Retired Lieutenant General David Mann of PredaSAR: “Willingness to fail”

…Humility. Knowing that you don’t know everything and that you can use the help and insights of others, is a key trait. …Willingness to fail. I always think of President Teddy Roosevelt when talking about taking chances, failing but getting back up. He was someone who was willing to take chances, to make decisions without perfect […]

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…Humility. Knowing that you don’t know everything and that you can use the help and insights of others, is a key trait.

…Willingness to fail. I always think of President Teddy Roosevelt when talking about taking chances, failing but getting back up. He was someone who was willing to take chances, to make decisions without perfect information. He wasn’t always successful, but he was willing to be the “man in the arena.”

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Mann, Vice President of Strategy, Army Systems and Defense Programs for PredaSAR Corporation. He leads efforts to address the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, and other government agency requirements for responsive, high-resolution synthetic aperture radar products and services. Prior to joining PredaSAR, Mann completed more than 35 years of service in the U.S. Army retiring in the rank of Lieutenant General.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Lieutenant General Mann. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in the Air Force where my father flew bombers. As a military brat, we traveled from base to base, living across the country and overseas — we also lived in Turkey for a couple of years. I went to a small college that was a part of the University of Pennsylvania system, and worked as a respiratory tech to put myself through school. Although I had not planned on joining the military, the ROTC department at my school offered scholarships if you were willing to serve as a commissioned officer for four years. With no real desire to make the Army a career, I went for it. I quickly realized how much I enjoyed serving in the military. It was how I grew up — in a structured environment, moving periodically, changes in the missions, etc. I was accustomed to it. I loved the nobility of the mission, and the people I worked with. It became my life for almost four decades.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today I am in the private sector, working for PredaSAR, a satellite data provider that will operate the world’s largest constellation of advanced satellites with a technology called Synthetic Aperture Radar. I serve as PredaSAR’s Vice President of Strategy, Army Systems and Defense Programs. Although I’m relatively new to the company, I’m intrigued by sheer scope of our constellation’s capabilities and its applications to support various government agencies and commercial needs.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

My background in the military has been primarily in space and missile defense systems. As a result, I have first-hand knowledge of the critical needs of the Department of Defense. This is especially true in terms of sensors and sensor data critical to warfighters operating in extremely complex environments. That’s why I was intrigued by the prospect of working with PredaSAR — their technology offers a unique capability to support all weather, day and night operations.

General officers are required to go through a “cooling off” period following retirement to prevent conflicts of interest. After my cooling-off period, I went into consulting rather than the traditional corporate-America in Washington D.C. Through consulting, I was introduced to PredaSAR. I’m excited about sharing my expertise in this new role and working alongside the incredible team they have built to bring world-class technology to government agencies and our commercial partners

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Given many experiences over a 35-year career, it’s hard to pick one story as being the most interesting. I’d say the biggest takeaway from serving in the Army was how well trained you are for combat operations. Most of my time in the Army was spent in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East, especially in Baghdad, Iraq as well as in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Once you’re on the ground, you put into effect the training you’ve received…especially in 2005 and 2006 when there was a lot of insurgent activity in Iraq.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

First and foremost, heroes are folks who fight through terror and the fear…that all experience. But they don’t become paralyzed but are able to work through significant emotions and fears to accomplish the mission at hand. Unfortunately, I witnessed heroism many times in Iraq, where in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice was made.

One example that is extremely personal concerns my son-in-law who was serving in Baghdad while I was there. He was an Army sergeant at the time when he and his infantry platoon came under attack in a small town south of Baghdad. During the attack, his platoon leader was seriously wounded. Bill was able to secure the platoon leader and get him safely inside of an abandoned building. As the enemy was closing in on their position, Bill and other members of the platoon were able to hotwire a car that had also been abandoned. They loaded the wounded platoon leader into a vehicle and were able to extricate themselves from the enemy fire. Unfortunately, while getting his platoon leader to safety, we lost my son-in-law to gunfire.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

The actions of my son-in-law are the embodiment of heroism — working through a very taxing, potentially paralyzing experience but focusing on what needed to be done to ensure the welfare of the team and the accomplishment of the mission. Willing to give your life for others, while not letting fear paralyze your actions.

How do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

There are some significant parallels between military and business.

First off, let me say that no one joins the military to become wealthy. It’s about one’s passion for service and the mission at hand. It’s also the case with PredaSAR — I am passionate about the capabilities its satellite technology will bring the military and other government agencies. The impact it will have on our operations and the safety of our warfighters by providing better situational awareness. Bottom line: passion and commitment are key components for both military operations and successful businesses.

But there are other parallels, between the military and the boardroom. There’s the element of teamwork. Both in business and the military, the old saying…“There’s no ‘I’ in team,’ holds true.

After many years of service, I also learned that as one assumes more responsibility, it’s crucial to focus on those things that only you can do. Trying to focus on everything and micromanaging the efforts of others, leads to the sub-optimization of time and resources. As a senior leader, use your experience and knowledge to provide the necessary guidance and leadership while empowering your folks to do the same.

One final thought, in business as well as in the military, you must be willing to ask for help. No one person has all the answers, so put your ego aside and ask for help to ensure you have the necessary information.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m forever grateful to my wife. She had no background in the military but quickly adjusted to the tradition of relocating, acclimating to new environments and meeting new people. I was gone much of the time, leaving her to take on the herculean tasks of supporting me, holding down the home front and taking care of our kids.

I saw the effect she had on the families of folks who were deployed. She helped establish family readiness groups, where everyone comes together to take care of the families of deployed soldiers, whether it’s getting bills paid, repairing things around the house, or dealing with difficult issues. Many of those families still view my wife as a mother figure. Because of her efforts, their deployed loved ones had peace of mind to focus on the mission at hand because they knew their families were being taken care of back home. And I can’t forget to mention how compassionate, empathetic and comforting she was to those who lost loved ones in combat, to include our daughter.

I owe her so much and I know I can never fully repay my debt.

Thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis, many times, is an unanticipated event, or at least an event whose occurrence was viewed as highly unlikely. Therefore, the necessary procedures to mitigate the event are perhaps not as appropriately planned or established as they should be.

That’s why crises, in many cases, are reactionary events. The probability of the event, or the magnitude of the issue at hand, are unforeseen, and as a result, measures must be taken to slow the adverse effects of the event while remedies are sought.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business leaders think about and how should they plan?

Business leaders should be very careful to not create an environment of groupthink. You must open your aperture to take in information from multiple sources, and consider probabilities, the timeframe of potential events, what actions (both before and after) may be necessary. No one is clairvoyant, but it’s essential to evaluate possible outcomes and events and have contingency plans in place for various scenarios. With groupthink, however, even contingency planning can be negatively impacted due to opposition to novel ideas and strategies. So, it’s crucial to create an environment where experienced participants can speak their minds thoughtfully and freely, and all ideas can be evaluated for their merit and value.

Ultimately, business leaders’ success in a crisis is determined by their ability to gather, process information — or the lack thereof — and act swiftly, but rationally.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. What do you believe are key characteristics needed to survive a crisis?

A key characteristic needed to survive a crisis is the ability to stay calm and measured, both internally and externally.

When you’re in a wartime environment and faced with a crisis, it’s very important to remain calm internally so you can think rationally and determine objectively what steps need to be taken. Externally, your demeanor needs to be one of calm reassurance, so others can take positive cues and feel confident. If you get emotional, it can lead to a whole host of issues. You want to be a stabilizing force for your unit, or your fellow executives, all of whom look to their leaders for practical guidance and leadership…and reassurance that everything will be OK.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

One of my bosses in the military — the commander of an installation I was assigned to — was unshakeable. No matter what came his way, what tasks were given to him, what situations arose, he was always very calm and cool under pressure. Maybe internally he was frenzied, but you could never tell as an observer.

Another person I later worked with in the Pentagon also comes to mind. He was a brilliant individual who would frequently attend challenging sessions with senior staff members. Many of the staff were outwardly resistant to other viewpoints. And my boss would calmly point out the errors in their positions in such a surgical manner; I was regularly amazed by his tact and skills in heated discussions and strategically important meetings.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I’d say one of the greatest setbacks in my career was losing my son-in-law and later having to try to console my daughter, who had lost her husband in combat. Because I was in Iraq at the time, my plan was to allow the chaplain to notified her of Bill’s passing and to be present with her, knowing she would reach out to me immediately thereafter. How do you console your daughter, while still focusing on a mission and having people relying on you? It was challenging — to say the least.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Humility. Knowing that you don’t know everything and that you can use the help and insights of others, is a key trait.
  2. Willingness to fail. I always think of President Teddy Roosevelt when talking about taking chances, failing but getting back up. He was someone who was willing to take chances, to make decisions without perfect information. He wasn’t always successful, but he was willing to be the “man in the arena.”
  3. Willingness to take charge. This is, in a way, connected to №2 — maybe you don’t have all the answers, but you can’t be paralyzed. Where you see a leadership vacuum, step in and take charge. Being an “emergent leader” is encouraged in our military officer corps.
  4. Calm under pressure. Not being paralyzed in a tough situation. Being methodical. Offering reassurance to the people around you…is crucial in crises.
  5. Communication. Whether in business or the military, or basically any other walks of life, sharing useful information can help decision-makers navigate uncharted terrain. It’s essential to know how to communicate, no matter with whom and in what circumstances.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d like to rally a movement around empathy and thoughtfulness for others. Being in the military showed me how important it is to break outside of your shell and work with perfect strangers to achieve an objective or mission. Whatever we can do to be more cognizant and empathetic for others outside our own bubble is worthwhile, and collectively, consideration of others would be deeply impactful for our society.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.

I’d love to have some time with Elon Musk. Talk about someone willing to take chances and fail to potentially achieve something great.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow PredaSAR on LinkedIn to keep up with the latest news on our constellation:

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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