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Why Our Military Background Matters

Founder Chris Kolenda’s Experiences in Afghanistan Tested the Limits of the BIG 3


My experiences in Afghanistan tested the limits of the BIG 3. On a mountainside in Afghanistan after a deadly firefight, two of my soldiers were killed – to include a brilliant and beloved company commander. A dozen soldiers were wounded. That was 2007.

Not a day goes by that I do not think of these paratroopers – these heroes – and their families.

I recognized then that all of our assumptions about the area were flat wrong. We needed to unlearn a lot of flawed ideas, diagnose the nature of the situation, and develop a winning strategy. We had 13 months to go.

Taking a new and controversial approach

We engaged everyone in the unit, from junior troopers and leaders to our senior leadership team, our Afghan counterparts, local elders, and as much as we could read about that remote area of Afghanistan. We developed a highly unconventional – and controversial approach. One that received a lot of pushback from outside, until they saw it working.

Two years later, this approach became expected practice for all units in Afghanistan.

The work started long before the battlefield

What made this work was the leadership development and team building we had done in the two years before deployment. Our program included reading, creating a culture for candid conversations and exchange of ideas, realistic training, fierce and imaginative crucibles, and using old battlefields as classrooms to discuss new ideas and current challenges.

Getting the 3 BIG things right enabled us to learn and adapt effectively in a dynamic and dangerous environment. That unit became the only one in the 18-year conflict to have motivated a large insurgent group to stop fighting and eventually join the government. I have now met with that former adversary ten times.

After leaving the government in 2014, I started my consulting business, which focused on helping nonprofits that served in combat zones. I found that, while the contexts are different from the military, getting the BIG 3 right was equally crucial for my nonprofit, business, and NFL clients. I have loved every minute of serving my clients and watching them grow sustainably.

Since then, I’ve built the SLA team by bringing on other former military leaders. Each of these independent consultants serve clients that resonate with their mission and purpose. Together, we are SLA. We are here to help organizations develop leaders, and help leaders lead their organizations to success.

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