Rising Through Resilience: Mike LeFever of Concentric On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
‘Self-Care’ is my number one, which is the set of habits, practices, and rituals that I have developed to help me to recover and reset. My top self-care ritual — my ‘mental health break’ — is exercising, every day, no matter what. Moving , usually with some degree of intensity and duration, frees my mind up stimulates my muscles, and relieves the stress of whatever I am dealing with.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike LeFever.
Vice Admiral Mike LeFever, USN,(retired) has more than forty-five years of public and private sector leadership in high risk, complex security environments. Mike’s success at the intersection of risk, leadership, and technology stems from his experience and expertise in leading disaster relief and humanitarian efforts, the full spectrum of warfare operations, and counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Renowned for building high performance teams, his leadership was directly responsible for numerous significant achievements that protected and enhanced the national security of the United States and private sector growth and profitability.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
It is great to be with you and to be part of your series on resilience. And not only because it is a topic of great currency in today’s world, but also because it made me reflect on my personal experience and how my resilience helped me to navigate a career in national security.
I retired as a Vice Admiral in the US Navy after 38 years of service, graduating from the US Naval Academy. I was a Surface Warfare Officer and served on various ships on both the east and west coast. I was privileged to have command of a destroyer, a destroyer squadron, a strike group, and two separate Joint Task Forces in Pakistan. My last military assignment was as the Director, Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Since retiring from the military, I have followed my passions of leadership, service, and building high performance teams. The highlights have been working as a Senior Advisor and Mentor at the McChrystal Group, a mentor with the Joint Staff Training Division in support of military leadership development, and, now, as the Chief Executive Officer of a dynamic security and risk company, Concentric. I also serve as a Performance Ambassador for two breakout companies in the areas of performance, which are Liminal Collective and Arena Labs which is invigorating.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are many stories throughout my time in the Navy, but the most impactful to me, personally and professionally, is when I was called upon by General Abizaid, the Commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), to lead the US military’s response to the devastating 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
There I was, an Admiral, 700 miles from saltwater, in a country I had no experience with, and leading joint and coalition forces in my first ever humanitarian assistance and disaster relief effort. In addition, the lethality and physical destruction were overwhelming: 78,000 killed, 177,000 injured, and over 3.5 million people left homeless with winter rapidly approaching in the Himalayas.
I had less than 48 hours to prepare before landing in Pakistan, with a small team of seven trusted members of my leadership team from my Strike Group. I landed at Benazir Bhutto Airport at 0100 and an environment reminiscent of the bar scene on Star Wars: piles of emergency supplies and donated clothing and emergency response teams — both NGO and government — from around the world.
I have so many take-aways from this experience, which really served to crystalize my leadership philosophy, especially in leading through crises and uncertainty.
The first is the critical importance of establishing a common understanding of the strategic end-state. What I mean by this is having a north star for whatever you are doing. For me, in Pakistan at that time, it was providing humanitarian relief and improving US-Pakistan relations. Everything I did, every decision I made, was aligned with these two goals, for mission success and to avoid mission creep. It kept us all focused and gave us confidence in the way forward.
Other key take-aways included:
- Role of relationships, which to me are fundamental to impactful leadership. I always say that my top three leadership priorities are relationships, relationships, and relationships, and in that order.
- Understanding my environment, which is discerning the critical dynamics, influencers, and power differentials and how to effectively adjust and adapt. In Pakistan, this meant suspending my personal and organizational ego to figure out when to take charge and when to follow — drafting on the wonderful concept in the US Military command and control structure, called “Supported vs. Supporting” which is situation-dependent.
- Setting the conditions for team success. It was absolutely vital that my team in Pakistan had a clear understanding of our mission, as the potential for misstep or mission creep was high; that they had the information and context needed to make confident decisions; and understood what they were empowered to do.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am so proud to be a part of Concentric, who we are, what we do, and what we stand for. What makes us so unique, in my mind, is that we live our culture and our values. This is what drives our commitment to our clients and keeping them safe, our innovation in managing the complex security challenges that our clients face, and our desire to transform the security industry; we are the only green security company out there and we are committed to driving diversity, equity, and inclusion in a largely homogenous business sector.
A great story that epitomizes all that is Concentric is our involvement in the rescue of Taliban-targeted groups in Afghanistan as the US withdrew its forces this past year. We were approached by several of our closest clients for our assistance to help them evacuate their Afghan employees and their families. They chose us because they knew our unique capability and capacity as a company, our commitment to innovative partnership, and our ability to execute and deliver, given our world-wide networks and capacity. This was also a model of public-private sector accomplishment.
The result: an incredible, awe-inspiring, and team-driven achievement of transporting 188 Afghanis to safety and freedom.
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?
I have been so blessed with so many mentors and leaders who helped and inspired me on my leadership journey. I would mention my first commanding officer (Admiral Tom Lynch) on my first ship after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, who taught me a lot about knowing your people and how to take care of them. He also supported me in allowing me to assume greater responsibility and to qualify for various watch positions on the warfighting ship considered for more seasoned officers. He did not allow rank or age or any other factor to limit the ability to achieve qualification status. Throughout my career he would mentor, provide invaluable career advice, and advocate for me on my assignments and promote me for the increased challenges and roles on future assignments.
Later in my career, Admiral Mike Mullen selected me to lead the surface warfare community as the Director of Personnel Distribution and Assignments for the Navy. He later selected me to be the Defense Representative to Pakistan based on the relationships I developed during the earthquake relief effort I spearheaded.
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 the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
My definition of resilience, drawing from both the American Psychological Association definition and the world of high performance, is the ability to adapt to life’s uncertainty, ambiguity, and adversity.
Which I also think characterizes resilient people.
It is the capacity to perform consistently under pressure and to develop and grow, which is what makes it distinct from just “bouncing back” or “grit” or “mental toughness,” which to me are about powering through and survival.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Building on my definition above, I think resilience is how you adapt to and grow in challenge and adversity, more emotional, cognitive, and physical.
And courage is the ability to move forward, take action, make decisions in the face of challenge and adversity.
So they are linked, to be sure, but different in execution and impact.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I don’t think we have to look far in today’s pandemic-impacted world for examples of great resilience: Healthcare Workers, First Responders, Service Providers, and Service Members who are putting their lives at even more risk and exposure to COVID to support us.
I also think of the incredible resilience — and courage — of parents and everyone in the service industry who have sustained us. They are the unsung and under appreciated heroes.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Of course! I have been told numerous times, as I am sure we all have at one point or another, that we will not be successful at something. Like when I was told I don’t have what it takes to graduate from the US Naval Academy or that I did not have “right personality” — whatever that is — to succeed as the second in command of a destroyer.
Needless to say, all of this “feedback” was a stimulant to push onward!
I think my gift is staying true to myself, using pressure and stress as a catalyst to grow, and having the courage to keep moving forward.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
So many I don’t know where to begin …
Seriously, one of the biggest — and I suspect not unique to me — is when I was not selected to be promoted to the next rank.
I had every expectation that I would be promoted:
I was in a critical and very difficult position.
I was leading and having a great impact under extraordinary circumstances.
I was receiving accolades from my immediate superiors from within my organization and from across the whole of government.
And, in the middle of this extreme event, I was given the news that I had not been promoted.
Needless to say, my immediate reaction was that my career to date, and all the moves and disruption to my family, was all for naught. I might have been a bit dramatic about it.
But when I got over myself, I made a conscious decision that I was going to keep striving forward and keep committed to myself and my career and the mission I was on.
And that is what I did and the following year I was promoted to the next level in a rare selection since it was beyond the normal window for selection. I was later promoted again, shortly thereafter.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My family moved several times when I was young, and I attended four different elementary/high schools. The challenges of making new friends in new geographic areas and competing scholastically and athletically in each of these new environments was daunting at times.
In spite of these many challenges, I was able to do well and earn a nomination for the U.S. Naval Academy. And my ability to succeed at the Naval Academy was a product of my ability to adapt — a key component of resilience — to any new environment. Having a good sense of humor was also critical, especially when I was marching off demerits!
But I have to say, it was all the training that I went through as part of my Naval career; it is a constant battery of tests and drills to prepare you for the experiences and situations that lie ahead. All the “what ifs” and “what can happens” are designed to make you very uncomfortable and stressed under extreme conditions. It is a great way to build the resiliency resources you need when you are in a real situation.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are the steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
From all that I have read about and my own personal experience, I think there are four foundational elements to building personal resilience:
‘Self-Care’ is my number one, which is the set of habits, practices, and rituals that I have developed to help me to recover and reset. My top self-care ritual — my ‘mental health break’ — is exercising, every day, no matter what. Moving , usually with some degree of intensity and duration, frees my mind up stimulates my muscles, and relieves the stress of whatever I am dealing with
‘Self-Awareness’ is number two and it is all about realistically assessing your strengths and weaknesses and your impact on others. A critical part of self-awareness is understanding your stress triggers — whether physical, emotional or cognitive.
I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Andy Walshe, a global leader in elite human performance, who teaches the importance of developing pattern recognition of where you are on your own stress curve. The intent is to develop the ability to self-modulate before stress impacts your ability to respond well or robs you of an opportunity because you lack the energy to take advantage of it. It is as simple as tracking what causes you stress and how you respond to it over a two-week period as a first step to creating your stress mitigation plan. For me, it is a simple technique of box breathing when I find myself getting anxious or uncomfortable.
Third, is managing your mindset or ‘Self-Talk’. All of us in some way, shape, or form allow negative thoughts to self-sabotage, and it is all about recognizing when you are heading down this path and shifting your inner dialogue into something more positive. The power of visualization, seeing your success or way through adversity, is a great way to make that shift.
Lastly, is how you ‘Stay Connected’ and the relationships you have with your team, your people, your networks, and family and friends. Having a strong network is key to refreshing and recharging me to solve problems and find new opportunities, as you saw in my story above about the power of relationships.
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 worry about our future of democracy in the United States, which is under severe pressures from disinformation, misinformation, and domestic terrorism. I would like to stimulate the idea of teaching individuals critical thinking techniques to be able to discern truth from disinformation and misinformation. There is so much polarization of ideas, beliefs, and even agreeing on what is a fact. We have to relearn civil discourse, to stop demonizing those who think differently, to stop thinking in zero-sum terms, and to seek understanding of different points of view and commit to finding the win-win to save our country.
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 been fortunate enough in my career to have been involved in significant and historical events and to learn from and engage with incredible leaders from around the world.
But picking up from my last answer, and if I could wave a magic wand, I would love to have a meeting with the Founding Fathers for their perspective and wisdom on how to navigate and our current political environment. And, I would not make it private.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!