Writer Jeff Haden spoke to a number of Special Forces operators about perseverance, developing the right mindset, and how the only limits we really have are self-imposed — adaptability, attitude, mental toughness — and that in life there’s no finish line. One of them, Herbert Thompson, a Special Forces (Green Beret) team leader shared a story of a combat mission he undertook replete with leadership lessons.
On Day 5 of a mission “leading” 205 Afghans, we heard that insurgents were setting up an ambush along our only route. A weapons sergeant, a couple of infantry soldiers and I were the American “face” of this operation. Our only backup was from a nearby Navy SEAL platoon that had to maneuver through rugged terrain to my position. I called for air support to erase the threat.
I was told not any time soon. We had 3 options: a.) sit and wait for air support that may not come; b.) maneuver on the enemy with a partner force that I did not fully trust; c.) sit another night with no way of knowing what would happen.
We thought through the options. We discussed what could happen. I drew up a plan. We would drive through the only path possible with our vehicles into the ambush area, while the SEALs would maneuver to cover our withdrawal.
There comes a time when you have done enough research and analysis, you just have to act. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a combat situation in a faraway land, in a boardroom, or in a search for a new location to set up a new business.
A leader can’t hide in a safe cocoon while the action goes on outside. He gets in the middle of the situation to gain a full understanding of what’s happening, spot the problems, find solutions and how the plan would succeed.
Meanwhile, rocket-propelled grenades flew overhead. There was machine gun fire from all sides. The helmets I stacked up on a radio rack were holding up; nothing was hitting our truck.
I stacked two Kevlar helmets to stop incoming bullets. It helped me focus on what was important. Doesn’t have to be rational. What matters is that you believe.
The SEALs were too far away and needed to move closer. It would be a couple minutes before they could provide supporting fire. Meanwhile, I had to continue to push forward through the kill zone.
Murphy’s law applies even to the greatest plans. Things will always go wrong. Expect it. If you can control a problem, fix it. Don’t stress out on anything you can’t. Use your energies on what’s important before you.
I dismounted and moved to a position to fire a rocket launcher. One enemy machine gun took a serious interest in me. I dropped the rocket tube and ran back to the convoy. I came to a sudden stop. My vehicle was gone.
You may have a great idea you’d like to implement but the timing may not be right. That’s what I did. I was so eager to fire a rocket, I was going to shoot it no matter what. Your great idea just may not fit at this time. Take a second to pause and consider whether you’re forcing through.
I saw my truck a couple hundred meters ahead. I sprinted to catch up.
I ran that couple hundred meters, faster than I probably could despite my heavy body armor. You’re capable of doing more than you think you can, especially in extreme situations if you’ve prepared yourself well.
The convoy moved slowly, then stopped. I radioed to ask what was happening. No one knew. I jumped out of the truck and ran to the front of the convoy. I spoke to the spooked convoy leader, using hand and arm signals, to get us out of there. It took a few seconds for him to understand me and get the convoy moving again.
As a leader, see what the problem is firsthand. Don’t sit in your office. Go talk with your people.
Just then two Apache attack helicopters flew overhead and checked in on the radio. They’d been heading our way without information in advance. I could have created another plan, one that didn’t involve us being the bait for the ambush.
Information is critical and should flow 360 degrees. Don’t withhold it or allow a system to hamper its flow. Make it part of your culture. People can be incredibly innovative with knowledge. Without it, they can’t reach their full potential.
I noticed that the Apaches weren’t firing on the enemy. We didn’t have the same Rules of Engagement (ROE), the necessary regulations to fight lawfully. It took a while to convince them to get approval from higher headquarters. By the time they got the green light, the insurgents walked into a village and couldn’t be fired upon for fear of collateral damage.
Bureaucracy is a killer. It kills the spirit, innovation and growth. Hunt down your needless in-house bureaucracy and get rid of it. Ask your employees what rules or norms get in their way, and for ideas to improve productivity.
Thankfully, we didn’t have anyone injured. We assembled back at the compound for an informal After-Action Review (AAR): what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, what went well, what went wrong, and what could we do better in the future.
An AAR is a crucial learning moment for everyone involved in the operations. Your people need to voice out their professional opinions and observations free from potential backlash and repercussions. Have a thick skin. Don’t take it personally. Listen and learn — and help your team learn.
We pulled into the compound with smiles as big as you can imagine. It was a pure joy that we had survived and made it through the mission.
Take time to enjoy your accomplishment with those that made it possible. The people you worked with and the joy you shared in achieving success will be your lasting — and best — memories.
Rafael M. Alunan served in the cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.