The best teams are the most diverse teams. It’s a broad term that includes diversity of experience, thought, race, ethnicity, religion, skills, and responsibility.
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 Michael Wisecup — Colby College.
Michael (Mike) Wisecup was named vice president and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics on November 1, 2019. Formerly serving as Colby’s vice president for strategic initiatives, Wisecup also served as the inaugural presidential leadership fellow in the Office of the President at Colby.
Wisecup came to Colby in 2018 following a career as a commander in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a SEAL officer. As a combat veteran and a leader of multi-agency task forces focused on a wide range of important national security issues, he brings extensive experience in leading high-performing teams, operational management, and developing organizational cultures that foster excellence. Some of his personal decorations include the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and Purple Heart.
In his current role, Wisecup oversees Colby’s 32 collegiate sports programs and campus recreation, and recently oversaw the transition into the new Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Facility, a state-of-the art, 350,000-square-foot facility.
Wisecup also serves on the board of Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine and organizes the annual SEALs for Sunshine fundraiser to support military family attendance at the camp. In 2019 he was honored as the Maine Volunteer of the Year by the Maine Commission for Community Service for his work with Camp Sunshine.
Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
My work is focused on the education and development of our students — mentally, physically, and morally — in order to prepare them for success both on the field and after they’ve graduated. That’s what I do every day. Whether the specific activity is administrative or game management or leadership programming, it’s always about that, and only that.
I often tell people that what I’m doing in higher education and at Colby College is not that different from what I did in the military, and they’re always surprised because the life-or-death consequences of being a Navy SEAL were so extraordinarily high. But the reality is that developing and educating our students when they’re at such a formative point in their life is also a high-stakes situation, because if we don’t get it right there’s a risk that they could go into the world and do great harm. While providing an exceptional academic experience is at the core of Colby’s mission, we’re also teaching our students about right and wrong, how to be ethical, and how to have good character and be good citizens and teammates. It’s a huge responsibility and just as important of a mission to me as what I did in the military. In the Navy, I helped make sailors into better citizens, now I get to make students into better citizens.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the military in 1994 when I entered the Naval Academy, graduating in 1998 and then becoming one of 12 midshipmen selected to go directly into SEAL training. I completed that training and spent a 20-year career as a Navy SEAL officer leading small and large units both in and out of combat. I worked and led multinational special operations teams and joint special operations teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. I commanded at the O-5 level (battalion command) and completed my service as the deputy commander of all joint and multinational special operations forces in Iraq in 2018.
Can you share your most interesting experience during your military career? What was the “take away”?
I was in rural Afghanistan working with community leaders to establish a local security force that could provide their own security. I was living in their village and saw how their community bonded; their traditions; how families interacted, and I couldn’t help but see myself in them. As different as we were in terms of culture, language, or clothing, I had this incredible recognition that we were all working for the same purpose — to protect our families, help the next generation do better and have more opportunities, and create a place where we could all thrive and live regardless of culture, language, or differences. Realizing that was pretty powerful and something I apply every day to guide my perspective and interactions with others.
Did you experience or hear about heroism during your military experience? How would you define what a “hero” is? And does a person need to be facing a life-and-death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
In a traditional sense, I’ve seen American service members step into a barrage of open fire to cover Iraqi soldiers who have been shot so they can be pulled to safety. That’s an incredible act of heroism, especially when they might not even know each other. Speaking more broadly, I believe that anyone that wakes up every day and voluntarily goes into harm’s way in order to support and defend their community is a hero. Whether they conduct a heroic act that day doesn’t matter. The fact that they show up, put on their gear, and are on call means they’re a hero.
Can you share a leadership or life lesson that you learned from your military experience?
Don’t rush to failure. We often react when we should respond, and by rushing into reacting, we often make more mistakes and have failure as a result. It’s important to take a moment and assess the situation when you’re in combat and you hear enemy shots. You don’t want to immediately react because it could be that the enemy is
trying to find where you are, and you could expose yourself and actually make things worse. You have to have the discipline to assess what is happening and what is the appropriate response.
The first report is always wrong. As a leader, you often get information about something that’s not going well. It’s really important not to just react to that but to realize that the first report is usually missing context and additional details. The person leading the situation has to ask the right questions to get the remaining information and be patient enough to wait for the situation to develop so that they can make a decision and respond on their own terms.
Keep everything simple. Life is complicated, and you will always have curve balls. The more you keep it simple, the better chance you’ll have of being successful, because everyone working with you will understand what to do and how to do it. Part of keeping it simple also means prioritizing, especially when there’s a lot happening. It’s critical to be able to prioritize tasks and their time sensitivity and then work through deliberately and execute each of those tasks in order.
Explain how you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for a post-military career.
My education at the Naval Academy prepared me well with academic rigor and an understanding of how to be a leader. What’s wonderful about the military is that after school, it provided me with what I often refer to as a leadership laboratory, where I had the ongoing opportunity to build my skills and constantly adapt them and improve them. By giving me the education, time, and a wide range of experiences, I was well prepared to move out of the military and apply my training and abilities to new areas.
Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust to and thrive in civilian life?
My transition out of the military was harder than I thought it would be. I left with a lot of confidence in myself, maybe overconfidence, because I’d been successful. I truly understood the military inside and out. I could see not just around corners, but I could anticipate things that were miles away. Now, I’m the new guy and these new corners aren’t so easy to see around. What I’m learning is that there’s a lot of complexity and nuances in higher education that I’m just starting to understand. In the military, the stakeholders were fairly narrow, but that’s not the case in higher education. There are a wide range of constituencies with different interests, and each one requires a different approach. So I am still in the process of transitioning, but every day I’m better understanding how to apply my skills and experiences to this new environment.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How might they help people?
I recently opened Colby College’s new $200-million, 350,000-square-foot Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center. It is the most advanced NCAA D-III facility in the country and when combined with the improvements we’ve been making to our outdoor competition spaces, we are now providing the absolute best resources possible for our athletes and students to learn, work together, have fun, compete, practice, and decompress. Just as extraordinary is that we’ve done all this despite the pandemic.
Another big project that I’m really excited about is something that I learned in the military and have been able to bring to this job — building a cross-functional team. Since entering college athletics, I noticed that there were a variety of siloed elements in terms of training. In other words, strength and conditioning, counseling, nutrition, etc. weren’t really optimized as a cohesive unit. To remedy this, we’ve now formed one cross-functional team, which we call Peak Performance, so all components of training are working together and developing highly tailored plans for each student athlete and team. It’s a dynamic initiative, and we’re already seeing great results from it.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their teams thrive?
The best teams are the most diverse teams. It’s a broad term that includes diversity of experience, thought, race, ethnicity, religion, skills, and responsibility. Identifying that diversity by understanding where people come from and what shaped them is also so important because it has a lot to do with how they’re going to be able to work independently, and the kind of confidence and maturity they have and can bring to the team. That only happens when a leader actually spends time and invests in knowing their subordinates versus simply plugging holes with people.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
With larger teams your responsibility as a leader changes. In a small unit you might be the only leader, but in a large unit, you might be a leader of leaders who are actually charged with accomplishing the mission. The key to interacting with them is to provide a clear understanding of the “why.” In the military, we call it commander’s intent. In addition to helping them understand the goal and reason of their mission, providing the “why” also enables subordinate leaders to make independent decisions as the situation changes that are still consistent with the overarching intent. What you don’t want is having subordinate leaders continually coming back for advice or answers. That slows the process down and doesn’t empower them to be able to adjust to continually evolving situations.
Is there a particular person you are grateful toward who helped get you where you are?
There are many people in my life that I’m exceptionally thankful for, but at the top of the list are my parents. Both were public servants, and they showed me that a career as a public servant was an honorable profession. So it’s no surprise that I’m following the family business and am a career public servant — 20 years in the military and now higher education — and I don’t see that changing. In terms of my professional development, I had wonderful mentorship from General Martin Dempsey when I was his aide and he was serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he continues to be a really powerful mentor for me.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how Colby College took a chance on me. They opened up the door, offered a hand, and gave this veteran a chance, even though it looked like I didn’t belong. When I came across Colby and was able to meet the president, David Greene, he offered me a fellowship to ease the transition but also would allow me to help contribute some of my experiences to the College and its mission. Through this process I found my place on this team, and my teammates have embraced me. In hindsight, I’ve realized when I was retiring from the military that I wasn’t looking for a job but was looking for another team, and I found it at Colby.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try not to accomplish just tasks or work, but do it for the right reasons and in the right way. I’m hopeful that I’ve shown others what right looks like and that my actions, both in the military and as a private citizen, have brought honor to my nation and community. I continue to just do what I think is right, work as hard as I can, and hope that helps make the world a little bit better in a practical way.
I’ve also been able to use my position and notoriety as a former Navy SEAL to help raise funds for Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine, so that more military families who have children with a life-threatening illness can attend. I’m very proud of that effort.
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’d inspire a movement based on the experience I had in Afghanistan, where I really got to know the people I was working with and ultimately saw myself in them and realized there was a lot more in common between us than there were differences. The movement would be about humanizing each other to improve the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote” and share how that it’s relevant to you?
“The Obstacle is the Way,” from Ryan Holiday’s book. As opposed to being a victim of circumstances and external challenges, the obstacle that is put in front of you allows you to find a way around it, and it’s going to make you better, challenge you, and you’re going to be different and stronger when you get to the other side versus just walking a smooth path. It’s about framing your mind so that you can be in control of the obstacles and approach them as opportunities instead of obstructions or something negative.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private meal with, and why?
I’d love to have lunch with some middle school teachers from an inner-city school. Can you imagine how hard that job is? Yet it’s so vital to our nation. I’d love to hear from them about how they motivate and inspire themselves. How they keep doing what they’re doing in the face of such incredible odds.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!