This is a transcription of our Interview with Don Schmincke, CEO, Strategic Performance Advisor, Author, Researcher, Keynote Speaker. You can watch the original video interview here or tune in to the podcast episode hereiTunes, Spotify and other podcast apps by searching "Risk Management Show".

Boris: Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to out interview with Don Schmincke.

Don is a former MIT and John Hopkins Institute researcher-turned organizational strategic development consultant. He's the guy CEOs bring in when all the “experts” fail.

Don Schmincke is the author of the Best-Selling books “The High Altitude leadership” and The Code of Executive and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. He is an Award-Winning Speaker, Researcher, Founder of the SAGA Leadership Institute and delivered over 1,700 speeches. 

Don, welcome to our Risk Management Show today.

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Don: Yes, thanks for having me.

Boris: Thank you. Don, with your background I believe that we will have a really a thoughtful conversation about leadership and how risk and security managers should think about Leadership and communicate with the board and senior managers.

Can you give us a little bit more insights about your career path and how does and MIT planetary physicists ended up training CEOs and writing leadership books?

Don: Well, that in itself was a risky path. I almost dropped out of high school early. I was totally bored and I had to repeat the senior year and I said what do I get to do as I’ve got 90 days do the whole senior year which of course I was excited and I did.

And then I ended up going to a community college and then I got involved with computers and all these other things and a couple more people there were from MIT, they were retired and they were enjoying teaching. The next thing I know I'm going to MIT and then things really took off and I ended up getting involved with a lot of different sciences that it would work in earth and planetary physics, but also at the Harvard MIT biomedical laboratory and then some work with the nuclear triad missile systems.

And so it was a good exposure to a variety of engineering and sciences, but it was when I went to Hopkins that I did my graduate work there and ended up teaching there that I started running into a lot of CEOs that were in the executive MBA programs complaining about the high failure rates of management theory because we get 35,000 business books published every year and yet we still have the same chronic problems. So I'm all of a sudden it became interested in that. So I thought this would be another area to explore.

Oxford University gave me permission to use an ancient manuscript. And I had this theory that maybe a lot of our struggles are biological because we have so much in common regarding these problems and they're so ancient, maybe this is a biological pattern.

So I published a book called Code of the Executive based on the 700 year old manuscript the samurai used to train the managers and that went into a dozen languages. And next thing I know I'm on CNN and a lot of press in the Wall Street Journal.

So all of a sudden I was like, wow, somebody is interested in this stuff. And that's how I got here. And so we continue to fund research about biological Leadership and apply it to companies. And so I spent a lot of my time inside corporations, training them on how to do this and growing their sales and organizational performance and so I got here.

Boris: Interesting. You have a samurai leadership theory. There is no deficit of various Leadership books on the market. Well, what, is a special angle about your approach?

Don: We ended up deciding that we had to look at the failure rate. So basically what unique is we stopped studying successful companies because there's a great company lists that we get every year and these best-selling books only last a few years.

So we started using a technique that have been validated for thousands of years, but also coupled with medical research. So in other words, they would have to be proven or understood by biological perspective.

With that, then we would go test and so contrary to a lot of these best-selling books, the authors never really tested or implemented and we thought we were not going to do that. So we went in and only when we saw results in a dramatic sales improvements or internal organization performance, than we begin teaching in publishing it. So it was a longer journey, but we felt that it was defensible, highly defensible and we even give a money back guarantee, which no one was ever doing, but that helped us become better at our scientists and researchers.

Boris: All your research, you did an Oxford or in other places as well?

Don: Oxford gave us access to some very magnificent manuscripts, but most of the expeditions we self fund. So when I'm in Africa or various parts of Asia and going into these extreme environments, just to really study humans, how they lead, what are some of the genetic patterns that may contribute to that? And I have a lot of support at Hopkins, a lot of support from colleagues at Harvard and various universities. Our latest book, High Altitude Leadership was very well supported and it was great.

So I've been blessed to be surrounded by really great researchers and people that like taking this kind of journey.


Boris: So what is your major finding? What do you find was missing in other leadership books?

Don: You can go on to the scholarly databases and find several million hits of articles published on the failure rates Management theory. I have found out that what was missing was we were teaching people what to do and how to do it better, but that wasn't the problem.

We were just giving them tools, but tools don't drive results, people drive results. And so we found, and this is what the anthropologists really helped me understand is that a human decision or human behavior is what drives results.

The tools are sometimes useful, sometimes they aren't, but we were seeing a lot of companies putting millions of dollars into books and theories and consultants and thought leadership and all this other stuff. But when they went to implement, they didn't see a bottom line impact. The thing is that until you can alter human decision, there won't be an impact just giving information out to people and the way to alter the impact is to alter human belief.

So in companies that could shift the beliefs of humans, it altered their decisions and the behaviors, which allow them to use the tools and get the results they want. So we began to realize that Believe Management was a missing part of leadership and of course it was a controversial part, but we didn't let that stop us. We just began developing techniques around that.

Boris: In your last book, High Altitude Management, you explained very dangerous situations where people climb mountains, can you explain what is the one commonly held belief as it relates to Leadership that you would like to debunk in this book?

Don: We ended up probably upsetting a lot of people when we started debunking of some of these theories and High Altitude Leadership was written with Chris Warner, who was one of the top climbers in the world. I met Chris claiming in the Andes and we decided to do this book when he was filming for NBC about the K2 summit. In that time we began to realize how putting people in death by own environments allow us to observe biological Leadership reaction and things like that.

So that's where the danger came from. There were a number of things that we were able to debunk or substitute with some sort of a valid science and one of those things is really that we need more than a mission statement teams perform when they have something formidable ahead of them, where they need each other in order to survive.

Now, this happened in real time, the K2 of NBC now is available, a wonderful film, but for us, we ran into a lot of CEOs that had good mission statements and purpose and vision statements and Why statements.

But they didn't have language that inspired people to engage a formidable challenge when they need each other. And there was something special about needing each other because if they didn't need each other, they started feeding on each other.

And what would you mean by that? You mean like destructive political behavior. And a lot of CEOs felt that half the time in my company is being spent on politics, and that is such a waste.

I mean, when you calculate the payroll and benefits of people just wasting their time. And so for us, we found out that it is not about having a nice motivational mission statement, it's about having something that people can bond together around and be willing to suffer and sacrifice together. And no one was teaching suffering. It was all at the opposite, oh, we need happy employees. Okay, this is cool. But the dangerous question is what do they do when they're not happy? Do they turn and run or do they lock arms and going to battle with it?

So we started opening up all this that had scientific backing and historical backing. The history is littered with these stories that validate like this is what happened. When we started doing that, we started seeing organizational performance accelerate at dramatic levels and including revenues.

Boris: If we follow up with your thinking, how does someone who is hearing this for the first time, takes action based on your book, just to understand it?


Don: Well, a lot of it is heartful. So we were trying to find a way to come up with like a checklist or some steps that people would take. But we found out that the tools are great for what do I get to do and how do I do it differently? But the tools are just tools, the art of crafting the beliefs of humans is an entirely different concept. And given that it's art, there are no checklists.

Boris: So what you teach them? It should be sort of an applicable science that you teach, right?

Don: Yes. What we did is we ended up coming up with a framework that seemed to incorporate a lot of what we're talking about here a little bit in a way that it could be applied.

We took the normal process that we have. Most CEOs and executives start with the strategy and we get a strategic planning, and then they go to the Leadership to implement a strategy, training and development at work.

And then we have to worry about culture, organizational structure, and how we execute. We took all those tools and we said, okay, what are the belief drivers missing?

And we came up with an entirely different scale of things that applied more dramatically strategic intuition. So one step would be reset your entire strategic plan.

If you're not out intuiting or outmaneuvering the enemy, you don't have a strategy, you have just tactics? Instead of a mission statement, come up with a compelling saga, passion that takes your winning formula and the language that inspires people from wanting to suffer and sacrifice for a formidable goal ahead of them.

And then we looked at tribal grouping behaviors for learning culture, we looked at complex thinking capacity using the work of doc Dr. Elliott Jackson, a psychiatric theories according to complex thinking of levels.

And then we used Black Hawk down. How do you execute the plan when it's in a total failure? When we looked at adaptation, which actually now, at least to some of the work I'm doing with George Stalk, he wrote the Harvard business review article on disruption about a year ago.

So George and I get together for a couple hours every week. And we actually incorporated him in a samurai course that we have online now. And it's all about looking at disruption at either you're going to be the disruptor, or are you going to have to avoid disruption? And you don't have any choice, but now when we come out of a COVID, we can see this more magnified. 

Boris: Interesting. If there is one thing that would be aspired leaders should start doing right now that they are not doing currently, what would it be?

Don: Well, I think for us, this is step back in and ask yourself, do I have a real strategy for winning, or do I just have a tactical plan? We would just have a business meeting, we come up with the budget, you know, when your goals metrics is that all we have.

If that all you have, you're just stuck in an analytical quandary that chances are that you won't outmaneuver the industry. You have to ask how did these small companies start in an industry and within their lifetime dominate the industry, by violating expert opinion, violating industry analysis to go the opposite direction and win and dominate. That's the point.

So I would say the CEO needs to look at what does this mean? Because once you have a winning formula, it's easier for you to look at issues around risk, because now you have a strategic way to make a more balanced decision on Risk and that's because it is a risk, right? I mean, you can try to follow and be analytically safe, but that doesn't seem to contribute to a competitive advantage.

Boris: So as an entrepreneur, you have your own business, Saga Leadership Institute. So my question is what is the most important lesson that you have learned through your years of entrepreneurship ?

Don: Let it go and let it die. Those things that I thought were correct, how many times are we get stuck? Because it when I was studying a samurai and that's why I created the course on how to become a samurai, because people were saying, how do I become samurai? Or what is it about my fears that are stopping me? And usually if I attached to something, I have to let it die. And if I can let it die and I could die properly and not physically, but certainly in terms of your ego, your beliefs, it didn't freeze you to achieve two things that I do not see taught in our business schools very much, and that is how to suffer and sacrifice by becoming more brave and more honorable.

So the issue of bravery and honor, I think, is what I've learned as an entrepreneur is if we can continue to let die those fears that we're attached to, we will have more opportunity. That's what was taught 700 years ago, and we've applied it now.

I've done about 2000 CEO group speeches. So if we do the math, I probably have trained over 115,000 CEOs, and I have very few people walk out of this workshop saying, I don't understand what you just said.

It's almost like the light goes on and they say, of course, some freaking obvious, like I had just finished a speech to a group in Canada before I came on and several of them said, I wish I had learned this 20 years ago. And so a lot of it is obvious, but it's been lost, I think.

Boris: It's funny that samurais are in the center of your teaching because samurais kind the instinct class because how Japan is evolved in more technological society and samurais couldn't evolve.

Don: It's interesting what happened with samurais, they lost technology advantage because guns were invented and they had a problem. It was interesting about the survival of the samurai concept, which we see in a lot of our movies and television shows. We see these icons to have the samurai presence because somehow it touched the world in a way where even today it still take those themes forward.

I think, within each of us, we do have that desire to be brave and honorable, and they left us an iconic metaphor if you will to capture that essence.

Boris: You're a serious person and your company is doing the serious business but I wonder whether you have some funny stories to tell based on your vast experience.


Don: When I do my workshops, I just finished one, as I said before I got on here, I had a three hour workshop and I had to hire a speech coach and he told me how to be humorous because I'm teaching death and dying. What is this? So it was helpful. So in my workshops today, we try to have some fun with it.

And it's been great because I love to teach. It's always easy to teach when people have fun with it and you can see something that works. So, I think for any leader or CEO, when you're going in to looking at altering the beliefs of people, I think once we detach a bit from what we take so seriously, we have the freedom to do more innovation.

Boris: For example, if we take a relationship of a risk manager and senior leadership, board which is very often discussed in our community of risk managers. So who has to become samurai - risk manager, CEO board to enhance personal relationship and transform culture of the company.

Don: When I did the becoming samurai course, it was really designed for everyone. So every employee, every professional, every Executive, will learn their internal journey to have bravery and honor. I'm going to release an advanced course later, which says, okay, if you're a leader of others, here are those elements, which is a different category of things. And it's all in the book, the Code of the Executive, because I had to take out pieces that were appropriate for personal growth and separate them from a leader who leads others.

It would have to be ideally everyone. Now, how can everyone be same way? Of course not. I mean, there's certain areas where selfishness and ego, they're just not able to get asked that.

However when it comes to areas of risk management, I think the best way to begin with the strategic context. And that means to have people engaged and what is our strategy for winning.

From the ancients to this day when we do strategic planning for companies, it's not that complicated. They told us this in the military for thousands of years, whereas the battlefield you're going too, who's the real enemy they're and how do you win? And once everybody can get aligned around winning than it's easier to look at the structures and policies and procedures related to Risk and why we need that in order to perform.

And maybe there's areas that we don't need so much, because maybe our company is shifting. So I think if we can speak to each other from a strategic context, it has more power and gets more support as opposed to endless arguments or battles between, opinions.

Boris: Fantastic. Just finalyzing, if someone who's listening to this interview would like to walk away with one or two major takeaways what would that be?

Don: I would say, if you're listening to the podcasts that might have brought up some things of that you want to look at in terms of yourself, what are the things you're hanging on to that's stopping you from making progress. And then the second thing is what has to die for you to let go of those things? And people have been asking me because I've been doing a lot of podcasts, so there some micro courses or something to take. And so if people want to go to the SagaLeadership.com/podcast, I stole that from the Nordic, tribes, the Vikings.

I'm trying to upload a lot of things there too. Just questions or techniques, some things people can use, because I can't get to everyone. And I like to continue to further this research and this education. So that will be things there for everyone to look at it for sure.

Boris: Fantastic. Thank you, Don. I have asked all my questions. So if I missed something, would you like to add something to our audience?

Don: No, I think you are on a good mission. And I think that, the industry you represent is necessary. I like to be seen as more strategic because some cases when I go in the companies, the areas of risk and security and all that are more tactical, operationally focused when really, I think, there should be participation at a strategic level.

Especially today as we get into industries that are under disruption, industries that are fine to use disruption to move ahead quickly. These are important questions.

thank you very much for your time today.

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