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Practice vs. Theory in Executive Protection

With such a diverse range of subjects to study in Executive Protection, there is little time to waste on methodologies that aren’t effective.

Prioritizing the time we have to study and train is key, as well as identifying sources of knowledge that truly provide value. The primary value we get from training should be in the practical application, not in the certificate we hang on the wall. In my experience, the greatest value is found within two sources: history and practitioners.

History gives us the experiences and context of others in circumstances similar to what we may face. 

In an email that went viral, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and retired Marine general, James Mattis wrote to a colleague that:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence can be final”.

Gen. James Mattis in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2011. U.S. Embassy Kabul/ Medium

Mattis was writing about the study of history in regards to preparing Marines for war, but the lesson applies equally to protecting people. History can show us how different attacks develop, how protective strategies evolve, and how decisions are made. Opening up the lessons of the past assist in our own professional development and the safety of those we protect.

Effective practical application is built on the knowledge we have internalized.

This includes the explicit (things that are easily quantifiable) and the tacit (things that require context and judgment). That knowledge is the raw material used to take action. It’s what Col. John Boyd, creator of the Observe – Orient – Decide — Act decision-making concept, would say is a significant component of your Orientation.

If a Protector’s Orientation is built more on unproven theory than practical experience, they are likely to have huge vulnerabilities in the protection they are providing.

One of the reasons that practitioners have an edge over theorists in this process is because of the tactic knowledge they have acquired. By doing rather than speculating, they know the cost of adding techniques or methods that have been tested in the brain but not in the field.


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This is the importance of having practitioners as resources in your organizational development. The practitioner brings real-world vetting to theory. One of the ways we see the difference in practice vs theory is in reading non-verbal communication. Many subject matter experts teach non-verbal communication, but few have experience with the subject as it relates to guarding a public figure. Even within the craft of protection, this can be further refined. The same non-verbal cues are very likely to have different meanings to a Protector when providing coverage to a celebrity versus someone that is not recognizable. A practitioner takes theory and adds context through their experiences, making it relevant to their craft.

At GDBA, we place a high priority on time and distance, and how those two concepts affect the safety of a public figure. We are fortunate to be able to derive a wealth of knowledge from Just 2 Seconds, which gives us an analysis of historical public figure attacks. Using Just 2 Seconds as a filter, we can focus our training resources on what works in the real world to prevent violence.

The threat landscape continues to evolve, and so should a Protector’s professional growth. A process that relies heavily on real-world practicality and evidence-based learning will provide Protectors with the best tools to prevent violence rather than react to it.



Matt Govea is a Chief Training Instructor at Gavin de Becker & Associates. He has led residential protection teams in California and close protection operations for at-risk public figures throughout the world. Before joining our firm, Matt served six years in the United States Army as an Infantry Squad Leader, where he played key roles during combat operations in Iraq. Immediately following his military career, Matt provided close protection for high-ranking U.S. State Department officials in Baghdad.

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