Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities Lecture Recap: Team Rubicon’s Jake Wood

jake wood
Team Rubicon co-founder and CEO Jake Wood

Jake Wood was submitting applications for MBA programs when a magnitude 7.0 struck Haiti in 2010. Having just returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was surprised by the similarities between the news footage from Port-au-Prince and what he had seen on the ground, during times of war as a marine. Unable to plug-in with traditional disaster relief organizations, who preferred monetary donations over extra hands, Wood and three friends charted their own path to Haiti and beyond.

Air Force veteran Rebekah La Due, part of Team Rubicon's Operation: Good Medicine in Okanogan, Washington in October 2015.

Team Rubicon
Air Force veteran Rebekah La Due, part of Team Rubicon’s Operation: Good Medicine in Okanogan, Washington in October 2015.

Five years later, Team Rubicon has grown to include 31,000 volunteer members, mostly veterans, from all around the country. Those members have been deployed to more than 120 disasters across the United States and abroad. Team Rubicon saves lives through filling a vital function—utilizing small unit tactics learned through military service to aide in the aftermath of disaster events—that other organizations can’t. It also provides returning veterans with community, a sense of purpose, and identity, something many need.

Part of the Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities series from the UW College of the Environment, UW Alumni Association, and UW Graduate School, Team Rubicon’s co-founder and CEO Jake Wood spoke on Tuesday, November 3, about how we can all be the leaders that our organizations need in times of crisis using his own personal story as a vehicle.

Key takeaways

  • The world is fast-moving and full of uncertainty. Chaos is certain.
  • Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, 80 are just targets, nine are real fighters, and we are lucky to have the, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” Wood contends that leadership is a function of “the one and the nine”—that the one needs to determine whether he or she wants that mantle of leadership and, if so, how to recruit their nine.
  • Leadership is a standard that needs to be set every single day. If you’re the one, and you set that standard, it’s contageous. If you’re the one and you don’t lead by example, your nine will become complacent. When people are complacent they no longer buy into the value of that higher mission.
  • Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. And, leaders, get out of the way and let your people do what they need to do.
  • For Team Rubicon, counterinsurgency tactics are used to deliver humanitarian aide. 2.5 million veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan represent an enormous amount of human capital that traditional disaster relief organizations weren’t going to tap into.

Quotes that resonate

  • “It’s not good enough to know who you want to be. You have to have the courage to become that person.”
  • “We know that chaos and calamity is agnostic of industry. It doesn’t matter if you are working for a disaster response organization. It doesn’t matter if you are working in higher education—chaos will happen, uncertainty will happen at some point in time. We need good leadership to thrive in succeed in that environment.”
  • “Leading that squad of marines in Iraq was the privilege of my entire life.”
  • “My gift for graduating [sniper training] was hopefully a roundtrip ticket to Afghanistan.”
  • “Leadership is built on the principles of following well. If we know how to follow well, not only are we going to make the teams we’re part of better, we’re going to make our leaders better and we’re going to become better leaders ourselves.”
  • “I was watching this footage come out of Port-au-Prince, and I sat there and I thought to myself, “That looks just like Afghanistan.” That’s me coming off of a mission. It seemed to eerily familiar. As I sat there, I said, “I could help down there. I know that there are going to be limited resources, and I know there’s going to be chaos. And I know one thing—I do chaos really, really well.”
  • “When we were down in Port-au-Prince, we found ourselves running mobile medical triage clinics in the hardest hit areas of the city. The parts that other organizations either couldn’t or wouldn’t go.”

Related reading

Upcoming Surviving Disaster lectures

11/10: John Vidale—This lecture is sold out, but stay tuned for our video of this event!

Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, kknick@uw.edu