Trust your people — This story covers both points. I ended up shooting an M2 Bradley across to another range which is a big no-no to start with but the range ended up catching on fire. So there I was, embarrassed watching the range burn. It was a mistake that could have meant being discharged from the army. Instead, my commander came over and asked me what I did wrong, and then asked me if I would do it again and I said “No sir. That will not happen again.” I went from thinking I was going to be discharged to ending up standing in front of other soldiers coaching them about the mistakes I made and what I did wrong. My commander trusted me and I also learned to manage my expectations about outcomes. I jumped to the worst conclusion and it ended up turning out okay.
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 Garrett Cathcart, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Garrett served for nine years on active duty, including three years in ground combat leadership roles. Garrett served as a Reconnaissance Scout Platoon Leader in Baghdad during the Surge in 2007, colloquially known as the bloodiest year in Iraq, as an embedded military advisor living and operating with the Iraqi Army, and as a Cavalry Troop Commander in Afghanistan responsible for the security, governance and development for two Afghan districts. His final assignment on active duty was serving as Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General of the 4th Infantry Division. Garrett’s awards include three Bronze Star Medals, an Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device and a Meritorious Service Medal.
Garrett currently serves as the Executive Director of Mission Roll Call, a veteran non-profit that provides veterans a powerful and unified voice to our communities and leaders. He is also an accomplished public speaker who has addressed the Atlanta Hawks, New York University, Home Depot and the US Military and Air Force Academies am among others
Garrett graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2004 and the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University in 2018. He is currently a visiting Scholar at the George W. Bush Veteran Leadership Program, and a Truman National Security Fellow since 2012. Garrett is currently a Major in the Army Reserves serving as an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech.
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”?
Iwas born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. I used to read a lot about military history and kept hearing about these generals and military leaders coming from this place called West Point. Similar to how kids grow up wanting to be cops or firemen because they just thought it was so cool, that was me with joining the military. In 6th grade, I visited West Point and in my junior year of high school, I got accepted. My sophomore year at West Point, 9/11 happened, literally while I was in the middle of taking a test, the plane flew overhead, which only solidified my desire to be a part of the military.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am currently the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Mission Roll Call. We work with veterans to amplify their voices when it comes to public policy. We want to keep them informed on policies as well as hear from them on what they wish to see happen. We want to emphasize the strength of soldiers and veterans to let people know that life doesn’t just go downhill after coming back from active duty. A lot of this includes ending the stigma around mental health and making sure we are doing the best we can for fellow veterans and soldiers that might be going through post-traumatic stress.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I was commissioned as an Army officer to a Cavalry unit straight into Baghdad. I served in the Cavalry for 9 years. My first assignment was as a Recon Scout Platoon leader during the Surge in Iraq in 2006. The first day on the job we got into a gunfight, so it was baptism by fire. That whole year was pretty tough. It was my crucible.
My Cavalry Troop commander — Captain Ian Weikel — was killed in action early in the deployment and that destroyed the morale of the unit. It devastated me personally. Several months later, while coming back from a raid, the vehicle in front of us was hit by an IED and killed 4 of my Soldiers. One of them died in my arms.
The last part of that terrible year, my best friend from West Point — David Fraser — was killed in action as well. It was his last mission before he flew home. He wanted to make sure the new guys were confident in their jobs before he left.
Obviously, a lot happened in my time there. I got two weeks off to go home and then was to train for a year and was then sent to Iraq. I lived with the Iraqi army for 1 year to train and operate with them. I was then offered to command a troop — the same one Ian Weikel commanded. I commanded in Afghanistan where I commanded 3 posts and helped recruit tribal militias to fight with us, which was pretty cool.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
The day after four of my soldiers were killed by an IED in Baghdad taught me a lot about the mental game of warfare. We watched four of our men get killed and then the next day, we had to pack up and roll out, driving right by where it happened. Your mind almost shuts off. You don’t have time to process through what happened and think too much about it. That incident made me realize how my brain was reorienting to accommodate for the traumas of battle and that’s not something that you can just turn back on when you are no longer on active duty. Sometimes it takes years and years for people to be able to talk about or even think about what happened to them. I’ve had people tell me about how they aren’t ready to talk about incidents that happened 10+ years ago and I learned that everyone works at their own pace. Some end up taking their stories to the grave and never talk about them but that’s one of the several reasons we developed Mission Roll Call. To help provide an outlet to tell stories and remove the stigma from getting help. We want to encourage others to share stories with people who can understand and empathize with them. Our main goal to connect veterans directly to policymakers. We have a veteran suicide crisis in America that we want to continue to fight — especially now during the month of September which is National Suicide Prevention Month.
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.
The story of Medal of Honor recipient Captain Florent Groberg is a great story of heroism. He was security detail for a meeting when two suicide bombers showed up on motorcycles. After the first vest went off and killed four people, he jumped on the second bomber to mask the blast, risking his life in the process and being terribly wounded. Hero is a word that is thrown around a lot but I think it means putting others’ needs before yours which is also very closely connected to the definition of love. Whether it’s love for your Country, your family, your fellow Soldiers, your community, whatever. Sometimes it’s the quiet acts too. Colonel Brandon Newton is someone that takes sacrifices and leads his men well in the out of the spotlight. He isn’t in the limelight but everyone who knows him loves and respects him knowing the sacrifices he takes.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I would say a hero is someone who serves a higher cause, which includes putting others before yourself. This could mean mentoring kids, sacrificing for your country on the battlefield, or leading your people well.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
There is no purer form of leadership than telling people “follow me, you might die.” You learn to place your trust in both your leaders — who let you do your job and support you, and your subordinates — that they will get the job done and that they will do what they are trained to do. I learned to not micromanage my men but to build that trust with them and in them. Tell them your intentions and let them go do it. I think military men and women are uniquely prepared for stressful situations in business or whatever form of leadership they may be in because when it comes down to it, nothing is ever going to be as stressful as people trying to kill you. The pandemic is a great example. There is so much ambiguity and even some danger, and veterans can be a calming presence during situations like this. I mean, in battle, you have to learn to talk calmly for instance, if you’re on the radio to your team because when you show anxiety on the radio, your team starts to react in the same way so you learn to remain calm and composed for the sake of not escalating the situation and leading your team well.
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?
Captain Ian Weikel who was my first boss. He took me under his wing when I was new to combat and pushed me. You can tell when someone genuinely cares for you and he did. He would frequently come and sit down and have coffee with me to see how I was doing. When Weikel was tragically killed in action, his wife, in the middle of her grief, thought of me and sent me a book she found that he had signed for me only days before his death. It was a book on military combat called “Leadership — the Warrior’s Art” and inscribed in it was a note from Captain Weikel. He wrote, “Garrett — Cherish your moments and experiences as a Platoon Leader. You have the opportunity to lead men in combat. Lead from the front. Love your men and instill iron discipline. Always give your best effort and demand the same of your men. Protect your honor. Destroy the enemy and never let up,” words I will never forget and continue to live by, even now. It’s my keepsake to remember him and the crucial role he played in my life. The note was dated the same month that he died which makes it even more special to 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?
I would define a crisis as something that brings adversity and causes you to think outside of the box. Crises tend to be unpredictable so there is a lot of thinking on your feet and flying by the seat of your pants. It challenges you to go out of your comfort zone and feel like you are at your breaking point. That’s how you get better.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Prepare by getting the best people possible. This means people with a diversity of experience and backgrounds, but then with those people, also create a great culture and camaraderie between them. Once you instill that culture into your team, you start to build trust, which as I mentioned earlier, is crucial to have between a leader and their team. A good team is one that is willing to work and take risks in 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?
Take a breath. Get all the information you can get in the moment and keep yourself informed. Let the situation develop and make sure you assess your resources. At that point, you can then begin to work through how you’re going to get through it. Some of the great leaders I know make sure to seek advice from their people, to see what they thought but in the end, as the leader, the buck stops with you. At some point, you have to make your decision, you may never be 100% informed or know everything about the situation but when you make your decision, you want to be confident in it and be willing to take the responsibility of the outcome on your shoulders.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Resilience and discipline. To give an example that isn’t combat, during the pandemic, business owners are learning new things for their businesses in order to prepare and survive during this crisis. If you’re a business owner, you might be learning e-commerce, ordering online, managing a team virtually, things that require resilience and discipline in constantly learning and preparing for those unpredictable challenges.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are so many. Lieutenant General Joe Anderson is someone that comes to mind. He is a prime example of a leader where the buck stopped with him. Whether he was in charge of a brigade, division or half of the US Army — he was always clear and always calm. He trusted his people, hired the best people and did not micromanage. Lieutenant Anderson made great calls and did so with confidence in his decisions but he would also go down and talk to his soldiers about the situation. I followed him around for a year and learned a great deal of leadership from him which was incredible.
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 spent 6 months at US Army Ranger school and at one point you have to repel down a 60 foot cliff. Well when I went to do that, I found out very quickly, I wasn’t hooked up so I had jumped off a 60 foot cliff and landed on my feet, shattering my heel bone. But I healed up and showed up with a cast on ready to keep going.
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.
- Manage expectations
- Trust your people — This story covers both points. I ended up shooting an M2 Bradley across to another range which is a big no-no to start with but the range ended up catching on fire. So there I was, embarrassed watching the range burn. It was a mistake that could have meant being discharged from the army. Instead, my commander came over and asked me what I did wrong, and then asked me if I would do it again and I said “No sir. That will not happen again.” I went from thinking I was going to be discharged to ending up standing in front of other soldiers coaching them about the mistakes I made and what I did wrong. My commander trusted me and I also learned to manage my expectations about outcomes. I jumped to the worst conclusion and it ended up turning out okay.
- Find balance to rest and recover — In the military, sleep is a huge one, of course, but you have to check what outlets you have available to you. You have to do what you need to make sure you are present in what you’re doing, especially during combat. FDR loved his boat, Roosevelt loved the woods, they just needed to find something to rest and recover from the things around them. For me it was coffee, cigars and listening to Norah Jones on an iPod.
- Be confident with your decisions
- Be agile with situations — To show both of those points there was a time when I convinced a village in Afghanistan to switch from growing poppies which makes opium to growing saffron. It became a whole ordeal, Afghan leaders were there, it was a whole ceremony with shovels as we waited for the saffron to arrive. Come to find out, the people bringing the saffron decided they wanted to bring the saffron by truckloads and drive them rather than fly them in and that’s when I knew the saffron was not going to make it to the village. Sure enough, we sent a drone out and the trucks were found burning and the people killed. I had to think on my feet to not escalate the situation with the Afghan leaders so I ended up having to secretly coordinate another plan so the saffron could make it safely to the village. But it required other leaders alongside me backing me up, working with what had happened and also being confident in the initial decision I made. Everything would have fallen on my shoulders and I understood that.
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. 🙂
Mission Roll Call and everything we do. People coming together for one cause and going out and talking to veterans, telling their stories and sharing their experiences. I helped organize a call where veterans sat together on video and shared their stories at the start of Mission Roll Call and it was great. Veterans voices are too often overlooked so we work DIRECTLY with them through digital media and we want to make sure their perspective is heard at the highest level of government. We want people to be able to recognize the veterans that might be having a hard time being back from active duty and help them get the resources they need to come back stronger from Post Traumatic Stress. We also want to make sure people know about Post Traumatic Growth, because veterans are not permanently broken. You always build back stronger in the broken places, and that is true in the mind just as it is in the body. We want our veterans to be honored — through better mental health care services and in our culture in general.
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 🙂
Close call between Norah Jones and Doris Kearns Goodwin. #breakfastforthree