Leading from Behind

Posted October 10, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: Businesss Leadership, Executive Coaching, Hero's Journey, Leadership (general)

being differentLeading from behind? Isn’t that an oxymoron, like organized chaos, or a genuine fake? “Leading from behind” normally connotes a leader reacting to and being led by events rather than getting out in front of problems, setting objectives, and inspiring his/her organization to achieve great things.

I will make the case however, that the best leaders of the best organizations know that they are often more effective leading from behind, and “letting the dogs run.” They can, and do, lead from the front, when that is what the circumstances and the team demand, but they often prefer to plant themselves back in the crowd – watching others lead, and employing more subtle approaches to influencing events, rather than trying to always be in total control.

If a team is new and still defining itself, or if it is facing an urgent task, or if it is confused or struggling with internal conflict, there is clearly a need for strong lead-from-the-front leadership to develop positive forward momentum. But once the team is on track and performing well, leading from behind can increase momentum and develop long term and sustainable success.

When a team is “humming,” and everyone knows their job, when everyone is committed to a common vision and holds each other accountable to the mission, THAT’s when the best leaders exercise lead-from-behind leadership; they step out of the way and let things run. That doesn’t mean they disengage. They remain extremely engaged – by watching carefully, staying in touch with what is happening, providing support and insight as necessary, and making command decisions when command decisions are called for. They understand that it is easier to assess whether the team is moving out on the right azimuth when they can view the entire field.

When the team is working well, a lead-from-behind leader is able to look out beyond the next couple of ridgelines, consider how best to prepare the team for what might be coming, and how best to take it to the next level, when it is ready. And when it is ready, the leader knows it will probably be time to get out front again, to help the team create a new direction, a new vision, new commitment, and establish a new momentum, before once again, stepping to the side.

Letting a well-oiled team run, frees up the leader to serve the team beyond the boundaries of the team, to build credibility with other teams and higher headquarters, and to spend more time and energy looking at the broader context of the team’s mission. Management is left to the well-functioning internal mechanisms of the team.

Great leaders train and prepare future leaders. Lead-from-behind leadership allows the leader to look up and out, while giving junior leaders opportunities to lead, learn and grow. One of the best ways to build other leaders is to let them lead, and when designated leaders step out of the way, others can spread their wings, use their judgment, make decisions, and make mistakes. The lead-from-behind leader remains engaged by being available to coach, to make sure mistakes don’t take things too far off track, and to provide constructive feedback after the fact. Only by letting others lead can the leader effectively judge who has the most potential, and who is most ready to assume increased responsibility within the organization.

When I was younger, I made the mistake that many young leaders make: I believed my role was to always be out front. And like many young leaders, I enjoyed the spotlight, the authority, and the ego satisfaction of being in charge and “making stuff happen.” For most of us, this is probably a necessary phase in our development as leaders, but I’ve seen far too many leaders never get beyond this phase. When the leader is always out in front, others who might be very capable and ready, are not leading, and opportunities for them to grow and develop are missed. The team becomes completely dependent on the leader’s energy, drive, and ambition. That is not good for the long term development of the team and its people.

Later in my career, I struggled to back off my tendency to always jump out front, and I tried to step back more, and let the organization evolve. I realized that if my team expected me to always take charge as problems arose, they would simply sit back and wait to see what I decided. That was not what I wanted. I had to learn that it was not about me – it was about them. I was THEIR leader; they were not MY troops. There is a big difference.

Through trial and error, reading, and watching other leaders succeed and fail, I discovered that in great organizations, great leaders are often leading from behind. To outsiders, it is not always clear how great leader’s influence with subtlety, insight, and example. In his seminal work Good to Great, Jim Collins describes these leaders as “Level 5 Leaders.” Harvard’s Joe Badaraccco praises such selfless leaders as “non-heroic” leaders. One key NSW leader speaks of leading with “humility, integrity, and transparency.”

Great leaders like to step out of the spotlight and put the spotlight on others in their organization. In doing so, they become more a part of the organization’s collective “We.” They use the collective “We” and “Our” in most discourse, and avoid excessive use of “I” and “my.” When the leader is constantly saying “We,” and acting in a “We” way, those on the team begin to believe in ‘We” and commit to the larger “We,” rather than simply, to the leader.

“With the best of leaders, when the work is done, the project completed, the people all say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Tao Te Ching)

Great leaders know how to balance leading from the front and leading from behind. While they certainly know when and how to get out front and push, they also know when it is best to step to the side, let things evolve on their own, let other leaders emerge, influence subtly, and lead quietly, from behind.

A Leadership Journey

Posted September 1, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: Businesss Leadership, Character Development, Executive Coaching, Hero's Journey, In the wilderness, Nature, Resilience

Tags: ,
Moving through spectacular terrain

Moving through spectacular terrain

I just returned from my annual Executive Leadership Expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. As usual, I am filled with inspiration and humility before the mountains, the people I was with, and the totality of the experience. And I feel inspired to share a bit of that with those who honor me by reading my posts in Bob’s Corner.

There were eleven of us: Two “instructors” of whom I was one, and nine other expedition members – six men and three women. The three women were all Navy Admirals, which says something about the intrepidity of the women the Navy promotes to Flag rank. The men included a retired former leader in cable television, the president and founder of an international business consulting firm, a financial advisor, a founder of a ground breaking international non-profit, a former test pilot now aeronautics professor, and a retired naval officer, now engaged in humanitarian work. Youngest 37, oldest 70, average age: 56. Our expedition also included 6 llamas, whose names and personalities we all got to know well.

Over seven days and six nights, we moved in a loop of close to 20 miles, between 9 and 11 thousand feet, climbed through two 11,000 foot passes, struggled with steep terrain, off-trail navigation and route-finding, managing ourselves and our llamas, both during our travels and in camp. We cooked and tented together, planned and adjusted our plans together, and when two of our llamas were injured, we adjusted paniers and load-weight accordingly. As an expedition, we dealt with whatever came our way. One of the members of our group reminded us that “if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.” God definitely chuckled a bit during our expedition.

We had a lay-over day during which some of us climbed a 12.3k peak well above the tree line, others stayed in camp and read and rested, some swam in the ‘almost cold’ mountain lake, and some successfully tried their hands at fly-fishing. They caught 35 trout, which made for quite a dinner that night.

We took care of each other, our llamas, our gear, and the environment, and left very little ‘trace’ when we departed our various campsites. Our goal was to Leave NO Trace, but we scattered the llama droppings, rather than packing them out!

That is what we did. But that is NOT what made the expedition special.

I have rarely, if ever, seen a group of people come together, and create an integrated team as quickly and as well as this group did. Working and solving problems together, we built trust within the group, all day, every day. Late in the second day of the expedition, Rick Rochelle, our very experienced expedition leader, and I were trying hard to make things flow just right. One of the women admirals pulled us both aside. “You guys need to relax. We’re having a ball out here – don’t sweat the small stuff!” The shoe was on the other foot- the students were mentoring the instructors. It was perfect – and just what we needed to hear. They were owning the expedition.

Every night, two of our expedition members shared their story – a “who am I” that focused on the key experiences that had shaped their own leadership journey. This was special and powerful – especially from such an accomplished group. It was a challenge and an opportunity for each of us to identify and share what experiences have shaped who we are. Some were light hearted and informative, others very personal and moving. All were provocative and inspiring. These stories connected us to each other, and opened doors to on-trail discussions that went deeper, and migrated to a wide variety of topics.

And all the while, we were living in and moving through some of the most spectacular mountains and valleys we’d ever seen.

It wasn’t all work – we also had fun and laughed a lot together. Our favorite source of amusement was the confrontation between Will, one of our members, and the amorous porcupine! I’ll not go into it, but it is a good story….

It was the longest period most in this group had ever gone without the accoutrements of civilization – bathrooms, showers, climate controlled buildings, kitchens, bedrooms, beds with clean sheets. We were unplugged from our computers and the daily barrage of emails and solicitations. We were without access to news, cell phones, music or the media. We were disconnected from the wider culture that nurtures us all.
We found that we were doing just fine without those things which we often consider essential to living well in the front country. We realized (again) that these things are in fact NOT essential. Without the niceties of civilization, each of us experienced a dimension of ‘quality of life’ that we rarely feel in our civilized, front-country lives.

How so? you might ask.

First, we experienced that special connection that arises when good people live together, support each other, and work toward a common purpose in challenging circumstances. A lighter version of what draws troops together in combat.

Second, we experienced a special and intimate connection to nature, in its grandest form. The eons of geologic time were palpable in the glacially cut walls and valleys we were traversing in the Wind River Range. In the face of such grandeur and magnificence, each of us experienced our own version of awe and spiritual humility, often leaving us speechless.

By choosing to get out of our comfort zones and out into nature with other similarly motivated leaders, we were taking care of our own personal well-being. Good leaders take care of their personal well-being; this enables them to better help others take care of their own well-being.

“Leadership” is a big word, with lots of nuances and meanings in different contexts. The “Leadership Journey” on this expedition was different for each of us. We all chose to take a chance, and quite simply, put ourselves out there. Each of us had our own concerns – old injuries, aches, pains, and insecurities – but we all chose to go for it, to trust each other, and set our own comfort aside in order for our tent group, our hiking group our expedition to succeed. We worked together, took care of each other, grew to trust each other, and experienced something special, something amazing together.

What does that say about “leadership?”

At the top of one of our passes, we stopped for a group photo

At the top of one of our passes, we stopped for a group photo

If any experienced leaders reading this might be interested in participating in this expedition next August, please contact me.

The American Idea

Posted June 24, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: American idea, American idealism, Innovation, Passion, Resilience

I was recently asked to sit on a panel discussing the Future of the American Idea, hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation.  I shared the panel with three very distinguished speakers in American political discourse: Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol, and Gary Kasparov.   Thanks to my good friend Michelle Van Cleave for nominating me to be part of such a distinguished group.  The below essay is essentially what I offered to the discussion.

Meb Vietnamese kids1military

I believe that the American Idea can be expressed in four key values: Courage, Idealism, New Beginnings, and Community. These values are epitomized in two very different, but quintessentially American communities – recently arrived immigrants, and the US military.

The story of Meb Keflezighi is a great example of how immigrants continue to embody the values of courage, idealism, new beginnings and community.   Meb spent his childhood struggling to survive with his family in a village in war-torn Eritrea. After many years of courageous effort and persistence, his father succeeded in bringing Meb and his family to America, and with the help of the Eritrean-American community and their new American friends, Meb and his family were able to make a life for themselves in San Diego. Meb was 12 years old when he arrived, and speaking little to no English had to step up and adapt quickly to the new language and culture in San Diego. In school, he found that he had a talent for running, and after stellar performances at San Diego High School, he went on to attend UCLA and become an NCAA champion in multiple events. In 1998 he became an American citizen and represented the US in the Athens Olympics in 2004, bringing home a silver medal in the marathon to his adopted country.  He has since become the first American in over 30 years to win the New York City marathon, and then, though given little chance for winning, became the first American in three decades to win the Boston Marathon in 2014.

When people claim that Meb is more African than American, he responds forcefully and proudly  “I am an American!” When a friend of mine accompanied Meb to an Eritrean-American gathering in his honor, he was struck when the event began with the pledge-of-allegiance to the American flag.  Meb’s ten brothers and sisters have all attended college, to include some of the best institutions in the United States, a tribute to the courage, hard work, love and dedication of Meb’s father and mother, and the support of their community.

My good friend Kim, a second generation Vietnamese-American has shared with me much of her life growing up in the very tightly knit Vietnamese-American community in Atlanta and Southern California. When new immigrants arrive from Vietnam, the Vietnamese-American community rallies behind them, with a strong sense of shared obligation to support new arrivals, and help them get on their feet and adjust. The Vietnamese American community holds new arrivals accountable for making their own way with the help they receive. They are expected to become contributing members of their communities and to represent the best of the values of the Vietnamese culture, while respecting, and adapting to the values and customs of their new country.

To Meb and Kim, and to the Eritrean and Vietnamese-American communities, America is still the land of unlimited opportunity, not of unlimited entitlements. The American Idea is still fresh, inspiring, and real – it hasn’t become infected with disillusionment and cynicism.  The stories of Meb, Kim, and so many other immigrants follow the pattern of many of our European-American forefathers who left “Old Europe” to begin anew in America. Our immigrant forefathers, and immigrants coming to America today, have all exhibited the courage and idealism to break from the old and venture into the unknown, to start over and build strong communities that reflect and embody the American Idea.

Similarly today, members of our military represent those same values. All have courageously volunteered to leave their old lives, to make new beginnings, and to accept the dangerous mission that serving in the military on behalf of America entails. The military culture is demanding, but it is also infused with idealism and optimism as it seeks to embody the values of honor, sacrifice, and service-above-self that represent the best in America and the best in its service members. Each of the military services actively strives to create a sense of community which holds its members accountable for pulling their own weight, for contributing to the greater good, and for representing the values that continue to make America a place where courageous idealists from around the world want to come to make a new beginning and build great communities.

The American Idea recognizes that some have not always been treated well on its behalf. African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans and others have legitimate grievances regarding how some have interpreted the American Idea. Past abuses cannot be undone, but they can be acknowledged, and lessons taken from them to help new generations to do better in the future as the American Idea evolves and becomes more inclusive.

The American Idea is not about looking backward with regret– it is about looking forward with optimism.  It is about proudly proclaiming “I am an American!” and boldly stepping into the future, striving to live up to high ideals that make strong and vibrant communities, communities that sustain the American Idea that sustains us all.

Gary Kasparov, Bob Schoultz, Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol, and Jimmy Kemp at the Jack Kemp Foundation Conference.

Gary Kasparov, Bob Schoultz, Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol, and Jimmy Kemp at the Jack Kemp Foundation Conference.


A Bias for Bold Action

Posted May 27, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: Businesss Leadership, Character Development, Executive Coaching, heart, Innovation, mediocrity, NOLS, Passion, Resilience, Uncategorized, Values

Tags: , , , ,

audacity-augments-courage-hesitation-fearI was recently invited to provide a Navy SEAL’s perspective to a conference on risk management.    As I was preparing my remarks, I realized that throughout my career in the Navy, “risk management” had been inherent in my duties as an officer and leader of audacious men in high risk operations, but I had never given the concept of risk management much thought.  I felt a little like the fellow who was amazed  to learn that he’d been speaking prose all his life and didn’t even know it!

In thinking about it, I realized how important risk management can be to proper planning and success, but also how, if given too much emphasis, it can inhibit bold action and throw sand into the gears of progress.

Risk management is certainly an important aspect of good planning and decision making – an organization should go into any endeavor with its eyes open, understanding what could go wrong and how to manage potential impacts.   Careful consideration of risk can help determine whether a plan has a reasonable chance of success, and whether potential benefits justify likely or even unlikely costs. All of that is indisputable.

But an over-emphasis on risk management can torpedo one of the most important factors in any plan’s success:  Bold, confident commitment to a plan. Too much attention to risk management can focus an organization on all that can go wrong, rather than on what should go well and what bold action is required to ensure that it does.

A focus on risk can infect a team’s confidence, and over-caution can lead to inaction, or taking half steps, or playing not-to-lose.  We’ve heard the catchphrase to: “Always hedge your bets,” and cautious admonitions to be prudent, play it safe, don’t expose yourself, leave yourself a way out, never over-commit.  This can be practical advice – especially to ensure you get at least “half a loaf.”  But, while the careful approach may sometimes be wise to ensure survival, it won’t promote bold, audacious action.   And it won’t inspire subordinates to truly commit to a plan.

In their seminal book, In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman repeatedly found that great corporations had what they called “a bias for action.”   They noted that “The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in excellent companies is their willingness to try things out, to experiment…..Most big institutions… prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.”  This was true 30 years ago, and it remains true today.

When I was serving at the Naval Academy, I presented an out-of-the-box proposal to then- Superintendent Vice Admiral Rod Rempt, to create an opportunity for midshipmen to participate in National Outdoor Leadership School courses during the summer.  He responded that he didn’t think it was a good idea, that it didn’t fit, we’d never done anything like this before, midshipmen already had more options than they could manage, etc, but then he said (and I’ll never forget) “What the hell – let’s give it a try! How can I help?” Ten years later, over a quarter of midshipmen choose to challenge themselves for 24 days in the wilderness with NOLS every summer, and I give Rod Rempt a lot of the credit for his willingness to take a chance and support a subordinate leader’s initiative.

The bold leader inspires subordinates to believe in themselves, their team, their strategy, and their ability to get results.   Subordinates know a risky plan when they see it, and it’s important that they trust that their leaders have competently weighed the risks involved, and share in that risk.  But it is more important that they know their leaders are confident and committed to the success of the plan, and are ready to commit boldly to its execution – in spite of the risks. History is full of examples of committed and confident teams succeeding where success was deemed unlikely or impossible; there are also innumerable examples of timid leaders and teams snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Napoleon pointed out that in war, morale is to material as three is to one.

But there can be a fine line between being bold and audacious, and being blind and fool-hardy.   The motto of the Navy Seabees is “Can Do,” but they also say “Too much ‘Can-Do’ can do you in.”  John Wayne once said, “Life is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re stupid.”   But I’m arguing against risk managers injecting too much “Can’t Do” into vision and planning.

Great leaders have a bias for bold action, but prudently manage risk. Excellent managers on the other hand, are expected to be the voice of prudence and caution, to be their organization’s risk managers, while still leaving room for experimentation and well-calculated audacity.   In my own career, I have played the role of the cautious manager, raising red flags when (what I perceived to be) irresponsible and dangerous ideas were being proposed and considered.    I have also been the bold, aggressive leader who my team routinely had to rein in, to make sure we didn’t get out in front of our own headlights.  When the balance is right between bold but prudent leaders, and cautious but confident managers, there are few limits to what an organization can accomplish.

I was recently asked to speak on how great leaders and teams respond to chaos and uncertainty.  In my remarks, I noted that bold leaders know that while chaos and uncertainty are dangerous and warrant caution, they also present great opportunities.  The bold, aggressive leader will carefully watch chaos, staying alert, agile, ready to neutralize threats, but also ready to strike when opportunities present themselves. While the bold leader is wary of the danger inherent in chaos, s/he keeps the front site focused on opportunity.

When the going gets tough, the bold leader stays focused on opportunity.  Chesty Puller, when told that the Chinese had him and his Marines surrounded in Korea, is reputed to have responded: “That simplifies the problem.  The bastards can’t get away from us now!”   He didn’t  (as far as I know) then ask his staff for a risk management plan. But a good chief of staff would have prepared one for him anyway!

“The credit belongs to the man <or woman> who strives valiantly; who spends himself in a worthy cause… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid <risk managers> who neither know victory nor defeat.”  (Teddy Roosevelt, adjusted slightly…)

Manage risk, but always with a bias for bold action.


The Fifth Factor

Posted March 30, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: adaptability, Businesss Leadership, Character Development, Executive Coaching, heart, Resilience, Uncategorized, unseen order of things

number 5 on fire 2

Ok, what’s the “Fifth Factor?”

That is the question I frequently get when I tell people I named my company “Fifth Factor Leadership.” This simple question seems to deserve a simple answer, but I don’t have a simple answer, except my standard wise-guy response: It comes right after the fourth factor.

Which of course leads to the next simple question: OK, what are the first four factors of leadership? To which I answer: It depends on who you ask.

In my own work, I use and refer to a number of different four factor lists: The four leadership roles I learned from the National Outdoor Leadership School: self, peer, designated, and subordinate leadership. Or the four descriptors I offer as characteristics of elite teams: Purpose, Trust, Focus, Camaraderie (PTFC). I talk about Commando Leadership in terms of four components: Solidify the team, Energize the team, Authentic leadership, Live the mission (SEAL – cute eh?) Chris Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership suggests four qualities of great leaders: self-awareness, heroism, ingenuity, and compassion/love. Dr Al Pierce, my first military ethics mentor, wrote of Admiral Stockdale’s four components of moral leadership: a noble cause, proactive pursuit of that cause, self-sacrifice for the cause, and willingness to ask/direct others to make similar sacrifices. My friend, and leadership guru George Reed refers to the Four F’s of what people seek in work: Fun, Funds, Fellowship, Feeling, which I like to parody with the young SEAL’s version: Fighting, Fornicating, Fitness, and Fun.

Four is a good number of factors – easy to remember and appealing in a primal way. While such lists are indeed useful in helping us to understand complex concepts such as leadership, character, culture, it is important to ask: What is missing here? What else?  The Fifth Factor is a statement that we should be just a little skeptical of lists of four (or five, or six) factors which explain something as complex and human as “leadership.”

The Fifth Factor is essentially a conversation starter. The answer to ‘What is the Fifth Factor?’ deserves a couple of cups of coffee, a conversation, or even a longer shared experience, which of course, most of us don’t have time for.  When pressed, I’ll respond that “The Fifth Factor is good judgment built on experience and good character” which satisfies most people who are busy and polite – kind of like, “I’m fine, how are you?”

But that short answer does not satisfy me. Good or great leadership is so very context dependent. What works well in one context often doesn’t work in another. Sometimes the Fifth Factor may be drive, ambition, and vision, and sometimes caution and care. It may mean the leader being an asshole (that’s the technical term for ill-humored and uncompromising) when that is what is called for to get individuals or a team out of their comfort zone, to achieve more than they believe they can. Sometimes the Fifth Factor calls for the leader to damn the torpedoes and drive on at full speed, other times to back off, cut losses, find another path, and survive to fight another day. Sometimes the Fifth Factor demands that the leader focus all of his/her energy on a specific problem or person, other times to delegate, pull back and stay focused on the big picture. Sometimes the great leader is rational and analytical, and other times s/he simply follows gut instinct, and listens to the universe for guidance….

How do we know which is the right approach? Great question! We often don’t know….but we must act.

I have chosen a name for my company that evokes an intangible concept which can’t be readily defined or taught.  This certainly gives me flexibility, but is counter to what conventional wisdom would advise.  But I believe that “good leadership” itself is intangible and hard to define, which (paradoxically) is what makes it so interesting to study and talk about. Good leadership is so interesting because there are so many examples of what many have called good, or effective leadership that don’t fit the classic examples that inspire us.  Ask anyone who has succeeded in significant leadership roles and in different contexts. There is no answer that completely explains what works and why in one case, and not in another.  Sometimes it is X. Sometimes it is Y. Honesty? Compassion? Commitment? Attention to detail? Humility? Passion? Self Confidence? The good leader has to compromise each of these on occasion. Yes, even honesty.

Is it enough to simply say that good leadership works, and afterward we seek to understand how and why? And then somehow fit that model into our taxonomy?  I am not completely comfortable with that approach either. The mysteries, the intangibles, the paradoxes just have to be part of our understanding. How do we explain how over a hundred years ago, Ernest Shackleton was able to bring all his men home from Antarctica, against all odds? The Fifth Factor accepts that we may never fully understand, but we should try – and be at least a little skeptical of whatever answers we come up with.

What does it take to be a leader? My philosophy mentor Tom Grassey likes to say that all you need to be a leader is a follower. Now THAT is a good, simple, and logical answer! But his point is that the real question is: What does it takes to be a good, or even great leader? That is a much more complicated and interesting question, and the answer is: It depends. After we make our lists of qualities, characteristics and factors of good leadership, the Fifth Factor asks – “What else?” “What is missing?”

And that is where the most interesting conversations about good and effective leadership begin.

I know this essay doesn’t provide any real answers. But I prefer to play with the questions.  With leadership and other human endeavors, there are so many questions, and they are so fascinating. The Fifth Factor is my foray into exploring some of the subtleties and intangibles of how people lead others and work together to succeed, survive, and thrive. So many intriguing examples and paradoxes come to mind….

Fear…and the Warrior

Posted February 6, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: adaptability, Character Development, Hero's Journey, Heroism, honor, mind, SEALs, Uncategorized, Warfare

This essay appears in the current issue (Issue 23)  of Naval Special Warfare’s ETHOS magazine. It was inspired by a story a journalist friend of mine shared with me about a panel he moderated with a group of military veterans.  When he brought up the subject of fear in combat, there was a reluctance to talk about it, and he was chastised by one of their wives, who believed that even asking the question dishonored these heroes.
As you’ll read in the essay below, I see it differently.   I use the masculine pronoun only because it avoids the awkward ‘he/she’ and ‘his/her.’  I know many courageous female warriors – in and out of uniform.

We often talk about a warrior’s courage; we admire him for it and we celebrate it. But how does one talk about courage—how does one examine its potential and its limits—without also talking about fear? For what is courage, but doing what needs to be done, in spite of one’s fears? This essay considers the complex relationship between the elite and experienced warrior, and his fear.

Young, bold, and audacious warriors often try to deny their fear as a form of weakness. They often idealize themselves and other bold warriors as knowing no fear. They see fear only as incapacitating, a weakness to be overcome in order to be great. I fell into that trap when I was younger, but I see things differently now.

I’ve come to realize that elite warriors have an intimate relationship with fear. They don’t deny their fear; rather they seek it out as a catalyst to make themselves stronger, wiser, more resilient. They push themselves beyond the edge of their comfort zones in search of that next challenge, the next higher mountain, the next opportunity to see what they’re made of.  Each new challenge invariably involves confronting new anxieties and fears, which they must listen to, get to know and become intimate with, in order to survive, succeed, and perform at their best. Elite warriors are always developing and shaping their relationship with fear.

Elite warriors are wary of the audacious, the bold, the reckless who claim to know no fear, and brazenly attack every obstacle. These bold, usually young warriors need experienced warriors to guide them and help them to survive until they too can become ‘experienced’ and perhaps eventually ‘elite.’ Elite warriors are ready to act when bold and dangerous action is required, but they also know that discretion is often the better part of valor.

SEALs and SWCCs are among those elite warriors whose missions require that they confront, learn to live with, and manage fear, anxiety, and apprehension. To train for and succeed in the most challenging and unforgiving environments, they must make fear work FOR them, rather than hinder their performance.

Fear can be the warrior’s friend. Properly managed and applied, it can inspire focused attention to detailed and thorough preparation before a stressful event. Whether it be public speaking, a night parachute jump, or going into combat, all elite warriors have stories of success and even survival in unforgiving environments, after paying attention to that knot in the stomach that inspired them to take extra precautions, and prepare, prepare, prepare to perform at their best. Experienced warriors see “red flags” when there is no fear or anxiety before what should clearly be a stressful event.

Warriors, and especially elite warriors, have a relationship with fear that those who seek only safety, security, and comfort will never know. The more ‘elite’ the warrior, the more intimate and familiar he is with fear. Experience, self-knowledge and common sense help the elite warrior talk to and listen to his fear, and thereby to perform at his best. And this fear is not merely personal – the warrior is most often part of a team. Within a team, within a military unit, the elite warrior’s greatest fear is letting down his teammates and his team.

Within elite warrior cultures, fear of shame or dishonor has always been stronger than fear of injury or death.

A warrior’s fear often masquerades as performance anxiety. Will I meet the expectations and standards of my team and team mates? Will I be able to do my share or more, if/when the “kaka” hits the fan? Have I done all that I can do to be as ready as I can be, or have I missed something? Might a mistake, a bad decision, or a momentary lapse in focus get one of my buddies killed or injured, or result in mission failure? Will I dishonor myself, and be ashamed in front of my teammates? These are the fears that confront a warrior in his quiet moments, especially at the early stages of his development, while he is still accumulating experience, gaining self-confidence, and getting comfortable with his fear.

This intimate relationship to fear is not unique to elite military units; one finds it in any culture of men and women who individually or in teams work in challenging and unforgiving environments, to include rock climbers, mountaineers, big wave surfers, extreme skiers, competitive athletes, and even the best entrepreneurs and business leaders. Jim Collins, devotes a whole section of his most recent book, Great by Choice, to what he calls “productive paranoia,” explaining how the most successful business leaders are always on edge in anticipation of chaos or bad luck. “Productive paranoia” keeps them focused on keeping themselves and their businesses as alert and ready as they can be.

Elite warriors are not afraid to acknowledge their fear. Their relationship with their fear is like a good marriage – the warrior and his fear are indeed intimate and familiar with each other, and it is a very private relationship. Together they are more than the sum of their parts, and they each make the other better: the elite warrior’s experience, judgment, and wisdom temper and manage his primal fears, while the warrior’s fears focus his mind and energies, and tell him when to be careful, and when to pay very close attention. The warrior’s fear of failure, shame and dishonor, his fear of letting down his teammates helps inform good decisions that appropriately manage risk and achieve outcomes that serve the long term best interest of himself, his team and his nation.

Lone Survivor – the movie

Posted January 22, 2014 by schoultz
Categories: Hero's Journey, Heroism, Naval Special Warfare, SEALs, Special Operations Forces, Warfare

Lone SurvivorI recently watched the movie Lone Survivor – a movie adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name.  I give the movie an overall B+.  There were several things I really liked about it, one glaring thing I didn’t like, and a few omissions which I found regrettable.

Spoiler alert:  If you have either read the book or seen the movie, this perspective may interest you. If not, you may want to wait before reading on.

First, a few disclaimers:  I do not personally know Marcus Luttrell.  I have not been to Afghanistan, nor have I ever been in a desperate firefight – nor for that matter, any kind of firefight that approached the intensity of what Murphy, Dietz, Axelson and Luttrell experienced on that mountainside in Afghanistan.   My tactical experience as a SEAL is dated, but I did spend 30 years in the SEAL community, retiring in 2005, and it is from that perspective that I offer my impression of the movie.

What I LIKED about the movie:

-          I thought it was a fair representation of ‘team-guy’ SEAL culture.  It showed the playfulness and irreverence, the cockiness and humility, and the ability of highly trained young men to gel into a team, to get serious and focus.  And I’m sorry, Mrs Smedlap, these All-American warriors do talk that way – most men in combat communicate with each other using extensive and graphic, if not always inspired, profanity.

-          I was concerned that the movie might make the SEALs, especially the four men who are the center piece of the movie, seem somehow larger than life, and make them into Hollywood cut-outs of super commandos, but I didn’t see that.  Murphy, Axelson, Dietz, and Luttrell, and the other SEALs portrayed in the movie were human and real;  it appears that the collaboration between Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell succeeded in respecting the culture and the guys themselves, without caricaturing them.

-          The very beginning of the movie showed what appeared to be actual scenes from BUD/S training, which set up the movie by giving the audience a sense for what it takes to become part of this tribe.  This was well done and (thankfully) not overdone – the movie didn’t dwell on it.

-          The depictions of life on and off-duty  at Bagram and ‘J-Bad’ in Afghanistan were consistent with my experience in deployed Joint Operations Centers, and consistent with what I’ve heard from the guys I know who have spent much time ‘forward’  in the recent wars.

-          The firefight scene seemed realistic to me.  It was not easy to watch good men give their last measure to save themselves and their buddies, and die doing it.  But that is what this movie is about, and the generalities of the firefight appeared realistic and generally well done.  It appears that Peter Berg paid close attention to the counsel of Marcus Luttrell and his other (former) SEAL advisors in making this part of the movie.

-          It was a nice touch to see Marcus Luttrell himself as an extra, playing one of the SEALs in the movie.

-          The movie honored and paid tribute to the Afghanis who stood up to the Taliban in protecting Luttrell.

-          The very conclusion of the movie (just before the credits) honored those who were killed on the operation.  We saw pictures of those who died on the operation in happier times, with their wives, children, pets and friends, making them human and real – not just names and numbers.  I and others in the theater choked up.   I was pleased to see that this tribute included the Army Special Operations Helo pilots and crew as well as the SEALs who died trying to rescue these four.  The audience in my theater applauded after this part.  I was moved.

What I DIDN’T LIKE about the movie:

-          I felt that the firefight scene went on too long.    I know that one of Marcus Luttrell’s main objectives in supporting this movie was to accurately portray and pay homage to how his brothers honorably fought and died, but I believe a couple of minutes could have been shaved off the firefight scene and devoted to another key part of the story that I felt did not get the attention it deserved – the part that came next.

-          I thought that Luttrell’s experience as the ‘lone survivor,’ struggling to survive and evade capture after his team mates were killed, was the most compelling part of the book, and the movie gave this short shrift.    It is an amazing story of the strength of the human spirit and one man’s struggle to survive against the odds.  All alone, very badly hurt, and nearly delirious from pain, hunger, fatigue, and thirst, Luttrell was able to hide and keep moving for 2-3 days, evading the Taliban who were desperately looking for him.  This is barely touched upon in the movie.

-          The scene where Luttrell was discovered and taken into custody by the Afghan villager Mohammad Gulab, and the period during which he was protected in the Afghan village under the code of Pashtunwali, were portrayed very differently in the movie than in the book.  The movie didn’t do justice to a really fascinating part of this story -the book was much better.

-          My main objection to the movie was how it portrayed Luttrell’s final rescue from the Afghan village. It was really cheesy.  It was as if Peter Berg suddenly abandoned his respect for the integrity of the story, and defaulted to his Hollywood roots to give us a clichéd Hollywood conclusion.   Just as the situation becomes truly desperate, the US (Air) Cavalry pops over the ridge, swoops down into the village and saves the day, shooting the Taliban as they run terrified into the hills.  It was like a scene from a 1950’s western:   The cavalry arrives just in the nick of time to pull our desperate hero from the jaws of death, and give the Indians their comeuppance.   I was waiting for the bugles and the playing of Gary Owen!  The version of the rescue that Luttrell told in the book was much more interesting, if less dramatic.

With the exception of the rescue scene at the end, I thought Peter Berg did well keeping the movie and the book essentially in harmony.   I forgive (most of) the differences as part of the ‘poetic license’ producers and directors need to create the impact and effect they want in the retelling of the story in an abbreviated format.  It did claim to be ‘based on a true story,’ not to be a documentary.  The final rescue scene however, was way over the top, and it hurt the movie.

In spite of its flaws, I’m glad the movie was made and I recommend it.   It is (mostly) very well done and gives broad exposure to the story of this SEAL squad, and the final hours of three SEALs fighting desperately and bravely, and the 16 other brave men who died trying to rescue them.  And by extension Lone Survivor pays tribute to the thousands of American sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines who have died or been seriously wounded fighting in this war, on behalf of the people of the United States and Afghanistan. Hopefully this movie raises the level of awareness, understanding and appreciation for their sacrifices.

For those who are interested in  what Marcus Luttrell has done since the
tragedy of Operation Red Wings in 2005, I’ll direct you again to Dan Klaidman’s
excellent recent article on him, written as part of the Hero Project in The Daily Beast  here 


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