For US Navy SEALs, this was a classic operation. A dozen highly trained SEALs landing on the beach in southern Somalia and quietly infiltrating the compound of a known al Shabaab warlord name Ikrima. The operation was designed to capture Ikrima. Even with three other boats in support of the operation, the SEALs were heavily outnumbered. This operation demanded stealth and precision.
Like a scene in a movie, a man from the compound strolls outside for a smoke, plays it cool, and goes back inside. But he must have seen something because moments later he and many others come out shooting. The SEAL’s plan is now compromised—and they are taking heavy fire.
Steve Ahlberg, former Commodore of SEAL Team One and consultant for Strategic Arts and Sciences, says: “Once the shooting starts, it is a whole different ballgame.” It is no longer a game of stealth and surprise. It is about determining if the objectives for the mission can still be met—and protecting your people in the process. In training, the SEALs are taught to bring a ferocious and overwhelming level of firepower to these situations. They compensate for their small numbers by maximizing the “violence of action” they bring to their target. In Somalia, for a few long minutes they work to sort out the best approach to save the mission—all the while taking fire.
I promise I will finish the story. We’ll get back to the firefight in a second. For now, let’s appreciate the leadership situation faced by our SEAL team leader. According to the late philosopher Martin Heidegger, our SEAL leader was clearly facing a “thrown” situation. For Heidegger this is a very specific term. You are thrown when:
- You must act.
- You can’t gather more intelligence or “fact finding.”
- You can’t predict how others around you are going to act.
- Not acting is itself an act; you can’t “not act.”
While I am fairly certain our SEAL leader was not reflecting on Heidegger last Saturday morning in Somalia; he was most certainly “thrown.” So how do we act in these situations? How do we make decisions? Heidegger tells us that when we are “thrown” we make decisions by going to our values. Ahlberg says, “These operations are planned exhaustively with every detail and contingency considered.” But most plans never survive the first shot. In a thrown situation everything is dynamic; except your core values.
By definition, core values are the elements that rarely change. They are bedrock. They are stable and certain. One of the reasons I hold SEALs in especially high regard is that they are almost always dealt situations where the lines are fuzzy and the challenges are huge. These teams need to be operating in incredible concert with one another. They have to think and apply sophisticated reasoning and a moral compass to situations that probably feel like hell on earth. These are warriors who operate on a razor’s edge, balancing mission success and rules of engagement at every turn. These are not knuckle-draggers. These are bad-ass thinkers able to act with reason in the most unreasonable situations imaginable.
But it’s not just SEALs. Doctors, cops, emergency responders all face the same kinds of challenges. I can assure you if they are good doctors, cops, and EMT’s they are working as a part of a team and they are in close touch with their core personal and professional values. “Teams” and “values” are leadership concepts that show up again and again in top performing organizations.
These ideas and the tension between people and results are not new. A quick glance through the literature and we find Blake and Mouton’s Managerial (Leadership) Grid. In this classic work, published first in the early 1960’s, we see leadership characterized as a tension between (a) concern for people and (b) concern for results. In this classic two by two the place to be is in the top right box, with a high level of concern for people and a high level of concern for results. They call that section “Team Management.” As a consultant I find myself reflecting on Blake and Mouton’s model a fair amount. We all know the troubled leaders who preach results and outcomes—at the expense of their people. And we know leaders who are so wrapped up in people problems—they can’t get anything done. It is a balance thing. It is hard enough to achieve when you are working in a reasonably normal work environment.
It is another thing altogether when you are in a fire fight. Back to the action.
NBC News reporters Mathew Cole and Jim Miflaszewski report that: “Several of the SEALs could see Ikrima through the windows of the compound, but couldn’t get to him. The SEALs continued to take fire while trying to find a way to get closer to their target. And then the children came into the pictures on their scopes.”
The kids were mixed up with the shooters. The decision was made to abandon the mission and exit in a hasty fashion. It was a decision rooted in the core value of avoiding civilian casualties. Amazingly, no SEAL’s were injured in the operation. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little makes note of the fact that although the mission was a failure, it showed the incredible skill and professionalism of our counter-terrorism teams and the fact that we can reach out anytime and anywhere that al Shabaab operates.
For me, this is a story of leadership, planning, and value-based decision making. It is about working hard to minimize risk—but not avoiding risk when the stakes are high. It is a powerful story of the relentless efforts of our military to manage entirely new levels of threat that emerge in pockets here and there around the globe.
I confess that I am frustrated that I know this story. While I appreciate the work of NBC News in breaking the story, I can’t help but feel that we need to be more disciplined in how and what we report. I felt the same way about No Easy Day by Mark Owen; the story of the assault on Bin Laden. I felt like an important code was violated by that telling. On the other hand, this level of openness and transparency, the freedom of our press, is one of the core values for our country.
When you are moving through your annual business planning cycle this year, take a few minutes to dust off the core values and ask yourself if they are still real and relevant. This is the 21st century and the pace of business is unrelenting—no matter what business you’re in.
And there is a damn good chance you’ll find yourself “thrown” as well—if you haven’t already.