Kenneth Valentine: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Time in the Secret Service about How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
22 min readJun 12, 2024

Surround yourself with support and challenge. Look around to see if there are people in your life who will challenge you when you are about to do something regrettable. Would any of the people who gladly cheer you on, also call you out when you are making a mistake? I have a personal mentor, Joe, who listens to me. Joe, however, rarely tells me what to do. Instead, after listening, he will give me things to think about toward making good decisions. And if I am transparently expressing something Joe believes needs to be corrected he calls it out! Support is readily available to most of us. Challenge, however, is harder to find but very necessary if we want to be sharp going forward.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crises and how to adapt and overcome them. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Valentine.

Ken Valentine retired in 2020 from the U.S. Secret Service after serving on the Presidential Protective Detail for 10 years across three presidencies, leading White House access controls and global operational security. Since retiring, he has served as a Senior Vice President in the banking sector, focused on corporate security and operational risk, served on boards for missing children and human trafficking victims, and earned degrees from Purdue University, Mississippi College, Harvard, and American University. Ken is also the author of “Cheating Death”, widely available from Post Hill Press.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

What an honor to be included! Thank you for your interest in me.

I graduated from high school in 1985 and attended Purdue University, graduating in 1989.

But really, I’m the guy who came from “nowhere” and can blend into “anywhere”. My parents were transplants from the South to rural Indiana. Picture the tall, skinny kid with tube socks, a cut-up T-shirt, ballcap, and cut-off jeans, and you have a picture of me. I grew up outside, playing and wandering. You could do that in the ’70s. Kids were plentiful on our street, which was good because our street was one straight road ending in a cul-de-sac, with maybe 15 houses on each side. We played sports, rode bikes, and explored the woods, farmland, and ponds surrounding us, from sun up to sun down.

TV was relegated to certain times, and we usually only got two channels, so the options were limited. We had an amazing amount of freedom to roam and play and yet, we couldn’t “get away” with anything because there was always going to be a call to your mom if you did anything stupid. The call usually got to my house before I could get home for damage control… and discipline was different back then!

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

After retiring from the Secret Service, I accepted an offer to pursue corporate security and operation risk management in the financial sector. My new day job consists of corporate consulting in these areas, and in leadership coaching, training, and public speaking on the side. I have enjoyed my transition from the world of protection and investigation to the private sector, which it turns out has many of the same pressures and drivers.

But there was one thing I immediately missed about the mission of criminal investigations and protecting people. My instincts led me to pursue the mission of protecting kids and advancing the cause against predators. This wasn’t a new issue for me. From 2005 to 2006, as a Secret Service agent, I participated in authoring a bill to help protect kids from sexual predators. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law in 2006: The Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act, named for the abducted and murdered son of John and Reve Walsh. John and Reve co-founded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) forty years ago and as soon as I was no longer a government employee, John nominated me for the board at NCMEC. Since 2020, I have served on the board of directors, and I now chair the Operations & Law Enforcement Committee. NCMEC gives me the outlet to pursue the mission of protecting kids and help go after those in our society who seek to exploit them. NCMEC is the perfect outlet for my skill set.

In addition, I’ve been working with the WellHouse, which is a Christian-based healing and restoration home for sex-trafficked women and girls where we offer survivors a safe, free place to live and recover. Located in Alabama, the WellHouse is the largest single-campus home for sex-trafficked victims in the country. Another aspect of the WellHouse that drew me to them is their offer to teach, train, and mentor others with best practices. They are generous with their knowledge and knowhow.

Both of these efforts are in line with my protective instincts. Those instincts served me well in the US Secret Service, and they continue to give me insights and perspective for protecting people beyond the White House. Instead of world leaders, I am very happy helping to protect the most innocent and vulnerable among us– kids!

Rounding out my board service is my newest venture with a company called Base Molecular Resonance Technologies (BMRT). This opportunity and technology have brought a lot of excitement to our household. I agreed to join the advisory board after reading the BMRT story and watching their organizational mission video. BMRT followed up on Albert Einstein’s and Nikola Tesla’s complementary theories that base elements and molecules have a “resonance”. BMRT determined that these theories were true and patented the technological ability to listen for that resonance. Today, BMRT’s technology has the ability to “hear” and detect any element. Their device can be loaded with mapped frequencies to detect things like cancers, explosives, illegal drugs– any molecular combination you want to detect. This has promised the early detection of many unwanted substances. And with early detection, we can move quicker on treatment in medical settings and prevention in both medical and public safety settings. This has the potential to change the world, and I am very excited to be a part of making our world safer in every way.

In my free time, I wrote a book titled Cheating Death! This is my first book, and I was privileged to have the interest and publishing power of Post Hill Press (Simon & Schuster). Originally written for my three sons, Cheating Death is a guide to leadership, decision-making, identity, and protecting yourself with points about preparation, friendship, and dealing with hardship. The stories, mostly from my time in the Secret Service protecting three sitting presidents (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) aim to teach these lessons using some of the more memorable, and sometimes humorous, details of what that career was like. My second book, Staying Sharp (Post Hill Press), which is an extension of Cheating Death’s seventh chapter, Support & Challenge, is slated for release in February 2025.

Can you tell us a bit about your secret service background?

After receiving my law degree in 1992, I was hired by the Secret Service in 1996 to work in the Louisville Field Office. After four years of financial crime investigations and protective support missions, I was transferred to Washington, DC for full-time service on the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) detail assigned to President Bill Clinton. As PPD was a five-year assignment, I served the last year of the Clinton administration and the first four years of the George W. Bush administration.

In 2005, I was accepted for a fellowship on Capitol Hill advising the Senate Judiciary Committee on crime and criminal justice legislation under the late Senator Orrin Hatch. Then, after nearly two years on the Hill, I rotated out of Washington to Oxford, Mississippi as the lone Secret Service agent assigned to the Northern Judicial District of Mississippi. Two years later, I was back in DC, promoted back to PPD, this time to serve President Obama.

In 2014, I was promoted again to the position of Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia Field Office and then to Oklahoma City as the Special Agent in Charge. In 2018, I took one last transfer back to Washington, DC as the Special Agent in Charge of the Dignitary Protective Division, where I finished out my career in the Secret Service.

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

While serving the five-year commitment on Presidential Protective Detail, Special Agents must select from one of just a few “specialty” assignments to serve during years two and three. I was chosen for the Transportation Section (TS). PPD/TS is the small cadre of Special Agents on the detail who drive the armored limousines and prepare motorcade routes. However, once selected, you have to attend and pass the Protective Operations Driving Course (PODC).

In Cheating Death, I go into detail about how our main course instructor at PODC, Jeff, taught us how to go fast, stay fast through obstacles, and stop quickly. One of his lessons included how to navigate the “banana curve” at a high rate of speed, even as the cones lining the curve narrowed to the point that you only had inches to spare on either side of the car. The key to getting through the curve at the requisite speed without hitting any cones is not in the footwork or the steering. The key is where you fix your gaze. You have to lift your gaze off the cones and look through the curve. Easier said than done! We are naturally inclined to focus on problems, and those cones were in the way! However, when we do focus on the goal instead of the problem, our hands will make the necessary adjustments to track with where our eyes are directing us. With your gaze properly fixed on where you want to go, instead of looking at what you don’t want to hit, you sail through without hitting the cones.

The same is true in life. When we fix our eyes on the cones of life we tend to hit them! When we lift our gaze off our troubles, off the problems, and look beyond the curve to where we want to be, we will find ourselves navigating the curves beautifully.

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

Thankfully, I did not have to experience a situation where anyone from my team had to lay down their life during our mission, though we were all trained and ready to die. However, everyone in the Secret Service does sacrifice their life in the form of pausing their life outside of their service, often without notice. One example I was particularly impressed with occurred in Chicago with President Obama. The President’s staff advised us late one night that the President would be going to a high-rise hotel the next day for a series of media interviews. We often had a week or more to prepare for such an event– this one was happening in 15 hours. We work as a team but one particular agent on that advance team stayed up all night making preparations, gathering information, and putting together a security plan. She was a hero to me as I was the operational shift leader who had to “sign off” on the preparations and green light the interviews to proceed. My hero sacrificed her personal plans and desire for sleep, working through the night to deliver what otherwise could have taken an entire week. There was no additional pay, and she did not call attention to herself for the effort. Heroic sacrifices come in all shapes and sizes!

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

For me, a hero is a person who will sacrifice their own self– their own plans, desires, wishes, and even their life, if necessary– to enable someone else to have a chance at their plans, desires, wishes, and life.

Do you think your experience in the secret service helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

The US Secret Service was a tremendous proving ground for leadership. The lessons I learned and the skills I acquired during my Secret Service career made my transition to the corporate business world very smooth.

The protection side of the Secret Service mission colored our investigative mission by adding a sense of urgency. The protective mission with presidents, vice presidents, visiting heads of state and their families, is a 24/7/365, cannot fail endeavor. The sense of urgency in making preparations, double-checking, and ensuring that our plans will lead to success made us better, more efficient investigators. This work ethic, discipline, assumption of responsibility and intentionality has been well-received in the private sector.

Another aspect of the Secret Service inner culture that surprises people is the emphasis on humility. If you make it through the training with an ego, you either lose that ego quickly on the job or you lose your job. One of the strengths of the Secret Service is its incredibly small size. Being so small with such a large mission means you seek and accept help through collaboration. Whether you are starting a criminal investigation or a protective advance, anywhere in the world, the first thing a Secret Service agent does is find help. Knowing that we cannot accomplish our mission without partnership is what makes the Secret Service approachable, collaborative, and successful. This humble approach to teamwork has also been a winning approach to the business world, not to mention real-life outside business.

The Secret Service, with all the unpredictability, mission criticality and competitive energy, prepares agents for the private sector with many direct applications. In particular, the BMRT advisory board service has put my skills and gifts to the test as we navigate both the private and government use applications for this incredible technology.

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?

There are several agents who came alongside me and saw me through certain phases of my career who helped me more wisely navigate toward success. Some of them I consider to be lifelong friends. In Cheating Death I called them “friends of the heart” and I am grateful to many outstanding Secret Service friends and mentors.

My wife, Sandra, however, was there before the Secret Service and has stuck with me since! Sandra gave me the support to pursue the Secret Service even after two letters of rejection. Sandra was the one who encouraged me twice, to confidently submit to the Presidential Protective Detail, even when it promised to be family-unfriendly.

I liken Sandra to “Adrian”, the character from the Rocky movie series. In Rocky II, Adrian slips into a coma with complications during pregnancy. She and Rocky have been at odds over his continued pursuit of boxing. When she awakens from the coma, she has one request of Rocky: WIN.

Sandra has patiently stayed home rearing five children and running our household, all while providing support and challenge to me for my professional pursuits. We have committed to be on the same page concerning all of our decisions, and several times I attempted to change course. Sandra pushed me to become the best I could be. She is a huge reason I have been willing and able to WIN.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in a crisis. How would you define a crisis?

In my opinion, a crisis is an event that has a disruptive impact on our immediate plans.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

Planning ahead is how we reduce the size and severity of a crisis. If, in your business leadership plan, you have contemplated a severe downturn in the economy, the loss of a key employee, or a frivolous lawsuit against your company, instead of a catastrophic earthquake, you have an expected tremor.

In the Secret Service, we talked about what we would do in the event of _____. Oftentimes these were informal conversations based on current planning and protocols. However, at various intervals during the year, we would also have formal “tabletop exercises” where we would take these discussions to the next level. We would include our partners, like the military, White House staff, and other agencies in the exercise. The more you plan and build flexibility into your future, the more likely you will be able to tame the crisis at the outset.

Another important note on managing a crisis. As part of your planning, decide ahead of time who is going to be in charge of leading during the crisis. The last thing you need is an added layer of confusion about who is leading.

One of the best moves the Secret Service made was to send upcoming leaders through good training. I was sent to Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) for crisis management training under Dr. Leonard Marcus. Outside training is worth the investment. The NPLI training was very helpful in my planning and decision-making as a meta-leader prepared for change and/or a crisis. As an author, I included a chapter called Opportunity Preparation in my book, Cheating Death. Even if we are caught completely off guard by an unforeseen event, leaders can deal effectively in the moment with generalized planning for the unspecified event. Preparation will meet opportunity!

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

When we find ourselves in a crisis situation, we must 1) keep our heads up, and 2) apply what we know. Crisis comes in all shapes and sizes, in our personal lives and our professional lives. Shake off the surprise, focus on what needs to be done immediately, and begin to make order out of chaos. The military has a great tool for understanding this, called the “OODA Loop” which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, and repeat (the loop). This is what creator John Boyd believes is happening when fighter jet pilots are in combat, or when Secret Service agents see shots fired at the president. Even when we are not being shot at, the outset of a crisis requires our intentional focus to see the problem and begin the process of producing the actions that will allow us to overcome in the midst of a crisis.

The OODA Loop is easy to remember and apply. Keep your head up to observe and orient yourself, then apply what you know to make a decision and take action. The loop is important, too. In the repetitions, stay in the moment with your head up. As you learn new information in the crisis, apply what you know, make your decisions, and act. Meta-leaders do this collaboratively. Listen to your team and lean into their knowledge as well.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

There are two main traits I see in those who manage a crisis well: personal constitution and professional acumen. You can maintain a pretty high standard without both until there is a crisis. In a crisis, both are necessary to manage, overcome, and move toward turning the crisis into a success.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

On the day of the 09/11/2001 terrorist attacks, I was assigned to the Presidential Protective Division with President George W. Bush. That night, after a long day of gut-wrenching video coverage, uncertainty, and tough decision-making, the President returned to the White House. Around midnight, we were alerted to an unauthorized inbound aircraft headed directly for the White House. We had mere moments to decide and act. The lead Secret Service agent at the White House that night was an agent named Jeff. Jeff was faced with making a decision based on limited information, tons of training, and this real-world, immediate crisis.

To no one’s surprise, Jeff calmly and confidently made the decision to evacuate the White House. He then woke President and Mrs. Bush and led the team in an evacuation. We had practiced this evacuation maneuver many times, but it had never been executed under a real threat, with a real President (and First Lady) to consider. Jeff demonstrated the professional acumen necessary to quickly and effectively perform a difficult decision and task while under extreme duress.

The agents on the Presidential Protective Detail are small in number and get to know each other pretty well. Jeff’s personal constitution was already well known as Jeff always made the right decisions– before, during, and after work. He was a mentor to many and an example of genuineness, humility, and quiet strength. His personal constitution and professional acumen made him the perfect agent to lead in the face of a national crisis. And, of course, he acts like it was nothing! Thankfully, the unauthorized, high-speed aircraft headed straight for the White House turned out to be one of the good guys that night. Crisis averted!

Did you have a time in your life when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

One summer night, at 19 years old, I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance for a nearly ruptured appendix. During the ensuing surgery that evening, doctors discovered that I had Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s is an autoimmune disorder affecting half a million people in the US alone. The surgery to remove part of my colon, along with the Crohn’s diagnosis, were not part of my short-term plan or my long term goals! The recovery was slow but steady. My parents and my college roommate (Tom) provided just the right amount of encouragement, support, and challenge to keep me moving forward in terms of my physical health, mental health, and future goals.

I focused on fitness and determined that I was not going to let this surgery and diagnosis impact my goals of going to law school and becoming a federal law enforcement agent. Thankfully, I was surrounded by people who had my best interests in mind. I put the diagnosis in its proper place in my life, somewhere behind me. I focused on the future and made plans to move forward. Had I let the idea of Crohn’s Disease dictate my future, I might not have pushed through to the Secret Service. Good thing too, as Crohn’s Disease while not curable, is undetected in me now.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your secret service experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

Surround yourself with support and challenge. Look around to see if there are people in your life who will challenge you when you are about to do something regrettable. Would any of the people who gladly cheer you on, also call you out when you are making a mistake? I have a personal mentor, Joe, who listens to me. Joe, however, rarely tells me what to do. Instead, after listening, he will give me things to think about toward making good decisions. And if I am transparently expressing something Joe believes needs to be corrected he calls it out! Support is readily available to most of us. Challenge, however, is harder to find but very necessary if we want to be sharp going forward.

Direction beats perfection. Set yourself up for success by letting go of perfection and, instead, chart a course for good direction. Perfection is a setup for failure. When we insist on perfection, we are either aiming too low or we are going to fail. Direction is a better plan. When a crisis disrupts our plan, direction provides orientation for our next steps. Direction helps us get our heads up and move forward. Perfection makes us rigid, while direction allows for flexibility. Flexibility, both personally and professionally, is a great strength. I dare admit that in 24 years in the Secret Service, spending ten of those years assigned to protect a sitting president, I did not see a single event or motorcade movement with the president that went perfectly. Once, during a simple motorcade movement in Ireland, the armored limousine “bottomed out” and sheared a bolt off the undercarriage of the car. This bolt was pretty important. The chassis of the car dropped to the ground and the car was immediately immobilized. President Obama was now sitting in an immovable armored car. We were prepared! We performed a transfer of the President to a different vehicle in seconds, just as we had planned and rehearsed. We kept the President moving in the right direction. Every trip provided a lesson we could learn from and tighten up for the next trip. We experienced a pretty serious failure in Ireland, but we didn’t dwell on it any longer than it took to move the new limo into place and get going again. Of course, there may have been a few meetings about the incident when we arrived back in Washington. In these discussions, however, there was a balanced assessment of what we got right, and what went wrong. Course correction with good direction.

Preparation meets opportunity. Thriving in a crisis has a head start when we are prepared and flexible. In the Secret Service we collaboratively engaged in Plan A, unless and until Plan A was no longer safe or effective. Often times we would plan a helicopter lift from one location to another. Marine One is a great ride! The weather tolerance for helicopters, however, is lower than for armored cars and SUVs. Operationally, we would plan to use Marine One, but we were ALWAYS prepared with a set of armored vehicles in case of weather or mechanical issues. Many times, we made use of a motorcade when the weather rolled in or the rotors wouldn’t turn.

Shift your mindset to view hardships as opportunities. Rarely is a crisis the end. Ask a variety of people who have endured hardships and crises. Many will tell you they are now grateful for what happened. How can that be? When we color a crisis as a potential positive and move forward as if the hardship is an opportunity, we take a lot of negative out of the equation. This helps me to see “through the curve”. When my wife was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer, it was a shock. Admittedly, with five kids, we had already planned for many things that could go wrong. We had no plan for cancer. Amid our crisis, we leaned into our strengths: faith, family, wise counsel, and great hope.

Having beaten cancer, we talked recently about what life over the past two years would have looked like without the rigors of surgery(s), chemo, and radiation. Sandra says she is grateful to have walked that road. She now has the opportunity, and the street cred, to support and counsel others going through the same crisis. We are stronger as a couple and we have renewed appreciation for the gift of life.

Don’t let the crisis define you. If you let the world tell you what and who you are, you may not appreciate their choice of labels. We don’t like to admit what we are going through on Facebook. We rarely post our failures on LinkedIn. And while we know intuitively that everyone is going through “stuff” we look at social media, TV, and so on to see nothing but the display of beautiful perfection at every turn. We are afraid to admit hardships, let-downs, disappointments, failures, and crisis. What will people think? The truth is, we all endure crises of various types in our personal and professional endeavors. If we dwell on these things we might allow them to consume us and define us. Instead, we need to know what we believe about ourselves and our future. The failure is not who we are. The failure is a scar that eventually tells a good story. The setback is not the end but an opportunity for course change in the direction of success. You get to determine if the crisis is a defining moment or an aligning moment. Don’t let anyone else tell you who or what you are based on what you are going through. Your strength is enhanced when you overcome the crisis and move in the direction of success. Make your own labels for yourself, and make them positive.

Ok. We are nearly done. 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. :-)

I would like to inspire people to live more. My message: Please put down the phone, turn off the TV, and get out. Look people in the eye and greet them. If you don’t know them, act like you would like to get to know them. We are in danger of losing some of our humanity by not engaging with other humans. I see it in the next generation where interpersonal skills are not used as much. My faith expects me to not just coexist, or tolerate other people, but to love them. Cheating death to me, means not just escaping the inevitability of death for a time, but living life to the fullest. I hope people will be inspired to live real lives and love other people without excuses.

I would also say that the newest engagement for me, with BMRT, fits well with my message in this way: When we genuinely care for people and want the best for them, one of the ways to show that is by protecting them. I did this with our elected officials in the Secret Service and I am doing it now with my board service at NCMEC and The WellHouse. BMRT is on the verge of enabling us to instantaneously detect cancer, harmlessly, at the very earliest stage. It will allow us to detect weapons from great distances, illegal drugs through walls and shipping containers, and find missing persons lost in a crowd. This is another way to love people. Help them, protect them, and enable them to be their best.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them :-)

I have had the pleasure of meeting and even getting to know so many prominent figures but there is one who sticks out for me. In Cheating Death I featured this woman in the chapter Regarding Leadership because of her example of incredible discipline. I watched Dr. Condoleezza Rice navigate the treacherous waters of the Washington, DC with grace, poise, faith, dignity and amazing focus. I knew her for a short time serving on her protection detail. Her consistent example of discipline, personally and professionally, inspired me greatly, and I would to love to catch up with her.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can find me at www.KennethValentine.com where I have open links to Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You can also find me on the Simon & Schuster author link:

https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Kenneth-M-Valentine/216542006

Lastly, here is a link to Cheating Death from Amazon, where it is available in hardcover, paperback, Audible and electronic: https://a.co/d/23uzAx9

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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