Leadership In Challenging Times

At some point in our lives, we all find ourselves in challenging times, when things seem all but lost. 20
years ago, I found myself in one of those moments where I was being dragged upside down underwater,
suspended from a moving ship on the Pacific Ocean. In a split second, I went from climbing down a
ladder, to my foot hopelessly tangled in a rope. No matter how hard I tried, with the speed of the moving
ship, I couldn’t reach the rope or free myself. And I couldn’t get my head above water for more than just a
fraction of a second before I was ripped back down by the force of a wave. The special boat team tried to
rescue me, but they smashed me between their boat and the ship. This ripped off my helmet, broke my
nose. They couldn’t help and I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t see a way out. And very soon I realized that I was
likely not going to survive. And I remember thinking, what a stupid way for me to go.


I spent years trying to be a Navy SEAL. It was a lifelong dream. I’d worked hard to get in the U.S. Naval
Academy, turned down employment to West Point. And after four years at Annapolis, they took 16
candidates for the SEAL program with the highest grades, the top physical test scores and the best
conduct records. And I wasn’t one of them. So instead, I went out to the U.S. Navy surface fleet. For the
next three years on two different ships, I sailed all over the world and it was a great experience, but I
wanted to be in the SEAL teams. So I applied for a transfer, and once again, I was turned down. And a
year later I reapplied, and with the help of some friends who believed in me and wrote some strong letters of recommendation, I was finally selected for the SEAL program. And after a year and a half of some ofthe toughest military training in the world, I graduated from that program and I earned my SEAL Trident.

And now, here I was in my very first SEAL platoon just starting our training cycle and I was going to
drown.

So how do you untangle yourself from an impossible situation? How do you lead through challenging
times when all seems lost?
Whether you’re in charge of yourself or in charge of a team of people, viewing yourself as a leader will change your perspective. If you interact with other human beings in any capacity, you are a leader, and you have to use leadership skills to work with others, to align with others, to support others, and get the support you need so you can accomplish your mission and win. On my second combat deployment to Iraq, our SEAL Task Unit Bruiser was sent to a place called Ramadi.

Ramadi was a city of 400,000 people. It was the capital of Anbar province, the largest province in Iraq. And when we arrived in April of 2006, it was a violent war zone controlled by thousands of insurgents.

Every single day in Ramadi, U.S. and Iraqi troops were killed or wounded.


The U.S. mission there was a daunting one. Stabilize the city, secure the populace, and lower the level of
violence. Many people, even inside the U.S. Military, didn’t think we could win. One intelligence report
labeled Ramadi, ‘All But Lost.’ But the U.S. military, the soldiers and Marines that were in charge of
Ramadi didn’t see the mission as impossible. And neither did we in Task Unit Bruiser. We knew it was
dangerous, we knew it was difficult, but we believed it was possible to win. And that belief enabled us to
keep going, to hang on just a little longer, even when some thought the mission too difficult to achieve.
That belief also enabled us to take ownership. And ownership starts with an honest assessment. In
Ramadi, U.S. troops control less than one-third of the city, insurgents controlled all the rest. We weren’t
winning. And not winning means losing.


If you try to false cheerlead and make things seem better than they are, the team is going to see right
through that, and that only erodes their trust in you. Instead, you’ve got to tell the truth. You and your
team must confront the harsh realities of the difficulties you face. The challenges may take weeks,
months, or even years to overcome, but the situation is never hopeless. Take ownership and look for ways to attack the problem from a different angle. That’s what the soldiers and Marines did in Ramadi. They were closest to the problem and they didn’t wait for the generals in Baghdad to come give them a brief about what they needed to do in order to win. They took ownership and they led, and they hadn’t created this problem in Ramadi. It had been a violent war zone for years, long before they got there.

But they didn’t cast blame, they didn’t make excuses, they didn’t point fingers, they took ownership. And
they came up with a plan to take that city back one neighborhood at a time and turn this seemingly
impossible situation around. And in Task Unit Bruiser, we supported that plan, knowing that we must do
everything we could to help U.S. and coalition forces win, because when the team wins, everybody wins.
Leadership in challenging times often comes with elevated risk. And with elevated risk comes greater
scrutiny from the chain of command. But I learned in Ramadi that leadership doesn’t just mean leading
the team assigned to you. Leadership requires leading up the chain of command as well. In our first few
weeks on the ground there, I often got frustrated from the questions and scrutiny from my commanding
officer and his staff, about our combat missions. I’d send them my plan for a combat operation for their
approval, but they wanted to know the specific gear that every operator was going to carry.


They wanted a seating chart of where everyone was going to sit in the vehicles. They wanted the details
of how we set up our quick reaction force, the rescue party that would come bail us out in the event that
we got ourselves in a jam. From my perspective, these questions made no sense and were a waste of my
time. Precious time that I needed to plan and prepare with my team for the dangers that we were going to face on the battlefield. The specific gear that every operator carried varied with each mission. And the
seating chart often changed at the last minute as we swapped personnel around. And of course, we set up our quick reaction force to not have a rescue party at the ready was suicide. Multiple U.S. and Iraqi units were overrun during our time there. I was frustrated. I felt micromanaged. And worst of all, I felt like I was in a hopeless situation because I didn’t think my senior leaders trusted me. And what can I do about that? I vented those frustrations to my immediate boss, our Task Unit commander, Jocko Willink. I told Jocko, they don’t know what’s going on down here on the front lines. They need to just get off my back and let me do my job.

But Jocko told me that we couldn’t expect our senior leaders to be mind readers. They weren’t with us in
Ramadi. They were in a city miles away. And yet we needed our commanding officer’s approval for every
one of our combat missions. So if they didn’t have the information they needed or they had questions
about our plan, it wasn’t their fault, but ours, and I quickly realized that it was mine. It was my fault. And
once I started to see things from their perspective, I realized that our commanding officer and his staff
were good people, just trying to do their jobs and get the information they needed so that they could
approve our missions and forward that approval up the chain of command for further approval. It wasn’t
me versus them. We were actually all on the same team. They wanted us to win. The moment that I
stopped pointing fingers and casting blame, I started to take ownership and lead up the chain of
command.


I pushed them all the information I could about our combat missions. I try to anticipate the questions that
they had and provide answers before they even asked. I’d pick up the phone and call them and talk to
them through the details of my plan, and see if there’s any additional information I could provide. And
when I did that, I built a relationship with them and I earned their trust. And as a result, our commanding
officer approved all of our combat operations and we were able to go out and execute missions that had
significant impact on the battlefield and made sure a lot more soldiers and Marines came home to their
families. Leadership doesn’t just flow down the chain of command, it flows up the chain of command as well. When you find yourself in challenging times when all seems lost, when you’re frustrated with your chain of command or you simply can’t get your head above water, leadership is the solution.


So how do you lead? First, hang on just a little longer. You’ve got to have faith that things are going to
work out for the better. When I was hanging from the side of that ship, I had to suppress those dark
thoughts that I was going to die and I needed to hang on just a little longer. And Ramadi, in our darkest
days there, when all seemed lost, we had to believe that we could win. Just as it required patience to lead
up the chain of command, and build a better relationship and earn the trust of our commanding officer and his staff. The solutions to problems often take longer than we’d like, but you can’t lose hope. You have to believe that victory is possible.

Next, take ownership and lead. When seconds matter, you can’t wait for someone else to come and solve your problem. You can’t wait for the boss to come tell you what to do. In the most dire circumstances, you’ve got to take ownership, come up with a plan and execute. That’s what the soldiers and Marines did in Ramadi. That’s what we did in Task Unit Bruiser to lead up the chain of command, and that’s what saved my life when I was being dragged upside down underwater by that ship. Some heads-up SEAL teammates on the ladder above me, quickly recognized that if they didn’t act fast, I was going to die. And they climbed back up to the deck of the ship and started hauling that ladder in by hand, a feat of tremendous physical strength. And as they lifted me out of the water, the rope suddenly popped free from my leg and I floated down the side of the ship. Blood poured down my face, from my broken nose, but I could tell you, I wore a huge smile because I was happy to be alive. But my SEAL teammates didn’t call a senior leader on the radio and ask for guidance.

They took ownership and they led. And their swift action saved my life and made all the difference. And
it’s the same thing for any of us. No matter the obstacles, no matter the difficulties, lead. Be a leader in
your own life, at home, in your family, in your community, and at work. When you’re frustrated with your
boss or your chain of command, lead up the chain of command. And when you find yourself navigating
rough waters in your life, hang on just a little longer, take ownership and lead and you will find a way
through. Even in the most challenging of times, leadership wins.

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