“A great crisis leader will step back at the worst moment, look at the entire situation, then adjust” — Dan Cerrillo
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 Dan Cerrillo.
Dan is a decorated Navy SEAL veteran who currently serves as the chief of staff for American Addiction Centers. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star, Navy Commendation and Navy Achievement Medals, all with combat distinguishing devices, as well as the Purple Heart Medal.
Dan graduated as an original member of BUD/S Class 194 and served with SEAL Team One as an operator and instructor. In 1998, Dan was accepted to the Naval Special Warfare Center/ Special Operations instructor staff and received his accreditation as a Master Training Specialist for Advanced Applied Explosives, Diving Supervisor, Diving Maintenance and Range Operations Safety. He also earned a finance degree from National University.
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”?
I was born in eastern Washington state and moved many, many times. In my youth and teenage years, I went to 25 different schools and it was not fun. During my career, I was offered promotions that would have required me to move extensively, but I didn’t want my kids moving as much as I did. We’ve been in Seattle until this year, when we moved to Nashville, TN.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am currently the Chief of Staff at American Addiction Centers, and my number one job at the moment is getting and improving addiction and mental health treatment for veterans.
I have personally suffered from a number of traumatic brain injuries and endured post-traumatic stress that occurred after my military career ended. Soon after, my wife became seriously ill and I subsequently developed a very serious drinking problem. It took some time to come to terms with the fact that my drinking was problematic, and when I did, I sought treatment. After treatment, I discovered that there was an incredible peace to be had in sobriety. It was in this life in recovery that I began bettering myself in a number of ways — I received stem cell therapy, hyperbaric chamber therapy, calibrated my hormones and converted to a plant-based diet. As a result of these changes, I felt a sense of clarity that inspired me to help my fellow veterans obtain this clarity as well. I was working with a number of veterans, helping them get the treatment they needed, and became overwhelmed by the number of them requiring such care, so I reached out to Michael Cartwright, the founder of American Addiction Centers. We had a conversation and he brought me in to build upon American Addiction Centers’ veterans program. Since then I’ve been able to establish connections and greatly expand the program.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the Navy in 1993, went through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/s), and graduated in 1994. I served six years in SEAL Team One and was an instructor at the Navy Special Warfare Center for two-and-a-half years. I planned on getting out of the Navy and beginning a career in finance, but 9/11 happened and I stayed. I was deployed with Seal Team 7 until 2005 and ended my government service in 2007.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
An interesting experience I had in my career taught me a lifelong lesson that I continue to apply to my life every day.
During a routine parachute jump, myself and my teammate became entangled. Entanglement is a situation you can talk about, and you can run down the proper procedures for that situation, but you can never practice it.
My teammate Jeff and I became entangled and began death spiraling to the ground. We were able to keep level heads and communicate with each other the entire time in full combat equipment. Getting untangled required a tremendous effort, and right before we hit the ground, we separated our lines, both of our parachutes inflated and we both smacked into the ground. The impact knocked us both out, but we survived.
It was in this situation that I learned calmness during chaos solves problems. If you and your coworker have the same high-level of training, you can very easily solve any problem, even one that can cost you your life.
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.
I have met a lot of heroes in my career, but one that sticks out was a man with the code name Johnny Walker. He has an incredible book out that I highly suggest to everyone.
We were the first SEAL element in Mosul, Iraq. It was incredibly violent — it was war. Johnny started out as an interpreter and then he became an undercover asset for us. Johnny and I did a lot of low visibility operations over the course of four months, then I went home. Johnny continued to work with SEAL Teams for the next 10 years. It was so unbelievably dangerous for him to continue to do so — his brother was murdered, he had to go into hiding many times, he had a bounty on his head, and there were multiple assassination attempts on his life. Al Qaeda wanted him dead. Despite this, he ended up doing over 1,000 missions with the SEAL Teams. He’s also featured in Chris Kyle’s book.
One thing about Johnny is that he never asked for anything whatsoever. We had the best gear, the best equipment, and the best training — Johnny had none of it. He risked his life so many times over the course of a decade and asked for nothing. All the dangers and risks taken were because he was dedicated to making this country a better place and he wanted to help his brothers in the Navy SEALS.
It took a while, but Johnny, his wife, and children are all in America now. I was proud to be on video when he was sworn in as an American citizen and I was proud to be in his book. I view Johnny Walker as one of the greatest American heroes, not only for himself but for his family and his new country.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
In my opinion, the word ‘hero’ gets thrown around far too often. Going to work does not make you a hero and doing your job does not make you a hero. People sometimes say that and use my name in that sentence, and it really, really bothers me. Being a hero means you have done something extraordinary and outside of the scope of your normal actions knowing it could cost you your life, and you do it anyway.
A friend of mine, Frankie, was a Huntington Beach police officer and one of the only guys to be awarded the Medal of Valor twice. He was once driving home and saw a car fully engulfed in flames. Without thinking, he jumped out of his car, saw that the driver was pinned, broke the back window, and pulled out a very large, muscular man. In the process, he fractured his back and was severely burned. I asked Frankie what made him stop in such a situation and his answer was simple: the guy needed help. In my opinion, that’s heroism — doing something that could cost you your life because someone needs your help.
In war, there are a hundred stories like that. I certainly don’t want to take away from those things, because heroism in war definitely exists, but the difference is, in my opinion, you’re at war, so you have a good idea of what can happen. I’ve been a part of those stories and seen them happen firsthand, but we knew the possibilities in a warzone. We prepared for that, how do you prepare for jumping inside of a burning vehicle? You’re driving home from work, and the next thing you know, you’re saving someone from a burning car. That’s heroism to me.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
It absolutely prepared me for business. I was lucky enough to be a pre-war SEAL. Being a pre-war SEAL, there weren’t any combats or missions; they were such a rarity in the SEAL Teams. As a result, leadership was both good and bad. It was of no fault of the guys. When you’re only trained to practice football, but never play a game, somethings can get a little lax. My first deployment, I had incredible leadership from the top down. I had tremendous leadership in my first platoon, not so much for my second and third.
I learned more from the bad than the good, and the reason why is because I learned the things I wouldn’t do when I was in charge. When I got put in a leadership position in the SEAL Teams, my number one priority, and I have to emphasize this because of the circumstances, were my men and nothing else mattered. We were in an incredibly dangerous place in Mosul, Iraq, and I wanted them to reap the rewards and benefits of everything I could do to ensure they were safe. They had enough time off, they were fed the best food, etc.
When it came to corporate leadership, I again got to experience very bad leadership. At the beginning of my corporate career, I worked for a company that, frankly, was terrible. There was a 90% turnover ratio and I had different managers each year I was there. From those at the highest levels of leadership, I learned that many people confuse accomplishments with leadership; the paper hanging on a wall, military service and ego do not make you a leader. Who you are as a person is leadership, your work ethic, and how you treat your family and coworkers. You must learn to lead yourself before you can lead others.
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?
There are three people in particular that changed my life and the first person is my uncle, Freddy Cerrillo. He was a highly decorated veteran from the 82nd Airborne Division and was my first mentor. From my uncle Fred, I learned that being punished didn’t mean you had to be hit, and being scolded didn’t mean you had to be yelled at. He showed me what a man was, how a man should treat a woman, how a man loves his children, a man with an uncompromising work ethic and how a man has a deep relationship with our Heavenly Father. My uncle Fred exuded love, confidence and respect. One thing I distinctly remember was the lengths he’d go for his family. From the time he woke up to the time he went to bed, he was doing everything that he could for his family and others, and I had never seen that before. I ended up staying with my Uncle Fred for a period of time and didn’t want it to come to an end. My time with him was the first stable home life I ever had.
The next person was a man named Don Cope. Don Cope was my high school best friend’s dad and a navy commander who, at one point, held the record for the deepest dive in Navy history. When I decided to go train to become a SEAL, Don ensured that I was given a chance to do so. The most significant thing I learned from Don was that if you’re going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk. When I told him I wanted to train, he made sure that I knew all that it would entail. I would work out with him every morning beginning at 4:00 a.m. He was perhaps in his late-30s or early-40s at this time, and he beat the snot out of me with the workouts. Each day, he’d look at me and say, ‘if you can’t beat me in a workout, you’ll never be a Navy SEAL.’ Don was a giant — he was 6’6” — I have never seen a man that swam or ran the way he did. Eventually, I started keeping up with him and then I finally surpassed him. Don showed me that when you lead, you lead by example. Many people say that, but it’s often just words. Don was the epitome of that phrase. He showed me at a very early age what my expectations of military leaders should be.
The third person is my first platoon chief. Georgie was the opposite of Don Cope. He was small, wasn’t muscular, but he was a very fit guy. Georgie sustained a parachute injury that destroyed the tendons in his ankles. In SEAL Team One, we would go on these long runs and he’d literally run on the side of his ankles. We all knew he was in a lot of pain, but he never said a word. He was a great leader and a great human being. He was the best platoon chief I ever had and I have an incredible amount of respect for him. He was an incredibly influential man in my life.
All three of these men taught me one thing: at the core of everything, be a great father. They were great husbands and they loved their children. They always treated their wives like queens and with a tremendous amount of respect. Everything that I’m trying to epitomize in my life right now is what I learned from those three men. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of those lessons, but years removed, I fully understand them and am grateful for what they’ve taught me.
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?
A crisis is anything that is completely out of your control. I’ve been in many, many crises, and like anybody else, I get scared. I always have to come back to myself, calm down and take a breath. I make sure that I am controlling what I can control because getting overwhelmed will not solve anything. I take control of what’s in front of me, then search for the next thing I can control to the best of my ability. It’s also important to keep others calm and get them to work together to solve the problem. A solution often exists, and may be complex, but if you take control of what’s in front of you, you can make progress. When I teach this to others, I often reference a pie. If you try and eat the pie all at once, it gets all over everything and smears all over your face. But if you cut a small piece and eat it one bite at a time, you can see your progress evolve. Focus on the one thing you can control, and that’s the piece of pie at the end of your fork.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
As a business leader, you should always be planning for a crisis well before the crisis ever happens. If your plan is that everything is going to go perfectly, then you’ve already failed. In the SEAL Teams, we apply what-if scenarios for everything — walking to the helicopter, the helicopter ride, the helicopter landing — everything. I do a lot of training for SEAL candidates. I tell them that their gear is going to fail, their guns are going to jam, and everything is going to break. The only thing you can really rely on is your mind, body and soul, so make sure they are always prepared.
In the case of American Addiction Centers, no one saw this pandemic coming. Despite the unexpected, what we have been able to accomplish is amazing because we had a plan for a crisis situation. When air travel was no longer an option, we quickly found alternative ways to get our patients to treatment. Our lab began testing patients for COVID-19. We consistently had a plan. If you map out what-if scenarios and plan for the worst, but hope for the best, you can weather a lot of situations.
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?
The first thing you do in a crisis situation is to look for an exit. If anything happens, you have to get yourself to safety right away. You have to get away from the danger before you can address the danger. What I teach to SEAL candidates is to move to safety, find out what the threat is, and then address the threat.
Next, it’s very important to understand your capabilities and the capabilities of your team. For example, we once sent a team down to Ecuador after an earthquake. When they arrived, they had flashlights, hammers, and helmets. None of those things are going to move slab concrete or rescue anyone, so they were essentially useless.
Before you address the threat, you have to know your capabilities. It’s the same in business — do your job to the best of your ability and don’t try to do other people’s jobs. Many have experienced people overstepping their boundaries in business, and next thing you know, you’ve created chaos where there wasn’t chaos before.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Calmness, empathy, and compassion are the traits needed to survive a crisis. People around you may not react to the situation the same way you will, and reacting negatively will not solve the problem.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
The person that comes to mind is Eric Shellenberger. He was a tremendous Navy SEAL who passed away during a training exercise in Washington state. The anniversary of his death was recently, and I wrote a simple statement about him: the epitome of a humble warrior.
He, along with a number of my teammates, were people I looked up to because of the way they carried themselves. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, which is a trait I don’t see very often. It’s also a trait that I strive for. Eric was such an exceptional human being.
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’m actually bouncing back right now! A few years ago, I was in a completely different place and I was not doing well at all. I was seriously injured in Iraq and had a number of traumatic brain injuries. In the beginning, I did very well with it, but I started losing concentration, having a lot of fluctuating emotions, mostly anger and rage, and I would bottle it all up. Then my wife was diagnosed with cancer and it destroyed me. For nearly two years, I was watching my wife lay in bed slowly dying in front of me and there was nothing I could do about it.
I learned a lot about my marriage at this point. My wife was the only person in my life who had truly loved me for me and was the only good thing that has ever constantly been in my life. The sicker she got, the more I drank. I always drank, but I was drinking at an incredibly dangerous level. First, I allowed myself to drink on Thursdays. Then Thursday became Wednesday, and Wednesday became Tuesday. The next thing I knew I was trying to talk myself out of drinking on Monday. That was the lowest moment of my life and I realized the degree to which addiction is misunderstood. When people think of an addict, they think of a bum on the street, and that’s so dehumanizing. That ‘bum’ is still a human with an illness and they most likely have underlying mental health conditions.
I came to grips with the fact that I had a problem and was an alcoholic and cried like I never cried before. I was riding with other SEALs heading to treatment and it was the most embarrassing moment of my life, to believe that I had gotten myself to this point. I couldn’t even look anyone in the eye.
When I arrived at the facility, I attacked treatment like I attacked war. I finally dealt with the things I didn’t face earlier. PTSD is like bricks in a backpack and my backpack had about 300 bricks. I addressed everything and I have felt relief every day since. I’ve climbed out of an abyss and I’m scaling a mountain I can’t see the top of because I’ve still got so much to do.
I’ve had an incredible couple of years. I’m thriving and working at a company that I love, doing a job that I love. I now look back on my past with pride and as if it were another wall I had to climb over. In the SEAL Teams, we say that the only easy day was yesterday, and I believe that now. I take pride in conquering yesterday and I look forward to the hardship of today.
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.
Control how you react to the situation. There is an old video of me going through BUD/S, and I’m being harassed by an instructor. My first reaction to that harassment was to get very angry. The angrier I got, the more harassment he gave me. That’s how SEAL Teams are, we pick on each other mercilessly, and the more you show that it’s affecting you, the more you get. That experience taught me to control my emotions. In any situation, all you can control is your reaction to the situation, so do that.
Create a plan. This is rather frivolous but applies to this step one. Not too long ago, I was building a fence in my yard. We have coyotes in the neighborhood, so I built the fence so our dog can stay on the patio and not get eaten. I didn’t have a plan and winged it. I built it, carried it back to the backyard and it didn’t fit. I had to take the fence apart twice, cutting it multiple times in order to make it fit. Finally, on the third attempt, I finished it but was irritated at myself. If I would have just measured things the first time, I wouldn’t have wasted nearly four hours. Case in point — have a plan, and if you don’t have a plan, don’t wonder why things turn out wrong.
Make sure you’re communicating your plan to everyone around you. I was in a harrowing situation once, and everything that could go wrong was going wrong. I was getting a bit overwhelmed, and seeing that, my teammate made a joke that was a clear and concise directive that saved my life. He made sure I understood what he was saying and what he meant. I have this saying: If I tell you once and you don’t hear me, it’s my fault because I wasn’t loud and clear enough. If I tell you twice and you don’t hear me, it’s my fault because I didn’t stress the importance of what I was trying to tell you. If I tell you a third time and you don’t hear me, it’s your fault because you were too stupid to hear me the first two times.
Be prepared to change that plan. We live by the statement that a plan is good until it doesn’t work anymore. I was on a combat tour mission in San Diego Harbor and my swim buddy ended up having a heart attack. I brought him to the surface and put him in the rescue boat. I thought the mission was going to be over, but I was given another partner, who I never swam or dove with before, and we continued the mission. At that moment I learned to be prepared for change. In Naval Special Warfare, we change and adapt rapidly, and you always have to be prepared to do so.
Take a break to better understand what’s going on around you and how the situation is evolving. Some people get so wrapped up in the mission and with what’s going on that they forget to take a step back and take a look at what’s happening. That is one trait of a crisis leader that distinguishes between good and great. A great crisis leader will step back at the worst moment, look at the entire situation, then adjust.
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. 🙂
My movement would be to make seven people smile per day. It’s hard to have a bad day if you’re making other people smile. It forces you to do something to create a relationship with somebody else and let them know that in that moment, somebody cares for them and is thinking about them.
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 🙂
There are maybe two or three people on this list, but the first would be Warren Buffett. He’s a finance guy and I love finance. I once got to meet him many years ago in Tahiti. He was there to celebrate Paul Allen’s birthday with Bill Gates. I remember briefly hearing some of his conversations, but it would be nice to chat face-to-face. I think he’s a genius, and I admire the way he carries himself, so he’d be pretty high on that list.
If I could pick absolutely anyone, I’d really like to have breakfast with my mom again.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m not the biggest user of social media, but I do have Instagram accounts that readers can check out.
@Spartan7Adventure is a company that myself and a few others created to teach leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills developed by the Navy SEALS.
@DanCerrillo is my professional account and @tacoactual is an account I keep that’s meant to be funny and lighthearted.
I’m also on LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.