25: A Navy SEAL on how leadership impacts lives with Ty Smith. This interview is an absolute treasure. Ty shares leadership lessons learned from his 20-year Navy career that apply to any area of your life. We dive into his upbringing, time with the teams, and his post-military career. There’s also a part in the interview where patriotism, division, and unity are discussed; a truly impactful segment. An incredibly impactful interview. I challenge you to take some of these lessons learned and apply to your own life, particularly in the area of leadership.
#25: A Navy SEAL on how leadership impacts lives with Ty Smith
July 15, 2020 • 1:02:07
Aaron Spatz, Host, America’s Entrepreneur
Ty Smith, Founder and CEO, Vigilance Risk Solutions
I’m Aaron Spatz. And this is The Veterans Business Podcast. A podcast centered around the stories of US military veterans and their adventures in the business world following their time in service, its stories of challenges and obstacles and an inside look at how veterans find their life’s work, their purpose, and their post-military lives.
Before we get started, I just need to let you know, there’s just a couple of choice words, which is why I had to mark it as E but nothing crazy, whatsoever. Hope you enjoy. Welcome to The Veterans Business Podcast. I’m so excited that you’re joining us today. If you haven’t had the chance to subscribe, please do subscribe either on YouTube or the show is obviously broadcast over audio – Apple, Spotify, wherever you get your podcast. And most importantly, I would love if you were to share with your community, share with your network about the show and what it’s meant to you.
I’m super excited to introduce our guest this week. I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming Ty Smith to the program. So Ty’s a 20-year US Navy veteran. He retired as a senior chief in 2016. Ty initially enlisted as a military policeman before getting accepted to BUD/S where he ultimately earned the Trident and title Navy SEAL Ty served in teams worldwide with many combat deployments. And before retirement, he successfully earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which is nuts, Ty. The latter of which was at USC Marshall School of Business. Since retirement, he has been very active in the community, and is the founder and CEO of Vigilance Risk Solutions. Ty, thank you so much, man, for being on the show.
Thanks, Aaron. I’m honored and humbled to be here. Thank you so much.
Awesome. Awesome. Pleasure’s all mine. But no, yeah, give us a little bit of insight into who you are, what who was Ty growing up and then what motivated you to join the military?
Sure. So I was born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, right on the Illinois-Missouri border on the Illinois side. It’s always important that I point that out. And I was the oldest of five, son of a lady police officer. Extremely tough, but fair and brilliant woman who happens to be my mom. And growing up in East St. Louis, it was an experience, man. But I would have to say that I was a good kid growing up and that is primarily because I had great leadership in my family. My family, we were never even close to being rich. In fact, we were the exact opposite. When it comes to money, we never really had it, but we were extremely wealthy on the ideals of servant leadership and love and kindness and respect to people.
And so, because of that, I think I grew up a pretty good kid. I didn’t give my mom and my aunts and my grandparents, who pretty much raised me, much grief. Maybe I got into a little trouble from time to time, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was really fortunate in that. You know, my mom just did a very good job with the very little that she had. And so, you know, it led to me being the person that I am today. And, you know, growing up in East St. Louis, I knew I didn’t have much of an option. No one had ever talked to me about college. But when I was 12 years old, I saw that old Charlie Sheen movie, Navy SEALs. And for some reason, that just kind of stuck with me over the year. So when I was 17, graduated from high school, or 18, maybe, I immediately enlisted in the Navy, and said that, hey, I got to get out of East St. Louis. There’s nothing good for me here other than my family. And so that’s what led to me joining the military. And I’m really grateful because it was probably the best decision I ever made my entire life.
Yeah. There’s so many people, I think, that that story will resonate with. Because there’s a lot of folks out there that, I mean, they may have come from really rough backgrounds or really great backgrounds, but they want to make a change. They want to get away from where they were and joining the military is a great way to do that. So share with us a little bit of then of course, you know, what all you had the privilege of doing? I mean, you served a certain awesome 20-year career. So just give us a little bit of an idea of what that looked like.
Yeah, sure. I guess I’ll try to talk from the macro level to try to keep my answers relatively short.
No, you’re good.
I spent nearly five years in Sardinia, Italy as a master-at-arms or military police officer. And that time was phenomenal. I became nearly fluent in Italian. I was totally embraced by their Sardinian culture to this day. Those people love me and will tell you that I am Sardinian. And they’re just some of the best friends I’ve ever had my entire life. I got there when I was an 18-year-old kid. And I left there in February 2002 as I was leaving to come here to Coronado to check-in the SEAL training. And I just had a phenomenal life there. And again, it’s due to the Navy. I was getting money in my pocket every 1st and 15th to live in Sardinia, eat great food, learn different cultures, learn different language, and just have experiences that were out of this world.
But, you know, my time there had to end because on September 11th, 2001, the United States suffered a massive tragedy in the terror attack in New York. And so I was approved to get to training about a week after that happened. And it saw me checking into Coronado, and I think it was February 2002. And training this time around was really, really special because I knew that I was so ready in my heart and in my mind. And I knew that I prepared every day for a couple of years before I got the BUD/S training. Like there is no tomorrow, every day.
In fact, the Italians, my friends would tell me that all of the older Italians and, you know, around La Maddalena and Palau, where I live, would call me the crazy American because, you know, it’d be four o’clock in the morning and they see, you know, this dude running out of the surf zone with a mask on and fins and, you know, putting on tennis shoes on the beach after finishing a two-mile ocean swim by myself and starting a ten-mile run before work because I was just that focused.
So when I got to training, I was really, really ready. I was really focused and also I was very, very pissed off at what our country had just gone through. So, you know, from day one, I was chomping at the bit to do work on behalf of this nation so that the world understands that there’s a reason why we’re the greatest nation in the world and you can’t pick on our citizens that way. So fortunately, I successfully navigated training and wound up being assigned to SEAL Team 8 out in Little Creek, Virginia in the Norfolk area. And I think that was around July of 2003.
And I had a phenomenal time at SEAL Team 8. I have phenomenal leadership. Oh my God, my leadership, the entire time I was at SEAL Team 8, so good. From the platoon chief level all the way up through the commanding officer. I just had wonderful support and people that were constantly purposely putting me in a position to excel. And whenever I did make a mistake, instead of turning their back on me, they mentored me and I learned from it and I grew from it. And it really just set the pace for my entire career in NSW. Because from the time I was a brand new guy, I was showed the example of how I was supposed to lead when it was my turn. And that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
And so I had a great career at SEAL Team 8, left there in 2007, came back out to Coronado as a BUD/S instructor for about two and a half years. And then I took orders to SEAL Team 1. And SEAL Team 1 pretty much kept me for the rest of my career. I had just had a phenomenal time. Again, I had great leadership. And because of that, you know, I had people, and I guess he’s still on active duty, but I guess it’s okay for me to say his name. Actually, no, I won’t.
I had a command master chief that was a very big man physically, but he was also a very big man in his heart and his spirit. And he took a lot of time to mold me and to give me the opportunity that I needed to excel. And because of that, I wound up being put into a leadership position as a platoon chief at Team 1. And Team 1 kept me from E-6 damn near through E-8 and I’m E-8 because of SEAL Team 1. But I got the opportunity to finally do things my way and to lead a SEAL platoon as the, as the platoon chief or the person that’s tactically in charge. Whereas the OIC, the officer in charge, is in command, I finally got a chance to be in charge tactically.
And that was just the time of my life. It was the great. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I got a chance to lead my men through, you know, nearly five months of extremely kinetic warfare in Afghanistan and we got a lot done. And because of that, it really kind of put the icing on the cake for me. And I knew that at that point, you know, I was approaching 18 years, I think, at that point when we got back. And so I knew that I was rapidly approaching the time where it’s time for me to hang it up. So again, I had a fantastic career in NSW, but one of the things that was really cool about arriving at that particular time was that, again, I had leadership – people that were pulling me aside and going, hey, Ty, you’re going to be transitioning soon. What’s your plan? Do you have college knocked out? Do you know where you’re going to work? Have you started your VA paperwork?
Those are people that just cared about me, you know, from the beginning to the end. And that’s why I was successful throughout my career at NSW. And that’s why, you know, I wound up, like you said, I knocked out my bachelor’s degree. I rolled right into Marshall Business School and knocked out my Master of Business for Veterans degree at USC. But it’s because there were people that cared about me that were pointing me in the directions of these opportunities, knowing that it would set me up for the rest of my life. So, yeah, man, that’s the story from the macro level. I had a phenomenal career, but it wasn’t necessarily because of me, it was because I had great leadership. I’m so lucky.
Yeah. No, I love that. I love the story of leadership there and there’s a thousand directions I want to go right now because it’s really remarkable. And I guess I’ve got a couple of questions and I may say that for the end. But one thing I kept hearing you say over and over and over again, was just, you know, the way that the leadership culture there was, you know, whether it was Team 8 or Team 1 or any other duty assignments that you may have had, I mean, it was a very positive leadership culture. And so the words I kept hearing you say, you know, people were asking about me, people actually cared and they were, I mean, it was really, they were mentoring you, right? They’re taking the time to like, hey man, you may not know what you don’t know. So here’s something to think about. Is that right?
Absolutely. And more importantly, you know, those leaders were empathetic to me as a human being and to what I had going on outside of the Navy, even while I was on active duty, and what I would have going on outside of the Navy once I transitioned into the civilian workforce. Those people were genuinely concerned with my wellbeing beyond their command. You know, that’s real leadership. These were people that were looking at me and molding me and going, hey, man, I want you to continue growing not just as a SEAL but as a person, even when I’m no longer responsible for you. And I’m putting that burden on you to make sure that you do that for the sailor soldiers and airmen and Marines that you raise based off the information that I’m teaching you right now.
Yeah. That’s powerful. It’s super powerful. And I mean, unfortunately, I feel like it’s a rarity, right? It’s not every day that you walk into a company or an organization – I’m talking now on the civilian side, even in the military, though – where you’ve got leaders that genuinely give a crap about you personally when you’re not in uniform. Like when you’re not on duty, when you’re not on deployment or in garrison, it’s like caring about your specific path. Where do you think that comes from in terms of that leadership culture? Because someone had taught you how to do that. And then they’re instilling that in you. And so no doubt, you’re doing that. But where do you think that originates and where do you think that that is able to be grown?
Well, I think that the military does a phenomenal job of growing human beings and growing leaders and teaching people the science of leadership and what’s really important about leadership. So I know that for me, personally, my abilities as a leader come from my family because growing up in East St. Louis. And when you grow up with without a lot, I don’t know, it kind of forces you to be empathetic because you know what it’s like to not have anything. You know what it’s like to be hungry. You know what it’s like to not be popular or have money in your pocket, wear the best clothes. You know what it’s like to hurt so it forces you to be an empathetic person if you’re open to it. You either become an empathetic person or you become an extremely mean and angry person and resentful person all the time.
I decided to go the other direction because I was surrounded by people that loved me. And then when I got in the military, for some reason, again, I was surrounded by people that loved me, people that were attracted to my energy. And one of the things that I worry about is that throughout my career in the military, I feel like I was seeing a change in military culture and especially in Navy Special Warfare, in how leaders were interacting with the operators and how the operators were interacting with leadership. And I feel like I started to witness a change in the culture. Because one of the reasons why I think I did well as a platoon chief, and I guess you can say, it depends on the definition of doing well. When I say doing well, that means that my boys loved me and they followed me into combat over and over and over again without ever questioning me. And I brought them home safely. So to me, I called that a success.
And I think that I was successful because of those lessons that I learned from people that had learned those lessons before me. And I feel like over time, I was seeing a change in how people were leading and how they were teaching others to lead. And I started to see the development of arrogance again in the SEAL teams and people losing their military bearing. And so I thought that it was really important when I became a platoon chief to kind of take it back to the old school a little bit and teach the men that I was responsible for leading the lessons that I learned from what I would say is the “old school way of leading” in the military.
And for me, I feel like the difference that I saw is it’s how we communicate with one another. It was how we communicated with one another. For example, you know, when I first came into the SEAL teams, there were plenty of times where two dudes would have a disagreement and so they would close the platoon door and they would have it out. They would talk it out. And if they wound up throwing blows, they wound up throwing blows. But then after that, they would talk it out again. They would drink beer together and they would be okay. And in my opinion, it’s okay to solve a problem that way in between two individuals. Because again, we’re professionals. And at the end of this, we have to get past whatever that was so that we can continue mission. And over time, I saw that sort of change, and that was hurtful to me. And so when I got a chance to be a platoon chief, I said, no, I’m going to do things my way. And my way is the way that I learn from people like, you know, Master Chief Retired Matt May and Master Chief Retired Jason Tuschen. And those guys retired now so I can say their name.
But I think that I was successful because I learned that type of leadership. And I can’t tell you, Aaron, I can’t exactly put my finger on, you know, how the military is teaching that today or exactly why my leaders taught me those lessons. But I can tell you that it works. I can tell you that it’s important. I can tell you that empathetic leadership is critical. I can tell you that it’s critical that you learn to listen to understand. It is critical that you care so much about the people within your tribe that you want to be concerned with growing them even beyond your command. Or when they leave your company to go work for another company, you want to know that that person is still growing because of the lessons that you’ve taught them. So I can’t tell you exactly where it comes from or why it’s important, but I can tell you that I believe my entire heart that is important.
And I could not agree with you more. I think it’s absolutely vital and it’s a fascinating thing to study, right? It’s a fascinating idea. Because, you know, I mean every branch of the military and even sub communities such as Spec War, but you know, I’m thinking even just the Marine Corps community. And again, you’ve got like little subcultures within different jobs and communities. And so, you know, like where does that come from? And then not only where does it come from, but how has it sustained? And I really do think a lot of it is, you mentioned a minute ago, just like this tribal, almost like a tribal knowledge. You know, it’s almost like Native American history just being transferred from generation to generation through oral history. And you’re teaching or you’re writing down the things that you’ve learned and you’re transferring that to the next generation to make them as strong or stronger than the culture that you came from.
And so I think it’s phenomenal. And no doubt, an incredible opportunity for you to have a massive impact on people. And I was thinking back to what you said earlier in our discussion about – I can’t help but smile just to think of how pumped you must’ve been, man, knowing that you were already training for BUD/s obviously when you’re in Sardinia, right? Your ocean swims and long freaking beach runs. And then knowing that 9/11 happened, I mean, obviously the tragedy. I mean that with all absolute utmost respect to the families of those and all the collateral of that. But then understanding, too, you know what though? This is what I’ve been training for. I’ve been training for an opportunity to go take care of business.
And so I can’t imagine… I can only imagine the difference in the atmosphere at BUD/s, how that changed in the months immediately following 9/11. Because now not that it wasn’t any more serious prior, too, but now you had a very real – like you’re probably thinking and your instructors probably were even telling you that, you know, hey, it is a foregone conclusion that you’re heading overseas to deal with this problem right now. And so what was that like for you going through that? And then again, I’m going to ask you the second part of the question just to jump ahead so you can run with this. But then what was it like for you when you came back as an instructor knowing that you had to then pass on all this knowledge?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And in answering that question, I’m actually going to tell you something that I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken publicly about this, but I think it’s important that I do so that I can really put some context around this contrast that you’re asking me about. So when I first joined the Navy, when I was a 17, going on 18, I think, you know, I went to BUD/s almost right away as an 18-year-old punk kid. And I got my ass handed to me and I ended up quitting in hell week. And that’s when I wound up going to school to be an MP. And I went over to Sardinia, Italy, you know, licking my wounds with my tail between my legs and understanding that I wasn’t ready. Physically, I was ready. I’ve always been an athlete, but mentally, oh my God, wouldn’t even close. I was behind. I was immature. I had a lot of growing that I needed to do.
And it’s funny because when I consider what BUD/s was like been then compare it to what BUD/s was like almost five years later when I went back within five months of 9/11 happening, it was totally different. It was totally different. For example, when I first attempted SEAL training and what was that? ‘97, I think it was. Most of those instructors didn’t have combat experience. They were in between wars. A couple of them had gotten lucky and maybe they were over at the command at the time and they got a little bit of something done in desert storm. But for the most part, most of those guys didn’t have combat experience. And so they didn’t understand what I understand now and why empathetic leadership and leadership in itself is so very, very important.
And you could tell, especially when I look back on it in retrospect. But when I got there, February of 2002, the energy in the air was on fire. It was absolutely on fire. And I will never forget. I will never forget the night that I checked in the training when I got the Coronado and I think it was around nine or ten o’clock at night when I finally – because I had driven, you know, I bought a car in Georgia and then I drove it from Georgia out to Coronado when I got back to the US. And I remember checking in to BUD/s that night and I won’t say the name of the instructor – because he’s actually still in – that helped me to check in. And I just remember his energy. I remember the seriousness of the situation. But just to the commanding presence that he had when I checked in.
And when I checked in and the guys behind the front desk, they’re taking my information, yada, yada, yada, and I was getting ready to – because he was on duty that night, right? So he was there the entire time. So I was getting ready to grab my stuff and go, you know, they’re going to show me to my room at the barracks. And he looked at me. And he looked at me and he said, “You know what you’re here to do, right?” And I said, “Yeah. We got instructed. I know what I’m here to do.” And he said, “You’re going to do it, right? You know what’s at stake, right?” And I said, “Yeah. I do know what’s at stake.” And he said, “Okay.” And that was it. That was it. That was all he said. That was all he needed to say to me.
So when I got there, it was also a little harder because the instructors, you had guys that were very, very angry for a couple of reasons. You had guys that were angry because they were patriots of this country and they had witnessed an assault on their country. And they were chomping at the bit to get overseas and make the enemies of this country pay. But they were also angry because they were chomping at the bit to get overseas and make the enemy pay and instead they were instructed to be. Their timing was off. And so I felt the wrath of that too.
Yeah. I bet you did.
So, yeah. Because of all of that, it was a different experience. And I have to tell you that, you know, that second time around was, I don’t know if it could have been any different for me. I don’t know if it could have been any different. There was never – not even once – a time in my heart where I consider maybe this still isn’t for you. No, I smiled through the pain. I laughed through evolutions. I had instructors looking at me and going that dude is psychotic. And I’m like, you have no idea. The Taliban is going to find out someday, you know, but I just felt like I was being commanded by something that was much larger than myself, and I was. And that’s where I really started to learn that lesson. So yeah, man, it was different.
Yeah. I suspected as much. I can only imagine just the seriousness in the air and just the atmosphere changing. So that’s pretty cool. What was it like for you – and then we’ll move on to business topics. But what was it like for you to come back to the schoolhouse then some years later?
I got to tell you a lot of that time was emotional. Because by that time, you know, I’d done a couple of pumps as a SEAL. And I lost some friends. I lost some friends. And so I knew what I was preparing those men for. I knew the burden that I was placing on them, whether they knew it or not. I knew the expectation I was placing on them, whether they knew it or not. And I knew that I was sending them into harm’s way. I was asking something incredible of them. So, yeah, it was different. I had an understanding that a lot of the instructors that put me through training didn’t. Like I said, only a couple of them had that understanding. Only a couple of them had had combat experience at that point. And so I thought that it was really important that I start talking to students from day one about some of those things that I’ve learned and about some of the ways that being in the SEAL Teams that changed my life, some of the ways that combat had changed me.
I’m glad I did that. Because to this day, I run into SEALs that I put through training that now have the combat experience that they didn’t have. Now they get it. They understand like, oh my god, now I understand why Instructor Smith was saying that to me. And it feels really good when those guys walk up and go, “Hey, man, I remember when you said exactly this to me in training and I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. And thank you.” That is, I mean, I can’t even tell you how good that feels when that happens.
So yeah, you know, when I was an instructor, I had some experience and I realized that, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that it wasn’t in the curriculum for us to talk to students about this stuff. And it’s because it was all new information to us. You know what I mean? A lot of the guys that put me through training, they didn’t… you know. I wound up checking into the team and going into combat for the very first time with some of those instructors that put me through it. So they hadn’t learned those lessons. And I thought it was really important to share that with the students because no one – when I was going through training, they didn’t really talk to us about PTSD. They didn’t really talk to us about how horrible it feels to the bury your friend. And they didn’t really talk to us about how you never stop mourning those people and how this is something that you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your life.
But I thought it was important to do that for the students when I was a BUD/s instructor because I learned those lessons. And again, I think that that’s a very important part of being an empathetic leader is knowing that the people that you lead are going to have to go through some stuff. They’re going to go through some stuff that they don’t even know they’re going to go through yet. It’s really important that you prepare them for that and that they know that you have their back through it. And if you have to carry them through it, you will. Because that’s what you do for one another overseas. So you have to do that for one another right here as well – in training, in personal instances, it doesn’t matter. So, yeah, I think I got a lot out of that and I like to think that the students got a lot out of it because I still hear some of those stories to this day.
Oh, no doubt. No doubt they got a lot. I mean, you probably remember every one of your instructors.
Some more than most.
Right. And whether they know it or not, there’s a part of you that looks up to them because they were like the big brother, they were like the father.
That helps shepherd you through that. And so whether or not you realize it, and I know you realize that, but every single one of those students that came through that you had the privilege to train, absolutely, there’s an element of them that will look up to you for the rest of their lives, whether they will ever admit it or not. And so, yeah, absolutely. It’s a great, great honor to be in an instructor type position because especially in your specific case. I mean, you were a freshman. I mean, you got done and you’re gone. You’re overseas, like you said, so when you came back, I mean, you had some real get some real intel, some real knowledge to share and made a huge difference. And I just want to thank you, man. Thank you for your 20 years of service and thank you for making it happen and just for all the things that you did. I really, really do treasure that.
Well, I thank you and I appreciate you saying that, Aaron. And thank you for your service. I really appreciate your service because no one forced us to sign up. And in my opinion, I think that’s why I am so grateful for my time as a BUD/s instructor because I understand that those students took a lot of leadership and guidance and example from me. But I think it’s also really important that every one of those people understand that I also learned from them. I did. I was also inspired by them. Like I said, no one put a gun to our head and forced us to sign up. Even though we knew our country was at war, we raised our hands and did that ourselves and said, “Send me. I’ll go. This is my home. I have to defend it.”
So every day, watching those students literally just get beat down all day, all night, without fail, and watching the conviction, feeling, the energy from these young men going through training knowing that they were going into harm’s way and understanding that they were part of something that was bigger than themselves and they were willing to lay it all on the line for this country and for the people that they love, I learned a lot from that and I was inspired.
Absolutely. For sure. Tell us then about your decision to get out. We talked briefly about your education, which I think that’s phenomenal that you’re able to knock that out. No doubt you’re a master of time management of some sort back then. And then share with us a little –
I don’t know if I’ve mastered anything, but I’m working.
Right. Working towards mastery.
There you go.
Yeah. So share with us the decision to get out and then what led you to do what you’re doing today?
Sure. So in October, November of 2014, I think it was, I was returning from, like I said, an extremely kinetic deployment in Afghanistan as a platoon chief. And I mean, gosh, we were in anywhere between seven and 18-hour gunfights twice a week for the entire fighting season, that whole summer in Afghanistan. The great deployment. My boys performed superbly. I couldn’t be more proud of a leader. It was just incredible. It was everything that an operator dreamed of in one deployment. And because of that, when we were coming home, I knew in my heart that I checked all the boxes. I had done everything that I wanted to do. Throughout my military career, I seen my dreams come true. And more importantly, I’d earned the respect of the men that I led.
Also, I had to accept the fact that, you know, physically I was broken and I hadn’t realized it yet, but mentally I was broken as well. And so I knew that just because of my physical elements alone, it was time for me to take a knee. I realized this is a young man’s game. I had three knee surgeries. I already had bilateral foot surgery. My back is jacked up. I have extremely limited range of motion joints. By that time, I didn’t know it, but I had already had traumatic brain injuries. I had a lot going on. So it was time for me to move on.
And I was also in the realization that I was extremely fortunate that I had been able to accomplish all of those things and walk away with ten fingers and ten toes. And so, yeah, I knew it was time for me to stop rolling the dice. And like I said, I had leadership that really cared about me and they had already started talking me through what I needed to do to prepare for transition. So when we got back from that deployment, I hadn’t made up my mind, but in back of my mind, I knew that I was ready to move on.
And so, you know, fortunately, as I was finishing graduate school up at USC, my plan had been to go to the FBI and I was progressing through assessment really well, but unfortunately, they weren’t working with me regarding – well, not they. Unfortunately, the recruiter at that time – and it wasn’t her fault either. It was just the policy of the government that they couldn’t really guarantee that I come back to San Diego after training. And so I said, “Okay. Well, I have to respectfully decline.” Because my wife is a physician. She’s in private practice. We’re happy here. We have support. I don’t want to leave the teams. I’m afraid I’ll lose my mind if I go someplace and I’m not surrounded by my teammates. And I was legitimately worried that I would lose my mind if I did that. And rightfully so, because I had to go through some stuff after that that I didn’t realize it was coming and I’m really glad that I stayed in San Diego.
And so I kind of went back to the drawing board. And on December 5th, I think it was December 5th, 2015, I was actually sitting in class up at Marshall Business School when the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California got shot up about Iraqi Islamic couple. And when that happened, afterwards a few of my friends and my wife’s colleagues started reaching out to me from different places, mainly like hospitals and clinics, and saying, “Hey, Ty, we’re scared. We don’t have any training. We don’t think the hospital has any plans. We don’t know what to do if somebody comes in here and tries to shoot up the place or hurt us or the patients. And you are literally the only person that we know that understands this stuff. So will you come up here and talk to us about how we keep ourselves safe?”
And after doing that several times, you know, I could kind of hear in the back of my mind, you know, God telling me everything happens for a reason, man. The FBI wasn’t for you. This is for you. And I could hear my entrepreneurship professors in the back of my mind going, hey, the market is telling you what it needs – someone with your skillset right now. And that’s when I decided to build Vigilance Risk Solutions. And that’s what I did. That was almost five years ago. And I’ve been running this company ever since. We’ve come a very long way. We are a technology enabled company now. We specialize in conflict and violence prevention. That means we help our clients to identify and mitigate all of their unknown threats of conflict and violence that exists within their company and outside of their company. And the value that they take from that is that we’re protecting the employees from physical and psychological harm. We’re protecting the business and the business’s brand and reputation from being damaged and then we’re protecting the business from litigation as well.
I mean, what were some of the biggest business lessons that you’ve learned just in those first couple of years? Because I mean, no doubt, I love hearing you talk about how there’s a market demand and then your brain is just turning the wheels and like, okay, this is it. It’s time to do this. What were some of the biggest things that you learned in business just those first couple of years?
Phenomenal question. Never make decisions alone if you can help it. Making decisions in a vacuum is a horrible idea. I did that a couple of times and it didn’t work out well at all. In fact, there was a time where I literally almost ran the business out of money because I made the decision to grow the team too fast because I got overzealous regarding a couple of contracts that we had just signed. And I gotta tell you, that’s one of the shittiest feelings I’ve ever had in my entire life. Because when you’re an entrepreneur, you have people that you’re responsible for, especially when you have employees. They’re depending on you to make good decisions so that they can continue putting food on the table on the 1st and the 15th because they’re giving you their time.
And so that was the lesson that I had to learn the hard way. And fortunately, I had a couple of phenomenal advisors by the name of Chris Rowan and Doug Komen that came in and started working internally within the company for several months. And they taught me a lot and we turned it around and we’re doing really well now. But I learned that. Don’t make decisions in a vacuum. Hire very smart people that you know in your heart are smarter than you and listen to them all the time. Also, you have to understand that when you’re a leader, when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re building a company, you’re running a business, it isn’t just about you. You’re a part of something that is much larger than yourself. You become a public figure. People are looking at you. They’re watching how you respond. They’re listening to what you have to say. Like I said, your employees are depending on you to make the right decision so that they get paid or so that they don’t look like fools because they’re following someone that isn’t a good human being. So it’s really important to keep those things in mind.
I’ve learned that when you’re a leader, you know, if you are a bad person or you make bad decisions, you make emotionally charged decisions, the people that you’re “leading”, they will begin to emulate that behavior. They will become that way as well. So you have to understand that if you’re being a crappy person, you’re going to be responsible for creating crappy people and making the world a much worse place because you’re putting the wrong example out there. You know, I’ve also learned that when times are extremely difficult, the way a leader carries themselves, it will define them forever in the eyes of the people that are following them. So when you fold simply because the pressure gets turned up, or you allow people to upset you and you make emotionally charged decisions and statements, the people that are following you, they will remember that when things are good. When times are good and there’s no pressure on you, they’ll remember that and they’re always going to question it.
So I think more than anything, as a leader, I’ve learned to be extremely mindful of myself. I’ve grown to have much more emotional intelligence as a leader. And I think that it’s really, really important that leaders practice that mindfulness, that emotional intelligence, so that you understand that you are… When you lead a company, you’re a part of something that’s bigger than you. Just because you founded the company, just because the CEO, it doesn’t mean that it’s all about you. No. It’s all about Vigilance Risk Solutions and VRS makes up a bunch of different people that Ty Smith happens to be responsible for. And those people are counting on me to listen to them and to teach them that their thoughts and perspective is important and that I want it all the time. They’re counting on me to make good decisions so that they can continue providing a living for their loved ones.
And those are lessons that I learned in a SEAL team. And especially when I’m old enough and mature enough to look back on and realize it now, those are the lessons that I learned from my family growing up. Because when you grow up without much, you’re forced to be that way anyway. And I can look back on those times and go, man, that’s why every Christmas your granny would literally open the front door to homeless people and allow them to come in and get warm and a hot meal on a holiday. That’s why she did that because it was the right thing to do, because she was setting the example for me. So that when I was this age, I understood how to lead people and how to be empathetic and how to listen and how to genuinely care about the growth of other human beings before myself. I’m just a product of what my family and my leaders in the SEAL teams raised me to be. That’s it. I’m nothing special. I learned and now I’m teaching what I learned.
Yeah. No, it’s incredibly powerful and just tremendous pearls of wisdom. Because yeah, I mean, like at the macro level, you’re a product of your environment. Or should I say, if you choose to be, right? So you could be super resistant to your family when you’re growing up and not being taught. Or you could be resistant to some phenomenal leaders because there is an element of personal responsibility there. So I’m not giving you a complete out on this, Ty. Like you had to choose, right? You had to choose to be moldable. That’s the point I’m making. You had to choose to be impressionable and humble and you were fortunate that you had some experiences that forced you to either do that or the other response to that was very, very, very bad.
But you hit on something again and I’m drawing, I’m connecting the thread here. It’s a culture thing we talked about, right? The culture – and this is Aaron’s opinion – sits at the leaders level. Like you can be a lower-level person in a company and you can make a tremendous impact on that organization. No doubt. But you’ve got to have buy-in. You’ve got to have the example set at the highest level. And so you’re in a position now where you’re able to do that. The point that you made about people will emulate your behavior is so true. If you’re going to be a jerk and you’re short with people like you’re snapping people’s heads off when you respond to them, guess what? That’s gonna be – don’t be surprised if you walk in on a conversation a month from now and someone else’s ripping someone’s head off. Or you create a culture of compassion and love and understanding and care, then you’re going to see your people do some extraordinary things that all tie back to that.
Absolutely. And hey, listen, being – and I don’t want people to get it twisted. Because what you just said is so monumentally important, brother. I don’t want people to think that being an empathetic leader and being a servant leader means that you have to be soft. No, you still have to be professional. And I’m going to go off on a small little tangent here.
Go for it.
Because of everything that’s happening across the country right now. And I’m going to say this to our nations leadership. Our culture is established by you. So if you’re putting toxicity in the air, like you said, if you’re snapping people’s heads off simply because they question your perspective, if you’re short with people, if you’re publicly humiliating people, the citizens of this country, they’re going to start to emulate that behavior. As we can see current day, if we are teaching people subliminally to hate one another instead of to love one another, regardless of their differences, people are going to learn to do that. And they’re going to emulate that behavior.
When you are a leader, you don’t have the ability to lean one way or the other. You have to be even-keeled. You have to be empathetic and you have to understand that people are different. And a part of being a leader is understanding how to teach this person how to work with this person, even though they’re completely different and they have completely different belief system. The culture of this country is set by the leadership of this country. And right now the country is tearing itself apart. People hate one another. It’s becoming our culture and we have to fix that.
Yeah, that’s very, very well said. And because I mean, it is true. And to your point, we’re both on the same page. I want everybody to understand this though, that being a compassionate and loving and caring leader does not make you soft. In fact, it’s the opposite. And there are times when you do got to enact some tough love.
Absolutely. Sometimes you’re going to have to drop the hammer. And just because you’re a servant leader doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to drop the hammer.
Because trust me, I can drop the hammer when I need to. But being a good leader is understanding that there is a right time and there’s a right place and that dropping the hammer shouldn’t be your fricking default, man.
Right. Yeah, that’s just bad.
For so many reasons.
Right. Well, I mean, we want people to – I mean, again, we could go off on another deep end for another three hours.
I mean, because there’s all kinds of positional leadership, right? Like I respect you strictly because of the position versus actually respecting the crap out of you because you’re just an awesome human, not because of the title you hold. But again, we could go on and on for that. Well, I’ve got a ton more stuff I wanted to cover with you. We are already like – I want to respect your time, Ty. I really do. I really do appreciate you spend some time with me. I’d love to give just this last bit back to you. If there’s anything further you want to share about Vigilance Risk Solutions or if there’s any parting comments, last thoughts that you’d want to share. And we can wrap it up from here.
Yeah. There is, actually. And I’m not going to take this time to talk about Vigilance Risk Solutions because I talk about Vigilance Risk Solutions enough. I think that it’s really important that we close this out by acknowledging everything that’s happening in the country right now. And I mean, I just like for people to know how I feel about what’s happening across the country right now because I want people to understand I’m a human being. And yeah, I’m a big, tough guy. I’m a retired Navy SEAL, but I’m also a husband, I’m a father, I’m a son. And I’m a human being. I got a heart and I gotta tell you that my heart is broken. It really is.
I’m finding it harder every day to around with a smile on my face because all of this hate across the country, it’s infecting my spirit. It’s straining my energy on a daily basis watching and listening to people hate one another for the stupidest of reasons. Because you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat, I’m going to hate you. Because you’re American and I’m Arab, you’re going to hate me and I’m going to hate you. Because I’m straight and you’re gay, I’m going to hate you. Because you’re white and I’m black, I’m going to hate you. It’s just I am tired. And we’re killing one another and we’re killing our children by teaching them this example. And I’m afraid for my children because I’m not always going to be around to protect them.
It’s time for us to let go. It’s time for us to move on. I’m tired, man. I’m exhausted. I’m tired of fighting. I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to see people fighting anymore. I want us to get past this and understand that we are all we have. We have to stop starting the conversation with our differences. We have to get past that. We have to start the conversation with, hey, why are we alike? How are we alike? Give me a reason right now to know that I’m right because I want to love you immediately. We have to start conversations that way.
I’m just tired of the hate. And I think that it’s stupid. And I think that it shouldn’t take another 9/11 to get the citizens of this country to love one another again regardless of what you look like, what you believe in. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of people going, hey, as an African-American male, how do you feel about this? Why are you putting me in that box? Why are you automatically starting the conversation with a difference? What do you mean as an African-American male? No, I am an American. I was born in the United States of America. I am a patriot of this country. No, I am not a patriot of black people or white people or straight people. I am a patriot of the United States of America. I built this country and I bled defending it. Not for white people or for black people or for straight people or for Democrats. No, I did it for my children that are also American regardless of what they look like.
And it’s time for us to put all of those differences aside. I don’t care if you’re black. I don’t care if you’re white. I don’t care if you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re Republican, Democrat. We are all the same. Every one of us. We all bleed red regardless of where you come from. It’s time for us to let go of the hate. I am exhausted. I am exhausted with having to worry about my children, having to look over their shoulder just walking down the street. I’m exhausted with turning on the news and seeing citizens of this country that are so frustrated with the way things are. They’re literally burning the country to the ground. I’m tired of turning on the TV and watching and listening to our leaders say things to people and to other leaders that real leaders should never say to other human beings. That’s not the way we’re supposed to lead. I’m tired.
So I challenge every citizen of this country. I challenge every person on this planet from this day to stop looking at people and immediately seeing your differences. I challenge you to start looking at people and immediately trying to find why you love that person instead of well, I’m black and he’s white so we’re probably not going to get along. Or he’s probably racist or he’s probably a criminal. No, we’re human beings. I challenge you to look for why you love one another. I challenge you to look for what you have in common. Because I’m tired, man.
Very, very… I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m sick of all the fighting and all the hatred and it’s time that it stops. And I think that that very simple yet profound statement you made is the answer. It is when we look at each other, rapidly finding ways to find common ground. Rapidly, I mean, it’s like not even a thought about how there’s a million ways we’re different. Sure, there’s a million ways I’m different within my own freaking family. Much less anybody else, right? So let’s look at ways that we can identify how we are common. It’s it starts with what you said. I mean, we all bleed red end of the day. And yeah, I don’t want to try to add more to what you said because it was phenomenal and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for you. I’m grateful to you for sharing that. That’s incredibly impactful. And I just want to thank you. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for spending time with me. I’m truly humbled and honored that you’d take time with me. And I really appreciate how it was such an amazing and open conversation with you.
Thank you, brother. I appreciate it. I’m really happy that we got a chance to talk today and I’m humbled that you would even ask me. So thank you.
Man, what an impactful emotional, but such a profound conversation. I’m still blown away by just the quality of the discussion and the depth at which we went on some of these topics. Just incredibly fascinating. Really impactful. And I’m not gonna lie. I’m a little shook up right now in a good way. I love Ty’s perspective on leadership. I love the culture that he embodies. No doubt a product of his upbringing. But I also wanted to point out that he had to choose that too. So it wasn’t like it was just forced upon him. There is an element of him that had to embrace and be willing to accept all that. But I understand the product of the environment piece and I think you get what I’m trying to say.
But really, really enjoyed the conversation. Just the aspect of leadership. Serving one another, really giving a crap and caring for each other, I think is so impactful. It’s really obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not always a very common thing that everybody does. And so I would encourage you in your organizations and in your just everyday life, look for ways that you can care for people. It’s really truly impactful.
And then, yeah, just a final note on his comments there about our country. And I could not agree more with him. I could not agree more. And you know, look for ways that we can find common ground. Like rapidly look for opportunities to find common ground. Close those gaps and remember that we’re all human. And so anyway, I just want to thank you for listening, for watching. And we’ll talk again soon. I can’t wait to produce another episode. And so there will be plenty more coming. But again, thank you so much for watching, for listening. We’ll talk soon.