My colleague looked at me through the dusty haze of 105 degree heat, smiled, and stated: “There is nothing like the California High Desert in the middle of August to stimulate thinking about leadership.” 

I laughed and thought to myself “that is why the US Army sends its forces about to deploy to Afghanistan to the middle of the desert for a full-immersion training simulation.”  Early in August the young men and women of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division traveled to a remote part of California that (for those of us who have been to Afghanistan) looks eerily like the terrain they will find when they travel to that country. My colleague and I were in the desert in early August to research and learn from one of these units that was soon to deploy. 

When we first met the Commander of the unit, he greeted us with a saying he uses to make sure his leaders are always ready for what might come next: Mission, soldiers, me. For a former soldier like myself, I had often heard the adage ‘Mission first, soldier always.’ This is ingrained in the leadership corps of the US Army throughout every level.  But I had never heard the third adage, ‘me.’  

I immediately thought of it as self-centered or worse, self-absorbed. This Army leader, a veteran of many combat rotations, corrected my opinion. As we sat outside a simulated Afghan town (where his soldiers, each wearing upwards of 70 pounds of equipment practiced their skills), the Commander informed me: 

Soldier Resting“We must always accomplish the mission – it is why we are here. And while doing the mission, we must care for our soldiers – before the mission to make sure they are ready, during the mission to make sure their head is in the game, and following the mission to make sure they are cared for and prepared for what comes next. What we often fail to do is take care of ourselves as leaders. After leaders have met the first two requirements, we must take care of ourselves. If we do not take care of ourselves by sleeping right, eating right, and even talking with others about our experience…well (here he hesitated and then looked at the ground slowly) then we become casualties. Then everyone has to take care of us and that detracts from our soldier’s readiness and mission accomplishment.” 

I was incredulous. “So, really, being self aware, taking care of ourselves is making sure we accomplish the mission?” 

Hooah.” (Hooah is the Army way of saying ‘you got it!’) 

He then sent us to see his Deputy, called the Executive Officer in Army parlance.  Another combat veteran, she had a straightforward manner and some guidance for us:

“First, remember the Commander’s adage – mission, soldiers, me. The worst thing you can do in the desert is become a self-inflicted casualty – this comes from not drinking water, not taking care of yourself, not eating, not doing what you have to do . It means you must wear your eye protection, you must have gloves, you must apply sunscreen. And this is not about you – it is about the other soldiers who will have to carry your sorry rear out if you get sick.”  

I was still getting used to this focus on soldiers and safety. So, we are responsible for our behavior and take care of ourselves so others don’t have to? 

Hooah.” 

We were then ushered into our sleeping tent a wonderfully air conditioned space we shared with about 200 of our closest friends. Each bunk was set up in a disciplined way, but not like the barracks in the movies – most had books, some cards, a computer or two. Our escort, a senior sergeant, helped us with the understanding the environment. Looking at me he said: 

“Sir, I know you have a lot of time in the force, but don’t be surprised if soldiers come in here at odd hours during the day and take a nap or chill out. They are not Sad Sacks or Beetle Baileys — we know they are in here – it is air conditioned, they can rest or just take their mind of their work. Even if they are a mechanic they are probably working 14-16 hours a day and to keep up that pace they need some moments of down time. The tent is supposed to be quiet at all times so if we have someone on all night guard; they can get some rack time.” 

“So, work hard and do your job, if you are tired take a break, know what you have to do in time of crisis and don’t create further problems by doing the wrong thing. Is that right Sergeant?”

Hooah.”

We had a memorable week with this band of resolute leaders. Reflecting on my time in the desert, the idea of leadership came to mind. The collective understanding of direction (mission, soldiers, me), alignment (don’t be a casualty and bog down the mission) and commitment. Here are leaders who understand the mission will always be first for them, for the nation depends on it. Yet, these leaders understand what many in ‘Undercover Boss’ do not – that to accomplish that mission you must have soldiers and leaders who have the self-awareness to take care of themselves – only then are they fully focused on the mission at hand. I was amazed at the parallels with leadership in the office or factory floor or construction site.

Amidst the dust, the confusion and the noise of pre-deployment training, I got to see what a true leadership culture looks and sounds like.  

In 105 degree heat. 

I just wonder – what is the temperature like in your office? 

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