Heroes Among Us: “If you are an excellent leader, you spend much of your time teaching and training the people in your charge to thrive without you.” with Max Grant and Marco Dehry

Marco Derhy
Jun 19 · 12 min read

I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Grant of Latham & Watkins LLP.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Like many children of immigrants, I was born in New York City. My father was Russian and Polish and my mother was Dutch. After two major wars in Europe, they immigrated to the United States because they felt Western Europe in the 1960s was not a safe place to raise children. As was common at the time, they Americanized our last name to the most generic sounding name that started with the same first letter — that’s how I ended up with the surname “Grant.”

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am a trial lawyer with Latham & Watkins — one of the largest global law firms. I specialize in intellectual property and patent cases and I am a bit of a “trial junkie.” Trials are an increasingly rare experience in the legal world, but I have been fortunate enough to handle more than 25 trials, the majority as lead counsel. In many ways, trial work feels most similar to my experiences in the military — you do endless planning and preparation getting ready for a relatively short period during which you have to adapt on the fly. There is an old saying that “plans are worthless but planning is everything.” The idea is that the process of planning is what empowers you to adapt and overcome ever-changing circumstances, whether it’s an overnight combat patrol or a week-long jury trial.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I decided to go into the military after a high school career that can generously be described as an underachievement. One of the recruiters I met quickly determined I needed a little character development, so he encouraged me to enlist in the Marines. The Corps seemed to provide the guidance and inspiration I needed, and one of my sergeants then encouraged me to apply to attend the Naval Academy. I had some great mentors along the way, including a young Marine Major named Jim Mattis, who rose to the rank of four-star general and also served as Secretary of Defense. Once appointed to the Naval Academy I played football and lacrosse. After graduating I went straight to Georgetown for a master’s degree in national security studies, then onto Navy SEAL training in Coronado, California. Once I was assigned to an operational SEAL Team, I was then one of two SEAL officers selected to attend the Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course and I spent six months at Fort Bragg earning a green beret. As part of SEAL Team FOUR, I made multiple deployments in Panama, Colombia, Honduras and other places in Latin America doing counter-drug work.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I vividly remember the experience of being on a long jungle patrol with my team early on in my time at SEAL Team FOUR. I hadn’t been at the team long and almost everyone with me had more experience than me, but I was in charge. I recall, after a day or so, being unsure of where we were; based on the topography there seemed to be two possibilities. I called the team together, told them where I thought we were, but honestly acknowledged that I wasn’t sure, pointing out what I thought was the second most likely possibility. I asked my Chief what he thought, then my point man, then asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to add. After hearing the input, I told them that my assessment was that we were at point X on the map, and my decision was to move along a certain route so that in 6 hours or so we should hit a landmark that would allow us to confirm our position. Then I asked if anyone had a problem with the decision. They all agreed, but the fact that we discussed it, that I considered everyone’s input, and then communicated the decision changed the relationship I had with the team in a very positive way from that point forward. They appreciated that I understand the limits of my experience, and wasn’t afraid to ask for help, all while understanding the ultimate responsibility to make the decision was mine. That lesson has remained with me.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I think it is fair to say that I was a witness to heroism and was privileged to know several people I would be comfortable calling heroes. Shortly after I arrived at SEAL Team FOUR, four of our operators were killed in action in Panama, and several teammates distinguished themselves that day.

Another hero was one of my friends and fellow trainees at Fort Bragg, a Delta sniper named Randy Shughart. Randy was one of the Delta snipers involved in the gunfight in Mogadishu that was described in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” I recall vividly that October 4, 1993 was the second day of that battle and the first day it was reported in the US news. It was also my first day of law school. I remember returning from class and watching the news that night and feeling terrible that I was seeing the battle from my safe apartment in Chicago, knowing I had friends in the field. Randy was later awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in Somalia.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I think a hero is someone who does the right thing for his unit and teammates, under trying circumstances, without regard for the personal cost that choice may impose.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

Absolutely not. Heroism is also reflected in the relatively unsung business of being prepared to do things at personal costs without knowing whether you will be called on. I think of firemen that leave their families to sleep in the firehouse, never knowing when the bell may ring and then may be asked to charge into a burning house to save someone else’s family. I think of police officers who drive their beat and understand that they may need to rush into a school or synagogue or church to confront an active shooter and protect innocents. In my experience, most of what is called heroism is people acting selflessly for the people they care about; for their kids, their spouse, their friends. The analogous experience in the legal business is the personal sacrifices people make (working all night, at trial, etc.) because they can’t bear the thought of letting their colleagues down.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 3 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I have learned a few basic rules along the way that, if applied with discipline, will make anyone a better leader. (1) Lead by example. That means never asking anyone to do something you haven’t demonstrated that you’re willing to do yourself. That gives you the credibility to ask people do to hard things. (2) Enforce the highest standards. People like to be challenged, and while they may not always work as hard as they can if they believe that the standard of excellence that they are being asked to achieve is required by all, they will want to be part of that team. People want to be part of an elite team. (3) Eat in reverse rank order. Although leadership or seniority has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities. If you visit a Marine unit in the field, the privates eat first, the sergeants next, then the lieutenants, then the captains, etc. The leader’s job is to first ensure that the team’s basic needs are taken care of.

Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Absolutely. Much of what qualifies as magic in the corporate or managerial world is military leadership 101. The most important things are the most basic. The main advantage the military gives you is high levels of responsibility and opportunity to lead at a young age. And courtroom advocacy is a lot like leadership, everyone has to have their own style and be true to who they are, but you can learn from everyone and you need to never stop learning.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

Every life has scarring experiences. I’m not sure the military creates more of them than, perhaps, growing up poor or in difficult circumstances. My perspective was always that you can find the positive in any experience and learn from it, and there is zero point in thinking about yourself as a victim. Take ownership of your present and your future and don’t use whatever life may have subjected you to in the past as an excuse for anything.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

I sometimes say that I learned more about leadership as a corporal in the Marines than I did as an officer in the Navy. The Marines viewed leadership as a stewardship role, as a service to the unit. I’ve heard leadership described as mostly teaching. If you are an excellent leader, you spend much of your time teaching and training the people in your charge to thrive without you. Gandhi was quoted as saying that the sign of a great leader is not how many followers he has, but how many leaders he creates.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Distributed decision making is the key to leading a large team. In the field, the key to success is quick decision making. And funneling every decision up to a centralized person is not the way to make quick decisions. The trick is to give people the big picture of what the team is trying to accomplish, then push decision making down; to enable people at all levels to make decisions in their own tasks, consistent with the team’s objective and based on what they are observing. But in order for that to work, everyone has to understand the plan and the objectives of the group. The theoretical framework about distributed decision making arose from studies on the effectiveness of air-to-air combat and small unit tactics.

But this same analytical framework applies to business and law. In our Intellectual Property Litigation Practice, we have implemented the same type of distributed decision making, both in cases and administration. In the administrative context, we have two junior partners who make all the staffing decisions for the group, based on input and requests they get from partners and associates. We apply the same principle to trial teams. For example, that means there are areas of responsibility in which the lead paralegal has the final say. There may be other areas in which a senior associate has final decision making authority, such as meeting and conferring on exhibit objections. We have been able to achieve this distributed decision making by arming the team with the big picture objectives and then empowering them in specific areas of responsibility. We bring juniors into our meetings, give them knowledge. Rather than hierarchy, we build consensus.

Once the team starts making decisions more rapidly than your opponent, your team becomes proactive and the other side becomes reactive. That is exactly what you want.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

One of my closest friends in the legal profession was a young lawyer I met as a summer clerk working for a firm in Chicago. We worked for a famous trial lawyer, but I was new to the law, just a student, and had so much to learn. So, when we were in trial and the famous trial lawyer would handle an objection or address a question from the court, my friend would later explain to me why it was done, the thinking behind it and the perception that the trial lawyer was trying to create with the judge and jury. By acting almost as an interpreter for me of what I was observing in court, he really opened up my eyes to what I was seeing and allowed me to learn more than would have been possible had I just tried to figure things out on my own. He really helped me make the transition from being in the military to beginning to be a junior courtroom lawyer.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In the law firm context, I like to think that we’ve created a group where people are appreciated for their gifts and contributions, where everyone has the opportunity to learn and group, and where people are supported in their life goals. Life goals don’t always align with professional goals, but as important as our profession or jobs are, life is more important. Once someone has proved themselves at Latham in our group, they have a network of friends that will support and encourage them for life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Although I’ve worked a little in government and the military, I’ve never worked in politics. I think the movement that would bring our country the most good these days would shed the partisan divide that artificially separates us and apply some of the lessons learned in the military and high performing business operations to act in the interest of the collective good. Politicians are good at saying there is more that unites us than divides us, then ignoring what they just said. I’d like to see a movement that acknowledges our national, rationale middle, and marginalizes the crazies on both extremes of our political spectrum.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was younger, and working to overcome my teenage underachievement, I read that “character is nothing but a collection of habits.” To me that meant a person could change their character, the essence of who they are by altering their daily habits until those habits were a collective reflection of who one aspired to be. It’s the small things that add up to who you are, which means you have control over who you end up being. Like the former SEAL Admiral Bill McCraven said in his widely publicized commencement speech to the University of Texas, start by making your bed in the morning. Anything is possible after that.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Two people come to mind, Bill Belichick and Warren Buffett. Belichick, as general manager of the New England Patriots, has built such a pervasively high performing organization in a world where there are huge egos. I’d love to pick his brain on how he did it (his father was a Naval Academy football coach). And Buffett regularly makes multi-billion dollar investment decisions based heavily on his judgment about the character of the people he’s dealing with. I’d welcome the chance to ask him how he makes those judgments.

Thank you for joining us!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Marco Derhy

Written by

A ”Positive” Influencer | 19 years in the publication industry created unique series…| Founder @ Derhy Enterprises, a boutique international consulting firm..

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.