Building perseverance starts with a team
Luck has nothing to do with success, your will to succeed does. The ability to overcome challenges and learn from failure is what will determine your success, this is called grit.
In this episode, Thor interviews Matt “Hobo” Brady to find out how he used grit to overcome the pressures of West Point, to survive in combat and how he thinks business leaders can use grit to build successful teams.
- How to connect passion to perseverance
- Lessons for leadership from elite military teams
- How to learn from failures to increase agility
[Below is a transcript of the episode.]
Joel “Thor” Neeb: Today, we’re gonna find out how you can connect passion to perseverance. We’re gonna learn what are the lessons for leadership in elite teams from a combat veteran, and how can you build a culture that learns from failures to increase agility? In this episode, we will talk to Matt Brady, West Point graduate, Harvard Business School graduate, and more importantly, a graduate of multiple combat scenarios, where he was under fire in very high stakes, dynamic, complex environments, and rose to the occasion.
JN: Alright, ladies and gentlemen, as you heard in the introduction, I’m sitting here with Matt Brady. We’re actually talking to you from Portugal right now. We just finished up working with a client. And I wanted to talk to him about some of the stories that he has from his past, and share some pretty incredible experiences, and things that he’s been able to be a part of. And the first one we wanna talk about is, how you specifically connect passion to perseverance?
Connecting Passion to Perseverance
JN: There was a book written recently called “Grit” by Angela Duckworth. Incredibly popular, it was written in 2016. And in the book, she contends that the single greatest determining factor for success is not your intelligence, it’s not your charisma, it’s not how good looking you are, it’s your stick-to-itiveness, it’s your perseverance, it’s your ability to rise to the challenge in a difficult scenario, and to continue moving forward against overwhelming odds. And the place that she used as the crucible to prove this hypothesis, to prove that it was really grit, that a lot of people to succeed, was West Point. And Matt’s a graduate of West Point, he’s also been a part of some pretty overwhelming scenarios, I would say, right, Matt? That’s certainly been a part of your experience in the past 18 years.
Matt Brady: Yeah. You could put it that way, sure.[chuckle]
JN: I wanna hand it over to you. Talk a little bit about how you’ve seen grit and perseverance play a role in your experiences. And ultimately, we’ll talk about how do you develop that in an individual?
MB: Yeah. First of all, thanks so much, Thor, for having me on this podcast and for having me come out here to Portugal. What an opportunity to work with a really engaging and exciting part of a major tech company, that’s growing leaps and bounds. It’s a tremendous venue and a really tremendous opportunity. I guess I would start out by saying that I first started to really understand the power of grit, and determination, and perseverance when I first started at West Point, at the US Military Academy. And I had come from a… Not the best of academic background. I wasn’t that strong of a high school student. In fact, I had to go to a couple years of junior college just to get to the minimum level I needed to be, academically, in order to attend one of the military academies. And so when I arrived at West Point, my biggest challenge, and my biggest source of anxiety was the academics.
MB: I had some pretty gaping holes, especially in the math and sciences area, that I really didn’t have a lot of time to play catch up with. And so I remember going into my first math class at West Point, it was called Discrete Dynamical Systems. And if you can imagine entering a classroom with that title, it strikes fear in your eye. [chuckle] You’re talking statistics, and algorithms, and logs, and these mathematical concepts, that if you didn’t learn the basics in high school, it was a little bit too late to start learning these advanced concepts, ’cause they were all built on the basics that I just wasn’t very proficient at. And I remember really sweating in this class, and understanding about an eighth of what they were talking about. And at the conclusion of it, I went to my mentor, who was a faculty member… And they did a great job of pairing us up with current faculty members that would provide social and moral support.
MB: And I went to my mentor, and I said to him, “I’m not sure I’m gonna make it here. I don’t think I’ve got what it takes. Academically, I don’t have the chops to really get by. I don’t know how I’m gonna survive.” And I remember him saying to me, a guy by the last name of McMaster, he said, “Matt, do you want to succeed here? Do you wanna make it through?” And I said, “Yeah, of course, I do.” He said, “Well, it is our job to get you through with all the resources that you need to make it happen: The time, the extra attention, the extra academic focus, and tutoring, and mentoring. And so, if you’re willing to seek out those resources and take advantage of them, and you’ve got the desire to succeed, if you don’t quit, you will make it here.” And I remember thinking about that, and saying, “Wow, that’s pretty powerful, if I just start… If I just really kind of bring out this will to win, this will to overcome, and I find out those sources of success, and those assets that I can bring to bear on these problems, then I’ll make it through.”
JN: Here you are at West Point, and by the way, this is where Angela Duckworth, in her book, said that she followed students and cadets that went through West Point. She tracked them from the moment they started basic training, which occurs before you even start freshman year, right? You had a basic training first…
MB: Yeah, called Beast Barracks.
JN: Beast Barracks. And these men and women are at Beast Barracks and she gave them an aptitude test right off the bat. And she said, “It wasn’t the ones that were necessarily the smartest or the most athletic that had the highest probability to make it through West Point.” It was the ones that had something that she called grit or perseverance to accomplish the goal. And to really just continue moving forward, and that sounds like that’s what you’re alluding to, that’s what you had to develop while you were in your freshmen year, facing down this ridiculously tough math class.
MB: Yeah, and I did. And I didn’t realize that was gonna be a key competency, a core competency for me. And I had used that in the past to my advantage. I had used that on the football team in high school, on those two-a-days or three-a-days down in the Georgia heat, and just kinda sticking to it, and plugging along. I demonstrated that along the way, but I tucked that away with my high school diploma and didn’t realize that was gonna come into the equation. I thought I was going to make it on my ability to understand what tangent and cosine were. [chuckle] And that was part of it, but that wasn’t the most important part.
JN: Well, I’m excited to tell you that, today, Matt is a renowned mathematician within the…[laughter]
MB: Right. [laughter]
JN: No, I’m just joking. [laughter] But he does have some incredible experiences, unfortunately, they’re not around math, or maybe, fortunately, for the purpose of these stories. They are geared around a career centered as a helicopter pilot in… And a helicopter pilot in some of our nation’s most important battles, and most important missions. Some of them that you’ve heard about in the past. One of them, chronicled in “Lone Survivor,” the movie and the book by Marcus Luttrell, the SEAL, who was the only survivor of a particular SEAL mission. And Matt was one of the helicopter pilots involved in that scenario, and many others, where once again, perseverance became a factor in your success. Before we go into some of those stories, Matt, I’d like to know. How do you think a person develops perseverance? If perseverance is what gets you through the math challenge, or the worst case scenario, the combat scenario, what does one do to develop that?
Teamwork Helps Develop Perseverance
MB: I’d say one of the key insights to developing grit is not your ability to develop it in yourself, but the role other people play in you developing grit, and I’ll give you an example. In one particular phase of Beast Barracks, there were these things that we term “field problems.” And what they were, they were just as they sound. We’d be in the field. We’d be in the middle of the woods, out in the middle of nowhere in New York State, in our army gear, our helmets, our packs, our rifles. And these mysterious soldiers, these Green Berets would show up in the woods. They’d kind of appear and they’d give us these really heavy objects to move over an obscene distance. For instance, I remember being with my good buddy, Jason, and this Green Beret came to us, he said, “Cadet Brady, Cadet Lewis, this is an enormous ammunition box that weighs 150 pounds. I’ll prove it by both of you picking it up right now.” And we did, and man, it was 150 pounds. And he said, “You’ve gotta move this box a click and a half.” Now, what that means is 1,500 meters. 1,500 meters, that’s roughly, gosh, about a mile, I guess. And we had to move this box a mile without putting it down.
MB: Within the first quarter mile, I thought my arms were gonna fall off, carrying this side of the box, and so did Jason. But we encouraged each other. And we knew that if we dropped our side of the box, not only would it physically hurt the other person, but we’d also fail the mission, together. And so I didn’t wanna let Jason down. Jason didn’t wanna let me down. And because of that interdependence on each other, and because we were both required to hold up our end of the bargain, so to speak, and accomplish this mission, we both started to really develop, I think, what it took to get to that finish line, no matter what stood in our way. And there are numerous examples I can think of, where the times when I felt I was growing the most with my ability to persevere, my desire to stick it out, it was always someone else that was depending on that ability, that really brought it out in me. Not me challenging myself, but not wanting to let down my buddy.
JN: Yeah, I’ve had a common experience, something similar to what you’re saying. And I went to the Air Force Academy, it’s another military academy. And while we were there, I remember, freshman year is basically a year of going through a ridiculously rigorous, physically challenging, mentally challenging, emotionally challenging year to complete what’s called your “plebe year,” and earn your right to stay at the academy after that point. And I remember thinking, “There’s not really a light at the end of the tunnel.” There I was in September, and we weren’t gonna be done with this whole experience until April, and that seemed like it was forever away. And yet, it was the group that I was a part of, that allowed me to continue moving forward.
JN: A really similar experience to what you’re alluding to, because I didn’t have the stick-to-intuitiveness at 18 years old, or the grit, or the determination, or the perseverance to make it through that by myself, but because I was with a team, then I was able to rely on that group. And what that meant was, down the road, 10 years later, when I’m flying an F-15, and I am by myself, and I’m sitting in an airplane going faster than the speed of sound, and I need to borrow out some perseverance, once again, to make it through this situation, I had the habit patterns, because of that team that I was a part of beforehand. What an interesting takeaway, that it’s that interdependency that helps to forge that sense of grit for people in the beginning so that you can do that by yourself in the end.
MB: And it’s also something, I think, that really helped define in our minds what the definition of teamwork was. And you hear a lot about this nowadays. You hear people talking about collaborating and integrating to come up with the best solutions. But in the end, if you can accomplish what a group of people can accomplish, then you’re not using teamwork. The outcome that you should be using teamwork to achieve is something that, by definition, is something you could not accomplish as individuals. And that’s really where I think teamwork starts to take on a real meaning, and it’s not just a cliche.
JN: What a great point. It is a cliche. All too often, we say, “We’re part of a team or we’re really just a group of people most of the time.” And when we’ve been a part of a team, everybody’s got a time in their past, when you look back, where you say, “Wow, I was a part of something bigger than myself, where it wasn’t down to my abilities to succeed, it was the group. One plus one plus one equaled seven because we were able to synergize and tap into our individual capabilities, and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.”
MB: Yeah. And oftentimes, in a lot of businesses that I talk to, I hear people saying, “Well, we should form a team to do this.” And I challenge them, I ask them, “Why are you gonna form a team?” “Well, we want people to feel included.” That’s important, but that’s not the goal of the organization. [chuckle] The goal of the organization is to be effective in your mission, whatever that is. And if that requires a team to do it, because you can’t do it as individuals, then form the team. Otherwise, remain as individual contributors, or remain in a decentralized condition, until the mission dictates that you centralize, and form a team. And be very conscious, and specific about when you’re doing that.
Lessons Learned from Military Leadership
JN: Great example. Let’s transition a little bit because we’re talking a lot about elite teams and you’ve been a part of elite teams in your past. You’ve led elite teams in your past. And you have some scenarios from combat, that you had to step up, and you had to lead a team or be a part of a team that was in some pretty challenging situations. Can you talk a little bit about things that come to mind from that experience? That we can learn from.
MB: Sure. One particular event comes to mind, it took place in 2009, in Afghanistan, the Northwestern part of Afghanistan, to be specific. And this was one of those times in my career, where I didn’t really have the right answer on what to do. I left it up to my team to figure out what was gonna be the best way to go about solving the problem. And I guess what I did for my team, was give them the leader’s intent. I gave them the framework for what needed doing, and I let them innovate and come up with the how we’re actually going to do it.
MB: And so let me just set the scene for you. This was a helicopter raid mission. It was at night, just like most of our missions were. I was in a unit called the Night Stalkers, and we were formed in the Army, in the early 80s, to train and fight specifically at night, and to really build up that competency, and that capability for our Army. Without going into a history lesson, there was this mission called Eagle Claw in 1979, or otherwise known as Desert One, where President Carter ordered Special Operations forces to rescue, if you remember, those American hostages that were imprisoned in Tehran, Iran after the revolution. Well, this helicopter team and this assemblance of ground forces weren’t able to pull off the mission. In fact, there were some pretty catastrophic accidents while we tried to rescue those hostages. So our unit was formed to really fill that capability gap.
MB: Anyway, fast forward to 2009, Northwestern Afghanistan, and our Night Stalker unit is tasked with dropping some ground forces into a market, into a bazaar, and allow them to search for contraband, enemy fighters, supplies, anything that might be slipping under the radar for the US coalition, at that point. And so we dropped this team off of ground forces, and we left. And while we were waiting, this joint force of US Marines, Afghans, some DEA personnel, they started to come under enemy fire from who, at the time, we thought were Taliban. We weren’t really sure who they were. We just knew they were in a firefight and we had to react immediately to them. We flew our helicopters back in the middle of the night, a very complex situation with a lot of distractions, a lot of obscurance, a lot of fire and smoke coming from this area. And so we had to land, and take this friendly force out of there, so that we could just get them out of this situation. Well, it turns out, it was such a chaotic scene, that we lost our lead helicopter. It crashed right at the target area and we suffered casualties, both US and Afghan casualties.
MB: Well, there were only two helicopters in this mission, this lead helicopter, and then my helicopter. And so, at that point, when I realized they had crashed, and that there were probably multiple casualties, I had a decision to make. Do we call for reinforcements? Do we try to help stabilize the situation ourselves? What exactly do we do right now? Do we fly in circles? What do we do? And so I pitched it to my men, and there were just men in the unit, at this time, onboard the helicopter, and back at headquarters. And I said, “Guys, give me some ideas. What do we do?”
MB: And the solution was pretty innovative. One of my senior warrant officers, who’s one of our specialists that fly these helicopters and do so for their entire career, said, “Hey, Major Brady, why don’t we, instead of flying around and giving the enemy an additional target, because everyone wants to take down a flying helicopter, why don’t we use the helicopter as a base? And land it in between the crashed helicopter, and all the wounded personnel, and all the casualties, land in between that crash site, and the enemy force. And that’ll do a couple of things for us. Number one, you can’t get shot down when you’re already on the ground. And number two, it’ll provide a base of fire. It’ll provide a distraction for the enemy force, to keep them away from that vulnerable personnel at the crash site that need medical attention.” As a helicopter pilot, and as just a military aviator in general, the last thing you wanna do is land your helicopter, and be stationary in a combat situation. We’re just taught to not do that. We’re taught to use aviation and aerial flight to our advantage. Well, in this case, my warrant officer was right, landing the helicopter was gonna provide us an advantage, and it was gonna take away an advantage that the enemy would’ve had.
MB: We landed the helicopter in between the crash site and the enemy, and we started to use our weapons on board to keep that enemy force at bay. It was a very proud time for me, for my guys, for coming up with that, something I wouldn’t have thought to do. And it was also a major, major relief for those US and coalition forces that needed medical attention, because it kept the pressure off of them, and allowed them to come to a safe harbor inside our helicopter, where eventually, we could take them for immediate medical assistance. And it’s one of those times, where I really give credit to the unsung heroes of our ranks in the military, that are able to come up with really innovative and ingenious solutions, in the most high pressured times you could possibly think of.
JN: Let me recap that a bit, because that’s an incredible story. For our listeners, if you can visualize this picture, Matt has told me this story in the past. He’s on the ground and he’s got American casualties. People have already died, both on… From the Afghanistan side, as well as some Americans, unfortunately. He’s got injured Americans from this helicopter crash. He’s landed his helicopter in the middle of a battle zone, where the other helicopter just went down to enemy fire. And now, he is coordinating how to respond to this scenario. This is the most complex, dynamic, high-stakes environment that you could ever imagine. And the way you’re describing it, Matt, you basically said, “I don’t have 100% solution and I am going to leverage the wisdom of the team, to come up with a solution that makes sense for all of us.” And then, you, of course, own the command authority to decide what they’re gonna do next. But you were able to tap into the team, knowing that together, you’d be able to come up with a better solution than you would identify yourself.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great summary. And I think it was one of those times in my development as a leader, where I had to, again, really understand that my job as a leader is not to make the best decisions. My job as a leader is to ensure that the best decisions are made. And I think that’s a really important distinction, especially when we realize that we don’t have all the answers. We can’t possibly have all the answers. And that the best decision for any given scenario, most likely, by the law of averages, does not reside between your ears. And so knowing that it’s somewhere in your organization, and it’s somewhere on your team, and knowing that it’s just most probably not something you’re gonna come up with. You could, but most likely, you don’t have the best solution at that point. Your job is to really dig and search for that best solution somewhere in the team, and ensure the conditions are set for that solution to come forward.
JN: And that’s a great way of looking at it. I’ve obviously experienced the military culture, and then the corporate culture, as we’ve helped out hundreds of different corporations across the globe. One of the differences I see is that you have a different level of competitiveness and this mindset of territorial-ness in the corporate world, that you don’t necessarily see on elite military teams. And I think it’s because you can’t afford to see them. You have an environment, where you have Type A personalities on elite military teams, people who are used to succeeding, and yet, I was always looking to be surrounded by fighter pilots that were better than me.
JN: In other words, I wanted to get people on the team that were as good or better than me, that I could learn from, that were going to… That we were gonna be a better team because of. And you don’t necessarily see that in the corporate world, that’s something the corporate world, I think, could learn from the military. It may be because the stakes aren’t as high. I’m not sure where the correlation breaks down, but I see a tendency to guard best practices and to not necessarily hope that we can find people that are even more qualified for these positions, to put on the team, and to make the team better at the end of the day. Would you agree?
MB: Yeah, I would agree with that. And of course, you don’t wanna give your best techniques, and advantage to the competition. But within your organization, you have to ask yourself the question, “Who are we competing against? Is the left hand competing with the right hand? Or are you… Do you have middle management that’s incentivized to make their own organization prosper, while the rest of the organization fails?” And if so, then you’ve gotta really take a look at what people, at the end of the day, are being incentivized to do, or not to do. Giving people a purpose is extremely, extremely important to have in their minds, but in the very short term, it’s also very important to understand what motivates people to do certain things and act certain ways… And so really understanding the incentive, and the motivation structure inside the team, I think is crucial. And if sharing best practices does not pay off for everyone in a very real way, then that’s probably not gonna be a behavior you’re gonna see on your team.
JN: What a great point. And basically, what I hear you saying, is that people are just a reflection of the systems they’re a part of, right?
JN: If there are cultural differences between one organization and another, it’s just the natural by-product of the system within which they reside. And so if you wanna change the culture, change the system. If you want a culture that’s more adaptive, more agile, then change the system that incentivizes that type of behavior. And that goes to our last topic, our last conversation point, is how do you build that culture that learns from failures? How do you have a helicopter crash, one of the two helicopters that are on this mission, so 50% of the helicopters are down at this point, and instead of throwing in a towel, or flying away as fast as you can, you rise to the occasion, you learn from your failures. How do you go back to when you were 18 years old, and you’re at West Point, and you’re facing the toughest academics course that you’ve ever taken in your life, and you’re failing at them, you’re not succeeding, and you’re still able to step up, and iterate, and improve, and rise to the occasion?
Build a Culture That Learns From Mistakes
MB: Yeah. How do you build a team that learns from failure and doesn’t become, just absorbed with it? And how do you make failure something that teams understand as a necessary part of a journey? It’s one of those questions, where there’s really not one right answer, except to say that there are organizations out there that do it well right now. And so I would say that, as an organization, the Night Stalkers, when we were first being built in the 80s, we had no real precedents to go on. We had to find out who are the organizations around the world that learn from failure, instead of being defined by that failure. And where we turned, both as a helicopter force, and as a US Special Operations Command, at the time, which was just being formed, we turned to our counterparts across the ocean. We turned to the British Special Air Service, the SAS. Here was a group that had really learned how to learn from mistakes, how to correct errors, and sees those as opportunities to improve future performance. This was a team that had really honed this core competency in combat and done it in very high-pressure situations. We turned to them and asked them to help teach us.
MB: And it took persistence, we had to form that partnership and that relationship. But it was a crucial one, as we really started to bake this… What we called “failing forward mentality” into the DNA of Special Operations Command and of the Night Stalkers. And so, if you then take that way of thinking, and that mentality of the early 80s, when we were first starting, and then fast forward 20 years later, the Night Stalkers, we have this motto, “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit, NSDQ.” And every Night Stalker knows this motto and lives by this motto. And it’s just this shared mental motto, this shared philosophy, and common bond, that no matter what, we are going to succeed at the mission we have before us. No matter what, when we have men, women behind enemy lines, that are down, that need to get out, we’re gonna get them out, no matter what. That’s a promise that we’ve made, to not only them, but to their families and to the country. And so that’s something we take very seriously, it’s a motto that we take very, very seriously. And it wasn’t automatic, we had to learn how to build that culture, and it was done from learning by the best at the time. And we knew we didn’t have it, but we wanted it, and we found out where that resided, and it happened to be in the British Army.
Perseverance is a Key to Success
JN: Wow. Fascinating stories, fascinating background, Matt. Here are the key takeaways that I’ve got from this conversation. In order to build grit, in order to build perseverance, sometimes it starts with that team. And very often, it’s that interdependency that we rely on, to build the habit patterns that help us to persevere. If Angela Duckworth is right, and perseverance and grit are really the things that are the most highly correlated to successful people, then we should be looking to build that out, and surround ourselves with individuals that help us to rise to the occasion. Get us out of our comfort zone, so that we can exhibit those behaviors as a team, so that one day, we can rely on that experience to do that on our own when we’re the individual contributor that has to rise to the occasion.
JN: That’s the first thing I take away from it, that perseverance is a key part of the equation. But then the other thing I hear from you, is that you have to be able to accept failure. It’s not about perseverance, as you run off a cliff. It’s about perseverance, as you have a goal in mind, and you iterate, and you fail, and you learn from that failure, and you figure out how to pivot, and adapt, and react, and stay agile in that environment. When we do have the odds stacked against us, it’s not just perseverance and running into the wrong direction with grit. It’s about sticking to a plan, to iterate and improve over time, so that you eventually do succeed. Is that what you think were the overwhelming takeaways from those experiences?
MB: They are. And I would just touch on that last one again, and say that, to all the leaders out there, your role in building that persistent and failure-conscious culture in your organization, your role in that, is really determining, which are the glass balls that you can’t have your team drop, and which are those rubber balls that they can drop, that they can learn from, but it’s not gonna adversely impact the organization, to the point that people’s livelihoods are affected, or the health of the organization is drastically and irreversibly affected. Knowing what failures can take place, and allowing them to happen, and allowing them to happen for a reason is very important. Allowing people to just continuously fail and fail in really big ways is not the key here. The key is small failures early and often to build up that confidence. To know that I’m in an organization that cares about learning, and as long as I’m not making the same mistake over and over again, then the mistakes are just gonna be part of the recipe, as we get closer and closer to success, and accomplishing that mission.
JN: Matt, thanks so much for your insights, thanks for your experience, and most importantly, thanks for your service to our country and to freedom. We appreciate your stories today and we look forward to talking with you next time.
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