Know your people

Leadership has been around for more than a thousand years and scholars, are still no closer to offering a clearer definition for this complex subject.

Their daily research attempts cannot clarify whether a leader is born or made and this argument will continue well into the next century. Questions such as why one leader is preferred over another? or what are the characteristics that a leader should possess? These questions remain unanswered or have been vaguely answered.

There are a multitude of leadership theories in constant discussion and this complex topic is already considered a phenomenon, is only set to become more difficult with the emergence of Artificial Intelligence.

Real life examples increase the awareness of good leadership traits, practices and considerations. The following story exposes a leadership dilemma, one that is rarely properly dealt with but hopefully this story raises the thoughts and awareness of the reader.

The main character in this article is a 24 year old private soldier on his first tour of Iraq, whose name is Joe. Although this story is centred around activity in Iraq and is military in nature, I believe that the lessons learnt are applicable to both the wider military and the civilian leadership world.

Joe is a private soldier with 6 years military service. He has no prior leadership experience and is someone who does not exhibit any leadership desire/ traits/ qualities or interest, that is until the point of incident. He operates as a Private within an 8 man Patrol Team in Iraq. The team consists of one Team Leader, one Team Second-in-Command and 6 Private Soldiers of various ages, experience and years of military service.

On 3rd August 2008, this team is on patrol South of Basra City. While the team is approximately 3km from their base, they come under enemy fire from a eastern enemy ambush. In a few split seconds of heavy enemy fire, both leaders in the team have been incapacitated (both the team leader and the Second-in-Command are living casualties, incapable of playing an active leadership role due to their injuries).

The initial engagement is now over and as the enemy prepare to strike again, Joe assumes the role of the team leader (it is worth noting that the reason Joe has now taken control of the team as opposed to any other private, is unknown). Joe quickly delivers a set of instructions to the rest of the team allowing everyone to extract from the danger area.

Once all the team members are out of immediate danger Joe hastily regroups, devises and delivers the extraction plan for all members including both casualties, to extract to base camp. Joe gets everyone successfully back to base.

Joe’s display of leadership and actions on this single occasion saves the entire team, including both casualties. This is a truly remarkable display of leadership.

However this is still just the beginning of the story and the description so far only creates the background to the actual dilemma.

The tour is now over and all of the soldiers have successfully returned to the UK. The two requiring surgery have been treated and are in Birmingham receiving rehabilitation. The other privates have returned to their own sub-units. Joe has returned to his platoon and now goes on one month of leave (holiday) to unwind.

Fast forward 6 months later…….

Joe has been summoned to his Captains’ office. Once inside the office he is greeted with a handshake and simultaneously informed that he has been selected to attend an internal leadership course.

Joe is initially silent, pauses then refuses to accept the course offer. The Captain is stunned, he cannot believe what he just heard and is speechless. Joe, not giving the Officer time to react, manages to avoid any further confrontation by making his quick escape. He does not forget the cordial salute prior to leaving the office.

Joe decides to keep a low profile for the remainder of the day, however, just as work is about to end he is collared by his Platoon Sergeant, Sgt M.

Sgt M. is pleased to see Joe and remarks, ‘So Joe’, if you need any help with the leadership course don’t hesitate to ask, you know my door is always open’. It was clear to Joe that Sgt M. had not spoken with the Captain prior to their encounter. Joe knows enough to realise the sergeants’ reaction would be different and therefore he keeps his response neutral, deliberately not letting the cat out of the bag concerning the rejection.

The next day, Joe once again gets summoned to the office, this time he meets both his Captain and an extremely red-faced Platoon Sergeant. On this occasion Joe is urged by both to reconsider his decision, once again he refuses.

Sgt M. asks him to wait outside. After a few minutes Joe is called back in. The Captain sits him down and asks the Private to consider delaying the answer for two weeks, they believe that the fear of failure is the reason for such a quick refusal. They want to be sure Joe is making the right decision, he agrees to the time frame and leaves the office.

Both the Captain and Sergeant are under the same premise that by offering time, they have time to change Joes’ confidence levels.

During this two week period, there is much discussion between Joes’ superiors and other Officers/ Seniors. Mainly these discussions are about Joes’ immediate refusal to attend the leadership course, as in the military world this reaction is not just unusual, it’s practically unheard of.

There are also some cries of disbelief. Some claim that Joe should be feeling privileged for the selection and should be jumping towards the opportunity to join the rest of the leadership ranks. Meanwhile for Joe, any mention of the course and he becomes more annoyed and distraught.

Two weeks pass and the deadline arrives. Joe once again is summoned to the Captains’ Office but this time the Officer Commanding (Major, OC) and the Captain are present, his Captain asks for his decision. Joe again answers that he will not attend the leadership course and adds that he is certain. For him the decision is final. His Officer Commanding now explains that these opportunities do not come along often. He attempts further persuasion suggesting that the course would not be any more difficult than what Joe had gone through previously, referring to the heroic incident.

Surprisingly though on this occasion, Joe has prepared a letter and without any further words he hands the letter directly to his superiors. When informed by his Captain that a letter is not necessary and that Joes verbal decision is enough, Joe explains that the letter is not what they think it is and that they should both take a closer look at the document.

Joe has, in fact, tendered his resignation letter to quit the Army (a Notice To Terminate). Both superiors are unpleasantly surprised. This time, Joe is asked to leave the office immediately.

It is decided between the OC and Captain to allow Joe some further time to reconsider both of his decisions. The platoon staff are encouraged to reduce any pressure towards Joe. Joes’ heirarchy follow this request to the letter and let him be.

However, for the next 3 months various other ranked individuals outside of the platoon, ask Joe to reconsider his termination decision. They inform Joe that his attendance at the leadership course can be delayed to a later date and the main thing he should consider is rescinding the resignation.

It is after exactly one year and one day since first being asked to attend that leadership course, Joe leaves the Army forever.

Some immediate questions that came to my mind, were:

a) why did Joe not want to attend a leadership course?

b) why was Joe so quick to submit his resignation?

c) what could have been done differently?

I admit I was curious about this series of events, all other soldiers practically bit our hands off to attend a leadership course. The position offered better work, more money and a single room, that opportunity had never once been refused.

Shortly afterwards, I was sitting with Joe and took the opportunity to chat about the issue, trying to identify his motivations. I had a previous opportunity to chat with Sgt M. about his thoughts, he felt the need to air his feelings of confusion.

One can assume to know what is occurring from an outside position but I find this almost always results in reading the situation incorrectly.

Initially when I had spoken to Sgt M. I noticed his disappointment and confusion surrounding the issue. Sgt M. had long held a desire to be a leader and only considered that everyone else harboured this view. He had valued and prided himself as a good leader and as a good selector for leadership development. It was he personally, that had persuaded the new Platoon Captain to offer Joe the course opportunity. Sgt M. had made the decision to select Joe ahead of 2 others within the platoon.

When I approached Joe to get him to open up about the issue. I approached this sensitive issue, strategically. I opened the conversation by asking Joe about his future plans for civilian life. I was surprised when he told me that he never really had a plan, he just needed to leave. After discussing the importance of a planned approach to leaving, I suggested that he was still able to delay until he had made a plan and that a year would pass by fast.

Joe refused to change the decision surprisingly however he did open up about his motivations both to attend the course and furthermore why he felt he had no choice but to leave.

Joe discussed the following:

Upon returning to camp on the day of attack, Joe made himself a promise never to lead again. He had feelings of shame and guilt. Everyone had congratulated and cheered him as a hero after the patrol and this only made those feelings worse. Joe didn’t see a hero, he seen a selfish survivor.

During the danger Joe had wanted only to survive, he explains that his mind worked quick to identify what it needed to assess. It seen the decision to extract both casualties, organise the men in order to keep as many alive as possible to increase survivability. As Joes’ mind had informed him: more men = better survival chance – Joe lives.

I informed Joe that people might view a selfish act as turning and running away alone but with time even those actions, would eventually be forgiven by most.

I told him by saving all the others this action could ONLY be described as the purest from of heroism, regardless of any personal motivations. Everyone considers their own survival in these extreme crisis situations, this is normal. Only natural, hearing that was a nice surprise to Joe. A bit of relief but perhaps too late but he did not accept the answer and replied that his mind is full of shame and guilt and he only sees leaving as the most appropriate way out of the situation.

Joe also mentioned that by staying, it would only be a matter of time before he would have to attend a leadership course to get more money and as he has no desire to lead again, he could not face it. The others would never understand his reluctance. I try to convince him differently but I know when attempts are futile.

He states that while he appreciates the trust both Sgt M and the Captain have shown in him and if things were different maybe he would accept the chance but currently he couldn’t change his mind. I ask him to quickly make a plan for the future and offered my assistance, we ended talking and departed.

Joe also admitted that he didn’t want to tell Sgt M. the complete truth as he believed Sgt M. would not fully understand things from Joes’ perspective. Unfortunately I cannot convince him otherwise.

Operating in a crisis zone brings danger during and after. Most people spend time congratulating the victory. It is always worth the extra interest in assessing how much impact the crisis has had on all of those involved. This shouldn’t occur immediately post incident, most individuals require their own processing time. Within the first 24 hrs is considered appropriate to conduct the first session. It might take a quick one question assessment or it might require more. Knowing your people allows one to gauge the correct amount required, this is what all TRIM Practitioners are taught.

Unfortunately for Joe, nobody considered the immense pressure he had when forced to lead for the very first time in such a high pressure situation. When Joe got back to camp, he swore to himself he would never want to have that experience again and he really meant it. It was seven months after incident that Joe first explained his feelings only to be told the feelings were expected and normal, which shocked him. Given the circumstances of the scenario what Joe did was positive not negative.

The circumstances that Joe found himself in during the engagement were rare. He made a decision to survive. He identified his best chance at survival was to get everyone out of the danger area and that the easiest way to do that was for Joe to become the leader of that team. What everyone had seen from the outside was leadership and heroism. What he saw looking in the mirror was Joe – a selfish soldier who had survived, wrecked by shame and guilt.

Maybe had somebody discussed to Joe early enough to turn those thoughts of shame and guilt into positivity things would have developed differently. Changing Joes’ perspective at an early stage perhaps could have preserved the leader everyone recognised that particularly heroic day.

I suggest that the most important thing to do differently in this scenario is to ask, to listen and then act accordingly prior to the course selection process taking place. As we have identified the dilemma actually began seven months earlier but communicating would have prevented the second incident and might have kept Joe in the Army.

It is essential, in any organisation, group or society to know your people, to truly listen to your comrades, peers, employees. I don’t have all the answers but I do know one must be prepared to empathise with others in order to provide the right support. I have learned when dealing with human perspective issues, one needs to ask, listen and never assume. We are human and we err, an essential part of great leadership is learning from the mistakes we make.

By: Alan Houston Cree

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