“I learned that you can sometimes make a point by speaking softly” — Ed Ruggero
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 Ed Ruggero.
Ed Ruggero had two ambitions when he was a kid: he wanted to be a soldier and he wanted to be a writer. Graduation from West Point and service in the US Army fulfilled the first of those dreams; since then he has written non-fiction, including military history, and fiction. Publication of Blame the Dead is his first foray into historical fiction and the first novel in a series set in World War Two.
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 grew up in a working-class town in the Philadelphia metro area and, like a lot of small-town kids, wanted to see the world. West Point gave me a great education, and the Army offered me the opportunity to belong to something bigger than myself. I loved my time in the service and enjoyed the company of wonderful men and women — as well as a few scoundrels. Those characters keep popping up, in one form or another, in my writing.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I work with organizations to help them build the kinds of leaders people want to follow. On retreats to Gettysburg and Normandy, I use history to get people thinking about leadership.
At Gettysburg, we start our day on McPherson’s Ridge, where a 37-year-old professional soldier named John Buford — the first senior Federal officer on the field — spent an anxious night on June 30-July 1, 1863. With limited information about the enemy, and while facing high stakes and tight timelines, Buford made a series of decisions that set the Federals up for success in this critical battle. I pull clients into the story — it helps that we’re standing on the very ground — then ask them how they intend to build leaders as bold as John Buford. I love those days out on the battlefield, seeing the light go on for my clients.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I served as an infantry officer in the US Army, and I chose that branch because it put me closest to soldiers and was physically demanding. I scratched my itch to travel, from Europe to New Zealand to Korea and all over the United States. I also had an assignment teaching at West Point, where those bright students kept me on my toes.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
THE most interesting story is a tall order, but here’s one that springs to mind.
A fairly common Army training event is a confidence-obstacle course with something called “the slide for life.” Picture a sixty-foot pole with rungs attached. You climb to a small platform where there’s a zip line that extends over a lake. You ride the zip line until a soldier at the far end signals you to let go, at which point you smash into the water. If you don’t let go, you’ll hit a tree on the far side.
I demonstrated the event for our soldiers, then climbed back up and stood on the tiny platform as the GIs came up one-by-one. One young man made it up the pole but froze when I told him to reach for the handles on the little trolley. He was terrified, and of course, the whole point of the training was about confronting fears. I’d seen soldiers yelled at and ordered to grab the handles, but that seemed like a bad approach, so I asked him — quietly — if he could swim. “Yes, sir,” he said. Then I asked him if he could manage a half pull-up. “Yes, sir,” he said. Then I smiled and said, “Gravity will do the rest. You just have to remember to let go.” When he looked at me I pointed to his buddies waiting below. “You have to show the others how to do it because some of them are nervous and need a good example.” He did the pull-up and, sure enough, gravity did the rest. He let go at the right time, swam to shore and climbed out of the water, a little bit more the master of his fears.
I learned that you can sometimes make a point by speaking softly and that individuals react to challenges in various ways. I learned that people will surprise themselves with what they can do. The point of that training was not about appearing unafraid; it was about being able to function in spite of fear.
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.
When I met Paul Russell, he was a PA, a physician’s assistant entrusted with the medical care of our five-hundred-man unit. Years earlier, as a teenager, he’d been a combat medic in Vietnam. One day we got to talking about how training helps soldiers overcome fear and continue to function.
One night, Russell’s patrol base was attacked. The GIs responded by firing thousands of rounds into the night. But at least three GIs were outside the wire, in danger from both friendly and enemy fire. Russell and a sergeant crawled forward, trying hard to stay below the outgoing rounds. When they located the soldiers, two were dead, but Russell worked — still bent as low as possible — to save the last guy. He and the sergeant then dragged the wounded man back to the friendly position.
“My training clicked in,” Russell said.
While I believed him — that’s why we trained so much — I also knew that something else had “clicked in” that night. His comrades trusted him to respond when they were injured or wounded, and he did not let them down, even at the risk of this own life.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I doubt if there are any fearless heroes, but there are Paul Russells who function in spite of their fears. They put the needs of others before their own.
It was my privilege to interview scores of World War Two veterans for my non-fiction books. One man told me, matter-of-factly, “I’d take a bullet before I’d be thought a coward by my friends.” And while that sounds like a Hollywood line, this man had been shot. He believed those bonds and that trust.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
My military experience absolutely helped me prepare for everything that has followed. I learned that you have to care about people — genuine concern, not window dressing. If you do that, you might be lucky enough to win their trust, and from there, almost anything is possible. There’s an old maxim from the horse cavalry: first you feed your horses, then you feed your men, then you feed yourself.
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?
The older I get and the more experience I gain I see ever more clearly how important it is — for anyone, but especially for a leader — to live his or her values. My mother set an early and powerful example of this for all of us (I’m the youngest of four boys). She treated everyone respectfully, no matter who you were or what you might do for her or her family; and you always knew where she was coming from because she lived her values: be kind, do the right thing, live the Golden Rule. I didn’t always agree with her — what kid does — but I always knew where he heart was. I’ve met a lot of smart people in my time, but I’ve never met anyone who had a clearer philosophy.
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?
We all encounter the unexpected in our lives. Plans fall apart, someone lets us down, nobody saw that coming. A crisis is where the number of things going off the rails seems like more than we can handle. We experience fear, uncertainty, even existential doubt.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
The most important thing is to be clear about your values. When things go south, you might not have a lot of time to reflect. You’ve got to know who you are and what you stand for.
Leaders deal in the future state: Where are we going? What will the world look like and how should we prepare? What contingencies should we consider?
In order to delegate well, leaders must know their teams. A crisis is not the time to get to know your people.
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?
First, take a deep breath. You can’t get a grasp of the situation — the real situation, not just the most obvious or frightening aspects — if you lose it.
Second, determine what is actually happening and what should be happening. There’s probably a gap. What are the steps you can take to close that gap? Tackle the task in front of you, which the military calls “shrinking the timeline.”
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
I’m thinking specifically about the qualities leaders need.
a)First is the ability to remain and project calm. Fear is contagious.
b)A leader might have to make decisions with imperfect information. Deal with it.
c)The leader has to trust the team and the team trust the leader. You cannot build that when the crisis hits; you’ve got to work on that trust all the time.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
A friend of mine, a retired Marine named Dave R, was in command of an operations center in Iraq when a bunch of things started going wrong in their sector. A helicopter went down, an angry crowd was threatening to storm the gate, and they had wounded Marines in a firefight outside the wire. Dave’s people had to coordinate rescue and medical evacuation, recovery ops for the downed chopper, and do something about the impending attack on the compound. Dave gave them what the military calls “the commander’s intent,” a clear picture of the desired end-state.
“We’re going to save as many people as possible,” he said. “You’re going to make decisions above your pay grade; I’ll back you up. And you’ve got to project calm over the radio; we can’t add to the anxiety of the Marines out there. They need us to be calm.”
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?
An important element of West Point’s theory of leader development is that failure is a learning opportunity. Setbacks can build resilience, as long you get up off the mat.
During my first two years at the academy I enjoyed a good bit of success. I adjusted well to the military lifestyle, got good grades and was pretty happy with things. Foolishly, I thought people who didn’t perform well just weren’t trying hard enough.
During my third summer I attended the US Army Ranger School, one of the service’s more difficult courses. Students are deprived of sleep and food and driven to extremes of physical exertion. The purpose of all that, besides building technical competence in commando operations, is to see if you can still inspire others when you and your peers are near the end of your physical and mental endurance.
I flunked out.
This was embarrassing, but it also made me re-evaluate the kind of leader I wanted to be. I was forced to accept that not everyone can do everything asked of them the first time around. My job as a leader, I learned, was to help and support others as they learned and attempted difficult things. I’ll work my butt off coaching you, but the standards are still the standards. You’ve got to meet them, but you don’t need me stepping on your fingers as you try to climb the ladder.
I went back to Ranger School as a young officer, did well and graduated, in part because I worked to make the whole team better.
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.
Your question could mean, what can an individual do for himself or herself, or it could mean what can a leader do — because that’s been the thrust of the interview so far — to help a team survive and thrive. I’ll try to split the difference.
On a personal front:
- Acknowledge the situation and name your fears. In the current pandemic, it would be odd if you weren’t at least a bit unsettled.
A few years ago I was part of a charity fund-raiser in which participants rappelled down the side of a Philadelphia building — 33 stories to the ground. There was a lot of nervous chatter while we waited our turn, and someone asked me if I had ever done anything like this. I said I had rappelled out of helicopters and down a few cliff faces (in the dark). The guy said, “So you’re not nervous?” I said, “Buddy, when I step over the edge [of the roof] my knees will be shaking. But if you’re not scared of hanging from a couple of nylon ropes 33 stories above a city sidewalk, you might not be smart enough to be doing this.”
2. Take care of yourself.
There is a tendency in some professions and situations to tough it out at all costs. Medical residents go without sleep; police officers change shifts frequently, disrupting sleep and eating. I can’t tell you how many times I heard some soldier or business leader say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
I read an article today about the over-worked ambulance crews in Patterson, New Jersey. The EMTs spend up to twelve hours in hazmat suits, which are bulky and claustrophobic. While the journalist was there one EMT, who’d been climbing stairs in this non-breathing suit and a full face-mask, said to his supervisor, “I need a break.”
The supervisor figured out a way to let the man out of his confinement for a few minutes. It’s not hard to imagine a team on which asking for help would be seen as weakness, but this supervisor was smart enough to realize he had to take care of his people if he wanted peak performance.
For your team.
3. Leadership is about influence, whatever your position, rank or authority. You influence others by your actions, and others are watching. If you choose not to bust out your, “Keep Calm and Carry On” tee shirts, at least adopt the attitude.
Ed Sayre commanded a company of US paratroopers in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. His men were exhausted from days of combat, and many were rattled by the deaths of close friends. One afternoon, they pushed some Germans out of a key position and then prepared for the inevitable counterattack. In an interview I asked what he did during that brief lull in the action.
“I got a haircut,” he said.
I knew that a soldier in each company was designated as a barber, carrying scissors and a comb to help the men with their hygiene over weeks of living outdoors, but I was surprised at the timing.
“I wanted the men to know I was making long-range plans,” he said.
I laughed, but his answer made perfect sense. After he had taken care of his technical responsibilities — getting ready to repel and attack — he took care of the men’s emotional needs. He knew they were stressed and frightened, and he set a clear tone with his unorthodox choice.
4. Get out to the front lines. Be present, be seen and talk to the people who are doing the work; they have a clear line of sight to the problem. Ask them what they need. Let them help you analyze the situation. Listen and — most importantly — follow through.
One of my clients — we’ll call him Cliff — ran a geographically dispersed manufacturing operation, with plants in multiple states. Whenever he had a meeting at one of these locations, Cliff arrived the night before and had an 8 PM lunch with the four to midnight shift. The plant’s senior leaders weren’t around, so Cliff got unvarnished information about what was really happening from the people who saw it with their own eyes. Bypassing the senior leaders isn’t always necessary, but it can sometimes be helpful.
5. Communicate and Over Communicate: The rapid evolution of this pandemic has caused equally rapid changes in process, people and equipment, leading to uncertainty and feeding the rumor mill. Provide your teams with situational awareness. This will reduce anxiety and build their confidence in the organization and in you as a leader.
I recently saw a series of videos released by the CEO of a national company in the midst of this pandemic. He knew his frontline leaders were facing tough questions and difficult choices and he wanted to let them know what the bigger organization was doing to help.
The CEO, Fred P, talked about the future and what steps leadership was taking to help the company survive (including massive pay cuts for directors and managers). He talked about how their company’s values can guide them. He urged them, and by extension the entire workforce, to take care of themselves and their families. He emphasized the organizational value of caring, which he called, “my favorite,” saying it was essential in the face of current challenges. “It’s going to take extra effort to connect. Use our technology. Call people more often than you usually do. Ask them about their family, ask them how they’re handling things. Listen.”
The videos were short, around two minutes each, and just showed Fred sitting in the lobby of company headquarters. He spoke from the heart.
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. 🙂
It’s the small things.
I was not a great driver as a teen: always too fast, always too close to the car in front of me, too quick to change lanes without signaling — just a mess.
One day I was driving with my mother someplace, that day I happened to be on a kick about how my generation was going to make the world a better place — implying that her generation had messed it up, big time.
When I paused to take a breath she said, “So you want to make the world a better place? See that guy with his blinker on? Let him in your lane. There you go, hotshot, you just made the world a better place.”
I have to confess that it took years before I made sense of her comment. I think Mom was saying that, every day, we are confronted with scores of small choices that allow us to do a tiny little bit of good, or to be a tiny little pain in the ass for someone else. Very few of us are in contention for a Nobel Prize, but all of us get to choose — today and tomorrow — to be kind, to treat people with respect, to smile, to err on the side of generosity, to forgive a small slight. And for most of us, life will be a collection of those moments, well spent or squandered.
Years ago, after I had left the Army, I gave a talk to about five hundred cadets at West Point. I knew that, to get to the auditorium, they had to pass a statue of General Eisenhower, West Point Class of 1915, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two, and the 34th President of the United States. I said, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I’ll wager that not a single one of you in here is going to be Ike, commanding a million soldiers in a desperate fight to save western democracy.”
“But every one of you is going to have a lot of opportunities to make small contributions. Every time you listen to a GI, every time you work hard to organize good training, every time you walk around in the rain to check something that leaders are supposed to check, you are making the entire US Army a better place by a tiny little bit. Your entire career will most likely be made up of millions of those small opportunities, maybe with a few big ones thrown in. What the small moments lack in drama they’ll make up for in number; they are legion.”
In all my work with leaders, in the military and out, and even with my own children, I try to emphasize that it’s mostly the small choices that make up a life.
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 🙂
Lately I’ve been watching Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings. I understand he’s not universally popular, and if I knew more about him I’m sure there’d be things he and I disagree on. But he is modeling exceptional behavior for a leader.
He deals in facts. When he doesn’t know something he says, “I don’t know.” He expresses his emotions and recognizes the emotions of others. He exhibits genuine empathy for his constituents and mad respect for those brave souls on the front lines: the medical workers, the first responders, the people delivering meals and picking up trash. I’d definitely have a beer with him.
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