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The Power of Loyalty

I love telling stories. I always have. I believe that stories help us to understand who we really are. Stories are entertaining, they flow, and they empower the listener to figure out the point of the story on their own. Stories provide an aperture for us to experience the similarities we have with one another. I’ve learned that the key component in powerful story telling is a feeling of connection. It is my belief that powerful connections lead to loyalty.

A Few Years Ago...

A few years ago, an overly ambitious and extremely bold cold call resulted in an opportunity to present our business to the NFL’s New York Jets. The competitive juices were flowing…..I knew that we were going to compete with several other businesses to land a year-long contract with the Jets. I also knew, without a shadow of doubt, that the people on my team were so impressive, that if I promoted my teammates during the presentation, we would get the contract. 

I always try to promote my friends and teammates because not only do I take great pleasure in recognizing them for their achievements, but I also equally detest talking about myself. Talking about myself just feels uncomfortable. I’m a Green Beret. Our nickname is the “Quiet Professionals.” The vast majority of Green Berets do not market themselves well because they also feel incredibly uncomfortable talking about themselves. However, if you want me or any other Green Beret to talk about their team or teammates, we can tell you stories and talk about their achievements all day long.  

During the presentation with the Jets, I was so passionate and determined, I realized halfway through that I was shouting. Following our presentation, we were informed that we landed an exclusive contract to train the Jets. My team and I committed to put our heart and soul into the contract with New York Jets.  Our reputation was at stake. As we concluded our last training event, more than anything, we were emotionally exhausted. We exposed our hearts. We did everything that we possibly could to ensure our training was not only memorable, but provided real return on investment. On the final day of training, the New York Jets Director of Player Development, Dave Szott, asked Shane Sherman and I to outbrief him in his office.

Shane and I conducted a thorough outbrief with Dave, thanked Dave, said our goodbyes, and walked out of his office. Even after our outbrief, I was unsure how the Jets players and coaches responded to our training. I felt very positive about some of our events, but I was unsure about the overall experience. It felt similar to a frequent experience playing college football.  It was like watching Sunday game tape after a Saturday game – you never knew what your position coach was going to say. Sometimes you felt as if you dominated the game, but your coach would let you have it while he pointed out all of the mistakes you made during the game. Other times, I would dread going to watch Sunday film because I felt I played poorly…. only to receive unexpected positive feedback from our coach after watching the film. I remember the coach saying, “You never played as bad as you thought you did, nor did you play as well as you thought you did.” 

As we left Dave’s office, we were happily surprised to see Rex Ryan.  Rex aggressively walked up to me and I thought, “Now is the moment of truth.”  Rex is going to be blunt.  He is going to let us know what he truthfully thought of the event that he hired us to perform. I wondered, “Did we dominate or underperform?”

During my time with Rex, I came to understand two main points; namely,

1. His confidence is no act, he believes in himself and what he says and 

2. His players love him. 

Rex got in my face and said, word for word, “Jason, we knew after your initial presentation that you would bring it, but you completely blew it out of the water.” I let that sink in for about 3 seconds. In life there are certain moments that are so memorable that they are permanently engraved on your mind. For me, as trivial as it might sound, this was one of those few moments. It meant a lot to me. It was just….. cool. 

We talked about our training events and joked about how Mike Tannenbaum would perform if he went through our individual assessment event. Rex was enthusiastic.  He was genuinely interested. As the conversation was concluding, Rex said that he wanted to bring us back every year for what he dubbed “Jets Basic Training.”  I remember thinking, “Rex believes in me.”  What an incredible feeling to have someone believe in you. I felt appreciated and valued. I realized then that Rex inspires so much loyalty from his players because he believes in them also.  At the time, I thought to myself, “I would follow Rex into battle.” I really thought that. Why? I want to follow a leader that believes in the best version of me. I felt like Rex believed in that. 

I left that engagement feeling like a champion.  I’ve heard some of Rex’s players say that they would “run through a brick wall for Rex.” I now knew why. I began to think about other leaders in my life – both good and bad – and what made certain leaders stand out in my mind as leaders that I would loyally “follow into combat.”  As I pondered on this thought, I realized that there are numerous traits that these leaders leverage to inspire loyalty, and I wanted to touch on six of these traits:

Let the past stay in the past

Immediately before a combat operation in Iraq, my Company Commander (I’ll call him MAJOR X) was fired right in front of me. Our Battalion Commander, for some reason, really… and I mean really… did not like him. I understood my Company Commander’s short comings, but he always had my back, and I appreciated him for that. In fact, everyone in the company liked the commander. We followed him into previous combat engagements because we knew that we had his unconditional support.  We knew he was loyal to us and, in turn, we were loyal to him. 

A few days later, his replacement arrived. The new commander called his team leaders and team sergeants together for his commander’s inbrief in order to lay down his rules and expectations. The first slide on his slideshow presentation had one sentence in large, bold print, “Do not be like MAJOR X.”  I was stunned. The new commander then explained how terrible of a leader the former commander was and how he is going to “fix everything.” He assumed we were all in agreement. We (The team leaders and team sergeants) looked at each other around the room and we all knew – this commander had already lost his company.  It was a bit sad because this new commander had an opportunity to step in and win us over, but he lost us on his first slide. We loved MAJOR X. and did not want to see him go.  The new commander never truly recovered and he never earned our loyalty. 

Lesson learned – rule # 1 in the Special Forces, know your operational environment. Our new commander never took the time to find out what the men thought about the former commander and incorrectly assumed that we felt the same way about the former commander as our Battalion Commander did. Don’t ever throw anyone under the bus.  When you are in the process of throwing someone under the bus, your audience is imagining a future meeting where you are throwing them under the bus. 

Tomorrow we will discuss the next component of loyalty – vulnerability.

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