Michael Hudson of ClearForce: “Execute with passion”

Execute with passion — Too many great ideas will die in someone’s garage or on their computer because they do not drive hard enough. In crises you have to be clear and definitive, not hedging or being tentative. Take the risk. Share your vision and find those who want to move forward. If you have done the […]

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Execute with passion — Too many great ideas will die in someone’s garage or on their computer because they do not drive hard enough. In crises you have to be clear and definitive, not hedging or being tentative. Take the risk. Share your vision and find those who want to move forward. If you have done the previous four steps, you own this, and even when others doubt, your passion will fill them with drive.

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 Col. Michael Hudson (USMC-ret).

Col. Michael Hudson (USMC-ret.) is the Vice President of Veterans Behavioral Health Data Collection at ClearForce, an organization that specializes in the detection of high-risk behavior.

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”?

There’s actually a story from my days at San Jose State University that I think would be a good place to start, because that is where I discovered that service to others was my calling. I had a part time business teaching SCUBA diving in the waters off Monterey, CA and I was also a Sergeant with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department underwater recovery team and rescue unit. While in college, the United States Marine Corps made me an offer that I could not refuse, which started a 30-year journey that changed my life. What put me on my current path with ClearForce were my experiences towards the end of my tenure in the Marine Corps. In 2012, the Commandant asked me to reset our sexual assault prevention and response because he wanted a combat leader, not a staff officer, to lead this change. In this role, I also touched on suicide prevention, hazing, and harassment challenges, and worked with some amazing players and subject-matter experts with a passion to change the system for the better. The key lesson from this experience is that you must be open to change. In those two years, we did make measurable changes, increasing reporting and getting more Marines the help they needed and deserved to empower them to move forward. We also reduced the number of assaults by supporting leaders at all levels to create an environment that is intolerant of misconduct, yet receptive to requests for help.

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

I’m currently with ClearForce, serving as Vice President of Government Solutions and leading theVeterans Behavioral Health Data Collection effort, where I am driving the company’s efforts to change the conversation around Veteran suicide in America. We ask, “What can we do?” for the whole population rather than What could we have done?” for this one individual by identifying those in need before tragedy strikes. With the help of technology and data, we can flip the model. Today, and for the past several decades, the struggling veteran or their family member has been required to ask for help. Data collected by the VA demonstrates that 70% do not reach out for help — that means about 14 veterans will die today because they did not or could not ask for help. Veterans are isolated and have all the questions and sadly, the VA has all the answers. We have to flip this decades-old model by connecting Veterans with the resources they need now, rather than waiting until it is too late.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was able to serve in the United States Marine Corps for 30 years. During that time, I was privileged to command a helicopter squadron and a Marine Expeditionary Unit with three combat tours and several other deployments. Beyond my command tours, I served on 4-star Combatant Commander and senior service staffs, and was tapped to lead the USMC’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program. When I was not flying, I spent a considerable amount of time in operation and intelligence, and I was able to serve in a Tank Battalion as their air officer/Forward Air Controller. That was arguably my best experience from the squadron tour. Working with tankers and Marines on the ground brought home the power of integrated teams focused on winning.

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

I think the one that best illustrates the important work we are doing to help my brothers and sisters, who are struggling when they return from serving this nation, would have to be one from my squadron command in Iraq. My squadron was supporting combat operations in and around Baghdad, and our primary mission was flying CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) missions. This means we were part of the “golden hour,” which started the second a Marine was wounded. If we could get them to a surgical hospital from the point of injury (POI), their chances of survival was usually around 90%, but if not, their chance of losing a limb or their life was significantly increased. Because we flew to their POI, that also meant the enemy that shot them could shoot at us.

For six months straight, we were flying 24/7 to save the lives of those Marines. About three months in, one of my officers seemed a little off, so I set it up that I would fly with him on a night mission. We had a conversation during that flight, in which it was clear he was under a great deal of stress. I had an open-door policy, so that anyone could walk in and ask me for help, but that does not cut it. We must pick up on those who are struggling and reach out to them, instead of expecting that they will come to us.

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.

To me, a hero is someone who, at great personal risk, does the right thing. I think we would all agree that our first responders, medical professionals, and those who are caring for our elderly throughout this pandemic are clearly heroes, one and all.

During my time in the Marines, I saw many do the most amazing things. There is one example that to this today causes me to pause, that of Captain Jennifer Harris, who was the aircraft commander of “Morphine 12.” She was a force to be reckonedwith, professional to her core, and one of the best pilots and leaders I have ever seen or flown with. She was respected and fearless, her call sign was Atilla. She was shot down and killed in Iraq while flying a medical mission with her crew of amazing Marines and sailors, many of whom I had flown with in combat before.

Jennifer was all set to go home, but insisted on flying one last mission. I had been her commanding officer in combat on her last tour, but on this mission, I was safe in class at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Her Commanding Officer told me that she did not have to fly that day, but she flew, like all warriors, so that we can be safe back here. She flew not for herself, but for her crew, this mission, the squadron. She took a risk so others could live, not for self-glory. That spirit of giving your all for what you believe in and helping others should serve as a shining example to us all.

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

To put it simply, in my view a hero is someone who seeks to make things better, even it means they are at increased risk or find themselves under attack. This “attack” does not have to be in armed conflict, it can be standing up for a friend who is being bullied, or supporting someone you don’t know, but who needs your help. This sense of service can be many things, in the case of Captain Harris it was flying when she didn’t have to. It was leading her crew into uncertainty, focused not on the risk, but the outcome — saving lives.

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

Absolutely, for both. Serving in the US Marine Corps instilled in me our core values of honor, courage and commitment, and I take these ideals with me wherever I go. I became the leader, husband, father, brother, friend and person I am today as a result of my service, and believe these three values to be essential for any person or organization looking to define their purpose and affirm a strong allegiance to what is right. Servant leadership is a phrase I learned while in the Marines, which means that the key to creating change and supporting others is to understand how you must adapt and change. To lead is to understand how to follow, to motivate with vision, to take smart risks, to always be in learning mode, and to empower your team in an environment of trust.

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

The list is long, but if I had to pick one, it would be my father. By any standard, he could be written off as below average. He only had a 7th-grade education, was raised by divorced parents who worked as migrant farm workers and was sent to juvenile detention by the age of 16 for something he did not do. But he put it all on the line to move forward. The judge agreed to let him serve in the Korean war and released him from detention before he turned 18. After 16 months in combat, he rose to the rank of corporal and was honorably discharged. He returned home and built a business, and until his last day wore a shirt that had his name on it. He pushed back against the status quo and taught me to look beyond what others called hard, risky or uncertain. He believed that if you help others excel, you will excel. My dad is gone, but I believe his spirit for helping and doing the right thing was relevant then and is relevant now.

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?

The dictionary definition of crisis is a “time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger,” but I would loosen this to include anytime that people or institutions are in harm’s way, or are about to be. This allows us to better understand and address issues that impact the safety and wellbeing of an individual, organization or even society at large. The best way to mitigate the risk that comes from crisis situations is to prevent them from happening in the first place, and broadening the definition of a crisis allows us to nip things in the bud sooner.

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

Before a crisis strikes, business leaders need to have the correct policies, procedures and systems in place to deal with whatever issues that ariseand should be continuously monitoring for potentially risky behavior throughout their organizations. That way, if and when a crisis strikes, business leaders have all the facts they need at their disposal, as well as a concrete, effective and fair method of dealing with any problems. To be good at this, leaders must never assume what worked yesterday, last year or last decade is still valid, because the risk and technology is always evolving.

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?

The best way to deal with any crisis is to have already prepared for it. This forward-leaning mindset positions organizations to have resilience already built into their framework, so that as soon as someone realizes they are in a crisis, they are able to quickly and efficiently gather all necessary information about the situation and everything that led up to it. Ideally, this process is simple and is helped along by policies, procedures and systems the organization already has in place to continuously collect this information, so that valuable time is not wasted when it matters most. It’s the military equivalent of a battle drill. You have to think out both the immediate actions to be taken and next steps based on the current situation, and have branches and sequels built into the plan that allow the leader to quickly transition. This ability to try new ideas, embrace chaos and not lose sight of the objective will lead to success.

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

An all hands-on deck mentality, and the ability to unite your employees around a course of action supported by trust, clear guidance and shared vision. Beyond that, business leaders must be able to analyze the facts of a situation without bias. When certain people are exempt from an organization’s uniform standards, that knowledge creates a toxic environment that breeds discontent and shows that the organization does not treat crisis mitigation seriously, or that it shows favoritism. Both can erode organizational resilience and decrease their ability to withstand crises.

Business leaders also need to be level-headed and capable of separating emotion from their decision making. Emerging from a crisis requires an objective consideration of the facts through pre-established systems that ensure consistent, fair outcomes.

At the same time, business leaders need to be able to own responsibility for the situation yet be humble regarding their role in solving the problem. Crises often occur because leaders were unaware of issues until they surfaced and were therefore unable to mitigate the problem. On the other hand, it is a leader’s responsibility to guide the organization up and out of a crisis — that is their job, and they should not treat this as an exceptional feat. Strong leaders take blame, give credit, and posture an organization to be successful, but also be ready to solve problems.

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

I have been fortunate to serve with some amazing leaders, both in and out of the military. I think one of the best examples of leadership in times of uncertainty would be Tom Blair. He is a board member for ClearForce and several other companies as well. I worked for Tom shortly after leaving the Marines. He is a serial entrepreneur, a brilliant thinker, and an engaging leader, but one of his best leadership traits is his ability to always be a step ahead of a challenge. He was always engaging, never missed a “tell” and never called out those who came up short. When others were worried about “X or Y,” Tom kept the team focused on their strengths, not their weaknesses. He owned any shortfalls, even when clearly not his, and in doing so raised everyone’s game.

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?

Change is a risk that most will not be willing to take. This is what separates leaders from the rest.

Many stories come to mind, but there is one that has stayed with me and serves as a reminder that doing the right thing is always right. In the run-up to Desert Storm, I was an instructor pilot and, on the schedule to fly a low-level navigation flight, while my co-pilot was listed in the syllabus to be a TERF (terrain flight) instructor. I checked with the duty officer and was given verbal instructions to fly an instructor operation even though that was not on the schedule. Long story short, the schedule writer was not happy that I flew an operation that had not been approved, so he told the commanding officer and I took the hit. I didn’t see the value in pointing fingers, because this was more of an I-am-right-and-you’re-wrong conversation versus a communication error over a technicality, and in another week, we would be flying combat missions. The bottom line is that I understood the commander’s vision for success and worked to achieve that, but those locked into maintaining the status quo will always be able to tell you why change is wrong, why trying something new is wrong and why they are always right.

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.

Step one: Believe in yourself.

Crises and uncertainty run together, so you must be certain of yourself and those on your team. This is how you build resilience and stamina to stay the course when others stop or become obstacles, this is when you must keep track of the wider vision while others narrow in on their next steps. You must always keep your mind open and see opportunities where others only see challenges.

I had finished a night combat mission and was trying to return to base, but the weather had degraded quickly, and the enemy was still actively looking to fire on us. I had my section (two helicopters) in close formation and battling through the rain, lighting, and scattered enemy tracer fire directed at the sound of our noise. My dash-two (second helicopter) was having radio issues with the control tower, my copilot had vertigo and the gunners were ready to be on the ground. Without a doubt, we were in crisis. In that minute, I took control of the aircraft, told my dash-two to close in and follow me, and all of my training kicked in. I believed in the ground controller and my instruments, the second helicopter pilot believed in me and we all landed without incident.

Step two: Do the prework.

Know your role, know your business and have a clear definition of your end state. To thrive in uncertainty, you must be in front of the problem, not reacting as it appears. To do this, you have to do your homework and you must be constantly playing what-if. You must be seeking opportunities to change, so if your goal is “X,” then look at every day as an opportunity to get to “X.”

I was a staff officer working with a few others to make some improvements to the battalion’s training. One day, our boss took our suggestions and requested we pull it together by the following week. What could have been a crisis turned into a golden opportunity to make something better, all because we were well prepared. We pulled off a live-fire demonstration that ended up making the boss a believer. To this day, the exercise is still done each year.

Step three: Challenge your assumptions.

An assumption is a planning tool that allows you to move forward when you do not have all the data. Too often we make an assumption and then never challenge it. Just because it was okay yesterday or last year or last decade does not mean it will be so today. Change is only possible if we challenge our fixed assumptions. We see this in static policy and processes, and this is where too many like to stay: comfortable in yesterday.

I have fallen into that trap, thinking I was a good enough pilot. I became lazy about learning new things and flew the same way I always had. I was flying as we introduced night-vision goggles into helicopters, but I preferred flying at night without them. Bottom line, I was opposed to making change because I was stuck in my comfort zone. It was not until a good friend took me aside and pointed out that my old ways weren’t the best ways that I realized I was part of the problem, not a part of the future.

Step four: Stay ready.

This is harder than it sounds, because it’s a lifelong journey to be the master of the art of your business. This means always learning, always seeking improvement, and challenging yourself to own today and envision tomorrow. Keep your eyes and mind on a swivel, because you want to drive change and own chaos.

When I was a lieutenant colonel, we picked up a general officer for a meeting and I noticed he had a crew of contractors maintaining his yard. I commented that he must be glad to have them mow the lawn. Without missing a beat, he said, “You see people mowing my grass. What you miss is the time it gives back to me. While they mow my grass, which is really not my grass as the house belongs to the government, I am working the problem. I am shaping tomorrow so this nation’s adversaries cannot win. You are either shaping your future or being shaped, there is no time out.” In that moment, I realized that to win you must always be working the problem.

Step five: Execute with passion.

Too many great ideas will die in someone’s garage or on their computer because they do not drive hard enough. In crises you have to be clear and definitive, not hedging or being tentative. Take the risk. Share your vision and find those who want to move forward. If you have done the previous four steps, you own this, and even when others doubt, your passion will fill them with drive.

I have been fortunate to serve with some great leaders. For this story, I will turn to a civilian I worked with while addressing sexual assault and suicide. I was a combat leader and she was an academic — we came from two different worlds. She was right on target with how to make change and came to work every day ready to do so. She changed me, by teaching me, coaching me, and most importantly, by getting me to see her passion and approach. In the end, we were successful and made a real difference.

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 love to change the conversation around Veteran suicide. As a service member, I am devastated that twenty of my brothers and sisters take their own lives every day because they do not ask for help, or because by the time they do it’s already too late. Why is it that they have to ask? We know after decades of data collection what is killing them and we still ask them to raise their hands. We need to put systems in place that take the responsibility off the Veteran so that they can get the support they need before they do the unthinkable. Every life lost to suicide is one too many, and I want to mobilize as many resources as possible to keep America’s heroes safe.

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 🙂

Joe Rogan — he has been a strong supporter of the Veteran community and his podcast with military Veterans has always been great. Plus, his listener group is center of mass with those at higher risk. He can connect with the Veteran, those who know Veterans and his message echoes outside of the 7% who are Veterans to the larger population. This can drive and support change.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow ClearForce on Twitter @Clearforce2 or visit our website at

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

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