Rorke Denver is a bear of a man. Not because he's a decorated Navy SEAL. Or that he served tours of duty in some of the most intense and treacherous battle spaces in recent U.S. warfare (Al Anbar province, 2006). Or that he ran all elements of the legendary SEAL training program.
He literally resembles a bear.
Into his mid-forties, Denver is hardly settling into middle age. Barrel chested with arms that otherwise loose fitting flannels can barely contain, he still looks the part.
If the apocalypse occurs, I'm angling hard to be included on Team Denver.
However, don't let the warrior exterior fool you. Beneath it all lies a strategic mind with keen insights into the ethos of leadership. As the author of two books on leadership, he's been one of the few veterans to transition from decorated battlefield leader to corporate consultant and speaker.
He's been known to quote his idol Winston Churchill, who he credits with the spark to join the SEAL Teams and serve his country.
His newest project is called Campfire Sessions, part of his Ever Onward platform that he describes as "a brand designed to use Navy SEAL principles to call leaders to action, to suffer, and to be bold so they can perform at their very highest levels." Campfire Sessions is just what it sounds like: A select few get to hang out around a campfire and listen to a Navy SEAL talk battlefield stories, leadership, bourbon, cigars and America.
I got an invite to the first session. Another several thousand joined on a webcast. As we gathered around the fire in the chilly Colorado foothills, Denver opened with a gripping story from his time leading troops in Iraq. A team of SEALS, a unit of Iraqi troops, an ambush and a gun fight. We were all on the edge of our camp chairs.
The evening had a mix of stories and off-the-cuff Q&A. You didn't have to try too hard to buy in to his message of character, leadership, bravery and service. There were 100 lessons. Some stories and their lessons you'd label unbelievable save for the storyteller.
Here are three that really stood out:
1. Trust your junior leaders.
Denver's unit was on patrol in the outskirts of Habbiniyah when his point man called him to the front. "I don't like this. Something's not right," he said.
Denver had spent countless hours in training with his team. He'd been on daily patrols and missions. He'd developed a level of trust over time, blood, sweat, and tears. He immediately halted the patrol and deployed to cover. As it turned out, there was an ambush planned.
Developing trust with your junior leaders on the battlefield multiplies the eyes and ears on scene. And, allows senior leaders to accomplish more by seizing opportunities and, in this case, avoiding disaster.
2. Use training as inoculation.
The rigor in training among SEAL Teams is legendary. From Hell Week to the ongoing evolutions and workups, a SEALS' training program is never finished and always tough. Perhaps the toughest. It's been described as brutal. This, according to Denver, is very intentional.
The program is designed to "inoculate" SEALS for the super human demands of their missions. It goes beyond the physical hardships of training. Training should create thinkers.
"We'll send SEALS on a training mission and almost from the start throw monkey wrenches at them to see how they handle it," Denver says. And the idea that you can step up at game time? False, he says. "You'll most likely fall back to your level of training."
3. Earn it every day.
Embedded within the Navy SEAL ethos is this powerful line: "By wearing the Trident I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and my way of life. It is a privilege I must earn everyday."
This syncs with this more famous SEAL line: "The only easy day was yesterday."
You get the sense from Rorke Denver, even with all he has accomplished, that he views himself as unfinished. He has not declared victory on his journey. This perhaps personifies his code more than any idea. There's always a new mission.
As leaders, we should be bound to this idea of being unfinished, the product of which is the quality that all great leaders possess: Humility.
If you get the chance to hang by a campfire with a decorated Navy SEAL, you probably should. You might find three lessons or one hundred.
In the quest to earn it every day, one lesson just might be enough.