Graham Kessler of ADS: “Good leaders really have two jobs , the tactical goals of their role, and the task of teaching to help others grow to a higher level”

Teamwork is the last important quality of a successful leader. Good leaders really have two jobs — the tactical goals and objectives of their role, and the task of collaborating and teaching to help others succeed and grow to a higher level. As I learned in the Navy and even afterwards, there are a lot of places […]

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Teamwork is the last important quality of a successful leader. Good leaders really have two jobs — the tactical goals and objectives of their role, and the task of collaborating and teaching to help others succeed and grow to a higher level. As I learned in the Navy and even afterwards, there are a lot of places a leader can teach outside of a classroom.

New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.

As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Graham Kessler.

Graham Kessler is the Director of Product Development and Integration at ADS, Inc., a military equipment supplier that provides tactical equipment, procurement, logistics, government contracts and supply chain solutions. In this role he leads innovation and change management initiatives to diversify their supplier portfolio while influencing and expediting the introduction of new technologies into the United States Government and Department of Defense. Prior to this role, Kessler worked at Logos Technologies LLC for eight years and Sonalysts, Inc. for ten years prior. He has also previously served as an Operations Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Navy from 1995–1999. Kessler holds a B.S. in engineering and mathematics from The University of Illinois — Urbana Champaign. He is currently based in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife and two sons.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, in Reston, VA so the political and military scene was always in my backyard. In my teenage years, I loved math, science and music — I actually went to a math and science high school, and I continued to pursue these passions in college at University of Illinois. I loved jazz music for its complexity and world of possibility. I think that helped spark my later interest in design and innovation, but in school I ultimately chose to pursue engineering. From there, I became an intelligence officer with the Navy, and that started my career in the military. My entire career has been in and around the Department of Defense. After my time in service, I worked for 10 years writing future concepts at US Joint Forces Command (USFJCOM) on what the future of the military would look like before heading into the private sector for a research and development company that built sensors for various aircraft. That role shifted me into business development and pointed me towards the work I do now with ADS, Inc. as Director of Product Development and Integration.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was in the Navy, I was an airstrike planner in a F-14 squadron for a Joint Operation called “Operation DESERT FOX.” The primary mission of DESERT FOX was to strike military targets in Iraq that contributed to its ability to produce, store, maintain and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The mission was a success from a tactical perspective, and was led by General Anthony C. Zinni at US Central Command.

While working in my concept development role at USJFCOM, we would often present and discuss our work with retired military personnel in order to gather feedback on our ideas. While I had not personally met General Zinni while working on DESERT FOX, I was fortunate enough to meet him while presenting some of the conceptual work that I had developed. Speaking with General Zinni was like meeting my version of a celebrity — he was very personable and all-around awesome man. I am very thankful for his leadership and to have met him after working on a strategically important mission with him during my time in service.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As a young person, it was instilled in me to “Always do your best, even when no one is watching.” This advice can be applied to almost any situation. I think this is one of the most difficult personal challenges you can give yourself, because you have to hold yourself to the highest standard when you know nobody else knows the difference. But, when you push through that challenge, you can grow your accomplishments faster and end up miles ahead of the average person. I constantly refer back to this life lesson not just for myself but in teaching my teenage sons how to stand on their own and live with integrity.

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 about that?

This question really hits home for me because it makes me appreciate my time in the Navy. Oftentimes, when military officers are commissioned, they are young, straight out of college and have no idea how to be a military officer — yet, they think they can do it all. The military does a good job at providing senior mentors for junior officers to work on their conduct, behavior, accountability, instilling all the qualities of being a successful adult and leader. One of the most influential mentors in my life was Lieutenant Commander Chuck Gagnon when I was working on a job with the U.S. Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). I loved this job because it combined my passions for music and science, and it was heavy on acoustic science, using sound to monitor for submarine motions. I’m very fortunate that Chuck took me under his wing for this job and made me part of his tight-knit group of smart, experienced people. I learned a lot about acoustics and got a lot of advice from him about being an officer, young man and leader.

Is there a particular book or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I think about Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film “Inception” a lot. Nolan succeeded if his goal was getting people to think! It was a really big movie when it came out so you may be familiar, but it’s a genuine mind-bender that plays with the concepts of reality vs. fiction through a (not real) dream-sharing technology that lets someone travel into somebody’s brain and plant an idea in their head via their dreams. When I first watched this movie, I saw so many parallels to my professional role writing future concepts for the military — everything I did was creating new ideas and vetting them. The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the mind of a military officer is getting the old idea out, so I wished I had this imaginary dream-sharing technology that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character used to plant ideas into somebody’s mind. Doing this task in the real world, without the help of Hollywood magic, requires a lot more strategy, a painstaking attention to detail, and an ownership and conviction in the words or ideas you’re trying to sell.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Leading by example comes first to mind. My time in the military constantly reinforced this leadership trait — the troops should always eat before officers, for example. In my civilian life, I always aim to ensure that my people know that I will only ask them to take on a task that I would be willing to do myself.

Second, I think delegation is important to success. Always delegate as much authority as you can, pushing down the decision making authority to the lowest practical point in the organization — but, in a safe way. If things go wrong, as a leader, you are always responsible for what happens — you cannot delegate responsibility. But if everything goes right, delegation empowers people below you to grow and lead, and empowers the entire organization to be greater and get more done.

Teamwork is the last important quality of a successful leader. Good leaders really have two jobs — the tactical goals and objectives of their role, and the task of collaborating and teaching to help others succeed and grow to a higher level. As I learned in the Navy and even afterwards, there are a lot of places a leader can teach outside of a classroom.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m at a unique point in my career now where I can pull lots of ideas together and draw connections in unexpected places as part of my job, so I spend a lot of time doing that. I spin this into my life outside of work by speaking to young people about how to be curious and apply their learning in school to the larger world around them. Among younger generations, cell phones are permanent fixtures in their hands, but there’s so much more to experience in the world than what we can see through our phones. It started with my two sons, but I now talk to kids who are in high school and about to head to college about how to make connections and really take advantage of this incredible time of their life.

Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?

With so much more public attention to injury and health among professional athletes, there’s more research money and a lot of exciting work being done to advance sports technology around head injury and concussions. I’m passionate about this area because there is a lot of overlap between sports and the military. Preventing brain injury and preserving physical and mental health is essential for success for both athletes and soldiers. After they leave the field, retire and return to private life, their injuries remain — it’s our responsibility as a society to keep these groups safe throughout their life.

There are four key areas where we are currently focusing our attention around brain injury — prevention, early detection, assessment and treatment and I’ll give an example for each. Protective headgear to prevent traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) is a big area of preventative development for athletes, especially football players in the NFL. A company called 2nd Skull is doing some really cool work on protective skull cap headgear that can be worn with or without a helmet and can absorb the shock if a player falls or gets hit. Players with the MLB and NFL are already using it, and this technology is making its way into military use as well. NoMo Diagnostics is developing a sensor to put in athletic and military helmets that can detect in real-time if a hit player needs to be assessed for concussion, making TBI detection happen much earlier than current methods allow. NoMo is a startup out of Columbia University, and its leaders James Noble and Barclay Morrison are experts in brain health, TBIs and PTSD in athletes. I’m really excited to keep watching them as they put together and roll out their pilot programs. For assessment technology, Right Eye marries optometrist diagnostic procedures like eye movement evaluations with specialized cameras to create a high-tech standard protocol to assess whether a player has a head injury. The goal is to be able to do these assessments right on the sidelines, in the medical tent, or on the field because time is of the essence for diagnosing head injuries. Lastly, Wave Neuro has developed a really promising treatment regimen for PTSD using frequency patterns in the brain and targeted magnetic brain stimulation. So far, the test results and advanced analytics coming out have been really promising — they’re working with the Special Operations community and expanding into athletics with a few professional sports teams right now. I think the future is very promising for technologies like these and it can really change lives for both pro athletes and soldiers.

How do you think this might change the world of sports?

Traumatic brain injuries last a lifetime, so these technologies really do have the potential to change the way athletes and former athletes live, both on and off the field. Detection is so important to reducing the severity of a brain injury, but it’s sometimes hard to tell how bad the player’s injury is just from behavioral cues. Technology can step in to really help coaches and decision-makers decide whether to pull the athlete out of the game or if he/she can safely return to play. Technology and data science can also help the longitudinal monitoring of the long-term effects of head injuries. This truly can have a lifelong impact on player health, keeping our favorite athletes safely in the game for longer and keeping them healthy and safe after they retire. I’m glad that athletic commissions have stepped up and made some hard decisions in committing to this kind of research and injury prevention, and we’ve made massive progress from 10 or 15 years ago. But, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Overall I am not too concerned about concussion detection and treatment technologies turning into a future episode of “Black Mirror” as long as the data is properly secured. When interacting with these technologies, very important and personal data that is deeply learned about brain and body behaviors is collected, and this sensitive information must be kept secure and used properly. Luckily we are not living in Andrew Nicol’s Gattaca (1997) and modern day technology enables scientists and doctors to better protect information through secure clouds and databases.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?

As a dad, something I’ve seen in sports that concerns me is kids getting pushed at a young age — as early as age 10 or 12 — to specialize and only play one sport all year round. Sports, especially for young people, are meant to be fun and build skills like teamwork and decision-making. That gets lost when we put pressure on kids to focus on becoming really good at only one thing. Kids should be free to explore different sports if they so choose — but, if they really love one sport and want to specialize, that’s their choice too. I don’t think parents are doing enough to give kids that freedom of choice, and these early-career moments for athletes really impact them down the line when they become adults.

I also think, on the professional level, that sports have become too big of a business machine — it’s often more about the TV contracts, merchandising, sponsorships and ticket sales rather than the game or the athletes. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team is a great example. The women are world champions and Olympic gold medalists but they get far less airtime, marketing attention and compensation than their male counterparts or other athletes from other sports. This has shifted a bit in recent years but it’s still not enough.

In tandem, I think the business machine is making the fan side of sports too expensive. It’s getting harder and less affordable for the everyman or everywoman to experience the games live, have the jerseys, and now even watch on TV with the new, expensive sports streaming subscriptions. Being a true sports fan almost breaks the bank today, and that needs to change. Sports should be for the people. The industry as a whole should really look at how to drive the cost down for people to attend or watch sports.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started:

The real world applications of science and math that was taught in high school and college;

The first job you choose has a massive impact on the path you later take;

Don’t be afraid to reassess yourself and what you’re good at from time to time;

Always view the world with an open mind;

Nothing is more important than your family and friends.

The first two pieces of advice are directed at my younger self. My career path, from my specializations in high school to my major in college and first job, were pivotal to forming my identity as an employee today. Looking back, I’ve made both good and bad decisions while taking a hands-on learning approach for how to apply math, science and music to my work in the Navy and my broader career in and around the Department of Defense.

The next two pieces of advice are directed at myself throughout my career to present day. It’s always important to take a step back and reassess your skills to find new ways to apply them to real-world situations. This can be about a range of topics including your career path, advice to your kids or even what you are going to do in a crisis situation. Examining scenarios individually and with an open mind can bring new perspectives into view, ultimately finding solutions to tricky problems.

The last piece of advice is the most important one, in my opinion. When I was younger and my wife was pregnant with our first son, I wanted to be in the office part-time to spend more time with my family. This was well before Zoom and remote work was the norm, so it was fairly difficult to get sign off from my supervisors. However, once approved, one of my bosses stopped into my office and said, “The bottom line is what you are trying to do is the most important thing you can possibly do right now.” He explained that he had previously prioritized his career which created a strain on his home life, and during his retirement would spend most of his time repairing those relationships and making up for lost time. This resonated with me and will always remind me that no work is more important than spending quality time with your loved ones.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think the way we raise our children and help kids achieve their goals is vital to the future of our society, so if I could do anything to inspire people, I’d push them to focus on young people. One suggestion to readers, especially readers in the Hampton Roads area — check out an awesome organization I support called ForKids. The organization is 100% focused on eradicating childhood homelessness by giving families emergency shelter and resources to help get back on their feet. There are other amazing organizations like this around the country, too, but support for organizations like Forkids really makes a difference helping kids and families, and improving local communities.

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

Wow — if only! I think President Obama is one of the most inspirational people on the planet and even after his tenure as president he still has an incredible amount of influence. I would love to meet him someday and pick his brain about how we can get through some of these current tough times while still making a difference. Sascha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais are my favorite comedians and such funny people, so it would be cool to share some laughs with either of them.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn and you can learn more about the work I do at ADS at

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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