5 Questions with the CEO

Episode 20: Adam Leslie

Five Questions With The CEO Adam Leslie Instagram Post V1

Tune in to Episode 20 as General Votel talks with BENS member Adam Leslie about being a UH-1 helicopter gunship pilot and intel officer in the Australian Army, and his transition to the private sector as an entrepreneur providing advisory services to guide companies to access the U.S. and its allies’ national security domains. Don’t miss Votel explore Leslie’s additional work as a social entrepreneur. 

Today, Adam Leslie is the CEO of Levenhall. Levenhall provides advisory services to innovative technology companies, guiding them to access the national security domain in the US, Australia, and their allies. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Military College, Duntroon. He served twelve years in the Australian Army where he was a UH-1H helicopter gunship pilot, and 15 years in the Australian National Intelligence Community under the Foreign Affairs portfolio with long-term postings to Bangkok, Kabul, and Dubai.

Listen in as General Votel talks with Adam about being a social entrepreneur who is passionate about reinforcing the pillars of democracy through direct action in countries where democracy and peace are at risk via his start-up, OTX International.


Adam Leslie is the CEO and Founder of Levenhall (https://levenhall.com). Adam provides advisory services to innovative technology companies, guiding them to access the national security domain in the US, Australia, and their allies. Adam is also the Founder and Managing Director of OTX International, a 501c3 that undertakes pro-democracy humanitarian projects in places where democracy is under threat. To date, the bulk of OTX’s work has been in Afghanistan.

Prior to Levenhall, Adam spent 15 years as a national security and intelligence professional with the Australian government, with long-term postings to Bangkok, Kabul, and Dubai. During this time, he led multi-disciplined teams at the senior executive level to address regional security issues and to counter-terrorism, cyber threats, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Adam started his career with 12 years in the Australian Army where he was a UH-1H helicopter gunship pilot and intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

As a result of his combined experiences, Adam has developed a deep understanding of the requirement for closer cooperation between Australia and the US in the context of global strategic competition.

Podcast Transcript

Intro (00:02):
Business Executives for national Security welcomes you to Five questions with the CEO, where BENSCEO General Joe Votel, former commander of All United States Special Forces and forces in 21 countries in the Middle East and Asia, interviews top business leaders focusing on their stories, strategies, and real-world experiences. Here we want to know why they are passionate about sharing their talents and insights to assist senior leaders in the national security enterprise as they solve some of our nation’s most pressing challenges and why they are part of a growing number of executives who understand that national security is everyone’s business.

General Joe Votel (00:43):
Welcome to another edition of the Ben’s podcast, Five Questions with the CEO, a bimonthly podcast where we talk with BENS members to get to know them better, to discuss their professional expertise and to glean some leadership lessons from them. Joining us today is Adam Leslie. Adam is the CEO of Levenhall. Levenhall provides advisory services to innovative technology companies, guiding them to access the national security domain in the United States, in Australia, and in our allied partner nations. Adam is a graduate of the Australian Defense Force Academy and the Royal Military College. He served 12 years in the Australian army where he was a helicopter gunship pilot, and 15 years in the Australian National Intelligence community under the foreign affairs portfolio that included long-term postings to Bangkok, Kabul, and Dubai. And he’s now a resident of the United States and living with his family here in the DC metro area. Welcome, Adam. We’re glad to have you today.

Adam Leslie (01:44):
Hey, good day General. Pleased to be with you.

General Joe Votel (01:46):
Yeah, good. All right. You started off great there with a little little Australian there for us, so thanks very much. We’re, we’re already a success here. That’s good. So let’s, let’s get into it here. You’ve had a, you had a lengthy career as an Australian army helicopter pilot as an intelligence officer, and you serve closely with US service members and intelligence professionals, and, and your service continues in the, in the private sector work that you do today. Oftentimes American citizens don’t always fully appreciate the contributions that uniform personnel from allied countries who fight and sacrifice alongside our servicemen and women don’t always fully appreciate or grasp that service. I know our audience would be interested to learn more about your time in uniform as both a pilot and as an intelligence officer working collaboratively with United States forces. So can you take a little bit of time and just tell us a little bit about what got you into that and some of the highlights of your service here?

Adam Leslie (02:44):
My service was actually more interesting after I left the Army, to be honest. But you know, I flew a very old style helicopter and we had American exchange pilots with us, especially flying Chinooks, and we used American Vietnam Warrior Tactics, <laugh>, which was terribly embarrassing, but because our aircraft was so old, we didn’t actually get deployed. It wasn’t really until I switched to the Intelligence Corps and then stepped out into the national intelligence community that I started working more closely with with the US in particular, which started pretty much in 2003 deployed to Iraq and worked very closely with US teams on the ground in Baghdad. And then again, in 2004, I went over to Ballad in Iraq and worked very closely with US Special Forces in the CIA, trying to locate a kidnapped Australian. Worked on many different joint projects over the years in different theaters. After then pilot was probably Afghanistan, where we had a, a really, really close relationship with our CIA colleagues in Kabul and in Candahar. We had people embedded in, in with them down in the south which was, which was really exceptional, developed some very good friends out of that. And then finally in my last posting in Dubai, I worked so closely with,one of my US liaison partners. I married one of them, so <laugh>,

General Joe Votel (04:01):
There you go. Wow, that’s great. Now that, now that is a real partnership. So after you left the Australian intelligence service, you struck out in and started this company, Levinhall, reading a little bit about that you have identified several values that you kind of focused on with Levenhall, radical transparency, working within the law, operating over the horizon, outside the box, focusing on solutions. Yeah. I’m presuming that your service had a big influence on the actual founding of Levenhall. Why was it important to kind of select those types of that value structure for, for this company?

Adam Leslie (04:40):
It was really important for me to address some of the misperceptions that there are around about intelligence work, both within the government and in the commercial sector. And, you know, apart from doing the national security innovation stuff, Levenhall is a, is a commercial intelligence firm as well. So it was really important to me that people, including our prospective clients, understood that there was, you know, there’s no wild stuff going on here. There’s nothing underhanded, there’s no rogue work. And that, and that is exactly what happens in the government, you know, that there’s, you know, we work to a very strict code of conduct of ethics and of behavior, but that doesn’t mean we don’t embrace risk. And we do, you know, push to the edge of the cliff and we dangle our toes over and, you know, see what’s on the other side. We’re really purposeful ensuring that we don’t jump off that cliff. Yeah. And that means what we do, every, everything we do is really carefully considered it’s ethically managed and, and really weighed against the greater good.

General Joe Votel (05:36):
Really kind of goes back to the importance of creating an organizational culture. I know from my own experience in uniform in several different organizations the, the significance of culture and how important that is to defining kind of how a, you know, not only what an organization believes in, but how it actually goes about pursuing that. So a really, really interesting thought process. Thanks thanks so much for sharing that. You know, innovation is a key component of your work today that you do with Levenhall. And, and you’ve been quoted as saying in a time of global strategic competition and uncertainty, it is critical that national security and intelligence innovation is considered in an alliance construct. Can you talk a little bit about that, what you mean by that and about the need for closer cooperation and collaboration between allies, particularly in the context of global strategic competition, like we’re, like, we’re dealing with, with China right now.

Adam Leslie (06:31):
I think the competition with China is fundamentally about ideals, right? So it’s a, you know, is is it democracy or is it, you know, autocratic socialism? That’s gonna be the way that the world can sort of work towards some kind of collective global peace and prosperity, right? And in that context, the US just can’t compete with China by itself. And, and there’s many reasons for that, but for me, the most, the most important one is you don’t have to, you know, the US is, is not alone in, in the standpoint that it has Australia and, and most other liberal democracies have exactly the same perspective and are in exactly the same competition. And so, you know, while the US is, is powerful in its own right, in my view, it’s indefeatable in an alliance construct.

General Joe Votel (07:16):
I think it’s so important that our, that the list of partners, the list of of nations that have the same value systems and look at things, democracy, the same, be always be much longer than those that we’re that we’re opposing out there. And that’s really critical. And I know in my own experience Australia has been a fantastic partner in this. I wonder, you know, just a little excursion here, you know, over the last year, year and a half, I think we’ve kind of concluded this agreement in August Australia, uk, United States. How have you seen that change collaboration or opportunities? I mean, are you seen some, some things as a direct result of that?

Adam Leslie (07:55):
Yeah, very much so. I think initially it was a really, really significant strategic line in the sand and it flagged to China in particular that, you know, we’re a team here, you know, we’re, we’re sharing the crown jewels amongst ourselves, and you know, you need to be wary of that. Then it kind of went into a hole and there was a little bit of a, actually, there’s no meat on these bones, but finally the meat’s getting put on there, and especially from like the US it kind of disappeared. But in Australia it was really big. It was big news for a long time. And what it’s done has is really mobilized the Australian defense industrial base, you know, in terms of, you know, how do we, how do we get to be part of this? How do we contribute, how do we you know, get into the US market? And then how do we, similarly, how do we bring us technologies out to Australia to sort of really start integrating? So in particular, that second pillar of the orcas agreement, the one that focuses on AI and, and other, other associated technologies is gonna be really important in breaking down some of the barriers that exist between really close friends, but shouldn’t be there. Yeah,

General Joe Votel (08:58):
You’re right. I mean, sometimes we have a little bit of short attention span here in the theater in our country, and we don’t necessarily appreciate the, the significant agreements that are made, like this one right here, which I, which I think anybody that’s been on the periphery of this partnership can see how important this is. Hey, you, you mentioned the artificial intelligence. How much time are you spending talking about that in your work today? I mean, is that dominating a lot of discussion? I I, it certainly is really on the scene here in the United States, as you well know. Absolutely. As people have gotten more and more exposed to it. What, what what’s your experience here in terms of talking with people about that? And

Adam Leslie (09:35):
I deal with it quite frequently. One of my clients is an Australian company that uses artificial intelligence in a very interesting cybersecurity, insider risk way. So, you know, it’s forefront of mind in terms of how do you, how do you apply this very powerful technology in a way which actually strengthens the defense industrial base, the national security environment, but also can be used, I don’t wanna say offensively, but offensively, but in a way that’s ethical and in a way that, that reflects our core values as a society.

General Joe Votel (10:08):
Yeah. Yesterday I was involved in a number of discussions with some tech companies around artificial intelligence. I was actually very happy to hear a focus on kind of the ethical employment of this and trying to figure out what the rules are around this, and pretty responsible artificial intelligence as as I guess is kind of the phrase they were using. I think it’s, I I think it’s good to hear in, in many regards, you know, some of this is out of the bank already, and so trying to, trying to get our arms around that I think is, is really important as we move forward. So I’m glad to, glad to hear y’all are thinking about that.

Adam Leslie (10:40):
And look, I think it’ll be legislated yeah, in Europe first probably, and then Australia will follow shortly thereafter, and it’ll be a bit like GDPR where we just don’t have a choice. We’re gonna have to comply even outside our own market.

General Joe Votel (10:55):
It’s been interesting to see some of the leading CEOs actually asking for a level of regulation on this because for whatever reason. But I think it’s encouraging to, in terms of moving in in a direction where we can try to establish some boundaries around how it, how it’s being used. So you are also a social entrepreneur who’s been passionate about reinforcing the pillars of democracy through direct action and countries where democracy and peace are at risk, and you’ve been kind of boldly undertook projects that protect freedom of speech, human rights, equality in the rule of law. And to that end, you founded otx International, otx started work in Afghanistan after the allied evacuation mission ended back in 31st of August two 2021. I’m, I’m interested learn a little bit more about the mission of that organization what you’re doing now related to Afghanistan and how you’ve begun to expand the mission and the audiences that are being served by, by that effort.

Adam Leslie (11:52):
As you said, we started by helping get out more people, get out of Afghanistan, and we, you know, quite a few people on my team had served in Afghanistan, and we have Afghans on our team. So people who had previously left the country and were now living in Australia and, and, and elsewhere. And so we kind of got a hint that it was gonna go bad, but we didn’t, like everyone else, didn’t realize it was gonna go bad so fast, but we were able to mobilize pretty quickly and, and contribute to getting out people who were gonna die because they worked with us. So we had a really high threshold on who we helped, and it was pretty much people who were gonna walk outside the door and, and, and get killed. And once we got the people who were most under threat out, we kind of had this epiphany that perhaps we shouldn’t be getting everyone out, but we should in fact be helping others to stay.

Adam Leslie (12:40):
And so we started to work quietly with Afghans who wanted to see democracy reinstated. And so we’ve started to implement some pro-democracy humanitarian projects. One’s called the protecting Independent Voices in Afghanistan project, which as you said before, is a freedom of speech citizen journalism project based on social media. And the intent really is to give Afghans their own voice in their own language to help them have the country they want, and the, the majority of Afghans want. And quite frankly, which we fought and died for, for 20 years. So there’s a series of those projects in Afghanistan. Increasingly we’ve taken it outside of Afghanistan to other places where democracy is is being challenged, and we’re becoming increasingly focused on the threats democracy that China represents in including some of the ways that it’s implementing the Belt and Road initiative. So we’re working in those, in some of those areas to highlight the threat that presents to democratic values in those places.

General Joe Votel (13:39):
That’s fantastic. I, I mean, I just really applaud your, your efforts here. I mean, there’s so many organizations like O T X International that have kind of stood up and, and tried to fill in some of the seams you know, that exists with some of the federal or national capabilities we try to provide. And these, these kind of organizations are absolutely absolutely essential to it. I kind of, one of my side gigs is is kind of supporting Freedom House, which is kind of a larger, well established nonprofit here in headquarter in Washington DC that, that really focuses on some similar things. It promotes some voices out there and promotes freedom and democracy. It’s absolutely critical. So it’s great that you’re involved in that. So why’d you join BENS? How did we get you on board here?

Adam Leslie (14:27):
It really started through my exposure to tech companies in Silicon Valley who were unable to cross the Rubicon into the national security domain because of all the, you know, barriers to entry that exist. And from my perspective, the way to overcome that, those barriers is to engage the private sector in a more wholesome manner. And, and BENS really represents the bridge to achieve that. And I look, I think part of the challenge is that the, the government has found itself kind of mired in bureaucracy, in kind of middle management permafrost, and they’re not, you know, they’re not incentivized to innovate, whereas the private sectors are complete opposite, you know, especially in small business, you know, they embrace design thinking, they fail fast, they pivot fast and a success is built on the back of failure. That kind of cultural difference between the way the national security, especially defense operates, especially at that procurement contracting level and the way Silicon Valley and, you know, that fast moving startup world, you know, it needs to be bridged and, and BENS is providing really meaningful and impactful cross-cultural advice to government. And, and I really wanna be part of that.

General Joe Votel (15:38):
This is so critical. I think it really is an important important role that we play to try to help break down some of these impediments and barriers that exist out there and, and create more relationships, more exposure between public and private sector here, over these issues of, of national security. I mean, in your time in, in government service here, did you have experience working with the private sector, Australian private sector or others?

Adam Leslie (16:05):
Very little actually. And and it’s interesting, the US for all, it’s, you know, for all the people criticize it the way the us, the way the US engages the private sector is years ahead of the way the rest of the, the commonwealth, the rest of the, you know, the four eyes outside the out of us engaged, like we are incredibly and have been historically incredibly reticent to engage contractors you know, private technologies. It, it, it is a really laborious process outside the US as a, an Australian military and intelligence officer, I had very little to do with the private sector except for periods where I was specifically involved in that relation. Right? Yeah. But not as a procurement issue and not as a technology issue. And in fact, one of the, the most eye-opening things for me when I started Levenhall was trying to sell commercial intelligence services to Silicon Valley, was I was coming across these tech companies who really didn’t have much of an interest in my intelligence services, but who had technology.

Adam Leslie (17:06):
So I looked at it and I was like, this is just amazing technology. You know, if, if that technology was inside the building and I would’ve been able to use it just a, a year ago, I would’ve been a thousand times more effective. And probably two-thirds of the time those companies didn’t know that they had a use case in national security. And so, you know, that that was amazing to me. Astounding. And, and it was, you know, it was because I was able to look at it through an operator’s lens that I was able to say, well, you know, if you just tweaked it a little bit and you know, applied it this way, then, you know, you’d have a whole market opening up to you. So, and that, that’s actually got what got me into the innovation space. It’s like, how do I help get these companies?

General Joe Votel (17:46):
That’s right. That’s, that’s really, that’s really interesting.

Adam Leslie (17:48):
Hey, and look, just to circle back on the, the BENS, you know, why BENS is important part is that there is a really useful function of being, of being a translator because like you said, there’s leadership skills in the private sector and in the government sector, and they’re mostly the same, but they use different words. And, and BENS, I think has, from what I’ve seen has been able to help bridge that by saying, well, what you are talking about in that word is actually the same word as over here, and you’re doing same things, <laugh>. You know, it’s, it’s critical, right? Really critical.

General Joe Votel (18:20):
Yeah. One, one people divided by divided by language here. Yeah, no kidding. That Yeah, you’re exactly, you’re exactly right. That’s a, that’s an excellent, excellent point. Well, Adam, hey, listen, I, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on and be part of our podcast here. I’m sure our members are really, really gonna join this. So thanks, thanks so much for that. And thanks thanks for being a member of BENS. We’re, we’re so we’re so honored to have you.

Adam Leslie (18:44):
Yeah, my pleasure. And I’m very proud to be. Thanks a lot.

General Joe Votel (18:47):
Great. Well, thanks and everybody, thanks for joining us today. We’ve been talking with Adam Leslie, the CEO of Levenhall, Washington, DC BENS member here. And we look forward to coming back with another edition again very soon.

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