“it is my firm belief that all people respond to their level of preparation.” — Adam Bosma
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 Adam Bosma.
Adam is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and spent over a decade flying fighter jets before switching careers to the financial services industry. He is a veteran of multiple overseas aircraft carrier deployments and finished his career training the next generation of fighter pilots. After separating from active duty, Adam has pursued multiple entrepreneurial endeavors where he applies the leadership principles, process improvement, and decision-making skills he learned flying jets in the US Navy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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”?
Some of your readers may empathize with this, but as a child, I ALWAYS wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. Some young boys like cars or tractors or comic book heroes, but for me, it was always airplanes. I have a memory from the 2nd grade when my teacher Mrs. V gave me a book with a picture of an F-16 on the cover. She knew her audience because the picture was oriented to appear like the airplane was flying literally straight up in the air! I was mesmerized and knew that I wanted to do THAT.
Another fortunate thing happened a couple of years later when I was in middle school and about to enter high school. The son of one of my teachers attended the US Naval Academy and graduated at the top of his class. I am from a small town in the Great Lakes region, where not a lot of people leave the state for college. My only exposure to anything resembling a Service Academy was watching the Army-Navy game on television every year. To see someone who was LIKE ME in the background, and from my hometown, go to a place like Annapolis and succeed was a huge inspiration.
Looking back, I think it was these two inspirations at a young impressionable age that led me to pursue my dream of flying jets for the US Navy. I was fortunate enough to have the support and structure along the way to accomplish that.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I believe that the best motivation comes from personal failure. I graduated college and entered the professional workforce in 2007, right before the Global Financial Crisis, at the height of the real estate and stock markets. I distinctly remember a discussion amongst “experienced financial professionals” about buying a house at every military duty station and renting them out when you move away. After a 20-year career, you will be rich and never have to work again. This sounded like a great plan! So as a 23-year old, I bought a house at my first duty station……At the top of the market! Within one year, I had lost all my equity and was underwater an amount of money equal to many multiples of my annual salary. I remember losing sleep and feeling physically ill from the stress of the financial difficulty. However, my wife and I buckled down and paid our bills at a personal loss for years as landlords. Fast forward, a decade later and we finally sold that house for a small loss!
In modern American society, we have two large cultural limitations to personal financial success: a lack of education and the taboo nature of talking about our financial failings. So many people make similar mistakes as I did because they don’t understand how personal finance works! Young professionals take on massive financial commitments through student loans, car payments, and mortgages, yet they literally do not understand how to analyze these HUGE decisions with significant impacts on their future. In addition, most professional training through college or graduate school does not prepare graduates for setting up and managing personal finances. Our system has failed us!
My professional goal today is to help others avoid the mistakes I made. It is my mission to reach as many people as possible with the message of smart personal financial planning: take control of your money, manage your debt, and invest wisely for the future.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
As I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege of flying fighter jets for the US Navy. After years of training, I deployed three times overseas aboard an aircraft carrier to support the foreign policy objectives of the United States government. This extensive experience led to expertise in teaching the techniques associated with landing on aircraft carriers. I completed my active duty military career as a flight instructor teaching the next generation of Navy fighter pilots how to fly and succeed in Naval Aviation.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
All pilots, if they fly for long enough, experience airborne emergencies. I am no different. In fact, I have had a handful of emergencies that ranged from semi-serious to extremely serious. A couple of years ago, I hit a bird on takeoff that flamed out my single-engine. When you are low to the ground without power, time and gravity become your biggest enemies. I completed 17 steps of multiple emergency procedures from memory before accomplishing a successful crash landing. I was fortunate to walk away from the incident with bumps and bruises, but no serious injury. To me, the big takeaway from this experience was a firm belief that all people respond to their level of preparation. I was well prepared for an emergency to happen. Therefore, I was able to appropriately respond to this moment of crisis.
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.
In our culture, physical courage is exalted as the highest form of heroism. However, I have observed that physical courage is actually quite common in our volunteer military. There are many people of all ranks who rise to the challenge of danger and respond favorably in different contexts. Specific examples I have observed include Sailors who work in arduous conditions on an aircraft carrier flight deck, shipboard firefighters who would willingly sacrifice themselves to save the ship, and pilots who fly off ships in poor weather knowing they have to return and land (or go swimming)!
In my experience, moral courage is a rarer phenomenon in large organizations. The best example of this occurred when one of my bosses directly stood up to a high-ranking officer over the contamination of our aircraft’s oxygen breathing system. He refused to fly a contaminated aircraft despite intense political and career pressure to maintain the status quo and not upset the high-ranking officer. However, my boss believed that no monetary price or professional advancement would outweigh the cost of losing even one aircraft and crew due to contaminated equipment.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
As I alluded to above, my personal definition of a “hero” is someone who takes an unpopular moral stand for what they believe in regardless of the consequences and in complete disregard of their own personal gain. In my observation, these situations can arise from maleficence but are often a result of moral quandaries between well-intentioned parties.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
My military experience taught me three things that I take with me to this day:
- A more balanced perspective on what is truly necessary for survival in life. Human beings can bear significant physical and psychological burdens if they have the proper mental mindset and a will to live.
- Exposure to significant responsibility and life experiences at a young age. In my mid-20’s I was flying 70m dollars aircraft by myself and leading dozens of people in difficult circumstances. I cannot imagine doing that at such a young age in any other context.
- Learning from the military’s institutional knowledge on how to accomplish objectives in dynamic and uncertain scenarios. The military has a strong track-record of doing difficult things in difficult situations.
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 believe that no success is an individual’s alone. Many people have helped me along the way to include my parents, teachers, coaches, and military instructors. There is no doubt that I would not be where I am today without their guidance.
Ok, 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?
I have come to believe that true crisis occurs when completely unforeseen circumstances directly and negatively impact an organization. In recent times, the term “black swan,” popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has been used to describe these unique situations. Though unforeseen, these Black Swan crises often resemble other events. Due to these similarities, leaders can apply universal frameworks to position their organizations for success.
By definition, these crises could be self-induced or caused by the external environment. In addition, true crises are marked by large amounts of uncertainty and opaque information flow. In these situations, leaders are forced to make metaphorical life or death decisions without knowing all the information.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Crisis response starts with proper preparation by assembling the right team. Though most leaders operate in human capital-constrained environments, it is imperative to manage the bandwidth of your advisors and direct reports. Strive to prevent over-optimizing your subordinates and maintain a surge capacity of brainpower. If an organization is continuously running on red line, there is no capability to respond to crisis. Additionally, strive to identify and promote experienced crisis leaders who have a track record of dealing with uncertainty in dynamic events.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Understand that survival is the objective and all extraneous effort and resource allocation to non-survival tasks reduces the chance of survival. In aviation, we call this “task shedding.” From day one, pilots are taught the mnemonic “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.” This is a useful rule of thumb that prioritizes all tasks into three priority buckets, with the highest bucket being those related to survival i.e. “Aviate” or flying the aircraft. Everything else is a lower priority when a crisis hits. A leader’s job is to recognize when a crisis has hit and clearly prioritize survival objectives and actions. It is no longer prudent to optimize or forecast, survival is the only near-term objective.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Surviving a crisis starts before the negative events occur. Ideally, a leader has thought critically about the structure of his or her organization and developed a team that can surge to meet a crisis. Next, a leader needs to thoroughly understand the success factors for each group of stakeholders inside and outside an organization. During the crisis, it is critical to develop a field of potential outcomes and assign a probability to the worst-case through best-case scenarios. Once these possible outcomes are articulated, the organization’s leadership can mitigate the possible ramifications of the worst-case scenario. Finally, the leader must properly develop and communicate the priorities for organizational survival.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Excellent question! There are countless examples of effective leadership during times of crisis from the business world, such as Andy Grove at Intel in 1980’s or Steve Jobs during his second stint as CEO of Apple. In addition, many people can list the famous war-time military leaders in American history such as George Washington at Valley Forge, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and Admiral Chester Nimitz after Pearl Harbor. However, I never knew any of these historical examples on a personal level. Therefore, I would select a mid-level military leader who I discussed earlier in this interview as an example of moral heroism. His nickname is Fuzzy, and he led the organization in which I was a manager through a significant time of crisis with our oxygen equipment. The story was so sensational at my military base, that it made national news. In my opinion, Fuzzy was a huge success and the best leader I ever worked for, because he followed the leadership framework I outlined: proper preparation, probabilistic thinking and mitigation, and clear communication of priorities. The end result was our organization survived the crisis, moved forward with our human capital intact, and returned to normal operating capacity in a timely manner. This should be the goal of any leader during a crisis.
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?
On my first deployment, I was given the opportunity to lead a high-profile training exercise. I planned diligently for weeks and led the mission on a beautiful afternoon over the South Pacific. The stunning view was straight from a postcard. All my preparation paid off, and the mission execution went flawlessly. On my flight back to the ship, I was riding high! However, I still needed to successfully land my F-18 on the aircraft carrier flight deck. My mission was not done yet. Unfortunately, I dropped my concentration and had the worst landing of my life that afternoon. All of my success earlier in the day was completely overshadowed by a failure to do the basic task in front of me: land safely on the ship. No one remembers how great the mission went. They only remember my horrible landing. I learned never to relax when doing fundamental tasks. In aviation-speak, you are only as good as your last landing!
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.
I believe that unforeseen crises are unique but follow a common framework for surviving and thriving:
1. Understand that a crisis situation is about survival. All non-survival tasks are secondary.
2. Develop a field of possible outcomes from worst-case to best-case and assign probabilities to those potential outcomes.
3. Actively seek to mitigate the worst-case outcomes while looking to capitalize on the opportunities embedded in the best-case scenario.
4. Develop and communicate organizational expectations in a clear manner to internal and external stakeholders.
5. Enable your team by removing barriers to implementation of your vision and avoiding the temptation to micromanage.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that leaders with integrity should always pursue the truth, even if it is not in your self-interest. Look for truth in others, even if they let you down or you vehemently disagree with their point of view.
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, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have a conversation with U2 lead singer Bono. I am a huge fan and love his desire to improve communities around the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.