What does leadership look like? It takes on many forms. But on this day, at a major training exercise in the desert, it took on what for me was a very unexpected shape. Here’s the short story about a very different view of leadership I got when I pulled back the tent flap, and saw a leader that I really respected in action. It might surprise you.
Dueling in the Desert
I was a junior Army officer, it was the late 1980s, and we were in the midst of some serious field maneuvers at a place called the National Training Center. Located out near the Mojave Desert in California, it was and still is the most realistic and difficult exercise a large unit can experience.
The Opposing Force there is a cadre of professional bad guys. They lived there for years at a time and knew every fold and wrinkle of the ground. They had vehicles that looked and functioned like the Soviet bloc weaponry we thought we would have to face, and they employed the same tactics.
And they were good. Extremely good. When you fight continuously for years with the same team and using the same tactics, and are led by professionals, you can’t help but get good. In fact, winning against them was relatively rare.
Visiting units that face off against them prepare long and hard. It was the pinnacle of the training year, so in a way it was like the Super Bowl. Except that the home team was practically undefeated.
On this day, we were maybe a week or two into the exercises, and we’d already been badly beaten a number of times. But we were learning quickly and getting better.
My job was leading convoys of cargo trucks through the desert to the front lines to supply the forward units. On this occasion, I had to stop by the headquarters to get some information.
In an earlier battle I had learned the hard lesson that it would be a good idea to know where the bad guys were before taking off across the desert with my vulnerable convoy. I wanted to check the maps, get an update on locations of friendly and enemy forces, and then be on my way.
I headed over to the operations tent where I knew I would find Captain Carpenter; he was in charge of all operations of the unit. I was in awe of this guy – he was everything we aspired to be.
He had led units in the US Army Rangers. He was a paratrooper, he was physically fit, imposing, and had a steely eyed glare that could bore a hole through you at 20 paces. He was so good that they had promoted him a year ahead of schedule, and he was specially selected to fill a pivotal job that required someone of higher rank than he currently held.
To me he was the consummate professional who did everything right. He was a real leader. Only thing is, I had never seen him at work in a field environment.
What I saw in the tent
As I neared the tent opening, I’m not sure what I expected to find him doing. Maybe he’d be standing there, in the midst of it all, hands on hips calling out orders. Or possibly looming over the map with radio in hand telling the units what to do. Maybe he’d be talking tactics with the Commander.
I pulled aside the flaps of the operations tent and stepped from bright sun into the darkness. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, what I saw stopped me in my tracks. It was nothing close to what I expected to see.
The maps and radios were there. Tables and people and and the usual hubbub of the operations center was all as it should be. But it took a moment to discern Captain Carpenter.
He was standing quietly over in a corner, with his back towards me, away from the action, head bent down over what looked like a podium. On the podium was a very thick, very large green paper bound book. It was a manual. A Field Manal – the one that specifically explains the doctrine, tactics and techniques for how to employ a unit such as ours.
It was essentially the owner’s manual, the “how to” book for how our unit was supposed to operate in the field. And he was reading it.
My first thought: Doesn’t he already know all this stuff?
Answer: Of course he does; that’s how he got the job in the first place.
Second thought: Then why is he reading the manual?
Answer – It took me a little longer to come to this: To make sure he gets it right.
Third thought: Isn’t he worried that someone will see him?
Answer – It took even longer to get to this: Of course not. He knows that’s not what is important. Success had nothing to do with his personal image. It had everything to do with leading, guiding, and directing the organization to be successful. And if reading the manual to make sure he didn’t forget something was what it took, then that is what he was going to do.
We chatted briefly, then he sent me to the situation maps to get the information I needed, while he turned back to the Field Manual.
The convoy that night was successful; we avoided the bad guys and got the beans and bullets to the Soldiers that needed them.
During the rest of our time in the desert we took a few more lumps. But we also had a couple victories, and one of those was one of the greatest whippings the Opposing Force had taken in a long while. Engineered by the Commander and Captain Carpenter.
A Different View of Leadership – The Takeaway
Leaders and professionals focus on doing the best possible thing they can be doing for the team, regardless of what others might think.
• They take advantage of bodies of knowledge that already exist.
• They do their best to learn from those that have gone before them so they do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
• They know that under stress we can be forgetful, or make poor decisions, so they use tools like checklists and manuals to stay on track (the same way astronauts and pilots do)
• They are less concerned about looking good themselves, and more concerned about getting it right for the team – Level Five Leadership
When I pulled aside the flap of the tent, I thought I was going to see a true professional in action.
And I did.
It just wasn’t as I had imagined it.