Stay Alert, Stay Alive: My Mantra for the Military Battlefield and Boardroom

September 16, 2014

Fresh out of high school in 1977, I entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. I had no idea how much I would learn or how the journey ahead of me would unfold. My cadet training shaped not only my leadership approach throughout my military service, but also influenced how I run my business today.

My first year, I learned self-defense by hand-to-hand combat training using pugil sticks—heavily padded pole-like training weapons long used in the military. “Stay alert, stay alive!” was a phrase oft repeated when training. That always stuck with me.

At 5 feet, 1.5 inches, every cadet I trained against was bigger, always intimidating to me, but backing out or breaking down were not options. I survived by wholeheartedly embracing “stay alert, stay alive.” That short punchy chant, routinely bellowed at the top of our lungs, would follow me the rest of my life.

As my military career continued through 27 years of increasing responsibility, I assessed the mission of each new organization and the talent on my team. “Stay alert, stay alive!” still ringing in my head, I projected my vision and established precise goals that we could realistically accomplish. Quickly, I recognized in addition to staying alert and alive, I had to add another punchy chant—“Stay real!”

Looking back, I recognize how often I had to start over or reinvent myself because of new missions, teams and relationships. In fact, the two greatest periods of reinvention for me were commanding as a General Officer in Iraq during one of the most challenging and transformational periods in our army’s history, and retiring from the army and starting my own business. 

In Iraq, I was responsible for overseeing an enormous logistics mission during the army’s transformation to a new mode of operating, which required a herculean effort. There were times my vision was larger than our organization’s capability, but I had to discipline myself to listen to my staff, and most important, to listen to my head and to my heart.

When I retired from the military, I didn’t know my clear mission. What direction do I move professionally? What kind of organization do I want to be part of?  Even, where do I live? At the chagrin of some, I decided to become a conference keynote speaker on leadership and build my own company.

Although a company of one, I’ve developed an ambitious and very specific five-year plan. Each year, I “stay alert” by reviewing my client base and financial position, and assess how and where I am making a difference. I “stay alive” by intentionally adjusting next year’s plan based on my assessment, and I “stay real” about the demand for my services. Four years into my first five-year plan, I have made some mistakes, enjoyed some successes, and learned from both.

One of my favorite television shows is Shark Tank. While I don’t always agree with all of the sharks or their tactics, what I enjoy about the show is how it challenges me to listen, placing myself on both sides of the tank—sometimes pondering what a shark will offer (both in guidance and resources) and then wondering how I, as a guest on the show, would present my product or service. 

The entrepreneurs who secure a partnership come prepared and are vested in and passionate about their product. They stay alert and don’t become emotional and unreasonable when the sharks question them or offer advice. As entrepreneurs we are invested financially and emotionally in our businesses, so it makes sense to heed advice from others who have been there. I stay alert to the actions of those around me, taking in their successes and failures, and then apply what makes the most sense for realistically shaping my business model as I move forward.

When you approach the next challenge that comes around the corner, whether in your business or personal life, I believe you will be more successful by remembering to “stay alert, stay alive, and stay real.”

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