Brian Ferguson, Founder & CEO of Arena Labs

October 7, 2020


Brian Ferguson, 2020 Class of Young Leaders

Q. How have the lessons on leadership that you learned in the military carried through to your work today?

Public service, of any sort, lends itself to profound leadership insights.  The issues are of such magnitude and consequence, and being surrounded by people with a shared sense of purpose and commitment is inherently infectious. It makes you want to be better – to learn more, to understand complexity, and to deliver value as a collective mission.

My time as a civilian in national security and then serving in uniform in the Navy will likely always be the most formative aspect of how I view leadership.

I’m a bit passionate about introspection and lessons learned through chapters, and seasons, of life. At the high-level, my current leadership philosophy is heavily influenced by what I was privileged to learn in government and military service:

Be Authentic:

Amongst the greatest leaders I observed, there was a raw authenticity. A sincerely held, unapologetic commitment to thinking, communicating, and leading. When blended with deep integrity and commitment to purpose, I believe that inspires people to action. There’s this term “leading from the front” in the military. While many interpret it as physically being out front, I came to see the value of the greatest leaders I was around living what they say and doing it in front of those they lead every day.

Be Humble:

I was privileged to serve with many of our generation’s greatest leaders – men and women who were navigating the challenges of two major wars and everything that came with it. A ruthless commitment to always being better – to learning more, to teaching, and improving…it was, unequivocally, the hallmark of world-class leadership.

Communicate Through Words and Action:

In an age of abundant information and noise, communication is vital. A leader may have the greatest values and vision, but if he cannot communicate those concepts, through action or words, he will never connect in the right manner for those he leads. Simple communication is critical—a man must know why something matters. If he is inspired with purpose communicated simply, he will be all the more effective and passionate in his work.

Beyond the high-level, I keep a running list of the “small things” I observe that impact me deeply. Here are a few:

  • Humility forges leaders.
  • Building a cohesive unit from new personalities and leaders is a slow, challenging process. Be patient.
  • You will fail as a leader. Learn from it and move on, fast.
  • Hard work and resourcefulness create opportunities. Every time.
  • Leaders rise to the occasion.
  • What you do in training matters—it becomes your baseline when things fall apart.
  • First in. Last out. Hard work earns respect, no matter what.

Q. Tell us about your vision for Arena Labs in the coming years. The company’s mission, to bring the science of peak performance and elite teams to modern healthcare and surgery, must be particularly important and challenging this year.

Yes, COVID-19 has elevated the narrative of our work at Arena Labs in ways we could not imagine.

During my final year in the military, I met a heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who invited me into his operating room. On the one hand, I was struck by the technological advancement of modern surgery. On the other, I was profoundly surprised that there was no focus on stress management, dealing with anxiety, and performing under pressure in this high-pressure, high-stakes environment.

We provide elite military units, professional athletes, and world-class performers with an entire suite of training, tools, and technology to manage stress and effectively perform under pressure.

Why don’t we do that for the frontline teams in medicine who take care of our society?

That concept is the premise of our work at Arena Labs, and at a higher level, we believe that the future of world-class healthcare is not in policy or regulation, but in building high-performing teams.

The pandemic, and the stress + burnout we’re starting to see, has made our work all the more timely and relevant. It’s a sacred mission we take seriously.

Q. You have written about “consilience,” your view that leaders from different fields share similar challenges and can achieve greatness from being brought together. How do you exercise this concept in your work, and what are some of the benefits of learning from others outside of your immediate sector?

When I worked in national security, I was amazed at how people in all different pockets had a similar version of the same problems. They just used different language. Someone at the CIA or in the Air Force or serving as a Diplomat was struggling with the same things.

As I went deeper, I realized that at a higher level, the 21st century had created an environment where rapid technological advancement creates more information and, ultimately, more complexity. And yet, we’re asking leaders to make effective decisions in an increasingly complex world, with more information… and less time. If you think about it, that’s a really daunting reality.

When I left the military, I spent time at the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity. The Chairman of SFI, Michael Mauboussin, is a brilliant mind. He introduced me to the concept of consilience, which he explored at length in his book “More Than You Know.”

In short, consilience is based on the premise that when people from different fields come together to talk about their challenges, they create epiphanies – or new ways of seeing a problem and solution – that they would not have uncovered had they stayed within the silo of their existing knowledge base or expertise.

This, of course, has always been true. Still, I believe that in today’s world, extraordinary leaders understand this and are creating cultures where truly diverse and multi-disciplinary ideas are colliding to make better decisions and perspectives.

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