When Dave Berke was a kid, he imagined himself flying an F-18 off
an aircraft carrier.
By the time he retired as a US Marine officer in 2016, he had not
only done that, but he’d also flown an F-16, F-22, and F-35,
taught at the elite Top Gun fighter pilot school, and served a
year on the ground alongside Navy SEALs in the 2006 Battle of
Ramadi as a forward air controller.
Today he’s a member of Echelon Front, a leadership
consulting firm started by two of those SEALs,
Task Unit Bruiser commander Jocko Willink and one of his platoon
commanders, Leif Babin.
Berke has spent the past year sharing lessons from his 23-year
military career, and we asked him what insights were at the heart
of his leadership philosophy. He shared with us two lessons he
learned as a teenager, long before he ever saw combat.
They’re lessons he said became not only the foundation of his
service, but his entire life, and they’re ones he’s had
Set specific goals and develop detailed paths to them.
Berke’s mom Arlene had become used to hearing her young son talk
about how he wished he could fly fighter jets one day.
She told him that he needed understand that the role of a fighter
pilot was a real job, one that existed outside of his daydreams.
Berke said her message boiled down to: “You could sit there and
think about wanting to be a pilot. By the time you’re 25 somebody
will be doing that job. Spend less time fantasizing about
it, spend less time dreaming about it, and spend more time coming
up with a plan.”
Berke took it to heart, and in retrospect, probably took his
mom’s advice even more intensely than she had intended. By 15 he
knew that his goal was to fly F-18s off aircraft carriers and be
stationed in Southern California. He wouldn’t go the more
traditional Navy route, either, but would join the Marines and
become an officer.
The Marines have fewer pilots, but even their pilots go through
the same training as all other Marines. He wanted the best of
both worlds, and to have his goal be as challenging as possible.
He accepted that he might not make this a reality, but decided he
would act as though there were no alternative.
At 17, he met with a recruiting officer to nail down everything
he needed to do to make his vision a reality, giving him a year
to think about the resulting timeline before signing up for the
“It keeps you disciplined because the risk of not doing all the
things you need to do is failure,” he said about this timeline
approach. “It’s a failure that you have nobody else to blame but
Mental toughness is more important than abilities.
Berke said that he’s never been the biggest or strongest guy
among his friends in the military, and as an 18-year-old, he was
thin and average height.
He arrived at the Marine Corps Base Quantico for
officer candidate school scared and intimidated. “I looked
around and everybody else around me looked bigger, tougher,
stronger, faster, and seemed to be more qualified than me to do
that job,” he said.
But as the days went by, he would be surprised to see some of his
fellow candidates break under pressure. A guy next to him that he
knew was naturally a better athlete than he was wouldn’t be able
to keep up in fitness trials, but it was because he didn’t share
the drive that Berke had developed for years.
“As they started to fail, I started to realize that the
difference between success and failure was mental toughness,” he
He became an officer. Next was the Basic School, where he would
be given his role in the Marine Corps. He was one of 250 new
officers, and there were only two pilot spots for his class.
“There’s no way I’m going to let somebody else work harder, be
more committed, be more disciplined, and outperform me in that
environment to accomplish what they want at my expense,” he
thought. “It’s not going to happen.”
The same mindset is what got him through the chaos of Iraq 15
years later, when a plane didn’t separate him from the fighting
on the ground.
“There’s no Plan B to losing in combat,” he said.