Eric Maddox

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Eric Maddox was the interrogator who laid the bricks in the road that led to Sadaam Hussein. His story as told in Mission: Black List #1 and in a podcast interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy was both fascinating and instructive. The book is moviesque and I wished it were forty pages longer. What was day-to-day living like in Iraq? How did they get food for their refrigerator? How did they get the house they lived in? What was their day like?

I want something one part MTV Cribs, one part Lifehacker’s How I Work, and one part Undercover Boss.

For now, all you get is me. Ready?

Maddox ended up in Iraq not because he spoke the language, but because he had just enough relevant skills. As someone only partially qualified, he was sent to an area that needed someone with only partial qualifications, Tikrit.

As we’ve seen with Bethany McLean, Kara Swisher, and Danny Meyer the backwater can be a great place to start. “It’s fascinating that being off the beaten path is such a key advantage,” said O’Shaughnessy. For comedian Pete Holmes it was the college he went to.

For Maddox, that advantage included a decentralized command structure. “There was no superior standing over my shoulder, watching my every move,” Maddox writes. That allowed him time to think and learn, to talk and listen, to plan and practice.

Maddox arrived in Tikrit and pretty green. He had some formal education (negotiation training) but doubted its efficacy. The system taught “wouldn’t work on me,” Maddox said, “I wouldn’t break.” Maddox has to adapt his education and figure out a better way to interrogate prisoners. Asked six months later – after the capture of Sadaam – what his system was, Maddox writes, “I let detainees information guide me from the beginning.” He talked to everyone; friends, family, street thugs, nobodies, suspects and more without an assumption about what they could tell. Maddox doesn’t automatically trust anyone, but he listens to them.

In his book, Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss compares it to playing cards. You don’t know what the other person is holding but it could be something you’d like to have or know. Voss writes that you should plan for things that could happen (known unknowns) but be open to unexpected information (unknown unknowns).  This is what happened to Maddox.  “The prisoners were giving me ideas I couldn’t even think of on my own,” he said.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

After he talked to many people, Maddox believed that coalition forces were following the wrong leads. The old regime had expired. There was a new organization Sadaam was leading.  “I could create a link diagram based on what I was being told by prisoners, not what others had already assumed.” Maddox had to find the Chesterton Fence that was military strategy in Tikrit. He approached the fence, and before tearing it down, asked if it was still relevant. It was not, so he cut it like a Gordian Knot.

That didn’t mean Maddox knew what the new system was, just that there was a new system. He continued to interrogate prisoners and had a that’s interesting moment. All of  Sadaam’s old bodyguards were out of the loop – except one, Mohammed Ibrahim. Maddox writes that this was “very peculiar.”

How do you negotiate with a suspected terrorist? How do you get information from someone who was just shooting at you? Maddox had to rebuild a process on the fly. Here’s what that included:

  • Be objective.  “I didn’t care how bad a prisoner was, or was supposed to be,” Maddox writes. “It was important to look at both sides as objectively as I could.” The Harvard Negotiation Project calls this adopting the third stance.
  • Build empathy to figure out incentives. Maddox found out that prisoners want two things; freedom and safety for their family. When Chris Voss negotiated with younger kidnappers he figured out they wanted party money for the weekend.
  • Maintain relationships. Before a raid, Maddox hung out with his sources, “just as a way to keep the connection between us active.” This was part of the problem with Sam Hinkie’s process.
  • Build career capital. Maddox was only partially persuasive when it came time to convince his superiors where and when to act. It was only as he built up career capital that people began to support his ideas. Trish Higgins said “You earn your right to take risks.

Listening well – where this all starts – is like being a Driver’s Ed instructor. You have to pay attention to the situation from the other person’s point of view.

Maddox loved his job. He writes that Thanksgiving wasn’t lonely because it gave him a chance to reflect on the “engrossing work.” He had entered the positive feedback loop of skill and passion:

PassionSkill (1)

Mohnish Pabrai said to find something you’d like to do more than going to the movies. Manoj Bhargava said to find something you like to do more than following sports. Ken Grossman put it this way:

“I knew all too well how tough my business was to run, and unless they [Grossman’s kids] were as passionate about it as I was, it would not have ben a fun or successful livelihood.”


Thanks for reading.

If you made it this far you might like something else I’m writing. It’s a monthly newsletter that ties in connections just like this blog. It’s for people who want to keep learning but lack the time or “footstool” to get started. It comes as a monthly email attachment and its meant to print out and read “nonline.” You can see a sample here, or sign up here.


14 thoughts on “Eric Maddox”

  1. […] Eric Maddox said, “It was important to look at both sides as objectively as I could.” Chris Voss said, “There’s a lot more space between Yes and No that most of us realize.” Maddox and Voss, along with Getting to Yes were all in our Negotiation post. McLean knows this stuff. Do your work ahead of time, she told O’Shaughnessy. […]


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