[Webinar] Leading During a Crisis
In this month’s webinar, Matt “Hobo” Brady shares a personal military story about leading a successful team during a crisis. His story takes place in a small Valley Korengal in Northeastern Afghanistan. Matt had previously been involved in Iraq but was new to Afghanistan and its vastly mountainous and challenging environment. He soon found himself in a position of leadership and shares how his team and experiences played into leading teams during a crisis.
Below is the full, 45-minute, webinar followed by a transcript of his presentation.
This was my first deployment with my new unit, the Night Stalkers, a nighttime helicopter unit know for taking on high-risk missions with national security impact. I would join them as a brand new Platoon Leader, or an officer tasked with the employment of 2 to 4 helicopters and their associated crews and equipment. My boss, a man by the name of Steve Reich, was a Major, or Executive VP level, in charge of my platoon, my sister platoon, and the rest of the unit, about 100 men, known to us as Bravo 3.
This was the pinnacle of Army Special operations, these pilots and crewmembers were highly experienced, very proficient, and demanded the best from each other, and their leaders. I had a lot of learning to do and felt obligated to earn my place in the organization.
To give you an idea of what Afghanistan looks like, it’s a striking balance between breathtakingly beautiful mountain peaks and desolate landscapes thirsting for development. It’s really challenging to fly helicopters here. Helicopters stay in the air by swinging a big metal blade around striking that thick, dense air with a lot of force. Now, as you get higher in altitude, that air becomes thinner, it requires a lot more force and energy to keep that helicopter in the air, and it becomes very unstable. The most predominant mountain range in Afghanistan, the Hindu Kush, soars to 14K feet and above, so even the most powerful helicopters in the world struggle to stay aloft at those heights. My helicopter, the chinook, felt like a toy.
About 3 weeks after arriving in Afghanistan from some State-side training, a US Navy SEAL named Mike McGreavy walked into our mission planning room and started asking me about a mission code-named Operation REDWINGS. Still new to the organization, I told him I was unfamiliar and asked if he could walk me through the concept. He pointed to a small Valley on the map on the wall and described how a man had been terrorizing the local communities and coalition bases nearby. The only way to get him, he explained, was to helicopter 4 SEALs deep behind their lines to find where he was hiding. Sounded like a fairly straight-forward reconnaissance mission for the Nightstalkers, one which Major Reich was eager to execute since he wanted me to get some more missions under my best as part of my professional and tactical development.
So, we planned, briefed, prepped, loaded the SEALs on our aircraft and flew them behind the lines under cover of darkness into the peaks of the Hindu Kush. It seemed our helicopter climbed forever, I still feel the chill of that mountain air and the smell of freshly cut pines as we inched closer to Korengal. As we fought to bring the helicopter to a hover, we let a rope out the back and watched all 4 SEALs slide down. Marcus gave us a thumbs up, and off we flew back to base to rest for the next day’s mission. Eight hours later, however, one of my men came running into the ops center to tell me Marcus and his team were spotted and ambushed by a superior force. Fighting for their lives, we knew what we had to do; my platoon and I loaded up the helicopter again to bring them right back out. As my crew and I started up our helicopter again to try and rescue these SEALs, I feel a tap on my shoulder and it’s Major Steve Reich, my boss. He said “Matt, I know you just put them in there, but I’m going to take this one. You’ll sit this one out in the ops center.” Now that’s kind of like a football coach calling a timeout right before the ball is snapped, running over to the quarterback and saying, “Hey, how about I take this one, you go ahead and take a knee on the sidelines.” I was furious.
Well, if you’ve seen the movie or read the book “Lone Survivor” you know how this unfolds. As the title suggests, Marcus is the only one to survive the hours-long battle and my helicopter, along with Major Reich, my Platoon Sergeant, and much of my platoon were shot down while they attempted a daring rescue. This was a tragic day for not only the special operations community and the country, but especially for the family and loved ones of those 19 SEALs and Night Stalkers who gave the last full measure of devotion. Both organizations were swiftly and unexpectedly without leadership, thrown into confusion and uncertainty, missing men behind enemy lines, and facing an emboldened enemy.
HOW IT APPLIES TO FLEX
Now to the meat of the discussion! Let’s talk about what we do before, during and after crises. Firstly, it’s important to recognize that crises are inevitable. They are the unanticipated and potentially destructive difference between where you are and where you thought you’d be. Though we may hate to admit it, Murphy says “whatever can go wrong will and at the worst possible moment.”
So to beat Murphy at his own game, or a contemporary example, Mayhem from the Allstate commercials, we must plan for contingencies. Speaking of Allstate, that’s all contingency planning is, right? It’s insurance! It’s recognizing the fact that these undesirable outcomes may eventually happen, so we need to allocate some resources cover a less than probable scenario. In the financial world, this is called “hedging,” actually spending money to counter your investment thesis or what you think will most likely happen in the marketplace.
Plan for Success with Training and Standards
In this situation, we planned months prior to the actions our unit would take if we ever found ourselves in the unlikely scenario of while flying at night, losing visual reference of terrain and other aircraft simultaneously.
It turns out this crisis played out when we first attempted to reach the aircraft crash site during REDWINGS. The weather was so bad, we first lost sight of the mountain we were climbing, and then all 5 helicopters lost sight of each other while flying in a tight formation!
Thankfully, we’d practiced this and we all knew to climb to different and specified altitudes and turn to various directions, resembling a starburst pattern. This allowed us to avoid striking the terrain and, thankfully, each other.
Think like a boss. There’s an interesting story behind this point. When Major Steve Reich lost his life on Turbine 33, that’s the name of our helicopter that went down, there was no one left to lead Bravo 3. In the military, if you’re the senior ranking officer in any organization, you’re in charge. Well, there were no officers left, so by default, I became the Bravo 3 commander.
Now, remember, not only am I new to Afghanistan, and the aircraft, I’m new to this organization! I am the junior most commissioned officer in the entire battalion. Regardless, I now had to act in one of the most senior positions in the 1000 man force. I had not spent a considerable amount of time thinking like the Bravo 3 commander, or asking “What would Steven do in this situation?” So, on top of the mayhem and confusion swirling around us, I now had to use valuable time and energy playing “catch up” and learning this new role.
Here’s my Lesson Learned on this one… Sometimes you don’t control when you’ll be needed to step up to a stretch role or make decisions on behalf of the organization when you thought you’d still be at an “apprenticeship” level. Don’t be caught flat-footed when your team needs you most.
In the end, I was able to play catch-up reasonably well and lead Bravo 3 back into the Korengal. Thankfully for our situation, much of my team relied on standards and training already in place. We ALREADY had a strong culture of learning and executing tasks to a high standard of excellence, the flywheel was already spinning before I even had to say a word as the new commander.
Related to that, if you are in a prominent and critical leadership position, make sure you’re developing 2 levels down in the organization. Typically, our LTCs would develop Captains and our Majors would develop Lieutenants. In other words, it was a “mentor your direct reports direct reports” model. This insured mid to lower level leaders received the training and expert advice necessary for professional growth while providing a common set of leaders for middle and senior management to focus on for their own development. It also creates a culture of learning and mentorship you’ll rely upon when events go sideways
Lastly, before crises happen, rehearse contingencies to build muscle memory in the organization. Just like the starburst maneuver I alluded to when losing visual reference of mountains and aircraft, rehearsals develop crucial mind and muscle memory for when you need “training to kick in.”
Establish a Routine but Think Differently
So, now let’s talk about when you inevitably find yourself in the middle of a crisis. As Steven Reich, my boss during REDWINGS, would often say, “wherever you go there you there.” What he meant by that was don’t waste your time looking for people or events to blame for your circumstances, it’s irrelevant. You’re in it and you’ve got to act.
The first lesson here is, there’s a difference between execution rhythm and tempo. Hopefully, by now you’ve set up an effective rhythm or pattern of execution in your organization, that is the collection of activities that occur at predictable points in time to keep your execution on track. That rhythm should stay the same. It’s already working for you and will signal stability and confidence in the organizational standards.
What should change, however, is the execution tempo, or frequency of those rhythmic activities. For example, our force would routinely communicate with higher headquarters and conduct all-hands meetings once in the morning and once at night. Now with a crisis on our hands, we accelerated these meetings to twice in the morning and at night. Same structure, higher tempo. This allowed us to manage the increased demand for information and decision-making without sacrificing proven patterns of behavior in the name of crisis management. In short, your organization will operate more effectively if you stick to those things that work and not try to reinvent your standard operating procedures.
Now, obviously, there are some things that didn’t work. That’s most likely why you’re in a crisis, right? Maybe it was external threats you weren’t anticipating or a shift in environmental factors, in the market, or the customer base. Maybe it was the way we implemented or failed to implement internal controls. The point is, you’ve got to start piecing together this new situation you find yourself in. A former secretary of defense once famously described known and unknown knowns in Iraq. Simply put, what he meant was, there are things we know and things we think we know, and those we need to find out.
Taking a step back from the situation was critical for us. As we prepared to go back into the Korengal to find our guys, we needed to build an objective list of the new facts on the ground to try and isolate where the changes had occurred that we might have missed. Often, crises invite a deluge of enticing yet erroneous information to enter the situation. Rumors, half-baked theories, and incomplete information will flood into the mix. It’s important to take a step back and validate the information you’re receiving and chart out the information your going to need to get back on track.
It might not be lost on your competition that you’re facing a crisis, and this might be their chance to gain an advantage. When our helicopter went down, this was tremendously emboldening to our enemy. They had momentum and weren’t going to squander the opportunity to try and knock us further off balance. At this point, it was important to think “Okay, if I were the other side, how would I take advantage of this situation?” It’s a way of Red Teaming your decision making processes to ensure you’re covering your flanks as you get back on your feet.
In REDWINGS, our enemy knew we’d come back for our men, and they positioned themselves accordingly. In your world, maybe your competition wants to exacerbate your PR crisis by providing more video evidence of poor customer service. Communicating this to your organization helps everyone play a part in stabilizing the situation and denying your competition the advantage they’re seeking.
Be on the lookout for Task Saturation, the perception or reality that there’s too much to do and not enough time, tools, or resources to get them all done. Everyone handles crises differently. Some people laser focus on the wrong tasks to the detriment of others, others try to do everything at once or boil the ocean, and others just shut down completely.
During my crisis, we had one soldier who would continuously format and reformat slides in preparation for our numerous meetings and Skype calls. It was his way of dealing with the situation, and although it probably offered him a sense of control in a very chaotic situation, it wasn’t what the organization needed. You’ve got to make a point of looking around and seeing who might need mutual support. Crises are often times an “all hands on deck” situation and you can’t afford to lose your best players to this insidious production trap.
Maintain Your Edge
During crises, you’ve got to maintain your edge and that of your leaders. It does no good to wear yourself down to demonstrate commitment or resolve to your team. They need leadership in these situations, not a Martyr. During WWII, after General Eisenhower gave the official order to begin the allied assault on Normandy, he promptly excused himself and went to sleep.
Now you might be wondering, how can he go to sleep during such an important and pivotal time?? Ike knew his value to the allies was his ability to lead with a calm and clear mind, not his ability to go without sleep and sustenance for long periods of time. Make sure you understand your value during a crisis and what you must to maintain that edge.
One of the best decisions I made during my crisis was to ask a trusted mentor what he would do in my situation. I was able to recognize that my decision-making abilities might be impaired because of the stress and gravity of the situation, and a somewhat unbiased perspective might help me evaluate my decisions in a different light. Stress, uncertainty, and fatigue all have an impact on our ability to think clearly. Getting a second pair of eyes on the situation helped me understand where I needed to refocus and how I might think about the crisis differently.
One word of advice while we’re talking about it. I’ve found it easier and much more effective to ask for advice from a trusted source when I frame it in terms of them, not in terms of me. For example, when asking “what should I do in this situation?” there’s sometimes a tendency to create expectations in the mind of the advice-giver that their advice will be taken. Instead, consider asking “what would YOU do in this situation given these circumstances?” This way, your objectively gathering data points versus risking a valued relationship by in the end not doing what they’re suggesting.
Lastly, don’t be too proud to reach out for support when you need it. Friends, family, trusted coworkers all want to see you succeed. Let them help.
Don’t Forget to Hold a Debrief Meeting
When the crisis passes, and it will, don’t forget hold a debrief meeting.
Now, not during execution, is the time to be retrospective. This crisis may not happen to you in this exact form, but some variant will happen again. Ensure you’re talking about this eventuality with the team and how important it is to learn from these events. Dig deep into the causes and root causes of not only the crisis itself but how you handled it. What will we do differently next time? What kind of a checklist, or concrete action steps can we create the next time something similar happens? Crises are rare opportunities to really understand the capabilities and limitations of your organization. Don’t miss this opportunity for learning and growth.
Finally, ensure you use this time to heal. There will undoubtedly be a portion of your organization or family who suffer disproportionately. Take time to talk through the impact with these folks, whether they’re employees, family members, or customers who felt the ramifications the most. How you treat the most vulnerable members of your organization will help define the character of your team moving forward and the next time your find yourself in a crisis.
About the Speaker:
U.S. Army Major Matt “Hobo” Brady (Ret) is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point where he graduated in the top 5% of his class overall and has recently earned his MBA from the Harvard Business School. A seasoned combat veteran, he has deployed 12 times to both Iraq and Afghanistan and commanded forces during multiple high-stakes conflicts. Matt takes his outstanding leadership experiences to teach you about leading during a crisis, large or small, in your organization.