Innovation is the cornerstone of security and technology. At AC Global Risk, we want to highlight and gain insight from leaders who are revolutionizing their fields. Our Industry Innovators series seeks out the best and the brightest to explore how they are paving new ground nationally and globally in enterprise and entrepreneurship.
Dave Cooper was born and raised in Manheim, PA. In 1987, he earned a BS in Molecular Biology from Juniata College, and entered the military that same year, specifically to become a US Navy SEAL. During his 25-year career, he spent nearly nineteen of those at the prestigious Naval Special Warfare Development Group, conducting combat operations throughout Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. From September 2009 to September 2011, Mr. Cooper served as the Command Master Chief (the senior SEAL Operator and principal advisor to the Commanding Officer) of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. He is one of only a handful of SEALs to ever hold this position.
During his tenure, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group successfully executed some of the most significant Special Operations missions in the history of the U.S. Military. Now, as the President of the Karakoram Group—a veteran-owned consulting firm that combines design, strategy, and complexity with organizational change management and leadership development—Dave gets to combine his leadership and planning skills with his more cerebral side. He was kind enough to sit down and give his thoughtful responses to a few of our burning questions. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I became very comfortable being uncomfortable. Becoming an entrepreneur is no different—it’s a new door to walk through, and one that promises on the other side ambiguity and uncertainty, but also discovery and re-creation.”[/perfectpullquote]
How easy was the transition from the military to enterprise business?
I suppose this sounds a bit harsh, but I was more than ready for the change, so the transition was a welcome one. I will always look back on my time in the SEAL Teams as a privilege, but by the time I retired I was no longer doing the things I enjoyed doing. I was a full-fledged administrator mired in the military bureaucracy. In SEAL “teams,” we value such things as egalitarianism, shared leadership, competency; there’s little recognition for rank and no competition for the next rank; we understand implicitly that mistakes happen and that we can learn from failure and grow as a team and as individuals. The bureaucracy I found myself in at the end of 25 years was almost wholly opposite in character, an antiquated system where the exercise of rank is often mistaken for leadership, and where challenges to one’s authority were neither welcomed nor respected. The SEAL “team” I joined was a learning organization; the bureaucracy I ended up in was anything but. And when a calling becomes a job, it’s time to go find a new calling.
How did the military prepare you for being a business innovator?
Liminal space. This is a term I came upon in my graduate studies at Oxford University and HEC Paris. It basically means “threshold.” On one side of the threshold, all is known; on the other side, all is unknown. But it’s on that unknown side where all the learning and discovery occurs. As a Navy SEAL, I crossed that threshold nearly every day, whether it was during our exhaustive Close Quarters Combat training, or pushing the boundaries of my own capabilities and discovering new things about myself from such passions as rock climbing and combatives training.I became very comfortable being uncomfortable. Becoming an entrepreneur is no different—it’s a new door to walk through, and one that promises on the other side ambiguity and uncertainty, but also discovery and re-creation.
Can you share an example of true business innovation that you have personally witnessed?
Selfishly, it’s the one I’m witnessing now: Take a group of top-shelf specops guys, who thrive in uncertain, complex environments, and then teach them to view organizational change management and leadership through the lens of complexity they’re already so familiar with, using our own brand of mindfulness-based coaching and contemplative practices as tools, and there’s no end to what we can accomplish. One might not have thought that the place for old warriors would be a world of physics and evolutionary biology and complex adaptive systems, all mated with deep psychology, but it is. And over the next 10 years we’re going to change the way the world does business. Or, the way the “cool” world does business, I should say.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Innovation is change, and successful change starts with defining a problem or a need—even if others don’t see it.”[/perfectpullquote]
What are the three most important traits that make a successful entrepreneur?
Few people ever mention luck. That’s mostly because we love to hear success stories about people who persevered and who beat the odds. We love the hero story. But luck happens (even to heroes) and we should recognize it. In combat, when luck happens you don’t just feel fortunate—you’re humbled. And we could all use a little more humility. But some people also have a knack for making their own luck. They get out in the world, they get beat up, they get bruised, but they’re there when fortune shows itself. And they jump on it—they act in the moment. It’s pure. And some have that uncanny ability to spot a trajectory—not a trend but a trajectory, something that comes before the trend. They see a pathway, however faint, and they intuit correctly where that pathway leads and what problems might be solvable with a touch of this (technology) or that (service). And then there’s the ability to harness the power of the collective. Having the courage to follow your vision is rare, but even rarer are those who share their vision and allow others to help shape it and mold it and bring it to fruition. This is longhand version of saying: Build a good team to help you change the world. And then persist—grit is key.
Leadership, teamwork, and vision. Rank these in order of importance for a start-up and tell us why?
First comes context. What is the context—what’s the situation in which the startup finds itself? This is not a linear world. I mean, in some cases people might have an itch that you see a way, or envision a way, to scratch, but in most cases the world is simply too complex to say leadership wins out over teamwork (which is shared leadership if you do it right) and vision (which is a leadership skill). Innovation is change, and successful change starts with defining a problem or a need—even if others don’t see it. And here leadership is key, but the kind of leadership that aspires and anticipates; it’s that ability to spot a trajectory—not a solution, but a trajectory—I mentioned above. And then one has to frame that problem/need/trajectory in a way that others see it as well and, more importantly, buy into it. Thus begins the coalition building, the team building. And then we might envision what the future could look like and how we might provide solutions.
I teach young SEALs not to slap their plan down overtop of an existing situation, but to let that situation drive their plan. Innovation, change—they’re no different. An accurate read of the situation is paramount if it’s innovation you’re after. Once that happens, particularly in a complex world, it might be vision that rears its pretty head first. We don’t know for sure, but we’re prepared to do all three—lead, envision or build a team—and simultaneously if necessary.
What matters most in innovation?
That others see it as an innovation as well—and buy into it. Remember Semmelweis? He came up with the idea of surgeons washing their hands before delivering babies. We take the practice for granted today, but he couldn’t sell his innovation; he couldn’t get buy-in from the establishment, and as a consequence he became the “savior of mothers” only years after his death. Innovators also have to understand how change works, not just in general but in a given system, like a hospital. Who are the influencers—how do you get buy-in from them?
You held one of the highest positions in one of the USA’s most elite units. To the extent that you can comment, what sort of innovation did you witness in that organization?
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “If we can set the conditions that allow others to grow and develop, and then hopefully surpass us, to advance even if it’s in some small way, that’s huge—that’s impact.” [/perfectpullquote]To be fair, I was an operator. And while I rose to the rank of Master Chief of one of our elite units, there were plenty of people who “out-ranked” me. And in a hierarchical organization where tenure matters, positions like Command Master Chief are often political appointments.
I think the highest position one can achieve in such an organization is the one where you’ve earned the trust, respect, and loyalty of your teammates, because you’ve shown yourself to be trustworthy, respectful and loyal. It’s about living the values.
With that, the innovations I saw most often came from the guys—from the bottom up, if you will—and typically centered on particular methods we use to close with the enemy, wherever he might be. But if you want to know what those methods are, you have to become a terrorist or a tyrant or a despot, and then you’ll find out!
What are you most proud of?
A young SEAL who was deployed overseas sent me a message just a few weeks ago, saying, “Thanks, Coop. What you taught us is making a real impact.” Not a lot of retired guys get messages like that. Heck, a lot of active-duty guys don’t get messages like that. It’s impact, that’s what I’m most proud of. And it’s no different today in my role as a consultant. It’s about impact, and when I see it, that makes me proud. If we can set the conditions that allow others to grow and develop, and then hopefully surpass us, to advance even if it’s in some small way, that’s huge—that’s impact. We’ve affected the future, and in a good way. And that’s reason enough to be proud.
If you had one piece of advice for entrepreneurs…?
SHARE YOUR STORY, please. You’ll find friends when you do so; the kind of friends who aren’t afraid to give you honest feedback. And feedback isn’t only a gift, it’s a hallmark of continued success in this undulating business environment that we find ourselves in.
What is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?
Book: Wow, that’s hard. It’s a tie between the two books I’ve read more often than others I like: On Walden Pond, by Thoreau, and A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean.
Favorite film: Star Wars: A New Hope. I saw it when I was 12, and it made a lasting impact. I also like the film adaptation of A River Runs Through It.
Cocktail: Knobb Creek Single Barrel, on the rocks. (It’s what’s for breakfast … just kidding!)
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