Imagine this for leadership training: It’s midnight, and you’re dropped into the San Diego Bay. The water temperature is a brisk 57 degrees, and you’re surrounded by strangers. Ex-military-types begin screaming at you to swim—but you have no idea where you’re going. When you finally reach the beach, two miles later, you collapse in exhaustion. Welcome to Leadership Under Fire—you’ve just begun your 72-hour lesson in becoming a better boss.
“The purpose is to tell them that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead,” says Rob Roy, the founder of the Leadership Under Fire series and a former Navy SEAL officer. “They can’t walk into a boardroom and think they can’t make it. They’ll refer back to this time, and say ‘Yeah, this is difficult, but I can make it through.”
Since 2005 Rob Roy has been teaching—and enforcing—leadership through his own unique vision. His company, SOT-G, which puts on the Leadership Under Fire series in partnership with the Young Presidents organisation (YPO), has three full-time staff members, but will contract with 35-40 ex-Navy officers during a session. With over 25 years experience in the Navy and time served as a Navy SEAL, Roy has come to understand leadership in a way most leaders in corporate America don’t get to experience. For Roy, leadership has literally made the difference between life and death. “We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book,” says Roy. “Motivation is not leadership—real leaders inspire, guide and give hope.” The cost for a 72-hour session with Roy is around $6,000, but for many leaders, it’s well worth the expense. “I found a new level of depth in my personal energy and internal resolve to get through ‘stuff,'” says Lucas A. Skoczkowski, CEO of Toronto-based Redknee Solutions Inc., and a 2008 program alumnus. “This has increased my confidence and I am less phased by the rapidly changing landscape on the business front. It was really timely as the business has gone through a lot of tribulations in the following two years after we finished the program.” Inc.com’s Eric Markowitz spoke with Rob Roy.
What’s the idea behind the program?
The program is built on the principles of SEAL training and how they use physical fitness and other challenging environments to bring people together. It’s a three-and-a-half day course. Members show up with very little knowledge of what they’re getting into other than they will be challenged outside their normal spectrum of day-to-day lives.
How do most people approach the program? After all, they’re business leaders, so they probably think they’re pretty tough, right?
They come in with their own set of working tools that they would use in stressful situations. On Day 1, we challenge that. At midnight, we drop them in the water. We’ll take them out and drop in the coast or bay. It’s a two-mile swim. The key to the swim is not so much the swim, it’s the darkness. We get them to face their fears with other folks. They don’t know them, they just met them. They don’t know the length of time. The purpose is to tell them that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. They can’t walk into a boardroom and think they can’t make it. They’ll refer back to this time, and say ‘Yeah, this is difficult, but I can make it through.’
And the majority of the time, the CEOs have an army of folks who are there to do things for them. This puts them in the position of having to do it themselves. Also they’re dealing with people that they have to help or get moving.
Being cold, wet, tired, and angry makes it hard to be a leader though, right?
Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favour, but it’s the turbulent times that they’re able to make those correct decisions and thinking about the other people within their group. Every decision they make, they need to make sure that their team is accountable. If you’re in charge, and you lose, is your team going to carry you until you get back on your feet? Or is your team going to wait for you to make a mistake and then go forward without you? We see a lot of that.
So after a gruelling swim, run, and various other strenous excercises, you give them a few minutes of sleep. What does that do to their pysche?
Oh, man. It’s like having champagne.
So what’s a typical mission in the program?
We give them a brief to go into a town and they’re supposed to rescue the ambassador’s daughter. There’s two women when they get there—and then we put a marine in uniform and he’s got his leg chopped off and blood is squirting out and he’s crying and saying ‘save me, save me.’ They always go to him first because he’s in the path of where we want them to go. They’ll try to save him. Then they’ll see in another room a guy hacking away at the girl’s leg. And they go “we gotta save the girls,” and they’ll forget about the Marines. Right when they grab the girl, we set off a bomb and they forget about everyone else. Everyone else falls by the wayside.
And what is this meant to teach them?
If you got a guy in your company who’s down range, does he believe you’re going to be there to protect him? So if you own organisations, if something happens to someone within your company, are you going to stop and think about them or are you going to leave them? Military people know that if something happens to you, someone will come and get you no matter the cost. And if you want my loyalty as an employee, I have to know that no matter what, you’re going to save me. That’s what this drill is for. It’s a defining moment of loyalty and integrity. It’s not about skill, it’s about knowing that they’ll be there for me when the company goes to crap.
How do you define success?
It’s cliché, but every major success is defined by a bunch of failures. We need to know what our limitations are, and we need to blow those out of the box. You’re only limited to what your mind tells you you are, and after that you can push beyond that. I’m a big believer in stretch goals—you have to push yourself way outside your comfort zone. If a person does 50 push-ups, we know he can do more.
In your experience, do you find that leadership can be learned—or is it something someone is born with?
We preach that everybody has leadership qualities that could make them good leaders, but it depends on the situation that could make them great leaders. People say there’s a leader in everyone. That’s possible. You’re going to take charge at some point—we lead our kids, we lead our families. In business, if the market is collapsing, a great leader, it’s all about what he does next. Before the dust settles, that leader is going to step up and make that next decision. He’ll go into it blind, but people will follow him because they’ll know he has always has their best interests in mind.
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