Meet former Marine Sniper Jake Wood, who channeled his transformative lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq to create one of the most impactful nonprofits of its kind.

His organization, Team Rubicon, brings in highly trained military veterans as first-responders to crises around the world: from devastating earthquakes to floods to wildfires. Not only does the organization reintegrate veterans into civilian life, providing community, camaraderie, and purpose, but it also brings some of the best performers and leaders from the military to the parts of the world that need them most.

What makes veterans more equipped to deal with disasters than trained civilians? In an inspiring discussion with IVY LA, Jake shared his stories from battle, and his unique insights on leadership, fear, and how to motivate teams of people even—and particularly—in the most grueling circumstances. Check out Jake’s insights below, his great book, Take Command, and learn more about Team Rubicon.


What three traits make you an effective leader?

The Marine Corps will tell you that first tenet of leadership is “know yourself and seek self-improvement.” That is something that I’ve always taken with me. We’ve all been around people who are not self-aware leaders—people who can’t get out of their own way. And there’s nothing really more toxic than a leader who doesn’t know his or her own strengths. But if a leader knows his or her weakness and strengths and is open enough to not hide behind them, that’s pretty powerful.

The second one, I think, is integrity. A leader without integrity has nothing. If you’re a Marine leading an infantry squad in the The Triangle of Death in 2007, your job is bring those men home. How do you inspire those people to follow you? How do you expect them to trust your decisions when you make the tough ones? How do you expect them to not look out for their own well-being if they don’t trust that you are? Your job is to inspire the people who are in your charge. You’re responsible for them.

Finally, I think communication is also key. You have to be able to articulate your vision as a leader and your plan for action, both verbally and in written correspondence. You also have to be willing to communicate. I’ve met a lot of leaders who have a lot of other great leadership qualities, but who didn’t want to talk to the people around them and get to know them on an intimate level. And that’s really critical.

IVY: How did your military experience help you harness communication skills as a leader?

When you’re in charge of twelve guys, and you’re six months into a seven month deployment, and you have to get twelve guys to get up and put on a helmet and grab a rifle and go out on patrol for the 210th time in one hundred days and risk their lives—for what? You have to motivate them somehow. They’re not just an amorphous blob; they’re not just a squad of twelve guys. It’s twelve individual humans with backgrounds and passions and hopes for the future.

If you’re not willing to communicate with them one-on-one and get to know them intimately, you can’t possibly inspire them to go to work. It’s the same thing if you’re an entrepreneur. From the most entry-level associate to your Chief Operations Officer, you have to know everything about your teammates to connect with them on the level that’s necessary for success.

How do you deal with fear?

Fear is really interesting because in so many ways, you can master it, and then in so many other ways, you’re at its mercy. When I was in Afghanistan on the sniper team, I was the point man, which means when our team walked out at night on these operations and missions, I walked out in front. I came to a point about a month into our tour where I was not being very effective at my job, and I was trying to figure out why. And I realized that I knew what our risk was—risk is always a combination of probability and severity—and I knew what it was every time I was out front. But I hadn’t taken that emotional step towards accepting it, which is really probably of the most important lessons I’ve learned that has served me well as an entrepreneur.

Everybody goes out and makes a business plan; they analyze the risk and do the research, and at some point they realize that they’re going to need to accept the risk and move forward. And that’s where fear sets in, and that’s where entrepreneurs (frontmen) hesitate. They show that fear, and then people lose confidence in them as an entrepreneur or as a CEO. The difference is you have to just emotionally settle in with risk, and when you do, it’s really liberating. You’re able to make decisions that much faster. In Afghanistan, that made me much more effective as a pointman.

Can fear be shared?

Absolutely, it was really helpful to go out every night on these really dangerous operations with 5 other men that I just trusted and loved. And that’s the key to success in any environment: building a team of people that you trust and love. I don’t know that I’ll ever build a team as an entrepreneur that I trust and love as much as that sniper team, but I’ve come pretty close.

Training is also so important—training and muscle memory. You need to have confidence in your own skills. In the Marine Corps, when there’s an ambush around the corner, if you’re confident that you’re going to shoot straighter and move faster and communicate more clearly than the enemy, then you’re not as scared. The same thing applies to being an entrepreneur. If you trust your skills, and if you trust your intuition, then the fear starts to die away a little bit.

How do you maintain focus?

Rather than talk about how maintain perfect or absolute focus, it’s more about addressing the dangers of being overly focused. As snipers, people talk about “scope fatigue.” Outside of the military, people talk about “tunnel vision.” There’s literally tunnel vision looking through a scope—it’s a 12-power magnification scope across a battlefield, like looking through a soda straw. Imagine what that means about what’s happening around you. You see one degree of the battlefield, and there’s 359 degrees happening all around you that you’re not paying attention to. There’s a real danger in that.

The real skill is in maintaining focus on what your task is without losing that peripheral understanding of all those things happening all around you. I see this happen in startups that I advise and work with all the time. You see entrepreneurs put their nose to the grindstone without looking up, and all of a sudden, the barbarians are at the gates. Then, real problems have popped up.

Jake Wood

Is there an art for telling people what to do?

It all starts with “why.” Going back to the Marine Corps, when you tell someone what to do, there’s something called “Task & Purpose.” Essentially, it’s the “why. ” Here’s your task, here’s what I want you to do, and here’s the purpose of what I want you to. In the Marine Corps, issuing a task without issuing a purpose doesn’t happen. Too often I see leaders or managers telling people what to do. Don’t tell people what to do; tell people what needs to get done and why it needs to get done, and more often than not, they’ll figure out what to do on their own.

I think it’s more about making sure everyone understands how what they’re doing is contributing to that greater vision that you as a leader are ultimately responsible for setting and articulating. No matter how menial the task, it should contribute to the greater vision. If you can’t tell the person how the task contributes, then you should be doing that task yourself. Otherwise, it doesn’t need to get done. When people feel like they’re truly contributing to the success, they are empowered.

What is your strategy for making decisions without all the complete information?

The danger of having so much data available today is that people feel like they need so much data. How did the world ever work without big data analytics? It’s making us better; there’s no doubt about it. But there’s a time and place for it. We live by the 80% rule at Team Rubicon, and what we understand is that we’ll never have all the information that we want. We probably won’t have all the information we need to make a decision, but if we have 80% of that, then we’re going to move forward. It’s really about thinking incrementally. You’re not trying to hit a home run; you’re trying to hit singles.

What I try to explain to people is that if you have enough information to get to first base, you might actually figure out that missing piece of information you need from that change in perspective…Chances are by the time you get to first base, you’re going to figure out that a lot of the assumptions that you were already banking on are already wrong. So, it’s really about getting out of the homerun mentality when it comes to figuring how much information you need to make a decision, and really start thinking about hitting singles.

Jake Wood

Do you have tips for dealing with leaders who are not self-aware?

One of the biggest challenges is being a good follower. I had to learn that time and time again. It’s about knowing your role in any organization. When I was playing football, I thought I was going to be a star, and then they brought in a kid after me who ended up making 8 straight pro bowls in the NFL. So, my dreams were shot, and I was relegated to a backup role. I had to determine how I was going to play that role: I could be a poisonous, subversive character in the locker room, or I could support him and make him as good as he could be. The same thing happened in the Marines. I went from being a squad leader to being a follower for a team a year later. I knew I was still a good leader, but I found myself in a different situation, and I had a choice to make. Am I going to be a good follower or a bad follower? It doesn’t make me any less ambitious; it just determines the dynamic that I’m going to allow to play out on that team. Luckily, my leader was incredibly self-aware.

If your leader is not self-aware, I think you just have to be honest in your communication with that person. I do deal with someone who is not self-aware at all, and it’s immensely challenging. It’s not just simply pointing at how he has not been self-aware, but it’s about seeing things on his level. Then, you need to ask him to join you on your level and see how you might determine a compromise.

How do you know when to leap with your business?

Risk is always changing, so it’s dangerous to talk about risk in a vacuum, which is kind of how I do it when I talk about the difference in assuming risk and accepting risk. You have to constantly be soliciting new inputs along the way and re-evaluating how your risk profile is changing.

Sometimes people think when I talk about risk that I’m foolhardy. I’m anything but. I’m very serious about analyzing and mitigating risks, and I don’t take unnecessary risks. But at the end of the day, we’re in a pretty risky business, so our risk acceptance is different from most of the country. Don’t be foolhardy; that’s a recipe for disaster. Understand the perspective and know how to distance yourself. If you weren’t staring the risk right in the face—and it was 6 months ago, would you still just walk boldly into it? Would you just close your eyes and clench your teeth and walk? If the answer is yes, then look behind you, find your team, and say let’s go.

Jake Wood

If you would like to support Team Rubicon you can make a tax-deductible donation at this link.

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