9 things I’ve learned about leadership in executive protection

June 22, 2016 - By Travis Hess

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I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great leaders during my career. In this blog I’d like to share what I’ve learned from them about leadership in executive protection.

1. Harness the power of purpose

One of the most important things I’ve learned in the protection industry is that our services are about more than protection. Sure, we keep our clients safe. That’s the underlying reason for everything we do. But the true purpose of our profession goes well beyond that.

Our reason to be? It’s to enable our clients to get on with their lives comfortably and productively without having to worry about the risks and threats that might otherwise result in unwanted interruptions at best, and actual harm at worst.

Good leaders make the higher purpose of executive protection clear from day one – and they continue to follow up on it every day. Great results come from everyone on the team understanding the “why” of what we do – not just the “what” and “how”.

2. Take pride in all the little things that add up to consistent, high performance

A lot of people have the mistaken idea that working in executive protection will make them feel like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.  But while we are often close to prominent people, that’s about where the similarity ends.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of what we do is far less glamourous than hanging out with Hollywood divas. Still, we need to take pride in even the smallest tasks that are presented to us, from walking the dogs to cleaning up after them.

When I was a team leader in the Army I always looked at how my team presented itself – not just in the public eye, but also behind closed doors. Did they see the value of doing things properly even when no one was looking? Did they clean the rim of the toilet that they just leaked on? Did they fold and put away their clothes with care? Did they mop the floors with the same pride that inspired them to enlist?

Good leaders motivate people to excel in all they do. It doesn’t matter how big or small the task is: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. When leaders show the way by their own actions, they speak volumes about how the team should perform, and why.

3. When it comes to vision, go big or don’t go at all

It’s important to understand that limitation begins where vision ends. When we lose sight of our goals, it’s easy to let negative thoughts affect our behavior. And then we’re headed for failure.

Good leaders in this industry understand that we all need to be less afraid of failing at something great than failing at something mediocre. They’re not as concerned with what others may think as they are on staying focused on the team’s results.

Think of building a great protection program like building a strong wall. You don’t get a wall just because you envisioned it. You get it by laying each and every brick just so, with care and precision.

Individual team members’ results add up to something really big. When the team is dedicated to setting new standards rather than sticking to what’s normal, they’re on their way to revolutionizing the company. When the entire company is dedicated to the same goals and sees the same big picture, then they’re revolutionizing the industry. We’ve got great leaders who share that goal and make sure that even the newest employee gets the picture. Because that’s what great leaders do.

4. Don’t “try” to do it. Do it. Then do it even better.

One word I really can’t stand is “try”. “I’ll try to do this better… I’ll try to do it this way”.

I will not have people who use “try” on my team. Because when you say “try”, you’ve already decided that you’re not up to the task and you’ve made failure an acceptable outcome. It isn’t.

We aren’t trying to be better at mediocrity, we’re working at achieving greatness. Saying “try” lets leaders and team members off the hook.

Good leaders don’t provide wriggle room on what matters. They set standards and encourage teams to exceed them.  Then they reset their standards and motivate people to exceed those, too. It’s a never ending cycle of getting better than we were the day before.

5. Turn the negative to the positive

Negativity, left unchecked, eats away at the team’s will to win. It’s got to be addressed and reversed.    

Good leaders detect negativity and then repurpose its energy toward achieving the team’s goals. They find solutions that turn negative spirals into positive steps ahead. And they do it quickly, because they know that the simple action of moving forward leaves no room for unconstructive, backward thinking.

6. Listen to the entire team – and be open to good ideas from everyone

If a team member thinks his or her contribution is not as valued as someone’s who has been there longer, then the team leader has failed that member.

Contribution is not based on résumés or titles, and good leaders know it. They understand that they might not always be the smartest person in the room on every matter, and that even the newest employee might have the best idea on how to handle a particular task.

That is another reason that they are good at visualizing team goals and breaking them down into concrete tasks: this ensures team effort and involvement – especially when everyone on the team knows that positive contributions to team success are always welcome.

7. Make the most of what you’ve got. And you’ve got more than you might realize.

Real success is the fulfillment of one’s true potential, something that is far more enriching than simply getting a raise or a promotion. The worst day of reaching your true potential will always be better than your best day of being mediocre.

Good leaders get this at both the individual and team levels. They encourage team members to continuously improve as they discover their actual potential – something that they might never get around to in less ambitious, more complacent settings. They encourage the entire team to do the same.

8. Sell the meaning behind the seemingly meaningless

Good leaders sell the meaning behind what seems to be meaningless.

While it might seem pointless for the executive protection team to spend time on keeping their area neat and clean, for example, it isn’t. Even a simple thing like taking out the trash in your CP matters. It’s not because we’re in the trash disposal business; it’s because keeping your AO clean means you look professional, and you’re making good use of time on the clock. Whether the principal walks in or not.

Good leaders paint a vision of success that is crystal clear. They don’t motivate people to excellence in day-to-day tasks by threatening with their own or the principal’s anger. They motivate people by helping them understand the real purpose of what we do, and how even the most mundane, repetitive tasks contribute to that success.

9. Own the team’s mistakes – and be gracious with gratitude

I had the good fortune to learn a wonderful lesson in leadership from a man named Stewart Scott, who told me “When things go wrong, say ‘I’. When things go right, say ‘we’.”

Good leaders get this instinctively. They know that mission success depends on solid team effort, and they recognize their responsibility in making this happen. That’s why they’re appreciative of teams striving to deliver and going the extra mile.

A simple, sincere “thank you” can motivate great performance more than a pay raise. Enough said.

Travis Hess

RST and Executive Protection Agent

An experienced executive protection agent, Travis has a background in the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), the Army’s oldest active infantry unit that is the Official Escort to the President of the United States.