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'One more step'

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. April 10, 2015
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Executive summary
Individual. Thom Shea Company. Adamantine Alliance, a leadership development firm. Key. Executives can use internal dialogue to become better leaders.

Doctors delivered some bad news to highly decorated U.S. Navy SEAL Thom Shea a few years ago: His days of running for exercise were over.

Too many spinal fractures, doctors told Shea. Too much pounding on the rest of his body. The injuries, says Shea, were from being in too many helicopter crashes.

Yet Shea isn't someone who quits easily. His commendations include a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor and a Combat Action Medal for leading a SEAL team into Afghanistan in 2009. He served 23 years in the military. He trained more than 300 Basic SEAL students and 112 SEAL snipers. He also oversaw and transformed the curriculum for the famed SEAL snipers.

So doctors, when they told Shea no, motivated him. “Don't let anyone tell you who you are,” says Shea. “You can always do one more step.”

To prove the point, Shea took a lot more steps, running in a 50-mile ultra-marathon less than a year after his prognosis. He has since run in six more long-distance events. “I still have the stuff going on in my body,” says Shea. “I just don't listen to what anyone says.”

Shea retired from active duty in 2014 and he formed a leadership development firm, Greer, S.C.-based Adamantine Alliance. The methods and teachings of the firm are wrapped around what Shea calls the internal dialogue people have with themselves.

That dialogue, says Shea, can separate mediocrity from top performers. And at Adamantine Alliance, where clients range from pro athletes to CEOs, internal dialogue is essential to success. “I say when a CEO has it, and gives a crap about people, his company will do well,” Shea says. “Without a good leader, the company is already over the waterfall.”

Shea recently spoke to a group of area residents at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, in a presentation sponsored by the Sarasota-based Lifelong Learning Academy. Shea spoke with the Business Observer about leadership. Here are excerpts from the interview.

How can the inner voice you talk about make someone a better golfer, executive or leader?
I call it an internal dialogue, as opposed to a monologue. That there's actually a possible feedback mechanism. In short, discovering that you have a dialogue that affects your performance is a huge revelation. Secondly, that you can actually control it, and learn that you can control it, can take you to a very high level of performance. That's pretty much in any walk of life.

How can a CEO learn to control and use his or her internal dialogue to an advantage?
Recognizing how the (internal) language they have about their company affects their company. The dialogue they have themselves about their employees affects their employees' performance. They can recapture and rekindle a dialogue so they can own it instead of it being some arbitrary “I didn't even know I had it” conversation.
What we do is we expose that there's a dialogue and we let them begin to manipulate it and see what the different actions are of their company.

What are the characteristics of a great leader?
That other people count more than you. The second one is never give up. When it seems clear it's not going to work is when you actually have to start not giving up. Sometimes completing a mission is just surviving, so you can come back and do it again another day. The ultimate thing to have at the end of the day is that you survived. You can always go back and redo it.

How has the approach that other people count more than you helped you become a better leader?
The more generous you are, the easier it is to lead. Because then they always come back to you.

How did that play out in the battlefield?
In Afghanistan when I was in charge of a SEAL team I realized I've already done all those things. I've already done all the positions they were in. Me trying to prove to them that I could do it was kind of irrelevant.

If they needed something, then that's what I had to give them. Listening to their input, because it was their life, was a way to show them that they counted more than my petty concerns.

How do you coach executives to become better decision makers?
It comes from getting a base understanding of how humans are designed. You have to understand how you are designed and part of that design is what internal dialogue is all about, and how it drives action.

Once you get into that rhythm of internal dialogue driving performance, creating a solution is a lot easier than making a decision. Because then you are driving it the right way. When you show up to a spot and you're not in charge, you are deciding. Do I go left or right? But when you are having internal dialogue early, you already know what's going to happen.

Who are some leaders you admire?
Most of my mentors, and the people I look up to, are people who have actually failed and then came back, as opposed to people who have never hit bottom. There's a lot of grace to be learned at bottom.

One mentor is a guy named Carl Stecker, who doesn't have a college degree. But he built a company from its bootstraps and then built another one and built another one. (Stecker, based in Greenville, S.C., has founded and run companies in publishing and construction, among other industries.) That's what I call great leadership because if you can do it from the bottom, it proves itself.

Another mentor is from Afghanistan, (U.S. Navy SEAL) John “Jocko” Willink. He was the commander in charge of American Sniper Chris Kyle's sniper unit. He went into Ramadi, Iraq, when it was declared the most dangerous place in the world and said “we're going to take over Ramadi and we're going to do in six months.” The Army didn't want to go and the Marines didn't want to go, but he goes “we're going. You guys could either help or get out of the way.” And within six months they made it safe.

He's a phenomenal guy. He came to fight and would never listen to anything other than we're going to win. That's an internal dialogue that's relentless.

American hero
Thom Shea, who runs a leadership development firm, won several awards during his Navy SEAL career. Missions he was on and led include some to rescue U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2009. The Taliban held Bergdahl captive for five years. He was released in a prisoner exchange in 2014, and in March he was charged with desertion.

One of Shea's medals, according to the Military Times newspaper, is from a mission he led on July 19, 2009 to rescue a Special Forces team that had been ambushed and was surrounded. “As insurgents attempted to overrun the (team) he led his platoon in an air assault onto a knife edge mountain ridgeline,” the report states. “During a daylong combined arms battle, he personally executed an airstrike that killed two fighters and achieved a high-angle sniper kill at 1,100 yards.”

Adds the report: “Shea's extraordinary guidance, zealous initiative and total dedication to duty reflected great credit upon him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”


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