Sam Cila is a Retired Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, decorated with awards for valor in combat as well as a Purple Heart. He served with the “Fighting 69th” Infantry Regiment out of New York City and the First Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood (Texas), and had tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was medically retired by the military after injuries sustained in ’05 that resulted in 40 surgeries and the amputation of his left hand. Cila soon became an elite-level endurance athlete; a two-time member of the U.S. Paratriathlon National Team, an Ironman World championship finisher, and a high altitude mountaineer. He is a spokesperson for Operation Rebound and Canine Companions for Independence, two organizations that support injured veterans, and is the Operations Chief for The Program, which provides customized training solutions designed for team building and leadership training.
Inside Pitch: How soon after retiring from the military did you have an idea of what you wanted to do with your life?
Sam Cila: After those injuries in Iraq, things changed drastically for me. At one point I was thinking that I would be able to continue my service, but unfortunately the military decided to medically retire me. I had no idea what I was going to do until a friend of a friend introduced me to Eric Kapitulik, founder of The Program. He had just started getting the thing off the ground and was looking for an instructor to show up at these places, create a lot of adversity, and then teach leadership and team development, and they were going to pay me for it!
The Program has given me purpose because when I left active duty, I left my team, I left my mission, I felt like I had no direction. So this has given me purpose, and the ability to help others again. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be a part of.
IP: Was it a pretty seamless transition for you? Or did you have to really evaluate a lot going from the military to the "real” world?
SC: The leadership piece and what we teach is second nature to us, because it’s all based off what we do in the military: set the example, hold your teammates accountable, accomplish the mission and take care of your teammates. There are some more layers to it, of course, but that’s Leadership 101.
Now, working with general population—young athletes, kids, corporate America—it’s a little different tone and approach than what you can have in the military. So developing my skill set to become a better teacher was the challenging part, but once we started getting more emotionally intelligent as teachers, that's when the company really took off.
IP: You don’t necessarily have time to develop that trust factor that's so integral in teaching and with leadership. How do you go about accomplishing that in a short amount of time?
SC: We teach the standards of a being a great teammate, a great leader. Then we challenge you to prove it every day by being physically, mentally, and emotionally tough, by not making excuses or letting others make them for you, and by working hard, and as we define it, “doing more and more.”
Then we create an environment of adversity where being a great teammate and leader becomes challenging, where you have no choice but to either form together as a team and learn to get better as an individual, or break apart.
Some coaches and leaders in America will tell us, “Man, that's the most impactful thing I've seen in 30 years of business,” or “25 years of coaching.” All we did was take the best part of Army Special Operations, Navy Special Operations, and Marine Corps Special Operations. We just stole bits and pieces and modified them so it fit what we're teaching.
IP: How do you continue to monitor and motivate these leaders and teams after you leave?
SC: Our deal is two days of experiential training, but the partnership with any company or team is for an entire season, or if it’s a corporate America, whatever we contractually we agree upon with that company. And we’ll have continuous follow-up throughout the season. So virtual meetings, returning back to campus, attending practices with certain teams.
We were with Tennessee football for nine weeks every Wednesday, talking with and consulting the freshmen, the leadership council, and observing practice for the things coaches may not pick up—body language, communication, accountability, attention to detail. We're just evaluating on what we know, nothing to do with X’s and O’s or talent, it has everything to do with choice. The followup package is really the most beneficial piece of our service, I believe, because you're constantly getting new information.
IP: Can you sense when a team really has something special going on when you walk into a room?
SC: Mississippi State women’s basketball, the year that they upset UConn , you could feel it. There was something different. You had leaders, confident leaders, that understood their roles and were willing to step forward. You had teammates with some attitude, but directed in the right direction. They were fiery and were willing to fight.
You can feel that kind of energy. And then when the coaching staff had a single clear mission of, “We’re going to beat UConn,” and I’m asking, “Okay, well when are you playing them?” And they’re like, “They’re not on our schedule, but we're going to meet them in the tournament.” When it’s clear what your mission is and everyone is driving the tip of the spear forward to get that done, that's special. The event we ran? I would say that the event wasn't seamless—we had some challenges—but the team performance overall was outstanding. The coaching staff was outstanding. And as it turned out, mission accomplished.
IP: What are some of your warning signs for teams that may not perform at a very high level?
SC: Most teams want to be nice and not hurt anyone’s feelings. They don’t realize that nice is self-centered, and that great teammates are kind, which is person-centered; it’s about others. So they can have tough conversations and tell each other what they need to hear. Nice teams struggle with the accountability piece, the attention to detail. I don't want to call it profiling, but that’s pretty much what it is. You’ve done it enough that you walk in and you kind of see some of the same tendencies, negative or positive. And our gut feeling is usually correct on how a team is going to respond.
IP: What’s the most challenging thing for your students/clients to learn?
SC: On paper it sounds pretty easy, but staying mission focused and taking care of your teammates, in that order, is the most challenging thing that men and women do. Most people in today’s society fail at that because their allegiance is always to an individual. They want to make things easier, accept excuses, find shortcuts, be comfortable. If you start your mission by taking care of people before you're actually trying to accomplish a mission, you will fail.
IP: So you stepped out of the military and a form of competition at its highest level. And you step into rooms with coaches and athletes who think a loss record is a big deal. Is it hard for you not to laugh and put things in perspective for them?
SC: Coaches will say, “This is nothing like what you went through” and they’re wrong. It's exactly like what we went through. The preparation is the same. The practice is the same. The drills, the crawl-walk-run build-up within training, that's the same. A team room is no different from a locker room. Before a mission, we’re all doing the same thing—taping fingers, checking equipment, listening to music, meditation, getting into the zone. That’s the same. And the execution is the same. It’s just X’s and O’s.
Now, the scoreboard is different. Ours is life or death. Lose a ball game, we have another opportunity to attack the next game. Lose a teammate, that’s a different deal altogether, right? But I swear, everything leading up to it is exactly the same, and anyone that tells you any different is lying. The way that we train is no different from the way a good coach sets up a practice plan. We’re doing the same type of things—walkthroughs, watching film, getting data, intel. So it’s exactly like what I went through...the scoreboard's just different.
IP: How are you able to achieve leadership and team development amidst the distractions, social media, phones, etc.?
SC: The first part is you have to challenge them to be present. I don't really understand social media, I just don't get the whole thing, but it’s relevant, even people my age are doing it, right? It’s a real thing. And I know the mental space is a real thing, I've struggled with mental issues, with depression and anxiety. And what I found is when I redirect myself into doing something different, I can pull myself out of those positions.
The first thing we have to do as instructors is be really smart about our emotional intelligence. When we set standards and expectations, we're going to make those crystal clear. We are never going to be demeaning to anyone, that’s bad for business, and it's not good for student health—for mental health. So we're never demeaning. What we will be is very direct and very demanding. We will hold you accountable. We will call you up to the standard when you're falling short of it. But we’ll also take the time to walk over and high five someone when they have met the standard.
So pretty quickly athletes start to see, “Wow, these guys are consistent. When I make a mistake, man, they hammer me. But when I hit it the right way and that dude walks over to me and he's fired up for me, he’s excited. He gives me props, he’s dapping me up.” I think when you can do those things consistently, you build a higher level of trust.
IP: Let’s say you have a billboard that every athlete, every coach is going to drive by and see on an everyday basis. What’s the one message that you would put on that thing?
SC: Attack everything that you do at a hundred percent, a hundred percent of the time. Attacking is giving your best effort, one hundred percent of the time, to the two most important people in the room—the warrior to your left and the warrior to your right. If you can do that, the other pieces will fall into place eventually. So whatever battlefield you’ve chosen to be on, attack. Most people in today’s society don't want to attack, they want to get by, they just want to get through. We don’t ever want to just get by or get through anything. We want to attack everything we do. IP
For more information visit theprogram.org.