Sunday, January 04, 2009

Some Practical Lessons from Delta Force - "The Mission, the Men, and Me" by Pete Blaber

When the dust has finally settled from our involvement in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the engagements that I believe will occupy the time of many prognosticators for generations to come will be "Operation Anaconda" that took place in the Shahi Khot Valley of Afghanistan in the winter of 2002.

Several fine books have already been written describing what happened during those fateful hours in the frigid February and March air high in the mountains near the Pakistan border. Sean Naylor gives a gripping account of his part of the story in "Not a Good Day to Die." (See below for the link to my review from February, 2007.)

Not a Good Day to Die Review

Nate Self's recent book, "Two Wars" (to be reviewed here soon) adds another important perspective on what happened in Afghanistan and beyond.

Pete Blaber, the Delta Force commander who was in charge of the AFO (Advanced Force Operations) involved in Operation Anaconda, has written a compelling book that is a welcome addition to the ongoing dialogue about what we can all learn from the events of those days. Adding valuable insight into this engagement, Blaber's book also takes a broad look at lessons he has learned along the way that are practical and applicable not just to military operations but to any situations that presents leadership challenges.

The title of the book, "Mission, the Men, and Me - Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander ," refers to the three priorities and three questions that Blaber set for himself in making decisions in the heat of battle: "What is best for the Mission; what is best for my men; what is best for me?" Any leader would be well served to adapt these priorities at decisive moments in responding to challenges and opportunities.

Let me share just a few of the nuggets that I found in reading with rapt attention Blaber's thoughts and conclusions. For a more thorough understanding of the depth of his insights, I recommend that you read the book - even if you have no military background or proclivities. This is - above all else - a book about leadership.

"The 3Ms is a guiding principle that I learned early in my career, which had provided direction and context for me ever since. In 1985, when I was a brand-new second lieutenant reporting for duty in Korea, my battalion commander, a soft-spoken Vietnam veteran and Marlboro Man lookalike, called me into his office and asked me if I had ever heard of the 3Ms.

'No-sir,' I replied sheepishly (I was sure it was something I was supposed to have learned during basic officer training). He sauntered over to the chalkboard and drew three capital Ms, one on top of the other in a column. Then he turned to me and explained.

'The 3Ms are the keys to being successful in life. The stand for the mission, the men, and me.' He then drew a line from the top M through the middle M, down to the bottom M. 'They're all connected,' he continued. 'So if you neglect one, you'll screw up the others. The first M stands for the mission; it's the purpose for which you're doing what you're doing. Whether in your personal or professional life, make sure you understand it, and that it makes legal, moral, and ethical sense, then use it to guide all your decisions. The second M stands for the men. Joshua Chamberlain, a Medal of Honor-receiving schoolteacher in the Civil War, once said that "there are two things an officer must do to lead men; he must be careful for his men's welfare, and he must show courage." Welfare of the troops and courage are inextricably linked. When it comes to your men you can't be good at one without being good at the other. Take care of your men's welfare by listening and leading them with sound tactics and techniques that accomplish your mission, and by always having the courage to do the right thing by them. The final M stands for me. Me comes last for a reason. You have to take care of yourself, but you should only do so after you have taken care of the mission, and the men. Never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men . . .'" (Pages 10-11)

Blaber shares his recollection of an incident early in his career within Delta force that tested his commitment to the 3Ms. He chose to countermand the radio order of a commanding general in order to save the lives of his men:

"That simple handshake and the barely audible words of gratitude from a man I completely respected , along with the knowledge that all my men had successfully returned from a dangerous mission, was a defining moment for me that I am proud of as any event in my entire life. Ironically, I didn't do anything other than what I was supposed to do. I didn't lead a charge against an enemy machine-gun nest, nor did I execute some Napoleonic cutting-edge operational maneuver; I simply did the right thing. It was the right thing for the mission, it was the right thing for the men, and it was the right thing for me." (Pages 12-13)

Blaber succinctly summarizes the reason why he labored to write this book and bring it to publication:

"The ultimate goal of this book is to share what I consider to be life-saving and life-changing lessons that I was fortunate enough to learn as a key participant in many of recent history's most impactful events. The single most important lesson I learned, and the plain but powerful foundation that supports the entire book, is that the most effective weapon on any battlefield - whether it be combat, business, or life - is our mind's ability to recognize life's underlying patterns." (Page 14)

One example of recognizing patterns is found in the author's recounting a pivotal conversation with a Delta Force consulting psychologist. Blaber was having trouble sleeping, and was looking for some help:

"You need to understand how the human mind works. The mind has three elementary phases it goes through when it's thinking: saturate, incubate, and illuminate. Although they generally occur in order, all three are continuous processes, so your mind is constantly cycling through all three phases. The saturation phase occurs when the mind if first exposed to something. When you're planning a new mission, you're saturating your mind with facts, assumptions, insights and/or sensory cues - ergo, the saturation phase. the next phase is incubation. This is a critical phase if you ever want to come up with something innovative. The mind needs time to incubate. During this phase the mind subconsciously sorts through all of the inputs and begins to recognize patterns and snap those patterns together to come up with concepts and ideas. This is why you may have heard people say, 'I need to sleep on it' before making a major decision. It's not the sleep per se that they need: it's the time to allow their mind to sort through information and search for patterns. The recognition of patterns that occurs during the incubation phase produces the illumination phase, also known as 'eureka' moments, when your mind begins to translate those patterns and form the into actionable ideas. Saturate, incubate, illuminate - it's how the mind works, and it's probably the main reason why you have last so much sleep over the years. The best thing you can do is to keep a pen and paper by your bed. Writing down your thoughts while you're incubating and illuminating should help to temporarily get the off your mind and back to sleep." (Page 70)

As Blaber continues with his account of the things that happened in the Shahi Khot Valley, one over-arching principle emerges that resonated with me, because I have heard it articulated in many different ways by leaders that I respect: "Always listen to the guy on the ground who is closest to the action." Leaps forward in communication technologies have allowed commanders in the rear echelon to have a false sense of being present in the battle, and making false assumptions that the view that they are seeing "through a straw" has given them enough battlefield awareness to countermand the recommendations of the leaders on the front lines. The last chapters of the book bear strong and impassioned witness to the tragic results of not listening to those on the ground.

I plan to share copies of this book with friends who are leaders in a variety of fields. I strongly recommend that you read it and pass it along.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book is more timely today than ever, we just had a commander using the predator to check for uniform violations of his men who were patrolling in the mountains outside Khowst. Pete Blaber's book should be stamped 'need to share' for all current leaders in the fight. No decision should ever get made by a leader over the radio or predator without first asking the question 'what's your recommendation' to the guy on the ground. Thanks for recommending it, everyone on my team reads your blog in Afghanistan.