Leading Through Crisis: A Conversation with Team Rubicon Co-Founder & CEO Jake Wood
Wednesdays with Woodward Webinar
October 28, 2020
In this installment of the Travelers Institute’s Wednesdays with Woodward webinar series, Team Rubicon Co-Founder and CEO Jake Wood shared strategies for leading through crisis, drawn from his experience on the battlefield and in disaster zones. Wood, a former U.S. Marine Scout Sniper, leads one of the fastest growing non-profit organizations in America, which repurposes the skills of military veterans to respond to disasters. Under his leadership, Team Rubicon has responded to over 700 disasters since 2010, including wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wood, author of Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home, has operated in extreme, chaotic conditions requiring calm and rational decision-making. He shared a U.S. Army framework, “VUCA,” which outlines complex, uncertain situations (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), and how to overcome them (Vision, Understanding, Clarity, Agility).
He provided several examples from this framework for leading through crisis and conquering chaos.
Create and sustain a vision
Having a vision is critical, according to Wood. The vision should be bold so that it inspires people, simple so that it’s unambiguous and relatable so people understand how they fit in. Once you have your vision, the harder part is backing it up with action and holding yourself to those standards. “People are going to quickly realize when a vision is bogus.”
Rules are made for peacetime
Wood shared a phrase coined by Lieutenant General Russel Honoré that ‘rules are made for peacetime,’ meaning that protocols and policies developed for normal operating environments will probably not work during a crisis.
He described how Team Rubicon’s 200-person staff completely restructured into five task forces to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, breaking every pre-existing reporting relationship. “We had people in marketing roles who suddenly found themselves on a future operations task force. We didn’t have a single person say, ‘Hey listen, I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s not my job description,’ because everyone was aligned to the vision and knew the stakes.”
He noted that it’s easy to cling to familiar protocols in moments of crisis, but sometimes “you have to just burn that playbook to the ground and start over.”
Panic is contagious
In moments of crisis, teams will turn to their leaders. Jake emphasized that panic is contagious. “The tone of your voice, the look in your eye, your body posture and the body language that you demonstrate, the way that you communicate in an email... ultimately people reflect what they see in you,” he said.
The good news, according to Wood, is that leadership and poise are also contagious. “Make sure you are generating something that you want to see reflected back into your team.”
Hire people who are smarter than you
“I knew early that if I was going to survive as an entrepreneur and CEO, I needed to hire people much, much smarter than I was,” he shared, noting that some young leaders or entrepreneurs hire less capable people because of their own insecurity.
“They think, all right, if I'm measurably better than that person, they have no choice but to follow me. That's a really bad strategy to take.” You need to have people who are going to challenge you, he said, and as a leader, you need the vulnerability to let yourself be challenged.
Addressing “pandemic fatigue,” Wood encouraged leaders to focus on impact, so employees and teams understand why their contributions matter.
Team Rubicon has also been driving home messaging about complacency during the pandemic. “In the Marine Corps, you never left a base in Iraq or Afghanistan without first walking or driving past a sign, maybe spray painted on a pallet, that said ‘complacency kills.’ Complacency is the deadliest thing on the battlefield – it’s not the enemy, it's your complacency relative to the enemy.”
Wood explained that while deployed, simple decisions, like not taking extra batteries for your night vision goggles or leaving that extra magazine of ammunition behind because it was too heavy, could end up being critically important missteps.
“It's just reminding people, what are the stakes and how does complacency enable that boogeyman to crawl from under our bed and surprise us at that moment,” said Wood. “We just can't afford it.”