Today, I want to share a framework for thinking about personal development as a leader. It’s a “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” approach that shines the spotlight on the personal habits that grow leaders into a position of effectiveness. Here you go:
In 1977, after many years of advocating for the U.S. Army to develop a capability similar to the British 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) and in response to multiple terrorist incidents worldwide, Colonel Charles A. Beckwith established the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-DELTA.
DELTA’s mission set included hostage rescue and specialized reconnaissance.  On November 4, 1979, Islamic fundamentalists seized the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took 53 U.S. diplomatic personnel hostage there.  DELTA’s first mission would be to rescue these hostages.
Reading a post on The Military Leader one day, a question reminded me of a critical leadership lesson I learned from my time in command. It read, “When was the last time you heard a unit commander ask for feedback, consider the input, publicly admit he’s wrong, and change his opinion?”
Given that I have a vivid example of being humbled while in command, I felt compelled to share my story.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Adam Turner, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs.
I’m happy to share that today marks the 100th post from The Military Leader since its inception in March of this year! What started as a personal venue to capture thoughts and resources on leader development has evolved into an actively connected community of nearly 2000 leaders!
Last week, while discussing the separation boards and low promotion rates in light of a downsizing Army, a fellow officer commented,
“These trends are going to create a cut-throat Army. Everyone is going to watch their backs and protect themselves to make sure they get promoted. I’m not looking forward to serving in that environment.”
With all due respect to his perspective and opinion…that’s the wrong way to approach the coming years in our Army. And specifically, that’s the wrong attitude to have if you want to get promoted and continue to lead Soldiers. Here’s why…
Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Piper
In Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales describes how the brain assembles a “mental map” of the world based on spatial orientation, experience, emotion, cognition, and every other facet of who we are. This mental map is our unique perspective of the world. It’s our comfort zone; it’s what we rest on; it’s where we feel safe.
But there’s a problem in that our mental map doesn’t always align with “the real map”… i.e. the real world.
Gonzales relates numerous accounts in which people found themselves in survival situations and continued to cling to their old reality…the one where they were still sitting safely in a plane at 30,000 feet…or the one where a bear hadn’t just wrecked their campsite leaving them stranded. The people that died are the ones who failed to update their mental maps to their new situation.
The essential point is that sometimes there is a fate lying just around the corner that we have never, EVER considered, but will have to react to.
Six years this month, such a “new fate” arrived in Sadr City, Iraq. By March 2008, the urban enclave of 2 million people in northeastern Baghdad had quieted down to the point that just two companies of Stryker Infantry were needed to contain it. We had regular meetings with local leaders and enemy attacks were very low. Some might say that we had reached “steady-state operations,” and a routine of stability. We were in a comfort zone.
But as the saying goes, the enemy gets a vote…and Muqtada al-Sadr’s vote came at the end of March, when he unleashed an hourly barrage of rocket, mortar, IED, RPG, and gunfire attacks on the Green Zone and units in the area. In a matter of hours, the tactical situation in Sadr City shifted from low to high-intensity, with engagements akin to the Black Hawk Down depiction of Mogadishu in 1993. The digital map erupted red icons all over the city as our units tried to get a handle on the emerging situation. The enemy had achieved surprise and units were sustaining casualties.
This post is not a narrative of the combat in Sadr City that year, but it does serve as a perfect example of a situation that requires leaders to reframe their mental maps to the new reality. Holding onto the prior trend of stability was pointless and risky. We needed a new plan, and fast.
The command deployed additional assets from surrounding areas and blocked the routes in/out of the city, then platoons fought their way north to reclaim a key road. Where two companies once occupied, 14 companies now stood. The resulting month-long fight ultimately reduced the Sadr militia’s combat power and a new 2.4 km wall across the city prevented them from affecting key coalition bases. From the Soldiers on the street to the Commanding General, the dramatic change in the tactical landscape demanded mental agility, measured emotional response, and poised leadership.
The lesson is that leaders must be open-minded enough to sense a changing environment, willing to discard what is comfortable and accept the new reality, and then be decisive in the new environment, not the old. Leaders also need to accept that unseen “realities” exist and have momentum along tracks that will ultimately intersect with and affect the organization. Muqtada al-Sadr had likely been planning the April 2008 offensive for months. Intelligence efforts, of course, seek to discover these initiatives, but leaders must live in a state of open-ended readiness to adjust and lead their organizations through change.
A great summary of lessons from a not-so-new Lieutenant. A must-read for good perspective. Highlights include:
5. Most of the time you’ll have no idea what you’re doing
6. Your parents probably did a better job prepping you for leadership than anyone
7. West Pointers are spoiled
Here are 10 Life Lessons we all should pay attention to.
What does this have to do with Leadership?
I recommend reading the entire article, but consider these:
3. Don’t Spend Time with People Who Don’t Treat You Well
Who we spend our time with determines who we are. Surround yourself with people who will elevate your intellect, talent, and confidence. Shape your organization so that your team doesn’t have to spend their day with someone who treats them poorly (i.e. get rid of the jerks).
5. You can’t have everything; Focus On Doing a Few Things Really Well
Prioritize your energy and your time, and do the same for your team. They’ll appreciate it.
7. You Must Continue to Grow and Develop Yourself
Simply put, when the individual grows, the organization grows. If you lead others, then you also have the responsibility to become a better person. Not doing so is arguably unjust.
Incidentally, #2 is “Start Taking Care of Your Health Now, Not Later”…so, get out and do some PT.
(thanks to my wife for sharing this article)