Jake Wood on Leadership

At PCMA’s 2016 Education Conference the author, entrepreneur, and combat veteran will share his surprising theories about organizational leadership.

Jake Wood[1]

Jake Wood learned about leadership early: Now standing 6-foot-6, he was always the tallest one in his class. “In elementary school, people were always looking to the tall kid to make decisions,” Wood said. “It was sink or swim as an 8-year-old.” But it was the lessons he learned during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps — including time as a Marine Scout Sniper — that paved the way for his writing and speaking on leadership, as well as his co-founding of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster-relief organization of 55 staff and 35,000 veteran volunteers.

In his book Take Command: Lessons in Leadership — How to Be a First Responder in Business, Wood outlines his insights about organizational leadership. Among other influences, he draws on the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ theory that for every 100 people in a room, 10 don’t belong, 80 have neutral impact, nine will perform exceptionally, and one is a true leader.

You studied political science and played football at the University of Wisconsin. What spurred you to military service after graduation?

I grew up wanting to be in the military. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to play college football, I probably would have enlisted after high school. 9/11 happened during my freshman year of college, and that was a call to action, but I didn’t answer. The event that really galvanized me was when [NFL player turned U.S. Army Ranger] Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. That’s really when I had to look in the mirror and say, “What kind of person do you want to be? The person who thinks about doing something that’s scary, or the person that just clenches their jaw and does it?”

Was it in the Marine Corps where you first noticed your own leadership abilities?

I think most people in high school and college would have said that I was a leader, but the first time that I saw action in Iraq, or the first time that I had to command men in combat, I quickly realized I didn’t know shit about leadership. In Iraq, I unexpectedly found myself leading 12 men for seven months because my squad leader was wounded and sent home. That’s a school of hard knocks for leadership, and I learned a lot.

During my second tour, in Afghanistan, I joined a more elite unit and I wasn’t a team leader — I was a contributor to a team, and I had to learn how to follow, which served me as well from a leadership perspective — how to be a good follower. They were hard-fought lessons, but they were invaluable.

Can you describe how Team Rubicon was born?

After the earthquake [in Haiti in 2010], I called a couple of [relief] organizations and asked them if I could go. I basically said, “Listen, I’m a two-time combat veteran. I’ve got emergency medical skills. I’ve got logistics experience. I can operate small teams in dangerous places.” None of them wanted to take me as a volunteer. In hindsight, I get it, but at the time, I really didn’t want to take that as the answer. I wrote on Facebook that I wanted to go to Haiti and asked, “Does anybody want to go?” A couple of people from my past life said, “Yeah, I’m down.” Three days later, we were on our way to the Dominican Republic, and eventually Port-au-Prince.

We came home and said, “Hey, this is neat. Let’s have this group of former veterans who are willing to deploy anytime, anywhere.” We always kind of thought it would be a hobby, but it just kept snowballing. Finally, we focused on it full time in 2011. Every year, we blinked and we had twice as many staff, and twice as much revenue, and twice as much impact. Through sheer force of will, we were able to make it succeed.

What will you talk about at the PCMA Education Conference?

I’ll talk mostly about how we put together the kind of organizational vision, purpose, and culture that allows us to succeed. I use the parable [from Heraclitus] about 100 men that go into battle. I refer to it as the one and the nine, because I focus on how we become that one individual that others look to when things go wrong. How do we surround ourselves with those nine people that we can count on at all times, and in all places? Ultimately, if we can do that, we can improve ourselves as a leader. Good leadership and organizational culture can make any organization better, but they also make people happier.

Can you elaborate?

When you have healthier, happier, more motivated employees, obviously that has a direct impact on your bottom line as a business executive, but also means that, most likely, you have healthier families, you are raising better children, you have all of these secondary and tertiary impacts that I think are critical.

Based on your experiences, how much of leadership do you think is innate, and how much comes from learning?
I think it’s a combination. Leadership can absolutely be learned. There are some people that are born with tools that make it easier, but there’s evidence that there’s really no single trait that you inherit that necessarily makes you better suited to be a leader. At the end of the day, if you’re only relying on what God gave you, then you’re probably a really shitty leader. You need to be learning constantly in order to come anywhere near your potential.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.