How leaders prepare for the worst scenario.

"Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear."

Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese Philosopher

SERE Level C Logo

SERE Level C Logo

Let me share a story with you.  In the fall of 2002, I was sitting naked in a concrete cell.  My body ached because I had to squat to fit in it.  I had been there for a few days.  I hadn't eaten or slept.  I would be taken out periodically, interrogated and thrown back in.  I was cold and wet and wondering how I got into this situation.  I wasn't in Iraq.  I wasn't officially a POW (prisoner of war).  I was a part of a military school called S.E.R.E. (Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape).   This school trains military personnel who's job puts them far inside enemy lines.  This includes pilots, Navy Seals and Marine Snipers to name a few.  At the time, I was just a P.I.G. (professionally instructed gunmen).  This is a term for a wannabe Marine sniper.  The goal is to become a H.O.G. (hunter of gunmen).  Although, I was sent early in my career as a P.I.G.; I learned an enduring lesson from this difficult experience: prepare yourself and your team for the worst possible scenario. 

The optimism of a new venture, product launch or promotion is intoxicating.  We rally resources, people and ideas to something new.  We feel a sense of worth that our work is recognized.  Nothing is more gratifying than watching our work be experienced and appreciated by people we've never met, but have we considered the loss of life that can occur in such endeavors? I don't mean people dying.  I mean, have we prepared our teams and ourselves for the very real possibility that the team we started with won't be here forever?  Have we prepared for the worst possible scenario?  The answer is no!  And I wanted to understand why and how to assist teams prepare for it.  

"You don't rise to the occasion.  You sink to the level of your training."

Brandon Webb - Navy Seal Sniper course innovator

I found this lesson so compelling because when I entered Sniper school for the first time, on the entrance to our barracks, I saw a message in big white letters, "Failure is NOT an option." 


Entrance to Sniper barracks at Scout Sniper Basic Course at Camp Pendleton, CA 2003

Entrance to Sniper barracks at Scout Sniper Basic Course at Camp Pendleton, CA 2003

 My graduating class 3-03 from Marine Sniper school.  We started with over 20.  Nine finished. I'm in the center.

 My graduating class 3-03 from Marine Sniper school.  We started with over 20.  Nine finished. I'm in the center.


The words on the door referred to the standard expected of advanced infantrymen.  Marine Snipers are never seen.  To be seen as a sniper is mission compromise and compromise is mission failure. Mission failure would put me in a scenario like I experienced in SERE school.  After experiencing what failure would look and feel like, there was no way I wanted to experience that again, so failure was NOT an option.

Systematic failure preparation in business planning or project management processes simply doesn't exist.  It's not hard to see why.  It is difficult to create an environment like SERE for a business scenario, but we have to make it apart of the business planning process.  Failure cannot be a surprise and lead to reactive behavior.  There must be a process for dealing with it and coming out of it with minimal scars.  

When I looked at my own experience as an entrepreneur, failure preparation should have come in two forms: individual and team.  

How to prepare for the worst scenario

Individual Failure Preparation
When you are an entrepreneur, you are warned by many other entrepreneurs about failure.  All you're told is that failure is all around you.  "Most businesses fail" is the popular warning you are given.  If that's the case and failure is a very real threat, why isn't this a part of the business planning process?  There are no questions on a business canvas or business plan that ask what will you do if you have to fire your business partners?  What will you do if critical talent leaves without notice?  How will you communicate a mass layoff.  What is bankruptcy going to cost you?  We seem to focus on the best possible outcome and just let ourselves deal the "that bridge when we come it."  This is just blind optimism.  This is a failure to address the brutal realities we may face.  As a CEO or Co-Founder, you must consider these situations.  Here are three processes to prepare yourself for the worst scenario:

  1. Forecast Your Reaction: In your business plan or canvas, add a note to the bottom of each section.  How will I react if I am wrong here?  Then write down how you'd react.  After that, write down how will people I've asked to join me in this journey react to my reaction?  And put yourself in their shoes.
  2. Adjust your assumptions: Based on the notes you make, adjust your plan in terms of talent, funding, marketing, revenue to circumvent the likelihood of this worse scenario becoming reality.  Failure is not an option only when you've trained to avoid a situation that brings you face to face with it.  
  3. Schedule Contemplation Time: Freek Vermeulen is a professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship at the London Business School.  In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, he discusses the importance of taking time for deep uninterrupted thought.  He mentions leaders like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who schedule time to simply sit and think about their companies.  And the final contemplation question Vermeulen emphasizes in his list of five is to consider the long-term consequences?  

Team Failure Preparation
When go to project management or leadership training, most likely, you'll learn about the phases of team development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.  The truth is teams go through Forming, Storming, Storming, Storming, Norming, Storming, Performing, Storming.  You are told a partnership is like a marriage and employees are like your family.  The only thing false about this is the permanent nature of these comparisons.  A marriage and a family are ideally supposed to stay loyal to each other for life.  Does this happen always, no, but that's the goal.  Your team's goal is mission accomplishment.  Your team is guaranteed to not remain in its current form.  You are not bound by blood or a marriage vow.  We get this confused when we involve lawyers!  A founders agreement or employee contract is not a guarantee of a permanent relationship.  For reasons based on talent, shared vision and timing, you are all together for a mission.  A mission that has an end.  A mission that will evolve over time and the same talent you have for this mission today may not be necessary for another mission tomorrow (sometimes if feels like it changes that fast).  Here are three process to prepare your team for the worst possible scenario.

  1. Forecast Your Teams Reaction: After you've filled out your reaction forecast, show your team how you would react in those situations and how you thought they would react.  Then ask one question and shut up, "what do you think?"  
  2. Set an Emergency Plan: Once your team provides the feedback, set up a list of SOPs (standard operating procedures) for your emergency plan.  Consider the following six questions in your business emergency plan:

    • What happened?
    • Who's involved?
    • What needs to be done?
    • How do we communicate our decision?
    • Who communicates it?
    • How do we adapt for the future?
  3. Practice Disciplined faith:  Jim Collins (Good to Great) refers the Stockdale Paradox referring to Admiral Jim Stockdale's behavior during his nine year's spent as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.  Admiral Stockdale was the senior officer in the camp.  He purposely disfigured his face to prevent from being put on camera to spread North Vietnamese propaganda.  He sent secret intelligence in letters home to his wife.  He instituted secret communication with the other prisoners using scratches and taps. The Stockdale Paradox addresses the tension between faith and discipline or optimism and reality.  Admiral Stockdale said the prisoners who died first were "the optimists."  They were the ones who constantly told everyone else, "don't worry fellas, we'll be out by Christmas."  Then Christmas came and went.  They'd say, "Oh, we will be by out by the Spring for sure."  Then Spring came and went.  Eventually they died of hopelessness.  In Victor Fankl's A Man's Search for Meaning, he talks about a concentration camp condition referred to as "give-up-itis." This was a term used by U.S. military personnel to describe when a prisoner would wake one morning and refuse to get out of bed.  They would lay there in their own urine and faeces.  Then they'd have a cigarette and that was the indication that in less than 48 hrs that prisoner would be dead.  This happened even after the prisoners were liberated!  Consider the following questions with your team (you don't have to use the military jargon.  Being genuine is always best):

    • Does this mission still align the meaningful work you'd like to do?
    • Has your job outgrown your skills? If so, who do you think would do it best?
    • Have your skills outgrown your job?  If so, how can your skills serve the mission best?
    • Have you trained your subordinates how to do your job?
    • What problems are we refusing to see?

    Hard Note: Your team must never lose site of the reason you are together.  Their is a bigger mission you have come together for, but you must never shy away from the brutal realities you are faced with.  Otherwise, they will tear your team a part from the inside out.  
"Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision."

Ben Horowitz, Co Founder - Andreessen Horowitz

Hard Note: Sometimes we are forced to make decisions as leaders that no one understands.  When I had to make such a decision in one of my businesses, I was told by a mentor, "Gary, sometimes it's lonely at the top."  At the time, I felt the exact opposite.  I was anywhere but "at the top."  A better piece of advice would have been, "Gary, you got everyone into this and it's your job to get them out."  Leading can sometimes mean guiding our teams to victory, but sometimes it can mean guiding them through defeat.  All you'll have is your character when the dust settles (literally, that's all you may be left with).  As long as you are in alignment with your character, you did your best to act in the best interest of your team and your company, let everything else go.  Making hard decisions that align perfectly with everyone's context is simply not possible.  

The popular term in the startup world for reality colliding with optimism is "The Trough of Sorrows."  In my opinion, this is completely preventable.  At least to a degree that people begin to lose hair, gain weight and have heart attacks.  If we know this is coming, we must prepare for it.  Former Navy Seal Sniper course innovator, Brandon Webb said in a recent HBR article, "You don't rise to the occasion.  You sink to the level of your training." 

As extensive as my military training was, I didn't begin to scratch the service of what some other operators go through.  As much as I consider my work to be important, there are other entrepreneurs right now working on consumer space travel or robotic cars.  However, it does not matter how big the scale of your mission is.  It is the scale with which you prepare to undertake that mission, so whatever the scale, your mission can succeed.  When I left my corporate job in 2012, I was severely naive about the rigors of an entrepreneurial journey.  I let myself be guided by optimism and optimism alone.  Today, I continue on my mission as an entrepreneur, but I do so with faith I'll prevail and discipline to know when I'm in over my head.  You'll need to determine what "in over your head" means to you. 

Learning how to prepare for failure isn't appealing on marketing materials for leadership courses or MBA programs.  It's the dark side of venturing into uncharted waters.  If our aim is to do great work and take people with us, then we have to address the reality that our work may drastically change and the people we motivate and convince to join us may also face the wrath of that change. 

In the end, there are always conditions that we must endure.  Sometimes those conditions are harsh.  Sometimes they are blissful.  Either way, we must be honest about what conditions we will face.  This bolsters courage, humility, adaptability, stewardship and empathy.  I can now admit that it has always been my responsibility to prepare myself and my team for those conditions no matter what they may be.   There will always be scars in exploration.  The trick is being worthy of those scars by doing something worth fighting for not by tearing each other a part because of poor preparation.  

 About the author: Gary Xavier is a group cohesion strategist, leadership speaker and former Marine Sniper who works with forward-thinking organizations on small unit leader behavior through visual media and the spoken word. He is the Chief Exploration Officer of The Blade Group LLC, a leadership development lab based in Northern California. Gary is a member of the National Speakers Association and the Association for Talent Development.  He is the Creative Director at Blade Planet Films, a video production firm that produces media to assist enterprise level organizations provide a cohesive spark for their teams.  Follow Gary on Twitter @garyjxavier or email him at gary@garyxavier.com