With a giant American flag hanging at the back of their convention center, 1,500 members of the dairy industry heard from Lt. Commander Rorke Denver, a former Navy Seal, last week during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin annual business conference in Madison.
"I've been to a lot of nasty places in the world. There people are hungry and when they're hungry they go to war," he told the dairy farmers. "When you do your job I don't have to do mine."
Denver talked to the dairy group about what it takes to become a Navy Seal — 75-85 percent of those who begin the training end up not finishing and most of them leave voluntarily.
After years of working as a professional special-forces member in hot zones all over the world, Denver wound up his career as a trainer for new members of the professional warrior group.
Being a special-forces member involves an "alchemy of traits — some you're born with and some of it is what you train yourself to become."
The soldier said that he and his colleagues train incessantly at shooting and choose instructors from the civilian sector to help them become better. He believes that model can help those in other walks of life – including dairy farming.
"If there's anything in your life, in your industry that you need help with, get it."
For those who are already in an elite environment, it is sometimes difficult to find ways to constantly improve, but his experience in the Navy Seals taught him that it is possible.
"There's a little bit extra that we keep at a primal level. We keep a little bit extra in the tank for when we need it.
"If you're constantly looking for it, you'll find it. There are ways to constantly get better." That message fit in well with a conference title "Exceeding Excellence."
Denver talked about his experience in taking teams into harm's way in a variety of places and said that on any given team it wasn't unusual to have two or three new guys who had not worked on any missions before.
On one of his last missions he took a combat team that included 12 new guys and he expected that it could be disastrous. That group ended up being one of the highest performing groups he had led.
Those new guys were the "secret sauce" in his team, he found. "When the rooky shows up you play harder and tap into their energy."
Denver said he took inspiration for his career from a college coach and from literature on sports and on warfare and he related those nuggets to the qualities of leadership that should be present in any organization.
"The higher up you go, the more people you are in service to."
He said he believes that no leader should make his men do things he wouldn't do.
Never in his career, he said, did he have to crack a whip — it was more like he had to pull the reins in on his people. "You have to find a balance. We need it now more than ever."
Denver and his team were all over Central and South America when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 came. He was in Colombia and happened to get to a television just in time to see the second airplane hit the World Trade Center tower.
It was a strange experience for a trained warrior to watch that from afar, he said. "We were absolutely and sincerely aware that people were hurting — the people who had to decide if they were going to jump from the towers, the fire fighters and first responders who went in there."
At the same time there was excitement among the team that they knew they would be called to duty as a response to the attack, he said.
One of his partners said he couldn't wait to take revenge on whoever was responsible for the attack.
Denver said he recalled his college Lacrosse coach not really talking much about sports, but teaching his students more about leadership and humanity.
At that moment he recalled his coach saying "we don't use words like revenge."
Denver said that as a student at Syracuse he had tried to soak up every bit of knowledge and wisdom from that coach and apply it to his life and to his work.
He encouraged his audience to be mentors to all the people they work with. "I feel like this country needs it."
As he finished his own Seal training he took from his grizzled mentor another bit of wisdom. As the team prepared for its final test the old veteran told the newbies that "calm is contagious."
"You can substitute any word you want in there. Stupid is 100 percent contagious."
In his career with Special Forces, that advice about transmitting calm to his men stood him in good stead.
There are only two reasons Seals go off base in their uniforms — for weddings and funerals. When he does, he is always approached by civilians who thank him for his service. "What that means is hard to express.
"And I want to thank you for your service. You are something worth fighting for. Thank you for helping keep this experiment alive. I'm honored to be among you."
Denver explained to the group that Seal culture has gone far beyond the X's and O's of a playbook.
"It's a potent force to know that the person next to you is never going to give up. Nobody wants to be the guy that screws it up."
As a trainer he told men that "if you didn't bring it here, you ain't going to find it here" when they began the Seal program.
One of the primary things that men who make it through the brutal training program have is resilience — the ability to keep going when things go wrong. They also have extreme mental toughness, a sense of humor and a good internal voice.
"If you have a voice that tells you all day that you're not good enough that's what you'll be."
Denver retired from the Navy Seals and has since written a book and undertaken a new career as a motivational speaker. He and dozens of other Navy Seals participated in the film "Act of Valor" which grossed $80 million at the box office.
He showed clips of the film during his talk to the dairy farm group.