True Grit & 21 Black Hawks: A Tale of Entrepreneurial Leadership Training

Posted by Guest Author /January 8, 2014 / FounderTalk, Uncategorized

Anthony Garcia is a former Army Captain and helicopter pilot with eight years of military service.  Anthony obtained a MBA from Cornell and followed on as a general manager for SRI International. He is the Co-Founder and CEO at Adjacent Applications, maker of Guide On

I entered the Army in 1999 as an air medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) officer. This meant I would spend my career flying Black Hawk helicopters, tasked with the mission to medically evacuate wounded soldiers from battlefields. More importantly, I would be leading crews in combat. It never occurred to me that I would be getting the best entrepreneurship training I could ever ask for.

Leadership Without A Roadmap

When I arrived in Iraq, I was given one order – Provide MEDEVAC support for the coalition forces in Iraq. No one told me how to do this, but fortunately I did not have to do it alone. I had some excellent officers and non-commissioned officers whose leadership was vital to our success. Despite what is depicted in movies, I can’t remember ever giving anyone a direct order. My goal was to provide intent and predictability as best I could so my team could run with it.

Leadership is the social influence one earns in order to drive a team of unique individuals forward and accomplish a task or mission. It is the ability to build a team with common values among different cultures, unique experiences, and diverse socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. It’s being able to understand where people have come from and where they want to be.

The Army is the perfect cross section of our society – it trains officers to do this. If they fail, they are removed. Leaders today move teams forward without capital, stock, or options. Just like in combat you can’t pay someone more and you can’t incentivize with stock or options. Leaders must know they are not the smartest person in the room, but surround themselves with smarter people. Valuing other professionals’ skills and talents and allowing them the freedom to grow and excel are signs of a true leader. Being able to make a decision in a timely manner with the best information at your disposal is invaluable to a leader.

“The Plan” Is Subject To Change

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it now, that being a combat officer in the Army is not unlike being an entrepreneur. Except the stakes are much higher: people can and will die. Officers are never told how to accomplish a mission or task – they are expected to make it happen with the skills developed as junior officers. If we don’t excel, we’re fired.

During my final tour to Iraq, I led 90 pilots, flight engineers, and flight medics. My organization was comprised of 6 teams spread across a geographic footprint half the size of California. When we completed our year-long mission, we medically evacuated over 6,500 patients and flew over 4,000 hours in combat without losing a single aircraft. I was responsible for 21 Black Hawk helicopters, medical equipment, medical training, crew training, and medical treatment. On top of this, I had to remain current as a pilot commander, flying over 300 hours. I was 28 years old and leading the largest Dustoff Flight Platoon ever fielded for combat. (Dustoff is the name warriors on the battlefield call us. When someone is blown-up, shot, or injured and Dustoff is called – we go without hesitation. In other words, we fly to the areas people want to evacuate from.)

I can’t name a single team, squad, platoon, or company in the Army that accomplished the extraordinary through strict direction and adherence to “the plan.” Once a first shot is fired, plans are used as a foundation to adjust direction. 90% of successful missions are realized from taking initiative. Army officers succeed because they work backwards from the desired outcome and are never hindered by current or desired resources. When I started my business I never took inventory of my current resources. I looked at what needed to be accomplished and acquired –  what was necessary to move forward – and then I found and hired professionals who knew how to take initiative. That is most valuable skill to have in abundance when starting up.

True Grit

To this day, I am not sure how grit can be acquired or developed. Grit is being able to put your head down, suck up the emotional and physical pain, and weather years of adversity to believe you will rise above an experience.

My combat experience was impossible. I look at what my organization accomplished and I’m really not sure how we did it. We were mortared and rocketed almost every day; we were flying missions at 0300 and landing into hostile environments where people were trying to kill us; we were seeing some of the worst trauma the human body can experience; and we were losing friends and fellow soldiers. I co-founded our company in May 2011. It’s been almost three years and we’re finally close to making money and raising the funds that can accelerate our growth. I’m not sure what keeps me going more than my team’s belief in our mission.

Starting a business is hard. But not harder than combat. After all, I can sleep in my own bed every night, take showers when I please, use a real toilet, and I don’t have to worry about getting mortared or losing the lives of my crew. Grit is what keeps me going when I struggle to find talent, have difficulty converting customers, and fight to raise capital.

The Greater Mission

What makes soldiers different than most other professionals is that we are incentivized by something greater than money, stock, or options. Our incentive is to live and come home. Every soldier does their best to ensure they’re buddy is taken care of. In many ways, this is similar to being a first time entrepreneur who is bootstrapping with a team of entrepreneurs. I know my team is extremely passionate about what we’re working on. Sure we want to get paid, but we’re also hoping to create something that will make a difference. Because we share the same values, principles and passion, we have each others’ back. In other words, we can depend on each other to complete duties to the very best of our ability. This trust is paramount in the Army and critical to the immediate survival of a startup.