Phil Kornachuk

383: Leading Through Chaos — Lessons From an Elite Special Ops Commander

This week’s conversation is with Phil Kornachuk, a highly-trained military expert with 22 years of service in the U.S. Army Special Ops Command. 

After serving with both the 2nd Battalion Rangers and the Green Berets, being deployed 12 times, and receiving a Silver Star – the 3rd highest award for valor in combat – Phil decided to leave his military career behind and channel his experience into a new kind of mission: helping people and businesses forge high performance leadership skills. 

Indexing on self-mastery, mindset training and resilience, Phil’s passion for developing purpose-driven leaders and high performing teams has taken the form of executive coaching, 1-on-1 training, hands-on workshops and even back-country expeditions through his company StoneWater Training. 

Phil and I share the belief that there are no shortcuts, and you’ll hear all about how this high school dropout who grew up on a dairy farm in Ontario cultivated a mental toughness and leadership acumen that has been integral to him and  his team’s success in high-stakes environments.

“We’re going to point positive. If something goes sideways, we’re going to point where you need to go, what you need to do. Focus on the actions you need to take. Don’t focus on what’s gone wrong or what could go wrong if I do this or if I do this or that.”

In This Episode:

Rewriting his narrative

Everything we did was measured, whether it was your physical performance or your tactical or technical proficiency, there were times, there was scores. I saw if I could just master the fundamentals, master the basics, I could execute to or above standard. Other than being a very mediocre hockey player up until I was 16, I didn’t really have a sports background, no real team orientation. I was a solid C student, just mediocre to below, mediocre all round. That was the script I had written for myself, but I didn’t like it so then I came into this totally new environment where it’s a level playing field and you had a chance to reinvent yourself because everyone was new to it and it was like, “Let’s see where this can go.”

Being awarded the Silver Star

To me, I think there is a degree of right place, right time, a little bit of luck mixed in and there is some ‘step up and do something that’s usually a little beyond your assigned position.’ It’s ironic, I think back to when I got awarded the Silver Star, and it was something where I look back and I’m like, “What did you expect us to do? Get overrun?” That seemed like a terrible option so of course we fought our tail off and got out of there.

Flow state in chaotic situations

Things were getting stranger. And you’re not scared, but you’re definitely on high alert… It’s where you are very prepared for the situation. You have all the tools, mentally, physically, you’re ready for it, but it’s pushing your limits and you’re like, “I’m on the edge.” It’s that fine line. I just did a talk on the fine line between hard and stupid. I’m on the edge. I need to be on my A game. I’ve got this, but you got to be smart. It’s literally a flow state and I’ve had it a few other times in combat where it truly has felt like time slows and you just have a clarity and awareness that normally isn’t there.

Purpose-driven leadership

It’s very fundamental and truly it starts with you. It starts with your core. Why are you on this side of the grass? If you can distill it down to purpose and then what are the chosen values I want to govern my decision making and my actions? When you have that purpose and you have those values as a lens and a filter to make the choices, I think you can be a truly effective leader. If you were to back up, I think it begins with self-awareness. Who am I really? Who am I? Who do I want to be? What’s the path to get there? I do a lot of leadership development, both with individuals and teams. And I tell them, I go, “It’s not some magical principle that shows up in your professional life at work. It’s with yourself. Can you do the hard things when no one’s looking? Can you lead yourself to be the individual you feel like you’re truly called to be or do you take the easy path?” It’s a continual fight. I go, “If you can master yourself and if you’re leading other organizations, especially when you’re in a formal position, it becomes a whole lot easier if you can communicate a vision and a purpose to them that they buy into and can identify with.”

The intersection of passion and talent

Everyone’s got a boss. Mine told me when I was a lieutenant, he goes, “Hey, where your passion your talent intersects, that’s where you need to be. That where you’re meant to be.” There’s a lot of things I’m good at that I’m not particularly excited about and there’s a lot of things I’m excited about that I’m not particularly good at. But then, there’s this, if it’s a Venn diagram, there’s that overlap and that sweet spot going okay, I think there’s something here. I don’t think purpose is, “Hey guys, take 10 minutes and define your purpose.” To me, it’s almost like you’re digging for a vein of gold, and you find a little piece and you’re like, oh, this is there’s something here. Let me dig a bit more, explore a bit more. I think you need to take action to develop it and then reassess, am I still hitting? Am I in line with it?

Phil’s purpose pillars

Number one for me, is connect and inspire. Meaning building meaningful relationships with people and helping them identify and elevate who they truly are. It’s not a numbers game, it’s not about finance or position. That oftentimes does follow when people are in the right place doing the right things and it’s authentic, but I don’t think that’s a metric for success… Pillar number two is do good. I know that good is a very subjective and can actually be a dangerous word. I look at my 22 years in the military. I always made, we talked about this earlier, I made the best decision I could with the information I had, and I wanted the net good. Sometimes you’re confronted with dilemmas where there’s no good… My last is to push my limits. Where’s my boundary? Where’s my edge: physically, and mentally, spiritually, emotionally? Let me get up to the edge, get comfortable on the edge, and then see if the edge moves a bit more, and keep nudging it.

There’s a time and place for urgency

I think the blind spots and areas that I’m challenged with, also have served me really well in other environments. I know, for example, my impulse control is at about zero, meaning I move, I make decisions very quickly. I act quickly. I commit to all kinds of stories. I could go in with that. I’m not going to, in the interest of staying on task. That has served me really well, probably about 90% of the time when I was leading people in crisis type situations, where you didn’t have the luxury to fully analyze, and you had to quickly … Going back to blink. You’re like zig, instead of zag. Let’s execute. Just feeling this. That served me well there. Now as a business owner, as someone who’s working with clients, that impulsivity, that speedy decision making isn’t the right answer all the time. Again, there’s a time and place. If a bear rips into your tent, it’s good to act quickly. But when you’re deciding you’re working with someone on a three to five year strategy for their growth or innovation, you don’t want to be flippant with those decisions. You want to be deliberate and a little more calculating because you can and it’s right.

Response to chaos

It’s that classic, your worst day becomes your best day. We were fighting tooth and nail, really because we didn’t want to be a story on the news the next morning, that the the Green Berets team got wiped out in northwest Afghanistan. We did not want to be that story. We link up with the guys and the gals who had come to kind of pull us out of this mess. They were down to one vehicle, they were surrounded, they’re getting low on ammo. I remember we’re absolutely three sides just taking fire, and the enemy’s getting bolder and bolder, and they’re closing in on us. I’m like, “This is awesome.”

Trust and teammates

There’s multiple paths to the top. I like to give people trust out the gate. You start at automatic a hundred and it’s now based on your actions that might nudge down a bit or it might stay where it’s at, but I’m going to choose to trust you out the gate, which I think is important as a leader. It’s the old Russian saying of trust but verify. I’m not going to blindly trust, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt out the gate if we’re together, especially in a high-performing selective organization. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t showing up with some drive and some credibility because it’s hard to be here. People don’t end up playing for the Patriots if they’re not, to a degree, trustworthy on the gridiron. I need to be careful with sports analogies because again, I don’t come with sports background, so I’ll just put my football bat over there and we’ll move forward. But to me, trust is you have shared values, number one, shared values. There’s alignment on purpose, not always the same, but it’s supporting and parallel. So you got the purpose and values are in the ballpark.


To me, integrity is, is there congruence between your deed and word? Do I know if you say it, you’re going to do it or make your damn best to do it? Then is that tested? Are those three things tested in challenging situations? Because everyone’s awesome when things are good. That’s why I think I can read a leadership book, John Maxwell, man, I got this nailed, but it’s not till you’re really challenged in a tough situation that you’re like, do I apply it or do I fold it up and act from a self-centered spot?

Setting a standard

When you settle for a low standard, that becomes a new standard. Anytime you walk by something, you’re establishing a new one. People who’ve worked with me know I’m not the pacesetting driver leader, in your face and micromanaging, but I think there are certain non-negotiables. Once you sacrifice those, kiss your culture goodbye. And when your culture goes goodbye, your desired culture, over time, everything else is going to crumble. There’s no shortage of examples both individually or collectively where you can see that.

Point positive

We’re going to point positive. If something goes sideways, we’re going to point where you need to go, what you need to do. Focus on the actions you need to take. Don’t focus on what could go wrong if I do this or if I do this or that. That ‘don’t screw up’ mentality, that will absolutely be a cancer in your mind and inhibit your performance. And you probably know the psychology behind this far better than me, but don’t dwell on what could go wrong and focus on what must happen to do this excellent. If you can get into that condition, I think you’ll excel under stress and pressure.

Emotions in combat

Ironically, for me personally, in combat, emotion really wasn’t a huge factor. Every now and again there would be a pressure to perform, like oh, I need to lead better. I would feel like I sucked. So there’d be a little bit of that emotion. I don’t know if insecurity is the right word to say, but almost like an impostor syndrome, especially when I worked at some pretty high-end organizations. But fear, anger, those things typically wasn’t present in combat because it was so demanding. You had to be on your A+ game. As a leader, if I was doing the right thing, my emotion, my thoughts, my feelings, they had to go on the shelf because I was focused on the 700 folks I’m working with. You’re not looking in, you’re looking out, so it really wasn’t a huge part.

Finding high ground (recovery)

Even last night, I was in the mountains just looking at the night sky. I have the sense of I am so insignificant, nothing and I’m everything at the same time with the perspective and the reality of what’s going on in here in the greater scheme is such a small part. It’s my entire world, but it’s a less than a speck of dust when seen in everything else. I think that perspective is really peaceful to me and it gives you the sense of it’s okay. It’s going to be okay. We’re a flash in the pan. We’re a blinker light. It’s our blinker light, so make the most of it. It’s like that 10-year rule. In 10 years, will this truly matter? And there are some things that do. I mean, again, my last line of business, sometimes you’re talking to someone’s spouse and tell them your other person isn’t coming home. That’s going to matter in 10, 20, 70 years, but so much of what we deal with, especially those impulsive emotional reactions. So yeah, my high ground is the ocean, the mountains.

Talent selection

I look for attributes versus skills. Meaning, if you have the right person, the right mindset, I can trust you, you’re adaptable, you’re committed, and you have a baseline of competency or if you’ve demonstrated the ability to learn, I can bolt any skill on you. I have seen flute players become elite special operators in the space of about two years. Look, that’s a real example. I won’t go any further into it, but it’s the right person. They were committed. Our process was able to identify that. I won’t go deep into the weeds, but if you look into special operations around the world, the ones that are the standard-bearers, the majority of them and the ones that are sustainable and good over time select on attribute versus skill. Now it’s nice if they have the skill too, but the danger is you get the person who’s a 10 on skill and about a three on values and that will destroy your organization.

Core attributes of a good teammate

It depends on the organization and the mission, but key things, I think you hit on trust. That’s huge. Adaptability is really good. Again, depending on the field, if it, there’s some stuff where I’d say precision is key, but if you are trying to build a high performing team that is going to tackle situations in an ambiguous, unpredictable environment, which I would argue the world is, hashtag COVID. Like weird stuff happens that we have no say in, and so, hey, can you trust them? Are they adaptable and are they committed? All in for the purpose? Like are they, “Yeah, I’m all about it.” And those are three heavy ones. I think discipline is a great one as far as someone who’s disciplined will learn the process. You can give them the playbook, they’ll memorize it, they’ll execute it. They’ll progressively get better. And he might not show up at a 10, he might show up at a six, but you’ll get them to that nine or 10. He’s committed, he’s got the discipline, he’s adaptable. He can read himself, adjust the environment, and he is trustworthy. So he elevates those around him.

Doing the job at hand

I knew it was a pretty special experience, but it was one of those where everyone on that element had done some pretty incredible things. I know unequivocally, there was people who did a whole lot more than I personally did out there that I think should have been recognized a lot more than they were. Everyone was recognized in some capacity. A lot of it comes down to perception and they’re like, “Well, you were going above and beyond.” And yeah, that’s their words, not mine. I would argue, no, I was actually just really just wanted to make it back in time for lunch. I mean, I was getting hangry [laughs].

His philosophy

My philosophy is know yourself, lead yourself, lead others…it really begins with self-awareness. Honestly, seeking truth within and going, why am I on this side of the grass? Why have I been gifted today? And when you can start to answer that question and start to unearth it and refine it, then I think truly you can begin leading yourself to be that person. And it’s kind of cyclical and ongoing. It’s not like serial steps. We’re all doing this all the time, right? You’re a CEO, you don’t have time to abscond your position of authority and go discover who you are. You’re doing it while you’re also leading. But I think as you build your internal awareness and lead yourself, that you truly become the far more effective authentic leader.

Mental toughness

It’s really being able to do the uncomfortable hard things for a higher purpose, or for a purpose. And it can be organic adversity, meaning you’re just in a hard situation, i.e., you have a lot of people very upset at you, and you’re trying to survive the day, like April 6th, 2010 for me. Or it can be engineered adversity where you’re like, “You know what? Life’s pretty good and comfortable right now. What’s between that comfortable and impossible zone that I need to seek out to keep my edge sharp, and then push to it?” And that’s what I do. And that’s what I do for folks I work with, is let’s push a bit. And I think that builds mental toughness.

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