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Guy Snodgrass: “Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience”

I’d ask everyone to embrace one simple decision: never wait to make a difference. There are always plenty of reasons not to do something positive to help our families, or communities, or the organizations we’re a part of. Maybe we’re concerned about rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo, or standing out when we’re uncomfortable […]

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I’d ask everyone to embrace one simple decision: never wait to make a difference. There are always plenty of reasons not to do something positive to help our families, or communities, or the organizations we’re a part of. Maybe we’re concerned about rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo, or standing out when we’re uncomfortable doing so. But I guarantee you that each of us is full of great ideas that can make those around us even better. We just have to be willing to not only identify a way to make things better but acting to actually do so. Never wait to make a difference.


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 Commander Guy Snodgrass. He is celebrated as one of the most skilled fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, directing combat jets over some of the most dangerous war zones in the world — and he did it all using the lessons he learned at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) that he reveals for the first time in his new book from Center Street, an imprint of Hachette.

During his time on staff as a TOPGUN instructor, Commander Snodgrass trained the top 1% of our nation’s fighter pilots. Over the course of twelve weeks, these pilots are drilled on aerial tactics, combat, and skills required to win in any organization. In his new book, Commander Snodgrass shares for the first time his top 10 leadership lessons from the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School TOPGUN.

Commander Snodgrass is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Defense Analytics, a national security and foreign policy advisory firm specializing in strategy development, government policy, and technology adoption. Previously, he served as Director of Communications and chief speechwriter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, where he authored the publicly available 2018 National Defense Strategy for the United States, which he chronicled in his first book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.


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”?

Sure!

I grew up with some amazing role models in North Texas. One, in particular, was a longtime member of our church, Fred Auld, who was also an engineer for General Dynamics, an aerospace company building a fighter jet called the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Not only did he teach the importance of adhering to strong values and moral principles, but he was the first person to really instill in me a love for aviation, a path I ultimately pursued by becoming a fighter pilot and senior leader in the U.S. Department of Defense.

Otherwise, I was a pretty average kid: I didn’t particularly stand out in sports or with my grades. The one area that really clicked for me was leadership. I enjoyed my time as a Boy Scout (earning my Eagle Scout), started a small pre-internet computer business in junior high by building and selling computers, and I had a passion for learning from a wide range of mentors within my community.

All these experiences helped demonstrate that having a wide variety of experiences and the drive to achieve your goals were incredibly important to success: both for yourself but, more importantly, for those around you and for the teams you lead.

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

I guess the best way to describe it is “thought leadership.” TOPGUN’S TOP 10 is my second book to be published in two years; I run a consulting company that assists CEOs as they pursue business involving technology, national security, and strategic communications; and I continue to talk about these issues on television and radio.

In a nutshell, I like taking incredibly complex problems and breaking them into easily addressed solutions. A big part of my success as a fighter pilot and TOPGUN Instructor was developing the ability to rapidly assess a situation, determine the right course of action, and then mobilize the people and resources required to create success.

I worked with some amazing teams in the military where this was the normal state of affairs: no matter how good the organization was, we always found ways to make it better. The best example was taking my fighter squadron, the “Dambusters” of Strike Fighter Squadron One Nine Five, and turning it into the #1 ranked fighter squadron in the U.S. Navy. There’s a real joy in working with a team to accomplish lofty goals — so, that’s the work I get most excited about in the corporate sector.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

My path is a testament to the opportunities available from a military career.

After high school, I was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, one of our nation’s four military service academies. After that, I was off to the races. That one experience provided so many follow-on opportunities: graduate school at MIT and the Naval War College, a research program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, flight training and a career as an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter pilot, speechwriter to the U.S. Navy’s senior-most admiral, and as the communications director and chief speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Along the way I participated in combat operations in the skies over Iraq, had two tours of duty stationed overseas in Japan, and commanded my own fighter squadron (by far my favorite tour).

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

One of my favorite stories is included as a chapter in TOPGUN’S TOP 10.

I didn’t perform nearly as well as I wanted during my tryout flight to become a TOPGUN Instructor. Although I’d prepared for weeks beforehand, my actual flying didn’t match up with my evaluator’s skill level, and I wound up losing all three of the dogfights with him.

I’ll always remember the sight of his aircraft maneuvering behind mine for “the kill” each and every time. It seemed like no matter how I moved my fighter jet, the instructor was able to capitalize on my mistakes and win.

I was feeling pretty low when I walked into the briefing room to discuss and debrief the flight. As the pilot “rushing” the TOPGUN staff, it was my job to conduct the debrief, which I did for the next hour. You can imagine my surprise at the very end when the instructor said, “Bus [my callsign], your passion is evident and it’s clear you prepared incredibly well. You understand the concepts and know-how to put them into action. I’m recommending you to be a TOPGUN instructor.”

Simply put, he’d had thousands of hours of additional practice, study, and experience beyond my own. His point was that I could always improve my capability. What he was looking for was talent in the aircraft, a passion for being the best I possibly could, and a solid personality so that others would want to learn from me. Those three attributes: talent, passion, and personality, define the three characteristics TOPGUN looks for in its instructor cadre.

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.

Wow, great question. I especially love this question because the definition of a “hero” is probably just a little bit different for each of us, including the scale of the impact they made.

First, I’d say that a hero is a person who routinely puts others before their own needs. The person who, when adversity strikes, asks “how can I help you?” As we say in the Navy, the correct order is “ship, shipmate, self.” The needs of your organization come first, then finding ways to help others, with your own needs and desires ranking last.

Luckily, you don’t have to look far in the U.S. military to find plenty of heroes. As a student at the U.S. Naval Academy, we spent an entire summer learning about these types of people. Each night one of the more senior students would read from a book containing the collective citations for all Medal of Honor recipients. These are men and women who, in most cases, sacrificed their lives to protect those around them. Inspiring and a great way to be indoctrinated into what it means to live a life defined by putting service to the nation before oneself.

On an everyday basis, I felt that heroes were defined by those willing to speak truth to power. Every organization has room to improve and the very best teams work to make that a reality. Sometimes, though, there’s pressure to simply gloss over all the problems the organization might have. I love the people, typically junior, who are willing to take a risk and point out that, no, everything’s not perfect. That there’s always room for improvement. Bonus points when they are not only willing to call out the problems but also when they bring actionable and well thought out solutions into the conversation. Those types of people deserve to have medals pinned on their chests.

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

Yes, one-hundred percent. In fact, that’s the primary rationale for writing TOPGUN’S TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit.

I was surrounded by leaders on a daily basis. Some were phenomenal and I’d watch carefully to learn how to improve my own skills. Others made tremendous mistakes that harmed the organizations they led but, you know, you can learn just as much — if not more — by watching what not to do as a leader.

The important lesson is to dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. To commit to making today better than yesterday, then doing the same thing tomorrow.

Great leaders can absolutely transform the organizations they lead to inspiring places to work. My goal in TOPGUN’S TOP 10 was to capture ten of these stories, share them with the reader, then highlight how they can help each of us in our daily lives. One of the biggest lessons I share is the decision to never wait to make a difference — make each day count.

So, yes, the military experience is all about developing leadership and business skills. The trick is to ensure we’re putting them to good use each and every day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I love this point! In fact, when I think about my personal and professional arc, there’s always been someone there at every step of the way who provided the mentorship or support to make it to the next level.

There’s one person in particular that absolutely saved my career before it had even started. She was a receptionist at the on-base hospital at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Despite all the physical and medical tests required to go to a service academy for college, I had somehow snuck through with an undiagnosed heart condition. Of course, I was at the academy because my dream was to become a fighter pilot, so imagine my shock when I was given a medical exam as a senior and was told my dream had just died (you can’t fly planes in the military with a heart condition.)

When I spoke with her afterward, she asked one simple question: “If this is your dream, why give up on it? How about we see if a doctor can fix the issue.”

That resulted in a flurry of medical consults and, ultimately, two surgeries to fix the issue. And you know what? I was cleared to become a pilot and, later, a fighter pilot… TOPGUN Instructor… squadron commanding officer, and beyond. My career was saved because she ensured that I didn’t take “no” for an answer.

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 usually a moment in time where there is a significant shift in the status quo, usually defined by the perception that the only way to solve the issue is with quick action.

As an aside, most every crisis can be solved with deliberate and thoughtful action rather than by quick, knee-jerk responses. I love how President Eisenhower put it when he stated, “the urgent are not important and the important are never urgent.” In my book, I describe my own brush with death in chapter 3, titled “Stay Calm Under Pressure.”

The first step to not only survive — but thrive — during a time of crisis is to remain calm, cool, and collected. Remember: emotion is the enemy of good judgment.

I like a saying I learned from U.S. Navy SEALs: Slow is steady, steady is smooth, and smooth is fast. We arrive at better results when we take our time and make well-informed decisions.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

As a fighter pilot, the worst time to think about a crisis is the moment it happens. In the aircraft, we call these “in-flight emergencies,” like an engine fire or an electrical malfunction. If the first time you’ve thought about how you’d handle an emergency is in the moment it happens, well, you’ve already lost.

So, one of the best approaches is for business owners and leaders to thoughtfully consider likely risks to their companies. Which are low-stress but likely to happen? Which are less likely to happen, but if they do, would be catastrophic? In my book, I describe a moment where I was nearly killed while dogfighting against a pilot from another nation. I had failed to anticipate problems, which meant I was less prepared than I should have been for the flight. I didn’t create a mental (or actual) list of items to protect against.

Building a list of possible issues enables leaders to work with their teams to decide how they’d respond during a moment of crisis and, even better, put controls in place so that they minimize the chance of a crisis occurring in the first place.

Two points to make here: First, you can’t wargame everything. Surprises can and will happen. But working together as a team to address possible issues enables you to develop skill sets that WILL pay off when something unforeseen comes your way.

Second, these principles aren’t confined to businesses or leaders. Families and individuals can really benefit in their personal lives as well.

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?

Step number one: remain calm. Emotion is the enemy of good judgment, so focus on the facts and try not to get emotionally invested in the problem.

Next, cast a wide net as you seek to collect as many facts as you can. We’ve all been in situations where we make a hasty decision, only to later realize “I’d never have made that decision if I’d known this piece of information.”

So, remain calm, stay level-headed, and take your time to gather all the facts you need to make a well-informed decision.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

The required characteristics follow many of the traits we’ve already discussed.

Leadership always matters, especially during times of crisis. Leaders most likely to thrive are those who place service before self — whose actions demonstrate that their primary focus is on the health of the organization and the employees they lead, rather than their own narrow self-interests.

These leaders remain calm under pressure. They do the right thing, even when no one is looking. They know to anticipate problems, think about solutions before they’re needed, and put guardrails in place to ensure most of the really big problems don’t occur in the first place.

Finally, they realize that nothing worthwhile is ever easy, which helps them to bounce back when they face adversity. They’re playing the long game, which helps them make everyday tactical decisions that align with their long-term strategic goals.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

The finest leader I ever served with was U.S. Navy Captain Monty Ashliman, my squadron commander when I was a more junior officer stationed in Japan.

He embodied the traits I mentioned above: he was calm under fire, made great decisions, and he put the well-being of the men and women he led before his own needs. A truly inspiring leader.

Two others I served with later in my career were Katie Wheelbarger and the Hon. Elaine McCusker. Both were senior appointed officials in the Pentagon: Katie worked on defense policy as it relates to other nations, and Elaine was our deputy comptroller. Both were incredibly focused on the task at hand, experts in their fields, but were also kind people who were willing to mentor those they led.

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 experienced a tremendous setback in 2018 when my career was suddenly turned upside down.

The year before my family and I had moved from Japan (where I’d held squadron command) back to the United States. We had everything we wanted. I was on the path to command an air wing (a collection of eight squadrons that deploy onboard an aircraft carrier). My family loved the neighborhood and schools in Norfolk, Virginia, and I was in a job where I could simultaneously recharge my batteries while getting a high-level practical education about naval aviation.

When Secretary of Defense James Mattis asked me to join his team in the Pentagon, I was hesitant. It meant moving the family two times in six months, a lot to ask of them, and much longer hours. Ultimately, I accepted the position.

It was a terrific position to learn in. I wrote speeches that President Trump, Secretary Mattis, and other senior leaders delivered to the public. I traveled the world with Mattis as we visited our allies and partners. But, at the end of the day, the Navy reneged on its promise that going to work for Mattis wouldn’t hurt the career path that I was on. Worse, when I made the best of the situation, retiring from the Navy to work for Mattis as a civilian, I had my legs chopped out from under me and was blocked from a senior-level job. A tangible lesson about the importance of working for people who genuinely take good care of their people.

But you can’t wring your hands or complain about something bad that happens to you. While you can’t control the outcome, you can control your output. So, I left the Pentagon to start my own company, have now published two books about leadership, and I’m using this period of time to invest in the ability to make an even larger and more positive impact in the lives of others.

I found that the leadership lessons I write about were what carried me through the most challenging times. You always have to stick to your guns, maintain your resolve, and never wait to make a positive difference in the world.

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?

I’ll give you two for the price of one.

First, I’d ask everyone to embrace one simple decision: never wait to make a difference. There are always plenty of reasons not to do something positive to help our families, or communities, or the organizations we’re a part of. Maybe we’re concerned about rocking the boat, disrupting the status quo, or standing out when we’re uncomfortable doing so. But I guarantee you that each of us is full of great ideas that can make those around us even better. We just have to be willing to not only identify a way to make things better but acting to actually do so. Never wait to make a difference.

Second, I’d emphasize the reality that all of our differences are a strength, not a weakness. America has become a hyper-polarized country, with extremists all around us. But I’ve traveled the world and the reality is that living in a nation with so much diversity is an awesome force. When we set aside our differences and recognize that a diversity of background, opinion, race, gender, and ethnicity enables us to make better decisions and to see problems from all angles. The time is right for us to rediscover our fundamental friendliness as a nation so that we can once again tackle the incredibly difficult challenges we face around the world… and here at home, too.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders that read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them

I’ll give you two, just to increase my chances of actually connecting with one of them!

I’ve been impressed with Jeff Bezos long before Jeff was “cool.” I watched with interest as he started Amazon, starting off with a narrow focus but with a vision for how he could grow the business horizontally into new markets then vertically to take a lead position.

Just as important, I’ve long appreciated the fundamental leadership attributes he’s described in his shareholder letters, first among them being the importance of maintaining a “Day 1” mentality.

There’s a terrific book by Clayton Christensen titled The Innovator’s Dilemma. In short, it tells the story of small disruptive companies that strike it rich, grow into large behemoths, then collapse under their own weight because they’ve lost the very attributes that made them successful in the first place. Jeff’s adherence to a Day 1 mentality helps ensure that’s less likely to happen at Amazon.

The second is Tim Cook, CEO at Apple.

I’ve been an Apple “fanboy” for a very long time. I was serving as a fighter pilot in Japan when Apple announced the first iPad. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to be underway on an aircraft carrier when I would receive my iPad and therefore unable to activate it (there’s public internet access on U.S. Navy ships).

On a lark, I cold-emailed Tim, then Apple’s chief operating officer, and asked if he’d be willing to assist. To my complete surprise, he not only responded but he bumped me up in the queue so that I’d receive my iPad before I had to go to sea. It was a touching moment. Tim had no reason to help me and could have easily disregarded my request. But he didn’t. I was honored that he took the time and, in appreciation, I sent him a large wooden F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jet. As far as I know, it might still be sitting on his bookshelf today.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’d love to continue the conversation. Even better, I’d love to hear leadership stories that they’ve experienced and how they positively affected their lives.

Your readers can reach me at [email protected], or can find me on Twitter (@guysnodgrass) or at LinkedIn.

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