Rob O’Neill starts his talk by saying he’s not here to tell the Osama bin Laden story. But, of course, he’s soon telling the story of the fabled 2011 raid – to a packed audience of Charlotte real estate professionals.
In a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel uptown, commercial real estate leaders learned what falling bombs sound like close-up (sizzling bacon), what bullets sound like overhead (a cracking, or the hum of angry bugs), what it’s like seeing a soldier next to you get his backpack blown off with a rocket-propelled grenade (the Afghan soldier was miraculously unharmed) and why special forces troops jumping out of a plane all turn to the right (so they don’t run into each other).
O’Neill, a SEAL Team Six leader who spent almost two decades in the U.S. Navy, including multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, gave the keynote speech at the CoreNet Carolinas Mega Event on Wednesday. The annual gathering brings together hundreds of Charlotte developers, brokers, architects, designers and others in the commercial real estate world.
A Navy SEAL might seem like an odd choice to headline such an event, but since leaving the military after the famed bin Laden raid, O’Neill has taken up motivational speaking as his line of work. In the last year, he’s addressed the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Animal Rescue Foundation and the Railway Interchange’s biennial conference, among others.
His message: The lessons learned in the Navy SEALs can apply to private sector businesses too, though, thankfully, without having to learn to tie dozens of knots underwater or call in airstrikes under heavy fire.
“Stuff we learn in combat is applicable to normal life,” said O’Neill in Charlotte. He first emerged from the veil of special operations secrecy following a 2013 Esquire article called “The Shooter,” in which he detailed – anonymously – the mission to kill bin Laden and his role pulling the trigger, and also talked about his struggles with post-military life. In 2014, O’Neill went public in a Fox News documentary where he revealed his identity.
Navy SEALs have had a cultural moment in the five years following bin Laden’s death. They’ve figured prominently in hit movies (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lone Survivor,” “Captain Phillips”), and advice books such as veterans Jocko Willink’s and Leif Babin’s “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.”
Many of his business lessons, based on SEAL training and tactics, were straightforward: Take emotions out of decision-making. Don’t get complacent in your success. Prepare, relentlessly, for every contingency. Never quit. Cut the excess chatter and focus communication on only the essentials (“When you’re done saying what you’re saying, stop saying it. Never pass up a chance to shut up,” as O’Neill put it). Fear is healthy because it heightens one’s senses, but panic is contagious.
What made his talk different from standard business-motivational fare were the phrases and anecdotes peppered throughout. There probably hasn’t been a commercial real estate talk in Charlotte yet where sentences started with “The guy that led me up the stairs to Bin Laden’s bedroom...” and “When an RPG flies over your head and explodes behind you...”
Despite the applicability of some combat advice to business, there are definitely differences. “Complacency kills,” certainly has different meanings in the context of real estate development vs. close-quarters battle. When O’Neill referenced never giving up, his anecdote was about how one of his buddies nearly drowned rather than quit an underwater SEALs training exercise (The trainers revived him, and he passed). And not panicking under pressure carries much higher stakes when you’re taking mortar fire in the mountains of Afghanistan than when you’re deciding whether or not to pull the plug on a real estate deal in a challenging market.
O’Neill also shined a light on the more mundane aspects of SEAL life, and how they bizarrely intersected with the secretive parts. When he got orders to deploy immediately to rescue a U.S. cargo vessel container captain being held for ransom by Somali pirates, he was at his daughter’s preschool Easter party, holding a pink plate of frosted cupcakes. Before shipping out for the bin Laden raid, he bought a $240 pair of Prada sunglasses, because he figured he wasn’t likely to survive.
“I can’t afford those. But I’m gonna be dead in a week, and American Express can,” said O’Neill.
After the address, O’Neill received a standing ovation before heading out to jet to his next destination. Real estate professionals I talked with afterward said they found him inspiring, even if some of the advice wasn’t strictly applicable to deciding whether to invest in a new mixed-use project. And it certainly put those problems in perspective – as one broker put it, going to work despite a lingering cold feels like nothing next to a Navy SEAL’s challenges.