I just finished what I believe to be one of the best books on leadership I have ever read. It’s titled “The Mission, The Men and Me”, by retired Delta commander Col. Pete Blaber (Ret). Part memoir, part opinion on the military establishment and part leadership development book, “The Mission, The Men and Me” is written in an easy to read, down-to-earth style that I finished in two days.
The title encapsulates Mr Blaber’s theory on leadership decision-making. He believes that all decisions need to be made with three things in mind. The Mission, The Men under your command and your own self-interest; in that order. If you are told by a superior to do something contrary to accomplishing your mission and dangerous for your subordinates, or you will face punishment/termination…well if you have the guts to be a leader you know what you have to do.
Mr Blaber’s (an ironic name for a man writing about Delta I must admit) theory on operations and leadership is very similar to the way I look at things which I admit made me like his book right off of the bat. As did the fact that he was in Bosnia around the same time I was with SFOR (as a measly MP Sergeant, not SF), which I found “cool”.
Eschewing complicated planning, systems and operations, Col. Blaber subscribes to using simple concepts and rules of thumb such as:
- The Mission, The Men, and Me
- Don’t get treed by a Chihuahua
- When In doubt, develop the situation
- Imagine the unimaginable; humor your imagination
- What is your recommendation?
- Always listen to the guy on the ground
I will not explain all of the rules of thumb here, go get the book, but Blaber spends quite a bit of time on the last one. Always listen to the guy on the ground. In the book, Col. Blaber explains how our modern, high-tech military has resulted in a large number of leaders, military and elected alike, who believe that all the information and “situational awareness” they need can be had via satellite, drones, sensors and video screens and base their unbending, inflexible, unwavering decisions on them.
The problem with this approach is that images, signals, intelligence reports and tech data are meaningless without context. A taxi driver or shepherd can tell you exactly where your enemies sleep, eat, travel, and get their supplies. Soldiers forward deployed can get up-to-date intelligence and “eyes on the target”. They can discover things only a human can discover and they can adapt to the situation far better than a drone in orbit can. Leaders need to speak to people “on the ground”, both civilian and military, before ANY decisions are made. They don’t need to follow all their advice but they have to hear it. Instead what we have are leaders who are so “risk adverse” that they refuse to put “boots on the ground” to get live information, yet perversely seem willing to send soldiers to their deaths rather than abandon or change a pre-determined plan. We have Generals who make battlefield decisions from offices in Washington instead of from the field and seem to be uninterested in listening to what is going on “right now” from men in the field, as long as “the plan” is adhered to. These leaders are so locked into “the planning process” that they lose sight of how to adapt to changing situations. Some of Col. Blaber’s stories of senior military officers refusing to believe what is right before their eyes will leave you scratching your head.
One of the other interesting things Col. Blaber points out about our military that I never thought of before, is our over-dependence and (in his opinion) misapplication of helicopters in ALL of our military planning. Choppers are large, loud, slow-moving billboards that can be heard a long way off and announce to everybody that we are coming. In Blaber’s opinion choppers make it all but impossible to achieve surprise on an enemy occupied target. Helicopters also demand a large “footprint” in terms of logistics, maintenance and manpower and they require weather that allows them to operate. Sometimes bad weather is our friend and sometimes driving and then walking into an area is the best way to catch our enemies with their pants down…in a snowstorm…when they are snuggling around a fire.
Lastly, Col. Blaber shares what I think is one of the most important leadership principles, that of asking your subordinates “what is your recommendation?” Instead of being the “know-it-all” whose job is to make all decisions, he believes that the leader should be relying on his subordinates experience, training, and “on the scene” information rather than micromanaging. Col. Blaber believes that leadership is about “managing” capable people and allowing them to do their jobs. The leader needs to co-ordinate and be sure that everybody is operating in concert, what he calls “having a shared reality”. Sometimes the leader has to override his subordinates suggestion but he always needs to seriously consider it. Pure gold IMO.
I’m not entirely drinking Blaber’s kool-aide, he is after all one of those “Type-A” SF types who can come off with a hint of “if they had only listened to me we could have won by now”. A great critique of the book can be found here. However, on the whole, this is a great book that anybody in a leadership position should read, study and apply. 5 stars.