Better and bolder leaders come from a place of resilience and an unbreakable mentality. They always push themselves to do better and be better. They have an almost irrational belief of what they can do that takes them to a higher leadership plane. Navy SEAL Commander, actor, bestselling author and founder of Ever Onward, Rorke Denver sees a lot of parallels between elite military training and business leadership. Speaking with Rodney Flowers, he shares the things that he learned from his years training Navy SEALs and leading special forces missions and how he applies these lessons to teach leaders and teams to become bolder in order to perform at their highest levels. You can be better and bolder as a leader, even if you’re only leading yourself. Commander Rorke shows you how.
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Beyond The Battlefield: Better Leadership, Resilience And The Unbreakable Mentality With Commander Rorke Denver
Do we have any leaders out there? Do you think you’re a leader? We’re going to talk about leadership and some leadership principles that can take you to the next level in your business and your life. You’re going to want to stay tuned this entire episode because I have someone here who knows a thing or two about leadership. Talk about a Navy SEAL Commander and New York Times Bestseller, a husband and a father. I have Commander Rorke Denver with me. Commander Rorke has led Special Forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and other international hotspots. I don’t have the time to run through all of the missions, the accomplishments, the declarations that this individual has. I am grateful and thankful that he has made a decision to join me on the show to teach you some skills and some principles on how you can be a better, bolder leader. Please welcome to the show, Mr. Commander Rorke Denver.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me. I’m looking forward to it.
I’m excited to have you on the show. I’m more excited than I’ve ever been with someone on the show. The reason being is reading about your background and the situations that you’ve been and been able to overcome. I’m going to let you talk about some of those things that you’ve been able to do, but the US Navy SEALs are held as receiving some of the highest levels of discipline, training, and leadership skills. They are called in to perform missions that are seemingly impossible. You’ve done this repeatedly over and over again with success. You’ve led teams, saved lives, and served the country at a very high level. Thank you for doing that. Thank you for coming on the show and being willing to give, serve, and provide some guidance on how we can be better leaders, not only in our businesses but with individuals. That’s what’s lacking in society. I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but I feel there’s a lack of leadership in our society. To have you on is a tremendous honor, thank you.
You’re welcome. I feel lucky to serve and have been a part of it. I’m humbled to have walked that path or a big block of time and then to be able to take those lessons and share them beyond the battlefield, beyond the tight circle of the SEAL teams. It has been a lot of fun, very gratifying, and I’m delighted to do it so thanks for having me.
One of the things that you live by, and there’s a lot, is take action to suffer and to be bold. We going to dive right into this thing. What’s sticking out for me with those statements is to suffer because no one wants to suffer. Why is that a staple for you?
You’re going to know this intimately well. I know your story as well so if we’re going to talk about overcoming obstacles and resiliency, I don’t think the SEAL in this conversation has the top spot. As you said, we’ve designed a society, a lifestyle that can avoid pain and discomfort utterly if you want to for the most part. You can go from a climate-controlled house, car, office and back. Never be uncomfortable when it comes to the elements, challenging yourself, pushing yourself, going to a spot where you’re going to fail. This is a tremendous error. Those of us that have suffered that have put themselves into the fight, into the arena, been willing to take our blows in the front. Recognize that when you do hard things, one is tremendously satisfying.
Nobody ever jumped up and celebrated doing something easy. The fact that you went out, successfully got a pizza and a soda and came home is not something to celebrate. You finish a race, some crucible, some degree you’re trying to knock out, the pursuit of a skill, or a discipline. Those are the things we celebrate and that’s where the growth is. As an athlete, which I know you were an athlete. I’ve been an athlete my whole life. The SEAL team is for athletes. There are not athletes that come, but it’s an athletic endeavor. It is that desire to push, grind, and hone yourself to then compete. In our line of work, you want to win in those exchanges because the second place in our line of work goes home in a pine box. When you’re doing that, that’s where you learn the lessons and your losses teach you every bit as much or more than your victories. These are the things that we know innately as athletes and competitors. The suffer part is a huge part of what I like talking about because it’s a tremendous teacher.
No one wants to do that. You know that as well as I do. No one wants to suffer but that is where the juice is. That’s where all the goodness is. It’s the failing over and over until you get it right which is what we call the process. I don’t know what the Navy SEALs call it. What do you guys call that when you’re failing over and over again?
At our basic training compound in San Diego where you go through the basic course and then, should you see the finish line, about 75% to 80% of the people that show up do not, but if you find yourself at the end of that thing successful and heading to a team, you’ll either stay in San Diego or go back to Virginia Beach. On our basic training compound, we’ve got one spot that we call our grinder. It’s a big piece of concrete with footprints where you stand and then you suffer through beatings of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, getting hosed down, run to the beach, wet and sandy, all the things that take place. On that grinder, we have these plaques that are up on the wall. It is very simple. It is made of wood and painted blue with gold writing.
There would be high performing organizations that would be like, “That’s all you got.” The best of the highest performing organizations I’ve ever been around, and we’re talking about elite teams, Olympians, and people that I’ve spent time with, almost always their models are very simple. They’re very succinct and clean. They don’t need to go into a long depth dive into who they are. It pays to be a winner is one. The only easy day was yesterday. Be someone special. These are the type of things that line the grinder that you look at and it’s easy to blow them off. If you take a second to think about it, you’re like, “The only easy day was yesterday.” Everything I did up until now in many ways doesn’t matter.
It all builds but what I do going forward is important and how far I’m willing to push is where I’m going to end up. Be someone special. Be somebody above and beyond the average. It pays to be a winner. In our line of work, we’re going to win at almost any cost taking care of ourselves and doing the nation’s work. It is a very simple tenet and process. A lot of people think you’d show up at a SEAL training compound and there would be people rappelling in with night vision, lasers, and weapons you haven’t seen before. It is sand, cold water and concrete. That’s what we need to beat up a young lion spirit and see if we can get him to the finish line. It’s simple.Nobody ever jumped up and celebrated doing something easy. Suffering is where growth is. Click To Tweet
What’s the purpose of that, you trying to break someone down? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s about breaking the person down or getting them to a certain point and see if they’re going to break if they’re going to tap out. Why is that necessary?
I won’t correct you, but I’ll re-guide the concept or change the lens a little bit. The quitters, 75% to 80% of people that quit are, in the end, very respected. They took their shot and came to a place as challenging as ours to try and become part of this program. That said, a lesser part other than the mystique, ethos, and myth of how few people get through, we’re much more interested in the people that are going to stay than the people that leave. Those are the people that are going to become teammates and are going to do the job. It’s easy to look at it and think our job is to break people.
What our job to do is define the unbreakable people. It is less than we’re trying to break someone. The people that make it to the finish line, we can’t break them. I had a senior officer, I remember he used to say every person has a spark and this fire inside them. When it comes to SEAL training, we can pour a ton of cold water, sand, misery, and suffering. For most people, that douses that spark. If we can’t douse that spark, if we can’t extinguish that, you’re going to be one of us. That’s what we’re trying to find. We’re trying to find like, “No matter what we throw at this person, we can’t kill them with a nuclear weapon. They’ll never stop.” That’s what the program is there, to identify those people that virtually no matter what you’ll throw at them, they won’t give up.
It’s true. You see it when you get to the team. How weak is this mythic week of training that goes about six days of absolute suffering? If they made it two weeks, the same guys would see the finish line and all the same guys would have left at the time they left. It’s a very unique personality, trait, and backgrounds that come to our program and succeed. It’s all different. You’ll get guys that came from private schools with loving, caring parents that always told them they’re going to be good and excel. Sometimes that leads towards real bad personality traits or they’ve got the goods and then you’ll get a kid that grew up on the Southside of Chicago.
His dad was a non-player, beating on him, an alcoholic, or some kid from West Texas that was told he wouldn’t be good enough. He was like, “You watch this.” We can’t stop them either. It’s a real blessing to become part of that thing. It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed so much about being an athlete is race, color, creed, religion, and all these. None of us care that compete. If the person next to me is willing to die and do things for me on my behalf, then I don’t care what he looks like and thinks about. A lot of like-minded personalities show up but it’s a real blessing. I hate when I see any of the trend of social justice and people being discriminated against this and that. I’m like, “Everybody’s joined the military. We’re all in the fight together. It’s a unique environment.” One that’s very special that brings people together to see things the same way.
Being unbreakable, that speaks volumes to be able to accomplish a challenge. It’s important to you guys because you have a mission that you have to fulfill. You have to accomplish that mission at all costs. You can’t get tired. How does that relate now that you’re a speaker? You have a call to leaders which we’re going to get into a little bit later, but how has that mentality helped you in your business?
The blessing of the military, you’ve been in and around the Navy, and the military for a big block of time. You’re going to pick up on this is you almost don’t recognize how many lessons, behaviors, and disciplines you develop within it that are going to serve you well way beyond the job, the mission, your time, whether it be in the SEAL teams, a conventional unit, or any other job in the United States military. I’ve said this multiple times. I mean it sincerely. I don’t make a distinction between a line cook in the military, an administrator, logistics personnel, or a tip of the spear special operator. We’re all on the same team. None of it happens without any one piece of that wheel. I landed in the right place for my experience, but it’s not for everybody.
There are plenty of things from the United States military that you could easily pick apart and make fun of if you didn’t realize the purpose. You go into basic training, shave your head. I do it because I don’t have a choice. Everywhere is the same dumpy-looking outfit. They teach you how to fold your underwear, how to eat, how to use a fork and knife, how to sit, how to walk. Somebody at that point in their life doesn’t need that. You’re missing the entire point. It is to create or to get rid of the I so you start focusing on the team. Folding your underwear in a very specific way as if you don’t do it right, you’ll fail that meeting and then get a beating because it is to work on attention to detail. To pay attention to these little things, even something as simple as your underwear so you don’t miss the little things that could be critical to survival in a mission set.
Knowing how to do rifle drill. We do the classic rifle drill where you see a group of people marching, the Marines do it better than anybody else in the world, but marching and doing those drills with our rifle. What a lot of people wouldn’t see about that is one, it’s teaching a skillset, discipline, focus, and rhythm within the team. A lot of what you see in those drills is you’ll see stop points. The moments where the rifle will stop, you’ll hold, and position. If someone moves in the evaluating drill and the instructor sees it, it’s going to be a fail. You will not pass that rifle drill. It will be a fail for the entire team. You’re like, “Just a little bit of a move.” It teaches multiple behaviors.
It teaches something, “When you pull the trigger, you don’t get that round back. You don’t get to take it back so you better be right in that action.” If you do something in a moment where it’s time to be still as opposed to trying to move, that could be the difference between life and death so pay attention to that. Hold that line even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s unbelievable the lessons that come out of the military that is going to serve you for the rest of your life. What I’ve found talking to the corporate up to the elite level of leadership in this country straight up to the national level, which I’ve had the delight to spend time with some of those people. These elements of lessons, they’re unbreakable.
There is something that if you do those, you’re going to be better for it. It’s been fun to translate those concepts and principles to people that are performing at a high level and have missed some nuance to it and recognize as a leader, “I’m in charge.” No, you’re there to serve you. The higher you go, you are in more service to people in your organization. If you think of that, your folks are going to follow you anywhere. If you’re like, “You just worked for me,” that’s not going to be an organization that has a culture you want to be a part of.
You have some quotes that I found were very moving. I’m going to quote one of them. “Enter the hard place where you, leaders, have dared to go, so you can lead like no one else can.” What were you doing when you thought of that? That is brilliant, first of all. What’s the hard place?
The hard places are those spots that either make you uncomfortable or you know you’re avoiding because it might be a weak spot or a blind spot in what you’re doing. Sometimes, you know what those hard places are. Sometimes I’m good at the numbers, the data, and looking at the way this thing is unfolding. I’m not good with the people. You better start being good with the people because in the end, it’s about people. It’s very rare. If you run a business alone in a dark room, sitting in your underwear, looking at numbers, and you can make a bunch of money, good on you. If that’s your personality trait, great. There are very few businesses and people that exist in that space. We’re a very social species that are out there in the world.
If you know your weak spot or that spot that’s a place you need to enter, you need to go there to either crash up against the rocks, figure out a way to get better at it, or at least prove to people you’re not going to duck it or avoid it because everybody knows when you’re ducking something. There’s nobody more than you. That’s the biggest thing is being honest with yourself. The other piece of going into the hard places is getting the honest, non-sycophant that’s going to tell you you’re great. The type of mentors and advisors that can tell you, “Boss, this is where your weak spot is now.”
If you were to shore that up, we’re all going to be better for it. Being willing to hear that and then go and address it. People should play their strengths. I don’t think if you’re big, strong, and designed to do something, go and do something with that. It doesn’t mean you need to compose music. If you’re great at composing music, you don’t need to go out and swinging acts. That being said, paying attention to your weaknesses and knowing where they’re shortfall as far as some of those could be the real paths to success or greater performance.
What is your thought about vulnerability?
You shared it. It has to come from a tremendous place of competence. It’s a rare person that’s going to show their weaknesses in some ways happily than others. It’s a gift and a strength. I’ve talked about this plenty. It’s not something I duck. I’m horrible at math. When I say that, people are like, “You’ve got a degree to elite schools. You’re on a SEAL team. You’re not that bad.” Down to very simple rudimentary math. I had a learning disability when I was a kid. I have a very hard time with sequencing and the way things come together like card games. Forget it. You will not see me in the cards games because the numbers don’t make sense.
It’s not something that my mind sees but pulling thoughts from literature, understanding the emotional needs of my people, being authentic and sincere, being willing to make a call, and being willing to take the burden of command is something that I easily walk into it. It’s something I enjoy. I’ve told my team, I’m not good at this part. My radio and communicators on the battlefield, they’re like, “Do not let Lieutenant Denver get anywhere near your radio. If he touches that thing, it will never work again.” I’d hand them my radio and be like, “You’ve got to program this thing. I want you to program it.”
If I’d ever been alone and afraid on the battlefield, the last man standing, I would’ve been running and sending smoke signals not through my radio because the thing would’ve broken. If you’re willing to do that, it brings people in. If they know somebody that’s in a top spot and maybe even be the person that they’re looking up to, it’s like, “I’m not for nothing.” I’m terrible at something you might be good at and these are my shortcomings, it’s a gift you give to yourself and people as opposed to running from it. I do but that has to come from tremendous confidence. You’ve got to own it. You’ve got to recognize that it is what it is, and then let’s move on to the strengths.
How can someone develop that confidence? That’s something that we want to avoid for the lack of degrading our confidence. Being looked at as less than. How can we get better at being that type of person and gaining that confidence to be vulnerable?
It’s taking risks. It’s putting yourself in the positions that make you uncomfortable and get into the other side. It’s seeking out opportunities and positions of leadership. I always try and get my kiddos to say, “Volunteer for stuff. Put yourself in a position that might be a little beyond your grasp.” One of my kiddos is into musical theater and she’s young but she’s tried out for a couple of big roles that were probably beyond her. I’m like, “Keep trying. You’re not going to get them if you don’t do that. The failures will make you stronger on how to do it the next time.” Always seek out for opportunities, positions of leadership, and then maybe it’s not leadership. Maybe you’re at your company, in a job, or you’re performing your skill well, excellent, adequate, whatever that might be. What is that next rung on the ladder that you can go for? I don’t think many people regret the things they do. They regret the things they don’t do. That’s a real path to developing confidence and your own ability to shine.
A lot of times, those things are painful to people and they want to avoid them because they don’t feel good. As you said, it puts them outside of their comfort zone but you have a thought behind that which is another one of your quotes that I love, “The crowd will avoid the pain. Good leaders will embrace it, but the greatest will seek it out.”Pay attention to your weaknesses. That’s where the real path to success lies. Click To Tweet
We keyed on it. That quote comes to what I said. You’ve got to seek those positions of discomfort, challenge, and growth. The thing that you find is if somebody sincerely or takes a risk and goes hard to do something, there’s a rare organization that’s going to punish you even if you fail to attempt something better. If you attempt something better in an organization and fail, and they punish you for it or it goes south, you are not in the right place. Find something else and start your own to find a place where they want you to swing for the fences and then value the fact that you did it. If you knock it out, great.
We know you can do it. You’re going to move up the chain of command. You’re going to move up into another position. If you can’t, I at least know that person right there is willing to get after it. I’m going to keep loading their plate until they find that path. That’s the secret. That’s the other thing too. My dad, brother, and I are very close. We’re outdoorsmen. We love to fish and hunt and be out of doors. In particular, my father is a fly fisherman. My brother and I grew up fly fishing. We found, if you could drive your car to this beautiful stream somewhere to go fishing, there would be 10 or 15 fishermen within about 100 yards of that car.
If we’d walk a half-mile and we were willing to walk seven and sometimes we did, but a half-mile or so we would be utterly alone in the wilderness. We’re the only people willing to walk a little bit further to get the fish that haven’t seen a fly to not have to see ten of my best buddies that I don’t know downstream. It’s a simple thing, but it’s like, “You don’t have to go that much harder to be better.” Your hat says 10x. People think you’ve got to be 100 times better. If you were ten better, ten little clicks better, five clicks better, you’re better than almost everybody you’re competing with. It’s a secret.
That is gold. That is the perception that people have. They look at other leaders that are in certain positions which may be driven by ego sometimes. It happens and it gives off a perception that I’m that good or it’s this good. You have to be this great in order to be here. It creates an illusion that, “I’m not good enough.” In order to do that, you’ve got to be all of these things. I have that mentality that, “You know what?” I was talking to my mentor and we were talking about some changes that I needed to make my business. He was like, “One percent changes your life.”
I was like, “What?” He was like, “You’re in a good spot. All you need to do is make some 1% changes. When you make these 1% changes, the results and the difference that it’s going to make is going to be exponential. It’s the small little things.” Diving into this a little bit deeper, it takes me back to when I was recovering from the accident. It was little things that I did every single day. It wasn’t major things like twitching my hands or extending my knee. I may do that 100 times a day. I may squeeze the ball 200 times a day and I will count these things. These weren’t hard things to do, but over time, it’s that compound effect. It makes a huge difference. I completely relate to that. It doesn’t take much to be better.
You think about it in terms of sports because you and I both love sports or athletes and have done your whole life. Think about the greats. People are under the impression that you’re Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky. The greatest that ever played this game is 100 times better than their peers. They’re not. I bet if we did the math, somebody to do the math, if you looked at how much better Michael Jordan was, it’s going to be 5%. There’s no way in the NBA he was that much better, but he was that much better and it makes him the greatest to ever play a game.
Does he get to throw a ball far much better than all the other quarterbacks in the league? He can’t. He has a mindset and the desire to run fifteen extra reps. I was at the Super Bowl in Houston when they were playing Atlanta and I was with Getty Images on the sideline, helping them take pictures. I was running cards around. I was doing this thing. I saw him in warmups like Adelman or something does this out route and he throws this ball. Adelman could have it with his eye closed, the ball hit him in the hands, and I see Brady go like, “Run it again.” It was off. The past has been off by that and you could tell Adelman was like, “Roger. He’s not going to be happy until it’s right where he needs it to be.” There’s a difference. It was incredible to watch.
That takes me back to what you were talking about, holding the gun. It has to be in the right position. Some people will settle for that because it’s a complete path and checking the box. “We’re good, let’s go home.” “No, it wasn’t in the right spot. It was a half an inch. Do it again.”
You could see it. It was exciting. I saw a Dick and Jane bag. I’m like, “Look at this. There’s no question why this guy would go.”
As I think about this, when we have those perceptions about what it takes to be great, we sabotage it and it creates a domino effect. If you feel that it’s going to take that much, you say, “That’s too much.” That becomes part of your subconscious and identity. You never go beyond the barriers of the norm. You will always stay stuck inside this box that keeps you from living the life you want. In your case, accomplishing a mission. You have to change our perceptions about what we consider is great and what it takes to be great. It doesn’t take that much more.
What you can control, you said it. It’s a move of a finger, twitching a knee, or extending a leg. These sound like rudimentary basic things. I tell you what, if you’re in a wheelchair, it’s not a small move, but it’s those small moves that build the big things. It’s brick-by-brick. I have something else I write a little bit on my website and he throws that people think winning leads to winning. We have win-to-win and win creates this culture. Winning cultures do build on themselves. It works, but you need to do to win. You’ve got to do the work. That’s what leads to winning. Sometimes it won’t. I’ve outworked. When I played college sports, if you were able to plug somebody into who is working the hardest in Division I, I would have been in the top five.
If people like straight, the amount of time they were willing to work in the gym, push and practice, run hard and sprints, run after practice and do whatever I need to do. I put in the work. We didn’t win the national championship for years. We won a couple of times but we didn’t win every year. All you can do is do the work and do your best to prepare for the moment. If you win, awesome. If you don’t, what you learn, go on to the next level.
I want to challenge that because you did win. You didn’t win by society’s thing. There’s always something to gain in my opinion to put in the way. Even if you don’t accomplish the trophy that has been set aside for the person who comes in the first place or whoever has the most points on the board after the time has going on the plot. That is great, but there is something to be had for the process you put yourself. It may be an individual win. We lose sight of that benefit.
It is true without question. To me, the work is where the joy was. I love competing in games. I practice, banging it out there, and leading up to that every bit as much. You talk to a SEAL that’s talking about his entire career, looks back, reflects on it, reflects on multiple combat action missions, sniper ops, and all these victories, defeats, heartbreak, and the stuff. It’s often the heartbreak and the suffering that led to it that you look back on most fun.
When I look back, it’s those times where I couldn’t get it right initially and then over time, we were able to get it right or I was able to get it right. I look at those times where I failed at something horribly and then I kept at it. Now, I’m a master at any of it. You find yourself teaching others that same thing. Even now, when I look back, I look at how I could have quit at year five, I could have quit at year ten, and everyone would have been like, “You gave your best shot. It’s great. We still respect you. We don’t look down on you.” If I would have done that, I wouldn’t have the opportunities. I probably wouldn’t be here having this conversation with you.
That stick to it in this. That doll boundedness. That never quit attitude. I don’t know what’s the future going to hold. I don’t know how successful I’m going to be? I’m successful right now. I might not make $2 million or $1 billion. Maybe we would, maybe we won’t. To be in a place to serve and to be an example, even if it’s one person that will say, “I’m going to keep going. I’m going to build my legacy. I’m going to be an example.” That’s winning to me.
You’re on the right path.
You have this call to leaders. You’re asking and pointing at everyone to be a better leader. Talk to us about that.
In the end, we see it in almost every level of every experience you have in a given day that most things, in the end, come down to some impact of leadership. I tie leadership to followership so those all exist. That’s the nice thing about the military. You start at the bottom rung, you work your way up to the top rung, and everybody in there realizes that continuum is all dependent on each other. I’ll see somebody after a speaking event, somebody is like, “I was in the Navy. I was a cook. I had to do what you did.” I was like, “We don’t hit targets on empty stomachs. We don’t go 10,000 feet to attack a target on empty stomach. Trust me, you did your part.” These things are interesting in the way they connect with each other. All of us can see and unfortunately, it’s sadder and sadder that it’s rare and rare.
If you go to a restaurant, small business and the big business space, you’re talking about Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, and some of these top brands that have made their service, culture, and leadership very purposeful and important. You notice it. You recognize it. If you’re in the military, you have access to USA Insurance. Every time you call USA Insurance, you could call them fifteen times in a row and get cut off. The person that will answer with a smile and a good face to say, “Commander Denver, how are you? How can I be of service? Thanks so much for calling. What can we do for you?”
You’re like, “This is the type of people I want to talk to.” I’m going to a restaurant that has good service and has good people that take care of you. You notice it which is sad because it means it’s uncommon now that it’s very obvious when you see it. Leadership is the key. It sets the tone for culture, company, and team. When was the last time you saw a champion in any sport that you couldn’t tell that they had leadership and teamwork that was different than the people that didn’t win the championship? You can see it. I call everybody to lead because no matter what happens, you never know when you’re going to get.
There are some people that truly seek it out. They want to be a high impact leader in any discipline that they pursue. There’s a bunch of people that are not in a position to want to lead. If nothing else, you’re leading your life. Nobody else is going to do that for you. You better be a leader on some level because at a minimum, you’re a leader of one and you grow to be a leader of more. Leadership that thinks of its people, that thinks of the greater vision. Thinking of your people doesn’t always mean being their friend, being nice, and not making tough decisions. I’ve made plenty of tough decisions and broken friendships making the right leadership call or at least what I believe was the right leadership call. That’s the job.Leadership is the key. It sets the tone for culture, company, and team. Click To Tweet
I call people to lead and to look at their leadership path in a new way, disciplined and challenging way. People are better at it. When people get up to the senior ranks, they get complacent, comfortable, and forget what got them there, who got them there. Those aren’t the company’s culture you want to be around. You get up to a place where you would do anything for that leader. I had a few of those. I had both of my military career, which was great. I had leaders that I would have jumped on a grenade for and leaders that I wouldn’t want to push on it. It’s all stuff that leads towards who you become and you want to be the leader that somebody’s going to jump on a grenade for.
How do we do that? How do we be there?
There are lots of ways to go about it. Every industry, business, and pursuit is different but they all have primary tenets that are non-negotiable. There’s so much nuance to it that you get and it’s hard to rank them but anything. I love authenticity. When I talk to leaders and they talk to me about leadership styles, and they’ve read these books. How many books have the servant leader, this, that, and other, all these different kinds of choices? People sometimes try and look, which ones should I use? I’m like, “Don’t do that. Be the best leader you are.” I’ve seen tyrants, absolute screaming, maniacal leaders that were phenomenal. It’s a lot of fun to work for them but they were phenomenal.
They had good judgment, good vision, and they knew how to hold the line. While it was a challenge to be in their presence and to try and get it done, they knew what they were doing. I’ve seen the exact same tyrant be an absolute disaster, create the worst culture ever. It came down to authenticity. You can tell people who they are, be that version of yourself, and then apply that to your best leadership principles. You have to set an example. You can’t ask your people to show up at 7:00 every morning and you show up at 7:30. Forget about it. You want them to be in a good uniform, you wear uniform better, you look better, equal to or better than theirs. If you tell somebody, “This is what we expect,” and you’re not doing it, forget it. You’ve absolutely compromised your leadership position. That’s a non-negotiable.
Being authentic and sincere in caring about them, like genuine care about them. That doesn’t mean always being nice, making the easy call, making them happy, but being there then know like every decision that person’s made, it went through a lens of what’s best for this organization and all of us. It’s hard to fake that. If you’re that type of leader, very little that your team won’t do for you. There’s a myriad of big things that you need to do. We could talk about it for ten episodes, but authenticity is a great place to start. Being your authentic self and then applying that to the best leaders of principals that work within your personality type.
Why do you feel like that’s such a challenge? We say the word authenticity. It’s a very fundamental thing. It’s easier to be yourself than it is to be someone else or something different than that but that’s what we choose. What is the solution to this? Why it’s such a big problem that you make?
It comes down to your personal compass and your confidence and that’s going to allow you to be you. The tough thing about the world is we have such access to visual, in real-time absorbing of information, and how people are doing things that you get locked into, “That’s how it’s done right.” You realize it’s not necessarily the case. If you’re following some senior leader that you think they’re in the right suit, behavior, job, or driving the right car, that’s the thing. You get to realize that when they get home, they’re more miserable than you. They’re more unhappy with how they’re performing and behaving. They may be even keeping a ruse alive and less confident than you are.
It’s interesting to watch humans in these. For my corporate speaking events, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen people that have bonafide billions of dollars, five homes, and an airplane that are miserable. I’ve seen people that were farmers in a flyover state that loved their family, their country, the land they’re working on, go to church on Sunday, like their football team, and are some of the happiest and most satisfied people I’ve ever seen. There’s no one path. There’s no one place you can find yourself that’s going to be right unless it’s right for you.
We’re best when we’re very honest with who we are and then maximizing that. That’s the best thing. We were talking about grinding, performing, and doing your best to perform at a high level. If you take almost every pursuit you can go after in this world, all of it ends up in happiness and good financial stability if you’re the best at it. The best florist in New York City has a house in the Hamptons. There is one best florist in New York City. I don’t know what that is, but I guarantee it. I bet that person is flying a helicopter on the weekends. You can make it that way. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to be in that position, but you can.
There’s probably one baker, one person that cleans floors. There’s somebody, a janitor that’s like, “We’ve got a bunch of other buddies that could drag up a mop this well, let me teach them.” He has the contract to clean all of Goldman Sachs’ offices in New York City and that person is driving home in Mercedes. Not like that’s the end state. I like driving a pickup truck. If I can afford Mercedes, I wouldn’t. It’s not my type of cup. If you pursue the top level of performance and whatever you decide to go after, you can end in a good place. For the most part, it’s not money. Money is a real trick in this world.
I want to stay here on this leadership thing topic because it sounds like you’re right. There’s no packaged way of approaching leadership. Listening to you speak, it sounds like there’s a lack of trust in our own selves and capability. We revert to something that looks like or feels like it’s the right way because we don’t have that trust in our own judgment and ability. This is maybe kryptonite to authentic self-serving leadership. It’s being able to have that level of trust. In your field where you’ve come from, trust is everything. You have to trust the man that’s next to you. I’ve seen bloodstream and I’ve seen different military documentaries. You guys are walking into a room.
If you’re the first one in the room, you may not scan a certain area. The way you guys are trained, you will walk in and you’re looking in a specific point in that room. If you are depending on the next man because that’s his job and there could be someone there that’s going to take you out. His job is to make sure that that does not happen. That requires a great level of trust. If he does not trust you, it could be to the detriment of the entire team because you won’t do your job. Talk to us about trust, trusting yourself, and trusting others.
You keyed on the best part of this which is, trust both directions. Your ability to trust yourself and develop trust amongst the team and around you. You do that by honoring commitments, learning your skillset, and your discipline to the high enough level that you know you can be count upon to do that right when it genuinely counts. We started from day one in training. You’re never alone in SEAL training. The minimum amount of experience you’re going to have is at least with what we call our swim buddy. If you were even going to go to the bathroom in SEAL training, you are going with a buddy and the two of you are running.
At a minimum, we stay together at that level then it goes up to a boat crew, a squad, assault team, troop, whatever that might be and it grows from there. What you learn very quickly is operating those teams, particularly in SEAL training is that everybody is going to have their good days and bad days. There’s always going to be a better performer and a lesser performer. The nice thing about the SEAL teams is our lowest level performers, not exceptional performer, which is our baseline. We had a guy during our Hell Week when I was going through Hell Week. I won’t say his name although if I did, he’s an absolute community legend. One of the most decorated combat operators at our top team to this day has gone.
As far as you can go in your career, we got into Thursday, a Hell Week, and we were trying to paddle around San Diego Island. He has fallen apart. He’d been an absolute maximum performer the entire time. He’s one of my true studs. He literally can’t keep from almost falling outside of the boat. Everybody on the boat was like, “Lay down in the middle of the boat and take a nap. We’re going to be paddling for the next 45 minutes. It’s time for you to get fifteen minutes rest.” The thing that was amazing was beside himself saying, “No,” we had to grab him and put him there.” That thing was so funny. Something about where he was sleeping changed the dynamic of our boat and we started going faster.
We won the next race. No problem. We were winning a lot of race. I had a bunch of studs in my boat, but he got that little bit of rest. He came back, he finished the week, he crushed it. By some years later, he still felt bad that he had that moment. We’re like, “We lifted you up for that moment. You did that for me 50 times if you didn’t know it.” There were times when I was like, “I didn’t figure out that I’m not. I didn’t know how to do this equation. I didn’t have the best idea of how to solve a problem and you did. We all do that for each other.” One of the things about our team is we value from the top person to the bottom person.
Everybody’s opinion, everybody’s input. We’re going to take the best of that and get to the place we’re going to make a decision. Sometimes your idea is going to win or lose, but none of our guys ever in a spot were like, “I’m not going to say anything. My opinion is not worth it.” Our guys are super opinionated and always throw an idea and be like, “That’s a dumb idea, boss.” We’d be like. “Talk me through why. If they’re right, you’re right. If they’re wrong, then you hammer them a little bit, move on and let’s go on to the next.” It’s all with tremendous trust and respect. Developing that, that’s the secret juice. If you can build a team that trusts each other to say the good, bad, and the ugly, to call it whether they feel like it’s going wrong, that team is going to flourish.
How important is that panel to do that in lifting that person up? How important is that to the leadership as an individual and a team?
That’s an art more than it is a science. It’s knowing when somebody needs a little something extra. You’d probably read about this at some of the things that I’ve written, but in SEAL training, when you’re an instructor like I ran the first phase. When I first went back, I’ve done with all my assault teams on. I go back to our basic training compound. I’m the officer-in-charge of the first phase which is where we can all be in intense blocks of training. Not all but most of the attrition. Mostly quitters are going to take place in that window. Our instructors, if there’s, let’s say 15 to 16 SEAL instructors in the first phase, they break into two distinct categories. We call them hammers or huggers. The hammers are exactly what you’d expect.
All they do is bring the thunder. Pitiless, never a smile, all they want to do is destroy everything in their path and crush a student down to the core of who he is fundamentally as a human being. The huggers, which is a small group. We have more hammers than huggers but there will be a couple of huggers in the class. Don’t get me wrong, a SEAL hugger is still a very scary individual. Somehow, they have something in their personality where they’re going to see Rodney, or they’re going to see this person having a moment. They’d be like, “That person is worth salvaging. I’m going to pull them aside and give them a little extra.” I don’t even know what they do. I didn’t fall into either category because I’m an officer. I tried to let the boys do the job.
The huggers had this unique ability to know when a student, a class, group of boat crew needed a little extra motivation, a little extra kick in the ass, whatever it might be to get them a little bit further, where that might be the tipping scale to them get to a successful place. It’s a true gift within our program. It’s something that happens very naturally. The huggers hate that they’re huggers because we’ll vote. The students will vote who could work with hammers. The easiest hugger is always the same two people. The hugger will be like, “That’s it. I’m going to kill a student in the next class so I become a hammer. He’d be a hugger no matter what.” If you don’t have that ability, find the person on your team that does and let them do that. Let them acknowledge people and let them give a little extra.
We do combat awards, combat distinction, and performance awards in the military. We all stand in formation, uniform, salute, and the commanding officer will stand there and give that award. The executive officer will read the citation of the excellent thing that person did. It’s special. A lot of people roll their eyes like, “We’ve got to go to the award ceremony again.” There are times when you don’t want to be there, but you see the person up there is like, “I’m standing in front of my peers. I’m being acknowledged by the senior people.” It’s good stuff. In my next organizations, we’re not going to walk around wearing medals but I’m going to have some system in which you get acknowledged in front of your peers in a very special way because it means a lot to people.You’re going to go way farther if you have an irrational belief in yourself than if you doubt what you could do. Click To Tweet
I know in the Marines, you guys live by a Code of Ethics. You believe in codifying one’s beliefs, aspirations, and intentions into a document. Talk to us about what that is and why that is important.
I love literature, history, and writing. The great writings of both great leaders of philosophers and poets and all that. I love that stuff. Math and science, as I said, is not my thing. Art and literature are my things. For centuries, the greatest thinkers have tried to codify beliefs, concepts, principles, ethos that lead to good behaviors in humans. Sun Tzu in the Orient, Marcus Aurelius with his Meditations, we could go on and on with all these great people that have to codify things up through modern times. Read the Gettysburg Address and see how much you can say in 187 words from Lincoln.
You look at our Declaration Of Independence. You want to talk about document. It will start getting me choked up just talking about it. Read that sucker. Read it to somebody that’s like, “We’re not going to be subject to a crown. We’re going to make our own destiny. We’re going to take care of ourselves and create a new world across an ocean.” It is magical stuff. The power of words and language as I bet you sitting in a wheelchair, if you had some negative voice talking in your head, you wouldn’t be saying it right now. There’s no way. That person would have given up. If you’re like, my voice would be like, “F this. I’m going to keep grinding. I’m going to get the point where this leg can go straight, my hip can go straight, and then I can stand.”
That’s where that stuff comes from. I feel like the discipline of writing these things down is super powerful. Even as we talk right now, I’ll think of ten things I wish I’d said to you when we get off and we’ll do another podcast a year from now and talk about more. If you write your ethos whether that be for your family, organization, and culture, you then have written down the things you believe in and you value. We did this in the CLT, we wrote ethos. In my time and the teams, there wasn’t an ethos. There wasn’t a codified list of behaviors and what we value written down. They sent 100 some odd enlisted senior officers, junior personnel out to an island to write it down. I am that man.
We fight to win. All these different parts of our ethos which you can google the SEAL ethos online. It has the exact things we care about. My word is my bond. These unbelievable elemental things that are important to us. Everybody should do it. Do it for your family and for yourself. It should be a living document. It’s something you revise because you’re going to learn more. The person I was at 25 is not the person I am at 45. I’m going to look through that. Most of the elemental core stuff stays the same as it should. There are non-negotiables. Everybody should adhere to but being a father changes your life pretty quickly.
Being a husband changes your life. Being in charge of a company where you have people, you’re beholden to. In my mind, you need to take care of. Documenting those things that are important to you both personally and culturally is worth doing. If you go to my website, you’ll see I have a teaser ethos. I don’t print my specific one because that’s mine, but I give concepts to write that thing. It’s a discipline that’s worth doing. It may uncover things, strengthened weaknesses that are important to pay attention to.
I appreciate that because we live in a world where it’s so easy to be programmed by what’s going on in society. We got social media. A lot of people are programmed by these things. There are things that may have happened to them in the past and their upbringing that they’re still attached to. They’re still ringing out in their head now. Something like this can help you be grounded. Understand what your values are and it can change that program. When you look at this every single day, you begin to reprogram who you are. As you said, you’re waking up every day, reading this thing, looking at this year, embodying the things that you wrote down, things that you value, and things that you’re going to stand for.
That makes a difference in who you are. A lot of times we don’t see mission statements, our own personal values, and we adopt the values of the organization which is fine, but I appreciate this because you need to develop your own value, mission, and bylaws on how you’re going to conduct yourself. One of the things that you said that I appreciate is about, you might not have an organization or business, you may not be in a leadership position, but you still have the responsibility of leading yourself. What type of leader are you? How are you going to lead yourself? I appreciate that. How can people connect with you, Commander? If they want to learn more about you, work with you, hire you to speak, how can they contact you?
I appreciate it. I’ve got my own website which is RorkeDenver.com that brings you to my Ever Onward website. I used to sign all my Navy emails with either onward or ever onward. I liked the idea of progressing and moving forward. Usually, the person that advances the fight wins the fight as opposed to playing defense. I always liked that. I’ve got a ton of great plays to connect with me there. I do something called my Commander’s Coffee. It’s a video I set out once a month. It went out talking about the current state of affairs in the world, the principles I like sharing free. You can get on that distro list.
That’s a great place to find me and book me for speaking events. Also, Creative Artists Agency which has big talent from Los Angeles. They represent everybody basically bigger than me, but in the leadership speaking space, I’ve got a good spot there. If somebody wants to book me on the corporate side, they go there and my team’s great at making that happen. I’ve got a couple of books out there in the world. Punch in my name and they come up. I’m working on more and I’ve got a couple of new things coming.
We’ll need to reload soon to plus up on that but I’m trying to figure out a way to deliver the content I’ve enjoyed delivering in new ways. Everybody’s digesting information in new ways. I’m on social media although I wrestle with it. Talking about strengths and weaknesses, it’s not something I’m ever going to be good at. It’s not the way I like communicating. For me, it’s figuring out a way to deliver content that is a value to the biggest net. I can cast the biggest market but RorkeDenver.com. It was a great place to start and my social media channels as well. There’s more stuff to come.
It’s been a pleasure to have you on the show, Commander.
I’ve enjoyed it.
Thank you for showing up, for giving and serving. What you’ve provided here, there are a lot of jewels. I’ll go back and read this over and over because it’s rich with good, valuable content.
I appreciate it.
Before we depart, what is the Game Changer Mentality message you would leave with people?
My parents were incredible, both of them, but my dad had one gem that he drove into my brother and me very overtly and covertly as we grew up. It was this concept of trust yourself because you need mentors and advisors, but in the end, it’s you. We’re all in this fight trying to make the right decisions we need to do, so trust yourself. Also, whether you believe it or not, have an almost irrational belief in yourself. If you do that, you’re going to go way farther than if you doubt what you could do. Irrational belief and trust yourself.
Thank you, Commander, for coming on the show. It is another successful episode, a wonderful show. I’m taken away to have an irrational belief in myself and irrationally believe in all of you. You can make it happen and I’m counting on you. You’re on my team. You’re my teammate and I’m counting on you to do your part. I’ll have trust in you, so trust yourself that you can get it done. Until next time. Peace.
- Rorke Denver
- Gettysburg Address
- Commander’s Coffee
- Creative Artists Agency
- Is Life Knocking You Down? Read Rodney’s inspiring story – Get Up! I Can’t. I Will. I Did… Here’s How! https://rodneyflowers.com/get-up-book/
- Recognize Your Positive Potential – Essential Assertions by Rodney Flowers https://rodneyflowers.com/essential-assertions-book/
- Get Access to Rodney’s Daily Inspiration in your Inbox Today https://rodneyflowers.us9.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=01f76a038256f77a6fbc93590&id=307d726734
About Rorke Denver
NAVY SEAL COMMANDER. NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR. LEADER. HUSBAND. FATHER.
• Ran every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs
• Holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Syracuse University, where he was an All-American lacrosse player and captain of the varsity lacrosse team. He earned a Master’s Degree in Global
Business Leadership from the University of San Diego
• Led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and other international
• Author of Worth Dying For and the New York Times bestseller Damn Few
• Mentor on FOX’s competition series, American Grit
• Star of the hit film Act of Valor
• Founder of Ever Onward, a brand designed to use Navy SEAL principles to call leaders to take
action, to suffer, and to be bold so they can perform at their highest levels
• Uses lessons from training with the SEALs to teach leadership and motivate teams to perform at
their highest levelsFounder, Ever Onward
Commander Rorke T. Denver has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and other international hot spots. He starred in the hit film Act of Valor, which is based on true SEAL adventures. His New York Times bestseller, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, takes you inside his personal story and the fascinating, demanding SEAL training program. In his second book Worth Dying For: A Navy
SEALs Call to a Nation, Rorke tackles the questions that have emerged about America’s past decade at war–from what makes a hero to why we fight and what it does to us. Rorke was most recently seen on FOX’s American Grit. The series followed 16 of the country’s toughest men and women as they faced a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges set in the wilderness. As assistant officer in charge of BRAVO Platoon at SEAL Team THREE, he was deployed to SOUTCOM, the Central and South American Area of Operations. His platoon was the “alert” SEAL team for maritime interdiction, hostage rescue, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. As SEAL officer aboard, Denver led his group’s response to a murderous uprising in the Ivory Coast nation of Liberia, launching advanced-force operations, conducting hydrographic beach reconnaissance, and helping to get U.S. Marines safely ashore. In 2006, Denver was officer in charge of BRAVO Platoon of SEAL Team THREE in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in one of the most combat-heavy deployments of any regular SEAL team since Vietnam. Stationed in Habbaniya, his team conducted over 200 missions including sniper operations, direct
assaults, special reconnaissance, and ground patrols. Denver’s team has been widely credited with propelling the “Tribal Awakening” that helped to neutralize Iraq’s insurgency. Denver was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for valorous action in combat.
After returning to the United States, Denver was appointed flag lieutenant to Admiral Joseph Maguire, commanding officer of Naval Special Warfare, traveling to Afghanistan and briefing Congress on SEAL operations. In 2009, he became First Phase officer of SEAL Basic Training including Hell Week, then rose to Basic Training officer. He went on to run all phases of training including advanced sniper, hand-to-hand fighting, communications, diving, and language. Denver is the founder of Ever Onward, a fresh, new brand designed to use Navy SEAL principles to call leaders to take action, to suffer, and to be bold so they can perform at their highest levels. He is a highly-sought after speaker to companies and organizations and provides numerous innovative products and services to help teams and individuals live and perform at higher levels. Denver is an honor graduate of the United States Army Ranger School. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Syracuse University, where he was an All-American lacrosse player, and captain of the varsity lacrosse team. He earned a Master’s Degree in Global Business Leadership from the University of San Diego.
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