National Team

Interview with Admiral Kyle Cozad

“First, Take a Deep Breath” Leading Teams through Crisis with Admiral Kyle Cozad

USA Wheelchair Rugby on July 4, 2020

Admiral Kyle Cozad of the United States Navy knows more than a few things about leadership in times of crisis. The former US Naval Academy basketball player became a Navy pilot and a teacher of Navy pilots, leading by example for over 35 years in the air, on bases, shore tours, and underway on deployments. As an admiral, he runs the Naval Education and Training Command at Naval Air Station Pensacola, which is responsible for the training and development of over 400,000 sailors. His service has earned him the deepest respect and love of his sailors, in addition to formal awards including the Defense Superior Service Medal (two awards), Legion of Merit (two awards), Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (three awards), and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (three awards), and the Admiral William F. Bringle Award for inspirational leadership during his tour as a flight deck officer and catapult and arresting gear officer aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). 

But the real life picture outshines his hardware. Admiral Cozad is the first known US military officer to lead a command from a wheelchair. He sustained a spinal cord injury in March of 2018 in which two of his vertebrae were crushed. He was back on the job in a less-than-customized day chair in a potentially not-quite-fully accessible command center within months. And within one year of his injury, he’d joined Team Navy Wounded Warrior to train and compete at the Department of Defense Warrior Games. He’s a pretty kick-@$$ athlete and teammate, and we hit him up for a few words of wisdom on leading teams through times of high stress.  

USAWR: What comes to mind when you think about high stress situations you’ve led teams through?  

Kyle Cozad: First off, I think the personality traits and your individual leadership strengths are consistent across any spectrum of situations whether low/no stress to high stress. I always try to focus on a few key elements. First, take a deep breath. Regardless of the stress level, we almost always have a chance to take a step back to assess a given situation. Second, that “deep breath” allows you to maintain composure – those around you will always look at your demeanor and the way you react as a measure of how they react. When I taught my son to ride a two wheeled bike for the first time, I was scared to death that he’d crash and scrape himself all up. BUT, I didn’t show that concern. I showed him confidence that “you’ve got this buddy” – and with my confidence, came his. Finally, don’t be too proud to admit that you don’t have all the answers. I always lean on others – for advice, for opinions and for help.  Don’t be afraid (or too proud) to ask for help! 

USAWR: When there are so many dynamic variables in a fluid situation, what helps you return your focus to the things you can control and/ or what helps you let go of the things that are beyond your control? 

KC: I think that most of us today are victims of instant gratification and control through things like social media and the ability for a single “click” on Amazon Prime to deliver that “must have item” in a matter of days. It’s important during times like this to take that deep breath (anyone detect a theme, yet?) and focus on those things you can actually control. The things you can actually do – the things you can change from your decisions and actions. During this COVID pandemic, I know I can’t control the number of positive cases, or most tragically the deaths that are attributed to the virus.  BUT, I can control how I protect myself and others. I choose to wear appropriate face covering; I choose to limit public exposure to essential outings only; I choose to wash my hands more frequently and pay close attention to hygiene habits; and I choose NOT to judge those who choose otherwise. Control those things we CAN control through our decisions and actions; and don’t spend time fretting over those things out of  our control.

USAWR: What helps you take care of yourself and recharge your own energy as a leader leading a team through highly stressful situations?  

KC: I try to maintain a similar routine and apply the same practices and habits during periods of prolonged stress that I do to any more routine times. I get my nightly sleep; I exercise; I try to “push away” from the stress of the day; and I have a quiet lunch with my wife (there is nothing like sitting in your backyard on a sunny day, eating a sandwich or salad for lunch, and watching the Blue Angels practice overhead!) It’s always good for me to spend a few minutes each day just “thinking” (some pray, some meditate, some just need quiet time for reflection). Those things all help me to remain balanced and keep my “batteries charged.” 

USAWR: Any thoughts or strategies you’d be willing to share on social and emotional closeness and relationship/team building during times of physical distancing?  

KC: As soon as the COVID pandemic became apparent to everyone in America, I chose to change the recommendation that we all “socially distance.” As Americans – and human beings, we all have a need for social contact. We need to talk, we need to listen, and we need to belong.  So, I’ve adopted a slightly different take – during times like this, it’s important that we PHYSICAL distance ourselves to best prevent infectious contact, but in doing so we must remain SOCIALLY CONNECTED. Whether that’s through phone calls, online chat services or waving at your neighbor across the street – realize we’re all in this together. And through those relationships and social connections, we’ll all get through this together. 

Admiral Cozad stands in front of helicopter

Note: The opinions shared are Admiral Cozad’s personal views and not that of the U.S. government or the U.S. Navy.

Photo credits: Navy Times https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/04/12/meet-the-admiral-who-leads-from-a-wheelchair/#:~:text=A%20simple%20stroll%20across%20his,%2C%2056%2C%20told%20Navy%20Times. Amy Welter Cozd