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Mark Nadig: Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience

I would recommend these steps for any professional or individual person. The physical domain addresses fitness, endurance, strength, and health through proper exercise, sleep, and nutrition. The emotional domain is choosing to approach life’s challenges in a positive, optimistic way by demonstrating self-control, stamina, and good character. The social dimension is developing and maintaining trusted […]

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I would recommend these steps for any professional or individual person. The physical domain addresses fitness, endurance, strength, and health through proper exercise, sleep, and nutrition. The emotional domain is choosing to approach life’s challenges in a positive, optimistic way by demonstrating self-control, stamina, and good character. The social dimension is developing and maintaining trusted and valued relationships to foster communication, healthy experiences, and a support network. The spiritual domain focuses on one’s core values and beliefs to help in behaving ethically and persevere through challenges. And the family domain focuses on nurturing a family unit that is safe, supportive, loving, and provides resources for its members.


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 Mark Nadig. With 24 years of service in the Army, Mark Nadig is now the VETS Center Director at Southern Nazarene University, where he serves more than 300 veteran students, including their dependents. These students may use the VETS Center for help navigating their educational benefits, adjusting to civilian life, connecting with community resources, and receiving academic support. Nadig is making it a goal for his team to get to know each veteran student and support them on a personal level. He often deals with veterans who suffer from PTSD, TBI, and anger issues, and the SNU VETS Center works with them to develop resilience and establish a connection to their community as they re-enter civilian life and pursue professional degrees.


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 Saline, Michigan, located in southeastern Michigan, with three brothers and our parents. My father worked for Ford Motor Company, and my mother managed the home front. She kept us in line. With four boys, we could be adventurous and loud. My life centered around Boy Scouts, wrestling, playing in the orchestra, and academics. After graduating from high school, I went to college, continued wrestling, studied civil engineering, and participated in Army ROTC.

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

Today, I am serving as the Director of the Office of Veterans Services and the VETS (Veterans Educational Transition Success) Center at Southern Nazarene University (SNU). It is a position where I can continue to learn and grow as a leader, but what is special about the work our office does is that we still have the opportunity to serve others, just as we did during our military service days.

For example, a couple of weeks ago one of our student veterans, along with his professor and program director, reached out to us about some challenges he was having with classes, his job, and his life in general. He was recently medically retired from the service. We had the student veteran come to our Veterans House here on the SNU campus — to sit, talk, and share a cup of coffee with us — so we could listen and emphasize that he has our support and we’re here to help him build a connection with our SNU family.

Our office allows us to work directly with student veterans and directly with a number of federal, state, local, and campus resources that can assist veterans in reducing some of life’s obstacles that can disrupt their lives and keep them from reaching their academic, career, and personal goals. That’s what I find rewarding with this position and with SNU. Our SNU team is a family who wants our student veterans and families to get connected, receive support, have community, and achieve success.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I earned a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army through the Army ROTC program and was commissioned as an Engineer Second Lieutenant. After college graduation, I entered the Army and served just over 24 years on active duty and then retired in July 2017.

The majority of my assignments in the Engineer Regiment were in combat engineer units where we would support the infantry and armor brigade combat teams with mobility, counter-mobility, and survivability capabilities. Essentially, we were putting in obstacles, blowing up obstacles, or moving dirt — all in an effort to give our guys freedom of movement or deny the enemy freedom of movement.

Later in my career, our engineer efforts were centered more on counter-IED operations in support of our infantry and armor units. And like any typical service member who makes the Army a career, you get to work with outstanding people and you get to see the United States and the world. I’ve been all over the Lower 48, Alaska, Hawaii; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, and India.

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

There are too many stories to tell, but one experience that made an impact on me occurred when I was in Iraq. I was part of a small team planning an operation south of Baghdad. There were four of us working on this plan — all of us combat arms officers — yet here we were struggling to come up with a suitable maneuver plan to accomplish our assigned mission.

Sitting in and observing all this was our Legal Officer and our Civil Affairs Officer. And as the four of us started getting more vocal in our frustrations from our lack of progress, the two of them asked if they could offer their perspectives. We said yes, not really expecting our rule of law expert and our governance, economic, and culture expert to give us much assistance in solving the problem.

The two officers looked over our work, asked a few questions, and then in a short period of time, they started sketching out a proposed course of action, designing the task organization, identifying key tasks for our teams, and allocating resources. There was our plan! The four of us stood there impressed that it took the two officers just a short period of time to solve a problem that we had been struggling with for some time.

That experience taught me that people matter and that they are worth listening to. As a leader builds a team, the leader cannot forget that everyone brings value to that organization, from the youngest, most inexperienced member to the most senior-ranking, experienced member of the team.

There will be times where the expert won’t have answers to every problem. It is at those times when a team can shine. Leaders must build an environment of trust and respect, where the youngest, most inexperienced team members have the courage to speak up with an idea, or disagree with the leader and offer another alternative, knowing the leader will listen and respect what any member of the team has to say, regardless of rank. That is the hallmark of a cohesive team.

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 think of heroism, I think of my friends and soldiers I lost in combat during my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They made the ultimate sacrifice in helping others survive. They gave all of themselves to a greater cause.

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

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NKJV). That is how I define a hero.

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

Yes, my experiences in the Army were a leadership lab. The Army — as an institution and with the leaders I worked for and with — always stressed and reinforced through action two key components for achieving success: the focus on mission accomplishment and on people. The Army has a saying: “Mission first; people always.” A leader has to achieve both because the two are intertwined. If a leader forsakes one over the other, the individual and the organization will not achieve their full potential and it could result in the loss of life and mission failure.

The main objective for any Army leader is to build and maintain a combat-ready organization. A combat-ready unit has cohesion and it has trust throughout every echelon of that organization, and a unit will only have that if it has the confidence in knowing its leaders will always have the welfare of its soldiers in mind and that the leaders provide it with the training, resources, and equipment necessary to accomplish the mission.

I think it is the same for any organization, regardless of profession. This is the approach we have at SNU with our student veterans and the military community. We want to take a holistic approach, where we can empower our student veterans and family members to ensure their success and well-being, where they have a sense of camaraderie with our SNU family — having the confidence of knowing we’re a team where they can get connected, have community, receive support, and achieve success.

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 agree with this, and I required help throughout my entire life. I am very appreciative for the mentorship and development I received from so many people who have come into my life.

The one person who has been with me through all the good and all the bad is my wife, Gwendolyn. The Army profession is not an easy one for spouses and children. I spent many anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays away from the family, but I also missed those undisclosed days that didn’t go as planned for my wife and kids. I cannot imagine the stress and anxiety she experienced raising our children alone and worrying about me during my deployments. Yet, she always encouraged me when I had doubts, was my biggest cheerleader when I had success, provided straight talk when I was overconfident, and never quit on me when I experienced a setback. She is a rock for our family. With any triumph I’ve experienced, more than a fair chunk of it is due to her.

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 occurs anytime you find yourself and/or the organization unprepared or caught off guard to deal with a developing situation where mission failure means the loss of life, defeat for the organization, or failure of business/livelihood.

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

We should always consider our environment and our competition. These two factors are always the major influences in a planned operation. We must look at the problem we’re solving through our own lens, but we also must consider looking at the operation through their lenses. If we fail to consider our environment and competition, we increase the probability of not anticipating our competitor’s second and third responses or how a changing environment may impact our operation. This can lead to a crisis situation where now we and our organization are not prepared for this new and quickly developing situation. Owners and leaders should always consider the effects of their decisions from all perspectives; this will allow them to identify contingencies they must plan and resource for. That gives the leader and the organization the flexibility and adaptability to adjust plans.

Our SNU community takes a similar approach with our students. We see our competition as life’s obstacles. Challenges will come up, so how do we as an institution reduce those obstacles for our students, so they have the freedom of movement and a clear path for achieving their goals? Our SNU family understands the importance of being fully engaged and responsive to our students so we can understand their environment and know what obstacles are competing for their priorities and time. This requires us to pull all stakeholders together and mass our assets so our students can receive support, remain connected, and achieve success.

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 one: Observe and listen. Step two: Assess and take decisive action. Leaders should immediately observe and listen so they can understand as quickly as possible what is going on and how the situation is unfolding. Once they have a fair understanding of what is going on in this crisis situation, leaders can then move to the next step by assessing the situation (knowing their environment, their competitor, their own plan, and what resources they have at their disposal) and taking immediate action to counter the threat.

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

Leaders should remain calm and steady so they can continue to think and make sound decisions. They also need to remain strong and confident so they can inspire belief and a winning attitude within the organization, especially if their backs are against the wall. Most importantly, they must remain resilient and persevere so the organization doesn’t quit, especially if they get knocked down. They must have the courage to stand back up and take a few more slugs until they get their feet back underneath them.

One other trait I observed in leaders I greatly admired from my military days was that when things went wrong, the leader didn’t go looking for someone to blame or focus on who was at fault. The leader accepted the responsibility and remained focused on accomplishing that mission, setting his eyes forward and not looking back. The leader was interested in solutions. When leaders took responsibility for a crisis, it would actually free up and relax the organization to where they felt approved to take action in solving the problem at their levels.

That is what we strive for at SNU. By practicing these same traits, we can inspire belief and confidence in our students to achieve success. We want our student veterans to know they can find their support network with us and that SNU is home, a place to be heard for support, encouragement, and connection. We think that provides confidence for our student veterans where they know we’ll be engaged and responsive for them. One of our goals is to strengthen our partnerships to ensure we integrate all stakeholders, resources, and assets to build and maintain cohesion, synergy, and cooperation between student veterans, faculty, and staff to ensure mentor interaction, physical and emotional resiliency, spiritual health, and community enrichment.

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

One past leader that immediately comes to my mind on characteristics needed for surviving a crisis is General Dwight Eisenhower. His initial response and immediate actions during World War 2’s Battle of the Bulge are good examples of how one can survive and thrive during a crisis situation.

With the initial success of the Germans’ surprise offensive in December 1944, the Allied front center started to crumble. Yet General Eisenhower remained calm, steady, and in control. He looked for solutions and reminded his subordinate leaders that this surprise offensive from the Germans was actually an opportunity for the Allies to knock out the Germans for good since they’d now exposed themselves to the Allied Army. He remained confident and resilient under pressure, and I think that helped his subordinate leaders get over their initial shock from the surprise.

General Eisenhower observed, listened, assessed, and started taking immediate action. And his initial response and actions helped the entire Allied Army find its resolve to regain the initiative. In about a month’s time, the Allies had the German offensive stalled and the Allies were back on the warpath, marching toward Berlin.

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?

One setback I had in the Army was when I didn’t get picked up for battalion command. I thought I would be competitive for selection, but I didn’t even make the alternate list. Battalion command was one of my professional goals so I competed again the following year, thinking my record was even stronger. But the results were the same, not selected, and again, I didn’t even make the alternate list.

After being non-select two years in a row, I was disheartened. But battalion command was one milestone I wanted to achieve as a professional military officer. I kept at it. At the time I didn’t realize this, but during those three years, as I was getting declined for command, the Army was providing me assignments that challenged me and allowed me to grow and thrive as a leader. I needed that development so I could become a better and stronger officer.

On my third look, I again competed for battalion command. Finally, I was selected and slated for command! My two years in battalion command were some of my most rewarding times in the Army. It was an enormous honor and privilege for me to be in command and serve those soldiers and leaders. I honestly grew the most as a leader during those two years. Coincidentally, the battalion I had the honor to command had a motto I could easily relate to — semper ultimo! Latin for “always to the top!”

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.

The Army puts tremendous importance on increasing resilience so our leaders and soldiers have the ability to cope with adversity, adapt to change, and grow from setbacks. The Army does this through a plan that builds skills in five areas: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family.

I would recommend these steps for any professional or individual person. The physical domain addresses fitness, endurance, strength, and health through proper exercise, sleep, and nutrition. The emotional domain is choosing to approach life’s challenges in a positive, optimistic way by demonstrating self-control, stamina, and good character. The social dimension is developing and maintaining trusted and valued relationships to foster communication, healthy experiences, and a support network. The spiritual domain focuses on one’s core values and beliefs to help in behaving ethically and persevere through challenges. And the family domain focuses on nurturing a family unit that is safe, supportive, loving, and provides resources for its members.

SNU also recognizes the importance of instilling and supporting these steps for our students, faculty, and staff to have resiliency. We take a holistic approach to ensure our community has the skills to not only persist through a challenge but to also thrive during life’s challenges. Our goal is to be an institution that is welcoming for our student veterans, service members, and military families, so they know SNU is a family where they can get connected, find community, receive support, and achieve success.

Over the past three years, our SNU veteran and military community has seen results. We have a 77 percent graduation rate for our bachelor’s degree student veterans and service members and have an 84 percent graduation rate for graduate degree student veterans and service members.

Our SNU team is committed to serving others; it’s one of three core principles for our university and it is our university’s life philosophy — live last — where we strive to be a servant for everyone else. We have experts across campus who are dedicated to this philosophy. From our Renew Counseling Center, which provides counseling services across a number of specialty areas that is open to both students and the public; to our Disabilities Office, which provides mentorship and resources for any student that has a disability, both physical and mental; to our Student Success Centers, that provide resources on healthy habits, nutrition, tutoring services, academic counselors, enrollment counselors, and fitness programs.

We also have our VETS Center, short for Veterans Educational Transition Success. We not only provide standard services for our student veterans, service members, and military families with applying, reviewing, and receiving their education benefits from the VA/DOD, but we’re also designed to assist our veteran and military community with career transition assistance by providing mentorship, resources, and advice on career searches, resume reviews, interview preparation, and career fairs. Bottom line: We are here to serve others — serve our student veterans, service members, military families, and serve our faculty, staff, and administration — to help them build a sense of camaraderie and belonging with each other, where we are one SNU family.

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. 🙂

I would remain focused on SNU’s commitment to serving others. I believe in it. The Spirit of Selfless Service — a commitment to better another’s life in whatever way possible: mentorship, fellowship, resources, connection, encouragement, support. I think that would resonate with a lot of people. It ties in really well with the Boy Scouts’ slogan, “Do a good turn daily,” and it ties in well with the Golden Rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” and it ties in well with the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25–37.

With all the challenges our nation has faced and is currently facing, I think it is important we do not forget the lessons we learned 155–160 years ago: A house divided will not stand. The principles and values our country were founded upon remain a strong foundation. We should bet on that and continue to build on it. So where do we start? We start small. To go anywhere, we all start by tying our shoelaces. Sometimes, a friend, family member, peer, or stranger just needs a hand, a smile, genuine feedback, to be heard, stood up for, or encouraged. And we keep passing it on to others. That’s the Spirit of Selfless Service.

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.

You know my background — I’m from Michigan and I’m a Ford guy, so one person I would love to have time to break bread and have a cup of coffee with is Mr. Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Company’s former CEO. Just to have an opportunity to listen to him and learn how he handled Ford’s restructuring and navigating through the automotive financial crisis during the late 2000s.

How did he handle doubt? How did he handle success and maintain it? How did he handle those who resisted change? How did he reassure those who were wavering? How did he build cooperation? How did he balance his family responsibilities with his professional responsibilities?

But for me, what was really significant was how Mr. Mulally instilled faith, confidence, and trust in the Ford Community during that crisis. He bet on Ford; he bet on Ford’s workers; he bet on Ford’s leadership; he bet on Ford’s dealers; he bet on the Ford Blue Oval; but he also bet on Ford’s families, like mine. How did he know to make that move versus declaring bankruptcy? That is what I’d really like to know. That took guts and that took resolve.

Right now, some 12 years later, SNU is in similar waters. Many institutions in the higher education profession are facing financial and restructuring challenges. SNU’s Senior Executive Board has taken a similar approach as Mr. Mulally did over a decade ago. They are betting on SNU and our SNU community. I love that! We may not be building cars to help people live, but SNU is certainly helping people build a better life. That’s one thing Ford and SNU have in common — we’re builders. And I’m sure there are some lessons I can learn from Mr. Mulally that I can pass on to our Senior Executive Board as we navigate through our waters.

How can our readers follow you online?

Your readers can follow me at my LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-d-nadig/ or email at [email protected].

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

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