Kris Paronto, a former Army Ranger from 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment and private security contractor, is an American hero who knows the value of a strong, reliable team. Over the past decade, he has faced numerous challenges in hostile environments, from the 2012 U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, to security related operations in South America, Central America, and North Africa. Paronto, author of the 2017 motivational book, The Ranger Way, is well aware of what it takes to persevere in perilous situations and to trust a team to make the right decisions for everyone involved.
We spoke with the SHARE Fort Worth keynote speaker to learn what attendees can expect to take away during his presentation on what bottom-up leadership can look like and what can be accomplished when you trust your team.
Can you tell us about yourself, and what drew you to take the career path you chose?
I was born in Alamosa, Colorado, and my parents were both in the education field. My father was a football coach and athletic director at several NCAA schools, and my mother was a school teacher. In fact, she was my first grade teacher. That was an experience in itself, since I was always the kid getting in trouble. I’d say I grew up like most kids, playing sports, spending time outside, going to school. I was in the band for a few years.
Then, I received a football scholarship to Colorado Mesa University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 1995. I didn't think about joining the military until my last year of college and, honestly, I would say my career path found me. Coincidence or fate, I don't know; but my last day of college, I was picked out of crowd by an Army recruiter and asked if I wanted to be an Army Ranger. He showed me a video of rangers jumping out of airplanes, shooting machine guns, and blowing things up, and that was it. I enlisted and left for Infantry Basic Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1995, completed Airborne School and the arduous 75th Ranger Indoctrination Program, making it to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
I faced many ups and downs after an early discharge from the Army and as I faced divorce, went back to school for my Master’s Degree, and then re-enlisted into the Army. That meant going back through Infantry Basic Training, Airborne School, and Ranger Indoc Program again to get back to the 75th Ranger Regiment. I completed Ranger School in 2001, got remarried, and later became an Army Officer. I started military contracting for the U.S. State Department and then the CIA in 2003 deploying to the Middle East, North Africa, and regions in South America for the next 11 years.
The attack of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi took place later in 2012, which I was involved in and can be seen in the movie 13 Hours, The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I was the guy fighting in shorts that night. I don't quit, I believe in hard work and that failure is just a part of learning and getting stronger. I believe in God and gain strength from my faith, but I don't expect others to believe in the same things as I do. However, I do say to everyone, "Believe in something because there is an entity out there watching over and guiding us." I love being a father, husband, and a son. I wouldn't change anything in my life up to this point because it's made me stronger and has given me the wisdom from experiences to help those who may be struggling with adversity.
A good portion of your career has been centered on perseverance and making decisions in high-risk situations. What do you think it takes to be a level-headed leader in difficult situations?
Experience, understanding, patience, and firmness coupled with stressful training are the components of a good leader, in my opinion. There’s something to be said about how "street smarts" will better prepare you for the "real world" than the classroom will, and I believe there’s a lot of truth to that.
That's why the training that we receive at the 75th Ranger Regiment is as real as we can get it to be. Being pushed to mental and physical exhaustion, then being thrown into a complicated task or training operation that requires all your focus does prepare you for that real world situation when you need to think quickly and react fast. Some people call this being instinctive. I don't because to me “instinctive” means you're not using your brain.
Under intense duress, your brain is going at 110 mph. You may feel you're reacting without a thought, but in reality, your brain is reverting back to habitual movements and reactions ingrained from multiple trainings and experiences. Your body and mind have become so familiar with the physical effects stressful situations cause. The knot in your stomach, the lump in your throat, and tunnel vision are just a few physical reactions that take place when faced with stress. It's amplified in high risk/life-or-death situations.
Knowing that the physical effects are just the body preparing itself allows you to calm and prepare yourself for the task at hand. The more experience you have dealing with high stress levels, whether it be through training or real world missions, the more effectively you will respond because you're able to recognize the adrenaline dump and the physical feelings associated with it.
That night in Benghazi in 2012, I felt the adrenaline dump when we first heard the call for assistance on the radio. After working 10 years in the Middle East and as a Ranger, I recognized it and did what I had learned to do. I took a deep breath and imagined myself pushing that adrenaline (energy) out to where I’d need it: my feet, hands, eyes, and brain. I also had faith and believed that I was where I was supposed to be at that particular moment. It wasn't about me not dying or even the possibility of failing — those thoughts never crossed my mind. It was, "OK, let's go to work."
Your presentation is called 13 Hours: Bottom-Up Leadership and How it Saved Lives in Benghazi. Can you tell us more about the concept of bottom-up leadership and how it plays a role in any job/industry?
It's pretty simple. Benghazi is a perfect example of bottom-up leadership. We train in the military to always know the jobs of our teammates two spots above and two spots below our positions. If you're called upon to do someone else's job, you can do it effectively and the team keeps moving forward. We also have varying skills in different specialties (medical, sniper, combat air support, breaching, explosives, etc.). The one with the best skill set in that specialty is in charge when necessary, even if their position or rank is not the highest.
In a nut shell, that's what did and did not take place in Benghazi.
Our CIA leadership did not have the military or combat experience to handle the situation when the attack occurred and did not relinquish command and control to those on the ground that were trained and experienced to handle the situation, which essentially cost lives. Even though we were subordinates, we had to take over — starting from the bottom — and lead the rescue operation for the remainder of the night through the next morning until we were able to commandeer Libyan aircraft and fly to safety. We were only able to do that because we properly prepared ourselves for the worst case scenario, knowing our jobs inside and out. But we also knew everyone else's job on the base, were an emergency to occur. We were prepared if those above us faltered. And we relinquished control to each other in situations when one of us had more experience than the rest of the team. There was no pride or ego.
What is one lesson or piece of advice you hope SHARE Fort Worth attendees take from your keynote presentation?
Never ever quit! When things get tough, adversity rears its ugly head, and obstacles pop up without warning, just keep moving forward to reach your objective, even if it’s at a snail's pace.
Train, train, train, and add a little stress to the training to make it realistic.
I’ve experienced this with others, as well as myself — as a young private, then as an old guy on the ground in my 40's — that you will always revert to your highest level of training when under intense stress or duress.
As I stated earlier, your movements will become habitual when your brain is on sensory overload. If you haven't prepared yourself properly, you will literally shut down. I refer to it as going into the "black," which I learned from Colonel Jeff Cooper's Color Codes. Going into the "black" causes you to do absolutely nothing. I've seen this happen to others, and it's as scary as it is astounding watching someone go blank or mumble incoherently to themselves.
Lastly, and most importantly, realize that you can't control everything and everyone around you. Have the ability to continually react to a situation and be fluid. This again comes through intense training and experience. Understand that others’ attitudes are ultimately out of your control. You can do your best to influence them by being positive (or negative), but the one thing you can always control is your own attitude. Our team was extremely positive that night, even when things looked bleak, and it instilled me with the confidence I needed to fight and find a way out of Benghazi with my team.
Overall, SHARE Fort Worth attendees will learn how to be prepared for the crucible of crisis through training, hard work, and trust in the team who is equally prepared.