Apollo Emeka of Apollo Strategy Group: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Build your mental stability. — Turbulent times can create massive amounts of uncertainty. If you’re swept up into uncertainty, you won’t be able to lead anyone effectively. When things get tough, most people look to others for support and signs that everything is going to be okay. But if everyone you look to is also oozing fear, anxiety, or apathy, it’s only going to deepen your spiral of worry. The best leaders have trained their instincts to find certainty within themselves when the external environment offers little comfort. Creating this internal stability is easier than you might think. It’s as easy as knowing what your values are.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Apollo Emeka.
Dr. Apollo Emeka is the Founder and CEO of Apollo Strategy Group Inc., an innovative leadership and strategy consultancy for business leaders, companies, and the Next Wave of ventures launched by diverse and impactful founders. Since its inception, Apollo Strategy Group has created over $500m in value for 100+ high-performance leaders and businesses in industries such as technology, real estate, professional services, and entertainment by developing bespoke strategies and providing hands-on implementation. Prior to founding Apollo Strategy Group, Apollo launched and sold a business he scaled from one to seven locations within four years while serving as an FBI Intelligence Analyst. In 2022, he retired from a decorated 20-year military career as a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret and a U.S. Military Intelligence Analyst. Apollo has a Doctorate of Policy, Planning and Development from the University of Southern California and lives with his wife and two children in Pasadena, CA.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I love the way you asked the question, because my “story” totally informs my approach to consulting. Growing up, my family lived in a single-wide trailer at the end of a dirt road in rural Washington State. Opportunity, for us, meant getting cheap groceries at the commissary, or a free sheep from a neighbor. I really didn’t go to school much from Kinder through 12th grade, but I eventually went on to earn a doctorate. I got my GED at 17 years old, after cancer took my mom’s life, and then I joined the army. The first academic program I successfully graduated from was military intelligence school. I went on to be an intelligence analyst in the FBI.
My brain was conditioned to imagine the terrible things that might happen at some future date and then reverse engineer those potential events to develop a narrative and a list of indicators that would provide early warning and help decision makers understand the likelihood and impact of potential threats. At the same time, I became a Green Beret and had to take action on assessments like the ones I had made as an intelligence analyst. I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug while at the FBI. My wife and I successfully bought and grew a business, and then sold that business to embark on our current adventure guiding businesses and leaders toward their own success. From those early free-range years until now, I’ve been fueled by sheer will — will to learn, will to excel, will to prove naysayers wrong, will to elevate others, will to help our world.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s funny now, but at the time it was soul-crushing. I was a 20 year old high school dropout living in my brother’s unfinished basement… you know the kind with dirt and exposed earth? Yeah, that kind of unfinished basement. I was failing my community college classes, and my brother told me he was going to start charging me rent to live in the dungeon (that’s what I called the basement).
I went to a Starbucks to get a job as a Barista. In my mind, I was settling. I told myself I was too smart and too charming for the job. My friend and I went in to apply at the same time. We both got interviews on the spot. I just knew I had crushed the interview. They told me they’d give me a call next week. My buddy walked out of his interview with a job. “Wow, I can’t even get a barista job!?!?!” I felt trapped. It taught me two valuable lessons: 1) It doesn’t matter how dope you think you are, if you can’t call on your best qualities and help other people see how your dopeness can help them, and 2) When you feel completely trapped, the best thing you can do is make a big bold move to get unstuck. That’s when I decided to volunteer for a mission in Iraq with the Army.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It takes a village! I have learned so much from so many people. But, I have to give a shout-out to my cousin Lorenzo Dillard. He helped me take the leap into entrepreneurship. It was 2012, I had a ton of business ideas. I was an Intelligence Analyst in the FBI at the time. During the day I was working to thwart cyber attacks, violent crimes, and mortgage fraud. At night I’d watch Shark Tank and dream up business ideas. I was all over the map.
I noticed tons of broken sprinklers in my neighborhood so I drew up a couple of “unbreakable” in-ground sprinkler prototypes. I also had an idea for college preparation and counseling. I probably had 40 ideas over the span of a year. I only knew one business owner, my cousin Lorenzo. I started running ideas by him and after 10 different ideas he said, “Why don’t you just buy into the same franchise I’m in.” He continued, “You can learn the business basics and then move on to do whatever you really want.” It was some of the best advice I could have gotten. My wife and I bought into that franchise, scaled quickly to seven locations and then sold it. I learned a ton! I would never have done that if I didn’t have the nudge from Lorenzo. Thanks Cuz!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision was (and still is) “to see a world where everyone reaches their full potential for good.” We take that really seriously. We attract team members and clients who share that vision. We believe the best way to get there is by bringing diverse people and perspectives into every conversation. I believe the mainstream model for consulting is dangerously outdated. The consulting industry emerged in the golden era of American manufacturing.
The big consultants earned their keep by providing access to information that helped drive efficiencies in American manufacturing and services. In the middle of the last century, the companies that could best optimize for efficiency won. So they hired a bunch of big brains to rain information down from on high. But now, success in business depends on the ability to drive and respond to change. Whereas information was the key differentiator of the past, imagination is the differentiator today. 80 years ago, access to information was slow and sparse. Now access to information is almost limitless and immediate. We believe that the role of the consultant isn’t to push strategy and processes onto the people in a business. Instead, we believe the role of a consultant is to extract the genius from those same people and convert it into strategy and action.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times.
I began my journey to become a Green Beret by attending Special Forces Assessment and Selection is a 3-week tryout to see if you have what it takes to enter training to become a Green Beret. On my first day there, an old medic with a heavy Boston accent told the 600 of us something I’ll never forget. He said, “I know you’re all here because you wanna be hard. Well there’s hard smart, and there’s hard stupid. People have died doing this. Don’t kill yourself out here. Don’t be hard f — -in’ stupid.” I took that to heart.
I strive to be “hard smart” in everything I do. That means working in ways that help prevent me and my team from getting into difficult situations that could have been avoided with modest foresight and preparation.
One of the ways we avert difficult times is by identifying the overlap between what must be accomplished and the passions of the individuals on our team. If you can keep people in an area they are passionate about, they are more likely to be able to anticipate future challenges, and prevent those challenges from ever occurring. Another way that we seek to prevent challenges is by under-promising and over-delivering for our clients. I’ve found that tons of service-based businesses commit to timeframes and formats of deliverables that aren’t directly informed by true client need. But, once the client expects it, whether or not they really need it becomes irrelevant.
Those are just two examples of how to prevent difficult times, but if we find ourselves struggling despite our best efforts, I work to ensure that I’m putting the well-being of the team above everything else. When things are tough, we need people to be rested and fresh to meet the challenges of the day. That’s why my instincts are to kick people out of the office early when things get tough, whereas a lot of leaders expect their teams to burn the midnight oil. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s so important. That’s because working through chaos is far more physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing than a regular work day. So, if you make the mistake of asking people to put in more work, know that you’re heading for burnout (which looks like decreased quality and, more importantly, decreased morale).
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This might sound weird coming from an entrepreneurial, former Green Beret with a doctorate, but I think people don’t give up enough! I’ve given up plenty. Time is the most precious resource in the universe, so it makes no sense to keep doing something that no longer serves you. So many people keep pushing because they don’t want to feel like they “wasted their time.” But the most important thing you can gain from any experience is learning. It’s learning that will help you be successful in the future. Not some title, certification, degree, or other socially constructed concepts.
So many people keep doing a thing, just because they started doing that thing. People stay committed to jobs, to business strategy, and even to positions in arguments when they should absolutely give them up! The same happens outside of work. Some people stay committed to marriages that they should give up on.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
One book that completely changed the way I think about life is a memoir called A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. The author tells the true story of being drafted into the Army after his mother, father, and brothers were killed during civil war in Sierra Leone. He was only 13 years old and fought for two years before being rescued by UNICEF. It made me realize how fortunate I am. It also taught me so much about the power of organizational culture. Baeh talks about the bond he had with his fellow soldiers and the horrible things he had to do to earn and keep their trust. Organizational culture can be used to perpetuate atrocities. It was the culture at the school UNICEF took him to that enabled him to recover from being a child soldier and become a human rights activist. Self-determination is huge, but the heights you can achieve are also determined by the culture you’re immersed in. That’s why I’m so passionate about the work that we do. We’re all about shifting culture within organizations to invoke inclusiveness and high performance.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to keep the team focused on the long term vision and their individual contributions to actualizing that vision. Stay calm, stay agile, stay ambitious and inspire your team to do the same as you progress toward your collective purpose.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The funny thing about the future is, it’s always uncertain! There’s no way to predict with absolute certainty what’s going to happen. The best way to reduce uncertainty about the future is to increase certainty around the present. It’s present uncertainty that makes people feel like the future is uncertain. People tend to think, “there’s a bad thing happening right now that’s going to make the future outcomes bad too.” Leaders should work to minimize the present uncertainty, so there’s space for future aspiration. Bad stuff now leads to bad stuff later.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be candid, honest, thoughtful, and swift in communicating difficult news. Being humanly vulnerable is also important, but that vulnerability must be genuine and not affected.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I always encourage leaders to make big bold decisions when the future feels uncertain. It’s like buying a stock low. In the chaos is where the real opportunity to shake things up lives, because they’re already shaken up! When things are shaken up, companies that have been in business for a long time have a harder time pivoting to position themselves for a new future, which leaves smaller, more nimble outfits with the opportunity to steal market share, and even change the way people think about entire sectors. I think it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to go into a cocoon when things get uncertain. Take a stance that’s consistent with your values and where you want to see things go, then make it happen!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on the team. If your team has the right energy, you can literally go to war together. But going out to a nice restaurant can feel like hell if you’re in bad company. Notice I didn’t say focus on people. That’s because you may have to get some folks off the team if they’re diminishing the trust and energy of the team. So supporting the team sometimes means pruning it. In any case, a solid team is important during the good times, but it’s indispensable during the hard times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The biggest, most common mistakes that businesses make are:
1) Being slow to decision and action.
2) Being weak as to their goals, decisions, and actions.
3) Having unclear communications.
Avoid making a difficult time even more difficult by being swift to make ambitious decisions and take bold actions, and by communicating with your team and customers directly, candidly, frequently, and unambiguously.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Build your mental stability.
Turbulent times can create massive amounts of uncertainty. If you’re swept up into uncertainty, you won’t be able to lead anyone effectively. When things get tough, most people look to others for support and signs that everything is going to be okay. But if everyone you look to is also oozing fear, anxiety, or apathy, it’s only going to deepen your spiral of worry. The best leaders have trained their instincts to find certainty within themselves when the external environment offers little comfort. Creating this internal stability is easier than you might think. It’s as easy as knowing what your values are.
If you don’t have clearly defined values, you can quickly create them by thinking about and describing the people who you most admire. You can also ask yourself the question: “What kinds of qualities do I want to display no matter what is going on?” My values are courage, intention, authenticity, inclusion, and growth. When my external environment is turbulent, I can ask myself, “What is the most courageous thing I could do right now?” You can plug any of your values into that question. Do this, and I guarantee you’ll find the confidence to lead others and they will see you as a pillar of stability amidst the turbulence.
2. Decide what you’re going to let burn.
When it feels like everything is on fire, people instinctively rush to put the fires out. But when everything is on fire, it’s impossible to extinguish every fire. I live in Southern California where it’s not uncommon to see the mountainsides on fire. The interesting thing is, you almost never see firefighters on the burning hillsides. They know they can’t win that fight, so they move ahead of the fire and cut fire breaks around neighborhoods and critical infrastructure. If they tried to fight every fire head-on, they’d be risking their lives and the lives of others.
Those firefighters would prefer that nothing burn, but if it’s between brush on a hillside or houses in a neighborhood, they’re going to let the hillside burn. Similarly, when everything is metaphorically on fire at work, pull your people back to protect the critical infrastructure and let the hillside burn. This requires that you know exactly what to let burn, and what to protect at all costs.
3. Think of the long-term goals.
Once you’ve fought the immediate fires and sacrificed less vital hillsides, refocus on the long-term goal. If your goals haven’t been clearly articulated to this point, it’s important to do that now. If you and your team lose sight of the big “why,” you might make a knee-jerk reaction that solves a short-term problem but makes it tougher to hit your long-term goals. Think about where you want to be in a year (or two, or five) and clearly articulate that future state to yourself, your team, and your customers.
4. Be a broken record.
Once you’ve clearly defined those future goals, be a broken record in communicating them to your team. When times are really tough, it’s almost impossible to over-communicate the ideal future state. Open and close meetings by stating your big goals. Build mantras around those goals.
Too many leaders assume their people remember why they are doing what they are doing. State your goals, restate them, and then say them again. If people aren’t annoyed by how much you’re talking about future goals and how amazing they are going to be, you’re probably not talking about them enough.
When I served in the military, my fellow servicemen and I had to do boring, uncomfortable, and dangerous stuff. We powered through and often succeeded in our missions because we knew the end goal and the fact that we are part of something much larger than the current moment, and certainly larger than ourselves. You can create that kind of commitment on your team too by being a broken record.
5. Celebrate people in the chaos
Publicly celebrate people’s victories amidst tough times. It does two things: 1) helps people feel recognized, 2) shows the other folks what “right” looks like amidst chaos and uncertainty. Difficult times often breed to-do lists that are a mile long. It feels like the work is never done, so there’s no natural pause to reflect and celebrate accomplishments. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be as close in time to the thing you’re celebrating as possible.
When I was doing special forces stuff all around the world, we’d often gift our foreign counterparts with our unit patches and t-shirts as a way of celebrating their small victories. It went a long way to shifting culture in uncertain times, even across languages and cultures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of our favorite sayings is “You do stuff, and stuff happens.” It’s simple but powerful. For us, it’s about recognizing that everything that happens in the world was caused by something else. It’s cause and effect. So the more you understand cause and effect the more you’ll understand how to cause the effects you want. Hence, “you do stuff, and stuff happens.” People notoriously miscalculate the things they can control. So they sit, they twiddle their thumbs and wait for the effects of other people’s actions. Don’t be one of those people!
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Apollo Emeka of Apollo Strategy Group: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.