Creating a No-Fail Culture

Cooper, David 150

Dr. Relly Nadler: Today we are going to be talking about creating a no-fail culture with David Cooper, retired US Navy SEAL, and President of Karakoram Group.

David, co-founder of Karakoram Group, brings the highest level of Special Operations counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism experience to bear on strategic, global, security issues. Blending a mix of data-driven and experience-driven enterprise risk management and risk leadership practices. You’re going to get someone who has been on the front line and is translating some of this into our business leaders.

As a US Navy SEAL and a Senior Operator at the Elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, David spent over a decade not only pursuing some of the worlds most wanted terrorist and war criminals, but more importantly, creating, leading, and sustaining the high performing teams that achieve unparalleled success against these extremist organizations.

Today we will learn insights from David on how he trains elite warriors and how whole companies can apply a no-fail attitude and build a no-fail culture.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I’m really excited to be here today to hear a lot about what Dave has been up to with regard to building a no-fail culture. I’m sure many of our listeners who are coaches, talent professionals, and business leaders, will get a lot out of these insights. I’m hopeful that we will be able to reestablish an identity here for many of the kinds of leadership practices that we see when we work with our friends in the military and how they can apply very readily to the boardroom as well as the battlefield.

Over the years I have been working with the US Army War College, the Pentagon and most recently with your assistance, we worked down at Navy Special Warfare. As we always do, along the way we make some fabulous friends and contacts. One of them is Chief Warrant Officer Ron Carpenter who is still fully engaged as a SWCC; Special Warfare Combatant Crewman, he happened to have been on a team with Admiral Scott Moore and when I was meeting with Admiral Moore I was lucky enough to get a two-for-one and Dave was not only a very helpful individual in understanding a lot about how businesses need to develop a no-fail culture to help us enlist not only the best people, but the best cultures and the best practices.

He also was a speaker at a program where we actually shared the stage, and that was at a very large organization called Winsight, which is an organization for the convenience store and petroleum industry.

Dr. Relly Nadler: We always start off with a couple of questions just to get to know how you develop your leadership. Dave, who were some of the key people who have influenced you the most in your leadership over the years?

David Cooper: That’s a great question. I can certainly, without naming names, point to the guys that I worked with over the last decade overseas in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and what not. I would tell you I think some people might find it ironic but most of these guys that I looked up to were actually junior to me, and they are actually out there in the field leading; whether it was the #1 man through the door, if you will, to an enemy compound, or because they had a particular skill that we needed and they led during particular phase of an operation, or sometimes it’s simply because they had a better way of doing things and they had to try to, without any rank whatsoever, to influence guys like me. Those are the guys; the operators that I have been influenced most by.

Of course there are others in history as well. Aristotle is a big influence on me as well as some eastern philosophers.

But the real ones I look at are the guys themselves.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Dave, you are currently working on a book that is a unique perspective from what we see coming out in the public domain today from your brothers in Special Operations. Can you talk a little bit about your book?

David Cooper: Well, I would say as soon as you mentioned “book” and Navy SEAL you are going to frighten some people! Writing has always been a passion of mine. Philosophy has always been a passion of mine. I have no desire to tell the tell-all story, I think that’s reprehensible when people do that. However I do think service was a privilege and as I have said many times; with any privilege comes obligation. After we retire those obligations they don’t go away they simply change form.

We have, I think, an obligation to pass on what we have learned about leadership, about our humanity and what we have learned the hard way, through combat. So the book is kind of like that. It’s more of place where eastern and western philosophy come together and how those philosophies impacted my observation of 10 years of combat. That’s really what the book is about.

If you have ever read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the book will be similar to that.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Beautiful. I can’t wait. Anything we can do to help just count us in.

Dr. Relly Nadler: David, is there a working title that you have right now?

David Cooper: Yah, A Real Sword. The title is something that Miyamoto Musashi references in his book, The Book of Five Rings. It’s really a saying that means to treat something with seriousness: A Real Sword.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Great. That sounds good.

David Cooper: We are open to ideas, so if you have better ideas let me know. I’ll give you credit.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Tell us a little bit about your background, Dave, and what prepared you to be a US Navy SEAL, and how that relates to the work of the Karakoram Group, and then we’ll talk a little bit about the Karakoram Group.

David Cooper: So what prepared me? We in the field teams will go around the country recruiting young men who have been playing different sports. So for me it was wrestling. I think you certainly learn how to suffer as a wrestler. Field training is on some level about suffering. So I think that wrestling prepared me as much as you can possibly be prepared. But, what gets you through training is not wrestling, it’s your friends out there. It truly is teamwork. I know from my own experience there were times during that year long training that I faltered and failed and there was always somebody there to pick me up. When they fell I was there to return the favor.

While wrestling might have prepared me, it’s your friends that help you get through it.

Dr. Relly Nadler: How long has it been since you’ve retired?

David Cooper: It has been almost three years.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Is that when you started the Karakoram Group?

David Cooper: No, not initially. Initially I walked into the consulting world like many leaving the military do, and I bounced around a little bit. I learned a great deal. Ultimately some of the best advice that I had when I got out was from another gentleman who was retired and worked for a company call NCIC for a long time. He said go do this for a year or two, figure out what you like, and then go at it on your own. That’s really how Karakoram Group came about.

We are still a young company. We don’t advertise. We took a page out of the old law firm book if you will; we have a lot of contacts out there and we really like the word-of-mouth recommendations. So as of yet, we don’t advertise. You can reach us at [email protected], but you are not going to really find us anyplace else out there unless you come across people that we’ve worked with, which is growing.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: What does the word Karakoram stand for and where did it come from?

David Cooper: Karakoram is a mountain range. The Karakoram Range in Pakistan. It really has the highest concentration of 8,000 meter peeks in the world, so it’s an awesome sight to behold. But for us; we talk about risk management or enterprise risk management, or risk leadership is really how we come at it. The best analogy I’ve ever heard for what risk is, is the landscape analogy. Quite simply it means that you can be standing on top of the tallest peak today but that tall peak could be the molehill tomorrow, so mountain one day, molehill the next. That really refers to how risk and complexity play against one another and play out and what we can do to combat these things, or treat these things and that is where we come in. It’s with that brand of what we call risk leadership.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You have a background in climbing. Does that come together here around the Karakoram philosophy and culture?

David Cooper: Well, you know it makes it easier to pick a name when all the guys in the company are climbers. But that is not necessarily why we picked it.

Climbing is something else we are going to do here in the community, hopefully soon in the Virginia Beach community, is build a climbing gym. Climbing is something I have been doing ever since I came into the SEAL teams, over 25 years now. Climbing itself is a mini leadership course. It’s all about decision making. It’s all about learning to be uncomfortable and it’s about competence, equanimity, and all of those different things we talk about when we talk about good leadership. Climbing is something that exercises all of those things. So yes, we are tied to it. We don’t take our clients climbing, I guess we could, but we don’t.

Dr. Relly Nadler: In my past I used to work and lead these Outward Bound trips where climbing was always a part of it. But, it’s a great metaphor because you are so much into the here and now, and there is a strategy of first the mindfulness of being right on the wall, and then second, what’s the strategy, what’s my next moves. But you really can’t go too far beyond what’s my next move, am I positioned, and how are my feet and hands doing? It’s a great one for staying focused but also having some strategy as to where you are going to go.

David Cooper: Absolutely. I mean, talk about strategy there and you talk about being focused and I can’t go too far. That’s a strategy played is overreach and if you are overreaching your abilities and climbing a course that can be very, very dangerous, and again we are right back to the notion of risk there and how do we treat risk and stuff like that.

We tend to do it through behaviors.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That brings us to the question, Dave, how do you define leadership and if you can in that definition talk about some of the virtues that you think a leader should possess? You talked a little bit about discomfort, that’s a big one in our book, Fearless Leaders: Sharpen Your Focus. You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. So tell us how you define leadership and then some of the character traits that you think are important.

David Cooper: That’s a great question. Every leadership guru I have ever met; I ask them the same question—just what you’ve asked me—how do you define leadership. That kind of question really assumes that this thing we call leadership actually happens right. Then beyond we have to define it and then going beyond that we can talk about quality or significance as they relate to leadership.

As I define it, I harken back to my roots in biology as a budding biologist 30 years ago, of  course I went to the SEAL team. It really comes down to a continuum, just gene expression. You’ve got persuasion and influence, really on one end of the spectrum that’s your entry level and at the other end of the spectrum you have virtue. It’s not virtue as a noun, it’s virtue in the sense of excellence in action because leadership is really a discipline of action. That’s how I define it: excellence in action in accordance with virtue.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You were touching on virtues as excellence in action. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about some of those virtues that you think a leader should possess?

David Cooper: Sure. I think there are any number of virtues that a leader can and should possess. Again virtue not in the sense as a noun, but in a sense of action. Virtue should be in a leaders every action.

I tend to tout those virtues where eastern and western philosophy converge particularly on the virtue of wisdom and courage. Those are probably two I would hold up as most important, although there are others out there as well. But, I would also throw compassion in there. What I mean by compassion is this ability to comprehend what it means to suffer with. I think that is not a definition we typically use for compassion. Here in the west it’s more in an eastern sense.

To me this definition of compassion in a sense of suffering with, is the root of emotional intelligence for me

You can listen to the complete interview above.


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