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Eric Kapitulik: “Everyone is a hero when it is seventy degrees and sunny”

I simply can’t imagine anyone saying that the military didn’t help prepare them for anything they did after it! Depending on what you do in the military, you are almost constantly outside of your comfort zone. We only grow as individuals and as a team when we are. Unfortunately, we live in such an affluent […]


I simply can’t imagine anyone saying that the military didn’t help prepare them for anything they did after it! Depending on what you do in the military, you are almost constantly outside of your comfort zone. We only grow as individuals and as a team when we are. Unfortunately, we live in such an affluent society that most of us can go through our life with never getting outside of our comfort zone. Because we are talented, we can still do well while staying safely ensconced in our comfort zone. Many people choose to do so. I just have no interest in doing well. I want to do and, more importantly, be great. And “great,” to me means being the best version of myself- the best husband, the best father, the best leader, the best teammate, the best youth coach- the best man that I can be. To do so, we must be committed to constant self and team improvement. We show that commitment by always operating on the fringes of what we are comfortable doing. The military taught me that and then provided me with an environment to prove my commitment for constant self and team improvement. It instilled that habit in me at a very young age and it has been a constant with me ever since. You don’t need the military to do so, though. You can just commit to being uncomfortable on whatever your chosen battlefield may be. Instead of focusing on winning and losing, stay focused on getting better! There is no true thing in life as “just maintaining.” We are getting better or we are getting worst. Commit to the former.


As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Kapitulik. Eric was born and raised in Thompson, CT and attended Pomfret Preparatory School where he was a three-sport varsity athlete. Upon graduating, he attended the United States Naval Academy. While there, he was a 4-year varsity letter winner and played on three NCAA Division I Lacrosse Tournament teams. During his junior year, Eric received the Lt. JG Frank McKeone Award, given to the Navy player who most demonstrated spirit and sportsmanship and who served as the unsung hero. Eric was also named Navy’s Most Outstanding Defenseman and received North-South All Star honors his senior year at the Academy. He graduated in 1995 and went on to serve as both an Infantry Officer and Special Operations Officer with 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Division. As a Force Reconnaissance Platoon Commander, Eric led 20 covert operations specialists in Special Forces related missions including long range reconnaissance patrols, hostage rescue, high altitude jump exercises, ship takeovers and gas-oil platform takedowns. He left active duty after eight years of service and graduated from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in 2005.

Eric has been extensively involved with the Force Reconnaissance Scholarship Fund, which he established for the children of six Marines who died in a helicopter crash while serving under his command. Since 1999, he has been helping to raise funds through public speaking engagements covering “Leadership and Attacking Adversity” and through participation in Iron Man Triathlons and other ultra-endurance races around the world. In addition to finishing 8 Iron Man triathlons, Eric has competed in numerous marathons, the Canadian Death Race Ultra Marathon, the Eco Challenge, the American Birkebeiner Ski Marathon and was a competitor on The Outdoor Life Network’s “Global Extremes Challenge”.

Eric is also an avid high-altitude mountaineer. He has summated five of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on the seven continents); Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Aconcagua, Mt. Elbrus, and, most recently, Mt. Everest.

Eric sits on the board of directors for the Massachusetts Soldier’s Legacy Fund and is the Founder and President of The Program LLC, a team building and leadership development company for high school and collegiate student athletes and corporate teams.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was born and raised in a small town in northeastern, Connecticut called North Grosvenordale. I grew up on a 100- acre farm. My dad was a Connecticut State Policeman and my mom was a high school French teacher. As I wrote in our new book, children don’t get the opportunity to choose their parents, but if I could have, I would have chosen mine. A big part of who I am is because of my upbringing. Specifically, as my Mom often says, “you don’t let children grow up, you raise them.” I am so fortunate that they raised me to be the man I am today by always challenging me to get outside my comfort zone, instilling great values in me, and, most importantly, for their love through it all.

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

After the Marine Corps, I attended and graduated from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. I went into Finance and worked at Goldman Sachs. I worked with exceptional people, but the job just wasn’t the right fit and I wanted to start my own company. I wasn’t 100% sure what that company would do specifically, but based on my work coaching a local high school lacrosse team and while working in corporate America, I thought there was a need for true leadership development and team- building training for college and professional athletic teams and in Corporate America. I also believed that I had the experience and expertise to address and fill that need. My answer to it was my company, The Program (www.TheProgram.org), and we now work with 160 collegiate and professional athletic teams and corporations throughout North America annually. We provide a number of different services, but our experiential training services are what we are best known for and, I believe, we are the best in the world at providing.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

My military career started at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland which I feel very fortunate to have decided to attend. Like most teenagers, we make our decision on where to go to college with really very little knowledge. Most of us make that decision based on feel. That feeling ended up being one that I have been so happy with every day of my life. Further, although joining the Marine Corps is the best decision I have ever made in my life (outside of the decision to marry my wife and to become a father), I would never have had the opportunity to become a Marine if I hadn’t chosen to first attend the Naval Academy. I made the decision to attend the Naval Academy because it was just different. It was going to be a challenge. I didn’t know if I could do it. It made me a little nervous (read “a lot nervous”). As I look back on my life, that thought process of constantly seeking out that which makes me a little bit nervous, that which I don’t know I can accomplish, is why I have done almost everything in my life, and it has, for the most part, never proven false; Naval Academy, Marine Corps Special Operations, The Ironman, Mt. Everest, Husband, Dad etc.

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

This is such a difficult question to answer because we are all a “sum of our experiences,” and my entire military career was an experience that has had a HUGE impact on me. Obviously, the helicopter crash that my Force Recon Marines and I were involved in that killed 6 of the 10 of us on board, has had a huge impact on my life. However, I would instead like to highlight two stories, one related to the helicopter crash and one that occurred right at the end of my Marine Corps career.

First, after the helicopter crash, my Force Recon platoon still had to do another very similar training mission on a ship prior to our deployment. My leg was in a cast and I couldn’t physically participate. The Commanding Officer told me that I could ride in his helicopter and watch the mission “from above.” I readily agreed, but at the very last moment prior to the mission commencing, I left his helicopter and went on board the same helicopter that all my men were in, the same type of helicopter that I (and they) had just barely survived swimming out of one month prior after it struck the side of a ship that we were practicing taking over and flipped over into the Pacific Ocean, killing, as I mentioned earlier, 6 of the 10 of us on board. I was scared. Really, terribly scared.

However, as I walked on to that helicopter, every single Marine in my platoon knew that they could trust me because I was proving to them that I would never ask them to do anything that I wasn’t willing to do myself. I proved it to them! And, just as importantly, I proved it to myself! As we discuss at length in our new book, leaders must never ask their teammates or their team to do something that they aren’t willing to do themselves. Unfortunately, many do.

Second, right before I left active duty, I was asked to fill the role of a Casualty Assistance Officer. As such, I was tasked with going to tell a Marine’s family that their son had just been killed in Iraq and then help them through that unbelievably difficult, and hard time. It is one of my life’s great privileges to have had the honor of doing so for that Marine (Corporal Jason Mileo) and his family, but walking to the door, and waiting for them to answer it so that I could tell them that their son had just died, is a moment in my life that I will never, ever forget. It is one of only two things in my life that I have ever done that I consider hard (burying my best friend, Major Douglas Zembiec, was the other). It made me realize that everything else that I/we do in our day-to-day lives is simply challenging. NEVER EVER forget it!

I’m 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.

A “hero,” I believe, is a matter of perspective. A hero might be someone who runs up a hill and single handedly destroys a machine position. In doing so, he or she saves the lives of the rest of their platoon. It is a heroic act to the rest of that unit, but not to someone who disavows violence in any form. Currently, in our own nation, some people consider Colin Kaepernick a hero. Others completely disagree. It is a matter of perspective. Because of this idea of perspective, I try not to use the word, “heroic.” Instead, I prefer, “courageous.” As a member of our armed forces and now having the opportunity to serve with so many combat veterans, I have witnessed thousands of incredibly courageous acts.

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

A courageous person is someone who, despite their fear of the possible, negative consequences of what their actions may be, still perform those actions that they believe to be morally “right”. It doesn’t only occur in the military or in life or death situations either. Every time a “cool” high school student- athlete sits with the “geek” freshman at lunch, he or she is showing incredible courage. Every time a leader or teammate has a tough conversation with a teammate about their poor behavior in an effort to make them (and the team) better, they are showing great courage.

I don’t ever talk to my son or daughter about being a hero. Being a “hero,” is like your reputation, it is what other people think of you based on their perspective. Instead, I challenge him (my daughter is 2 years old) to be courageous. Courage is not about his reputation; it is about his character. Character is not about what other people think of you, it is about who you truly are. Too many are concerned about their reputation (see the explosion of social media) when, in fact, we should be much more concerned with our character.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. See stories above (most interesting story from my military career?) for 1) “Never ask your team to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself,” and 2) Dealing with the death or sickness of a loved one is hard. The things we do in our day-to-day life are challenging– start to think about them as such. Our thoughts become our words and our words manifest themselves in our actions. By human nature, we want to get through things that are hard, but we ATTACK challenges! Further, this mindset helps promote a positive attitude in each of us. We have to deal with hard things, but we get to attack a challenge. As an example, when you have had the experience of having to tell a mother that her son has died in Iraq, you know that climbing Mt. Everest is just challenging.
  2. “Everyone is a hero when it is seventy degrees and sunny.” Unfortunately, that isn’t when you need them. We need great teammates and great team leaders when it’s not! There are countless examples of individuals and teams who are good when things are going well… and really bad when things start to go bad. When things are good, a dog can lead. Leaders must be prepared to show their leadership, their influence, when all heck is breaking loose (or even better, the moment before it does). In those times, despite the adversity, the leader must keep the team focused on mission accomplishment. How? Most often, by effectively communicating and then over- communicating the team’s mission, the plan to accomplish it (if possible, this plan has been created with the help of the team), roles and responsibilities, and then his or her expectations from each member of the team.
  3. Stop blaming the “Kids These Days!” Goals are performance based. They reinforce what we want to achieve. Standards are behavior based. They reinforce how we are expected to behave while accomplishing those goals. Failure to reach a goal- reattack it tomorrow. Failure to achieve a standard carries a consequence. Let me say this again, failure to achieve a standard carries a consequence. It isn’t our kids’ fault that they grow up in homes, attend schools, play for coaches, and work for companies that have no true standards (i.e. ones that carry consequences). Every team has goals. World-Class teams have goals and standards. The kids these days are no different than the “kids these days” from every other generation. We, their parents, coaches, teachers and business leaders, are different. Not the kids! And how are we different? We give our kids hundreds of goals and rarely any standards (positive or negative). We make a huge positive deal when our kid scores a goal, but never when they didn’t score a goal, but were incredibly tough instead. That toughness will serve them much better throughout their lives than their scoring a goal, but we don’t reinforce it. We make a bigger deal about scoring a goal than about their toughness or sportsmanship, etc. We all perform best with and within a structure. Not military left foot, right foot structure, but structure; knowing what we are expected to achieve and how we are expected to behave while doing so. It is our jobs as parents, teachers, coaches, and business leaders to provide it! We provide that structure with having goals and standards. Yes, I learned it in the military, but the battlefield doesn’t matter.
  4. Individuals can “win games,” but great teams compete for championships- on any battlefield. Great teams are comprised of great team leaders and great teammates. Further, to be great team leaders and great teammates on all the teams of which we are privileged to be a part requires an incredible amount of energy. Exercise produces that energy! That isn’t what The Program believes. That is what science teaches us! Therefore, our more fit self is a better leader and teammate than our less fit version. Thankfully, we control our fitness. Unfortunately, many people choose not to…
  5. Let your passion be mission driven and not emotion driven. What is the difference? One deep breath. We have many passions in life and if we are passionate about something, it will produce an emotional response (happy, sad, angry etc.). Those are natural human emotions. We don’t control them. However, how we respond to them we do control, or, at the very least, we should (we appreciate at The Program that some people do suffer from personality and behavioral disorders but are describing the average person here). How do we control them? By taking one deep breath. And during that deep breath, we must think (that is the key word) about how we should respond to this natural human emotion that will best help our team accomplish its mission. The best leaders and teammates do. Others simply respond to that emotion- a CEO is upset at revenue numbers and starts screaming and yelling. A team gives up an easy score and a coach reacts the same. No deep breath. No thought. Just yelling. Be better than this- human emotions are natural, but we don’t yell because we are angry. We are angry and we yell. We aren’t mission driven. We are emotion driven. We could just as easily speak calmly and intelligently when angry… if we are mission driven… if we take one deep breath.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

I simply can’t imagine anyone saying that the military didn’t help prepare them for anything they did after it! Depending on what you do in the military, you are almost constantly outside of your comfort zone. We only grow as individuals and as a team when we are. Unfortunately, we live in such an affluent society that most of us can go through our life with never getting outside of our comfort zone. Because we are talented, we can still do well while staying safely ensconced in our comfort zone. Many people choose to do so. I just have no interest in doing well. I want to do and, more importantly, be great. And “great,” to me means being the best version of myself- the best husband, the best father, the best leader, the best teammate, the best youth coach- the best man that I can be. To do so, we must be committed to constant self and team improvement. We show that commitment by always operating on the fringes of what we are comfortable doing. The military taught me that and then provided me with an environment to prove my commitment for constant self and team improvement. It instilled that habit in me at a very young age and it has been a constant with me ever since. You don’t need the military to do so, though. You can just commit to being uncomfortable on whatever your chosen battlefield may be. Instead of focusing on winning and losing, stay focused on getting better! There is no true thing in life as “just maintaining.” We are getting better or we are getting worst. Commit to the former.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

I have had the opportunity to speak about my military experiences, specifically the helicopter crash that killed 6 of my teammates, to 40- 50 corporations each year for the past 10 years while delivering a keynote address on “Leadership and Attacking Adversity.” I believe that constantly talking about those experiences has helped me immeasurably. Some veterans (and first responders) have seen much worse than I ever have though and their scars (physical and mental) are much worse than my own. However, although discussing those “scars” can help, I am certainly not a health care professional who is qualified to deal with these issues that some of our veterans are afflicted. I don’t even begin to suggest that just talking about it will cure or address their scars. I just hope they know that my family and I can’t begin to express our thanks for them and their families.

I think that one thing I have always done, but also did help me adjust to civilian life, is that once I make a decision, I commit to making it the right decision. I think a lot of people make a decision and then, when adversity strikes or they experience a setback, they start to think and question if it was the right decision. I don’t have that mindset. I believe that most of the decisions we make in life are neither right nor wrong, they just must be made and then it is up to us to make them “right.”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are so excited about our new book, The Program- Lessons from Elite Military Units for Creating and Sustaining High Performance Leaders and Teams. My co-author (and Program Lead Instructor), Jake MacDonald and I have taken all of the lessons we (and the rest of The Program’s Leadership Instructors) have learned as college athletes, military veterans, high- altitude mountaineers, and while working with more than 160 collegiate and professional athletic teams and major corporations annually and presented them to our audience in 7 section book that provides a road map to help any individual or team create and sustain a world-class team in our family, our athletic team, our classroom, or our business.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

First, yes, reward great performance, but, more importantly, always remember to reward great behavior even more. High performance ensures short-term success. Great behavior ensures it in the long-term. We need both. Second, stay focused on constant improvement rather than winning or losing. That isn’t to say don’t celebrate big victories or address the defeats, but rather stay focused on (and reward) constant improvement.

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?

So many people have helped me get to where I am. Starting with my parents, coaches, teachers, Marines, and, most importantly, my wife and kids. However, from a strictly business perspective, Rob Hale, the Founder of Granite Telecommunications, was instrumental in my/our success. He gave me my start with office space and IT support for free and, more importantly, business (and life) advice that has been instrumental to my/our success.

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

The greatest business-related compliment I get is when a client calls or emails me/us and tells us that their work with The Program “changed their life.” Through my work, I get to bring goodness to the world. It is just one of the reasons why I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world!

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. 🙂

“The Program” is that movement! The Program, as outlined in our book by the same name is a way of life. It is a commitment to becoming the best teammate and best team leader that we can be, on and for every team that we are privileged to be a part.

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

That is so tough for me to do because I love inspirational quotes! Although not my favorite quote, but the one that I believe has been most relevant (along with Teddy Roosevelt’s, “It’s Not The Critic Who Counts,”) would be, “Never make short term financial decisions at the expense of long-term wealth creation. ‘Be long-term greedy’” — Goldman Sachs

At Goldman Sachs, a firm that I worked at shortly after business school and that I still have a very high regard for, long term greedy defines a Goldman Sachs employee’s relationship with clients; always make decisions for the client with the idea of creating long term wealth for them (and in turn for yourself) rather than get-rich-quick practices.

This mindset is powerful for all of us in life and one that I have subscribed to throughout my own. Much has been written about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Author Matthieu Ricard (Huffington Post article entitled “Why Happiness is Not Pleasure”) said that happiness “is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things…pleasure is externally motivated and fleeting, while happiness is internally generated and constant.”

Many people make decisions based on what will give them more pleasure in the moment, they fail to be long-term greedy. I have too, and those decisions are the worst decisions I have ever made and almost destroyed the relationship that I care most about- the one with my wife.

Conversely, the great majority of the decisions I have made, and continue to make, are based on being happy. To be truly happy, to have the “inner fulfillment” that Matthieu Ricard discusses, I must be long-term greedy. As discussed earlier, as one example, exercising is one of the long-term greedy decisions I make. Running a company, being a husband, a father, coaching my kid’s athletic teams, living on a farm and taking care of the animals, a house, landscaping etc. all requires an incredible amount of energy. If I don’t exercise regularly, then after a night when the kids were sick and/or didn’t sleep, an early morning, a full day running The Program followed by coaching a child’s athletic team, I will not have the energy to play with my kids or give to my most important teammate and the Co-Captain of my most important team (my family), my wife. Quality time spent with her (so too, with my children), makes me happy.

Be long-term greedy.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 if we tag them 🙂

Absolutely! That person is called my son (or daughter). Our children don’t choose us as their parents. They just end up with us. And yet, there is no one who we can have a greater, positive impact on than them. I want to try to do so.

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

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