The Program: Eric Kapitulik on how he helps America develop better leaders and build more cohesive teams

Eric Kapitulik, the CEO of The Program, an officer in the United States Marine Corps, and published author, speaks about his past, present, and future

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When his ancestors moved from Eastern Europe to the USA back at the beginning of the 20th century, they could hardly imagine that their descendant would be a real-life Superman. Eric Kapitulik is the founder of The Program — a company that helps in developing better leadership and teamwork through the experience of shared adversity. Recently, the summary of The Program book was released on the Headway app. Dedicated to this event, Mr. Kapitulik gave Headway Media the interview to share his thoughts on the world, the future of The Program, and his purpose in life.

The road to The Program

“I don’t want anyone to stay focused on accomplishments, but rather let’s stay focused on who we are as individuals and as a company.”

Eric Kapitulik

As Eric Kapitulik confesses, he was a good athlete in high school, being a member of the cross country running team, as well as the basketball and lacrosse teams. It was the last one, though, that he played in the U.S. Naval Academy. Four years as a letterman there, eight more serving in  Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance has taught Mr. Kapitulik what real leadership and teamwork are. 

Of course, it was not without trials and tribulations. One of the most influential and impactful events that Eric Kapitulik experienced in his life was a helicopter crash and took the lives of 6 men. The future CEO of The Program miraculously survived. The incident was so shocking that it completely changed Mr. Kapitulik’s mindset, and he started doing the impossible. One of the most outstanding is reaching the top of the sky-reaching mountains, including Everest. He did that not just for entertainment, but to raise money for the college scholarship foundation so that more young people could have the opportunity to get a good education. After all, in 2008, Eric Kapitulik got into the University of Chicago graduate school of business and founded The Program. And thus, the journey began. 

Diversity and equality

“If anyone says that women shouldn’t be in the military, they don’t understand the military very well. We couldn’t have a military without them.”

Eric Kapitulik

Answering the question, “Do you think it is vital for women to serve in the military from the perspective of diversity and role models?” Eric Kapitulik is firm and precise. “When I hire a new team member, I don’t hire a woman, an African-American, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I hire a person. A person who must share our Core Values.” It gives us the sense that the team of The Program values the proficiency and diversity of life experiences in the first place.

All people who are part of The Program share three core values: Selfless, Tough, and Disciplined. “Selfless means that we put the team first. Tough means we stay mission-focused in the face of physical, mental, and emotional adversity. And Disciplined means we do what we say we are going to do. I hire people who are that first,” claims Mr. Kapitulik, once again confirming that The Program is a safe place for everyone to express their diversity.

And how do people at The Program share and respect their differences? The answer is simple: emotional toughness. It is okay to disagree or share opposing viewpoints. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person or a bad teammate. Screaming and yelling at someone who doesn’t support your opinion does. If we disagree with each other, let’s discuss our attitudes. The goal is not to change each other’s minds, but simply to gain a better understanding. Such actions can lead to greater mutual trust and respect. We all experience natural human feelings. However, emotionally tough people stay mission-focused rather than allow themselves to be in a state of rage. It is vital for us as a society to learn this emotional toughness to live in the world without anger and hatred.

The Program philosophy

“We develop better leaders and more cohesive teams, regardless of your name.”

Eric Kapitulik

Undoubtedly, working with more than 160 teams and companies during the year requires a lot of inner strength and remaining focused on mission accomplishment. But what does The Program cherish the most in its work? Let’s find out.

First of all, it’s staying true to The Program’s mission and its core values. Whether it’s a team that everyone knows about or a newcomer — to Eric Kapitulik, they are all equal. And in his words, the most significant success and admiration The Program can receive is not even when their athletic clients win the national championship. It’s when The Program is rehired.

And what does Eric Kapitulik personally consider an achievement? “When we get emails from people saying, “I worked through The Program in the 6th grade, and I just wrote my college essay about that experience,” or “I wanted to let you know that working with you changed my life.” Of course, revenue is the air we breathe because we can’t do what we do without it. But when you ask why do you do it, it’s getting letters like that.”

The most valuable trophy

“Being a success means you give your 100% in everything that you do.”

Eric Kapitulik

While having a video call with Eric Kapitulik, it was difficult not to notice multiple prizes on the shelf behind his back. It was not surprising, considering what a unique and crucial place sports have taken in our interviewee’s life. Thus, it was even more intriguing to hear about these accomplishments. How unexpected it was to find out that the most precious one wasn’t even a trophy, though, but the race jersey from a cross country ski race in which Eric finished “dead last.”

He shared some stories about personal losses and how he uses this jersey to teach his son what success actually means. “Many people get it wrong in life. Losses will happen in life. You can give your 100%, and you still might lose, but that’s not what makes us failures. However, winning doesn’t necessarily make us a success either. Being a success means you give your 100% in everything that you do. Ultimately, that’s how we define being a success. If you do so, you will win more than you lose, but you will still lose sometimes. And when you do, it hurts, and you may cry at night. Tough guys cry, and they show emotions. Really tough guys can also ask for help with those emotions if they need it. But tough guys also go and do what they need to do. They may cry, but they get up the following day and go to work.”

From Eric Kapitulik’s words, even though the jersey is not a trophy, it shows how he persevered in the face of adversity. The same lesson he instills in his children and The Program’s clients.

The Program vs. COVID-19

“We’ve made a mental decision to make sure that we look at this adversity as an opportunity, not as a crisis.”

Eric Kapitulik

“My son is lucky,” says Mr. Kapitulik, “He lives in a nice house. If his computer breaks, he will get a new one. His mother is next to him, guiding and taking care of his schoolwork. But there are a lot of people who are less fortunate than we are.” Eric thinks that the biggest problem is not the coronavirus itself, but how society has responded to this crisis. What matters in such cases is your mindset and attitude. A player’s or a warrior’s perspective is, “Okay, we are faced with adversity, whether it’s our fault or not, this adversity is going to be either a crisis or a great opportunity.”

But you can’t just have the mindset alone. You must do something! According to Mr. Kapitulik, The Program suffered a lot economically this year, not reaching the team’s financial goals. That’s why the squad started looking for new ways to keep the company on track, even without making the money they’ve expected to. That’s how The Program podcast and their online leadership curriculum were created. “The great thing when you talk about adversity is that in every relationship, whether it is an athletic team, a company or your romantic partner, adversity is a great opportunity to prove just how good team-mates and team-leaders we are. Everybody is a hero when it is 70 degrees and sunny. When it’s not, you get to prove it. That’s what we’ve done since day one.”

All about books

“We didn’t write the book with the idea to make a lot of revenue from it. We really wanted to influence more people who don’t have the financial resources to work with us personally.”

Eric Kapitulik

When we asked Mr. Kapitulik what the goal of writing The Program book was, the answer was simple: to influence more people. The idea of writing it had been there for quite some time, but it was always stuck on the “yes, but…” stage. And Eric Kapitulik hates “but” and instead prefers “yet.”

“I realized that when I say “no, but” I am not selfless, tough, and disciplined. Our mission is to develop better leaders and create more cohesive teams. Still, as a company, we were only doing it with the teams that had the financial resources to work with us. If our true mission in life is to help individuals and teams get better, without a book that anyone can afford, we’re hitting a very small segment of people and teams that we could influence. My co-author, Jake MacDonald, and I decided to stop making excuses for not writing this book. We did it to reach and influence a bigger audience.”

After all, it is no wonder that The Program book came to life, as Eric Kapitulik defines himself as a “voracious reader.” When asked what books have influenced him the most, he laughs and says that it is difficult for him to remember all the titles he enjoyed. However, he still names some of the most groundbreaking. The first two were Jim Collin’s Good to Great and Built to Last. The hardcopy of the second one even witnessed Mount Everest. “I carried the hard copy of Built to Last up and down Mount Everest. Climbing, yes, it’s exciting when you are at the top of the summit, but you also spend days and days in a tent. If you’ve ever gone on a long hike, you know that you don’t want to take even two ounces more in your backpack than you need to. But I carried Built to Last up and down Mount Everest, and I read it multiple times just stuck in a tent over that time.”

The next major book mentioned was Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Even though Mr.Kapitulik claims that he doesn’t agree with everything in this title (he believes we should Start with Who), it greatly influenced him. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Last Lion by William Manchester, and The Collapse of Parenting by Dr. Leonard Sax also made an impact. Conscious Business by Fred Kofman, Ph.D., was life-changing, tough. “All of us should prioritize reading. Life-long learning means consistent personal and team improvement. I can’t imagine myself getting to a point in life where I would be like, “Yeah, I’m good enough.” Biology teaches us “grow or die,” there is no middle ground. One of the ways we can do that is reading.”

Eric Kapitulik has also mentioned how flattered he is to have the summary of his book in the Headway library now.  “Those insights in the 15-pages summary are what can influence people the most. How could that upset me? Having a positive impact on people is why we wrote the book. I don’t expect every single page to be influential equally to everyone. That’s ridiculous.” He supports the Headway team’s opinion and idea that reading a summary of the book is an excellent opportunity to get familiar with the author and his works.

The interview with the founder of The Program and the author of the self-title book became the ultimate inspiration for the Headway team. We witnessed our interviewee’s mental and emotional toughness, attitudes, and opinions on the most crucial topics. One of the most pleasant parts of the conversation was noticing similarities in values of Headway and The Program, as well as shared goals of helping people grow and evolve. Many thanks to Mr.Kapitulik and The Program team for making this interview possible. 

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