from those direct lessons. But it is really their individual characters and their personal leadership qualities that I have become drawn to, and what keeps me signing up to learn more.
There are a few other leaders that I have stuck close to over the years, and although they may not know it, have become my mentors.
One is Jason McCarthy, the founder of GORUCK. A Special Forces soldier turned backpack designer, he started GORUCK with the idea that everyone should have a “go-bag” or “go-ruck” with essential supplies in case of an emergency. And he wanted to bring the quality gear that he enjoyed in the military to the civilian world, in the process bridging the gap between the two communities. From Jason, mostly through his writing but also in the few personal interactions I’ve had, I have learned how to communicate clearly and directly, and how to be transparent about what is really going on. GORUCK, like every company in the world, has had its share of up’s and down’s, and the transparency with which he shares bad news just as readily as good, without complaining but just out of a sense of “honesty is the best policy”, has kept his community super tight-knit and growing all the time.
Another is Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander and now leader of the management consulting group Echelon Front. One of the scariest dudes you can imagine, not only because of his accomplishments in the military but because of his intimidating presence and the constant scowl on his face. I can just imagine his grade school pictures. From Jocko I’ve learned a couple things. The first is something also intrinsic in my own personality but he takes it to a whole new level — he is a man of few words. Listening to one of his 3-hour long podcasts, you may “hear” him pausing for effect… for 10 seconds. When a few of us saw him speak live in DC, he started his on-stage presentation by just sitting at a desk and reading letters. To himself. Eventually he spoke about those letters from WWI soldiers home to their wives, but for a solid 5 minutes there was no sound. I’m not saying I’m going to coach a CrossFit class like that, but damn! That was powerful.
The other lesson I continuously learn from reading and listening to Jocko is that you have to take ownership of everything that is happening in your organization. If something goes wrong, and you’re in charge, it was your fault. Someone was not properly trained, or was not given clear instructions on what to do in that situation, which falls back on the leader. A leader that understands this and truly embodies it will grow other leaders in the organization with the same mindset. I’m still working on this one, but I’m lucky to have many other leaders at CFKI that step up and take ownership when I drop the ball.
Finally, Mark Divine, founder of SEALFIT, has shown me that it’s OK to be vulnerable and admit your mistakes, especially to help others not fall down the same way. In small group settings and even in his latest book, Staring Down The Wolf, he talks a lot about how his life experiences have shaped him — through failure. And sometimes failure is not a bad thing, if we’re really going for something hard. Fail Forward Fast is his mantra around developing new ideas and service offerings, and it’s apparent in how much different material the SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind organizations have put out, and how they continually evolve to get it better and better with each iteration.
When you’re a leader of an organization, especially a young leader with a lot to learn, don’t be afraid to try on some of the leadership qualities that you admire in others. Straight up copy them! There’s a reason you admire those qualities — because they are effective and inspiring. When you’re faced with a complex situation, put yourself in your mentor’s shoes. What would they do? How would they step up as a leader here? Embody their strong qualities, and then go out and lead!