Leif Mollo ’88
United States Navy (Ret.) / Head of Athlete Wellbeing, Anaheim Ducks
It is safe to say that alumnus Leif Mollo ’88 has spent most of his life leading people all over the world. After graduating from BMHS, he attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD with an original goal, as his classmates might remember, to fly fighter jets for the Navy. However, the Academy exposed him to several interesting career options. He met some impressive SEALs, and was inspired to choose a different path and take on the challenge to be a Navy ‘frogman.’ After graduating from the Academy in 1992 and being commissioned an Ensign in the Navy, he completed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in Coronado, CA.
The first ten years of his Naval Special Warfare (NSW) career were in operational assignments at both West and East Coast-based SEAL Teams, including NSW’s undersea SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) command. By the time he headed to Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, he had completed five overseas deployments around the world in tactical and operational leadership positions.
After school, the next fifteen years of his career alternated between staff and command leadership assignments, and included another seven overseas deployments (all of them to Afghanistan or Iraq). Staff assignments included strategic planning and operations-focused work at Joint Special Operations commands in North Carolina and Florida, and at the NSW Headquarters in Coronado. He also served as NSW’s Officer Detailer at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Tennessee. His command leadership tours included serving as Executive Officer (XO) at SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team TWO, Commanding Officer (CO) at SEAL Team EIGHT, CO at SEAL Team FOUR, and CO of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) – Iraq.
His SEAL career culminated at the rank of Captain/O-6 as Commodore of the NSW Center, the ‘school house’ for both basic and advanced training. This included supervising Basic Training Command (BUD/S), and, as he says, “was a great way to bookend my career back on the hallowed grounds of the BUD/S ‘grinder’ where all modern-day SEALs begin their frogman journey.”
During his last tour, he made the decision to retire from the Navy. When looking at post-Navy options, he was eager to return to his roots in Southern California hockey, having played in Los Angeles-area youth leagues during grade and high school. He counts himself as very fortunate to be hired by the Anaheim Ducks Hockey Club, where he currently serves as Head of Athlete Wellbeing.
Describe your role as a leader.
“My career began as a tactical leader in the SEAL Teams, serving as a Squad Leader, Platoon Commander, Troop Commander, and SDV Task Unit Commander. These leadership roles included overall mission planning and coordination, and during mission execution, command and control of the tactical operation on the ground (or in the case of SDV operations, in the water). The roles also included coordination and communication with external support assets such as launch/recovery platforms, fire support, medical and contingency response. All of these leadership roles included administrative responsibility in the daily activity of the unit such as scheduling, logistics, and personnel evaluations.”
“As my NSW Officer career progressed, so did my scope of responsibility. As a Senior Lieutenant (O-3)/Junior Lieutenant Commander (O-4), my role as SDV Task Unit Commander involved command of 30 personnel (a mix of SEALs, Divers, and Technicians) conducting complex submarine-launched undersea missions. My role as Troop Commander involved command and control of multiple platoons conducting direct action missions as a combat assault force.”
“I also had supervisory and management responsibility in my staff tours. The Operations Officer role involved supervising the ‘nerve center’ of the organization, coordinating the various movements, logistics, support, and tasking/force allocation requirements of the command. The NSW Detailer role involved managing talent, assignment, and organizational placement of over 700 SEAL Officers.”
“For command leadership jobs, as an XO, I was second in command of a Team of over 200 personnel, responsible for overseeing the activities of multiple support departments and running the day-to-day business of the command. Being a SEAL Team CO involved leading over 200 personnel including a mix of headquarters staff and SEAL Troops/Platoons, and overseas deployed command of a Special Operations Task Force of over 1,000 personnel.”
“My CJSOTF Commander role involved overseas deployed command of over 1,300 personnel including a Headquarters and operational units from 11 different countries. Finally, my role as CO of the NSW Center involved leading a staff of over 950 personnel, two subordinate commands, 82 courses of instruction, and an annual throughput of over 5,500 basic and advanced students under our charge.”
In your opinion, what is the most important quality that a leader must have, regardless of the situation or the profession?
“If I have to pick just one, it’s humility. I like the description of humility as, ‘not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.’ Leading with humility takes ego out of the equation, which in turn enables servant leadership; we exist to serve the organization and its people, not the other way around. Leading with humility is the foundation that enables other very important leadership qualities like empathy, compassion, discernment, growth mindset, and mutual respect. Humility encourages us to be vulnerable and human, and own our mistakes. Humility also includes a big component of gratitude and recognition of the real reasons for success. Credit where credit is due; leaders don’t get anywhere on their own. Unequivocally, the only reason I achieved anything as a leader was because of the truly phenomenal people I was blessed and privileged to lead. Words cannot adequately express what an honor and humbling experience it was to lead our Nation’s finest warriors who continue to give so much of themselves—sometimes giving all—to our country. I also owe an extreme debt of gratitude to my family, friends, teachers (including the outstanding BMHS staff), and mentors who supported and guided me along the way.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
“My leadership style focuses on character traits learned from my parents, coaches, teachers, and mentors, and continued to develop over decades of learning from both leading and following in the military. Those key influencers instilled the values of integrity, honesty, and humility in my formative years.”
“With this solid foundation, I learned from experiences both when I was at my best and at my worst. My career progression included plenty of opportunity for development. When I failed, I strived to ‘fail forward.’ I had the good fortune of having fantastic mentors and superb Enlisted advisors who gave me honest feedback, which I did my best to listen to and adjust accordingly. I closely watched good and bad traits from my senior leaders, which helped me learn what worked and what didn’t. Authenticity, combined with self-awareness, are critical components of leadership. I always tried to be honest with myself and transparent with those I led about my strengths and weaknesses. Leadership is a lifelong learning process, and I pursued every possible opportunity to lead and learn throughout my NSW career.”
“Good leadership depends on three main pillars: competency, trust, and inspiration. Each of these pillars have behaviors associated with them that may or may not already be part of a leader’s personality. They can all be exercised and strengthened. A leader can succeed in the short-term being stronger in any one of these pillars, but for long-term effectiveness should pursue the right balance among them.”
“The saying, ‘people don’t listen, they watch,’ is true! Role modeling and setting the example as a leader are paramount. Being a skilled leader does not mean you have all the answers, or should pretend to. As mentioned previously, you can learn a lot from those you lead. ‘Talk less, listen more’ is a great rule to follow as a leader. Diversity of thought is critical. I always encouraged those I led to tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. How you treat people matters, and often matters the most. This is especially true in times of crisis or controversy.”
“Ultimately, when I’ve read about or talked to experts in the field about the concept of ‘virtue-based leadership,’ that style resonates with me and is the most closely aligned with how I strive to lead. It’s all about leading with character, and inspiring excellence both in yourself and those you lead.”
What are some examples that illustrate your leadership style?
“After taking over command of SEAL Team FOUR following the death of my fellow CO and friend, I deployed immediately overseas to join the Team. My previous command had been focused on other parts of the world, and my head was spinning sorting out a new command with new responsibilities. The thought of becoming an expert on the situation was overwhelming, but expertise was not what the Team needed from me yet during this critical time.”
“THEY were the experts, as they had already been on the ground conducting daily combat operations for three months. There were six long months still to go, and they didn’t need ME showing up questioning everything they were doing. I had a lot to learn from them. It’s tempting for leaders to expect they should have all the brilliant answers, and to make some sort of impression or changes to put their thumbprint on the organization. But the most important things the Team needed from me at this time were to listen, get to know, understand, and immediately extend trust to them. They’d been through a lot, but they knew what they were doing.”
“I prioritized spending time with all the staff and operational units, getting out to their sites to visit them. I wanted to make sure I was accessible, visible, and available to see and hear what was going on. I tried to get to know everyone as much as I could on a personal level, just being normal and human. I made sure to schedule opportunities to get out on the ground ‘outside the wire’ with the units during their missions. This was something I had seen done right by Senior leaders I highly respected, when I worked for them earlier in my career. It was important to gain an understanding of the situation on the ground, and instill confidence that we at the Headquarters understood our troops’ operating environment. It was also important to share risk and be willing to do the dangerous things we were asking of our operational elements. I needed to hear directly from the guys on the ground, listen, and learn how we could help them do their job. And if they needed something, we needed to follow through and prioritize our team’s actions to be as responsive as possible.”
How do you try to inspire others? What qualities do you try to cultivate in others?
“The best way to inspire others is through actions and leading by example. NSW provides a dynamic work environment where there is plenty of opportunity to demonstrate both willingness and capability to stay hungry, humble, and hard. These are the qualities I strive to live by and cultivate in others.”
“Hungry means never being satisfied, never thinking you have ‘arrived.’ Always continue to learn, to prove yourself, and bring a high level of compete in all you do. Humble means to think of yourself less, be a servant leader. Put others’ wellbeing and comfort ahead of your own. Never think you are too big to do the small things that matter. Hard means to stay mentally and physically tough. Seek ways to be uncomfortable, to always stay fit and operationally sharp. Relish doing the tough things that few are willing to do.”
Is there an anecdote you can share to illustrate how you have inspired others?
“My leadership philosophy includes the concept ‘Be What You Want to See.’ Model the behavior you expect of others. As a Junior Officer (JO), I was always inspired by seeing or hearing about Senior Officers who still did the hard (and fun) SEAL stuff even late in their careers. One of the concerns as a JO in the SEAL Teams, when you consider whether to make it a long-term career, is that the more senior in rank you get, the less tactical time spent doing the field SEAL work. My thought was that even though as a Senior Officer it wasn’t your primary job any more to be on the ground with the tactical unit, it was still important to have and demonstrate the capability to shoot, move, and communicate. Seeing or hearing about Senior Leaders ‘getting after it’ inspired confidence that they still were in touch with their roots as SEALs, understood the demands of the job, and stayed current on the constantly evolving tactics and Standard Operating Procedures of the SEALs they were in charge of employing.”
“It can be tempting after years of doing a physically demanding job to say, ‘I’ve paid my dues,’ and watch your troops from a safe distance while warm, dry, and comfortable with a hot cup of coffee in your hand. You could try to reason with yourself, saying, ‘it’s not my job anymore to be wet, cold, and miserable.’ But our SEAL Ethos compels us to ‘Earn Your Trident Every Day.’ I take that seriously, even now in civilian life. During my CO tour, when it made sense, I would ‘kit up’ and jump in with the guys during their training evolutions, whether it was shooting, jumping, or diving. Although it hurt a bit more later in life carrying all that gear, it was a lot of fun! When I was deployed as a CO, once a month when the opportunity was right, my Master Chief and I would join one of our operational elements on a mission. I also encouraged other SEALs working in the Headquarters to get out and do the same; share the risk, gain perspective to understand the operational environment and the demands of the mission. As CO of the NSW Center, I always participated in the competitive physical events that were part of graduation week for our new SEALs and SWCCs (Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen). Throughout my career, this approach to inspiring others was well received and consistently reinforced by positive feedback. The added benefit was it was a great way to stay hungry, humble, and hard. As we say in the Teams, ‘The only easy day was yesterday.’ Hoo-yah!”
Thank you Leif, for your service. Great article.