By Don Mathis, Kinetic Social CEO
I last posted about why my Naval service has meaning for me. How I get the opportunity to serve with folks from all walks of life, unified in a common endeavor: doing something for the sake of others, doing something that isn’t just about the predominant “me”-obsessed cultural zeitgeist.
It’s grounding, especially in my civilian world of ad-tech entrepreneurship, where the bullshit can be so thick you need a full MOPP suit to keep from choking on it.
But the Navy’s also been one of my most important classrooms. I’ve learned more about management and leadership in the service than I did at B-school or McKinsey, and I draw deeply on these lessons at Kinetic Social.
One of my biggest learnings? How to manage through a crisis. It’s a skill that has come in handy in my civilian career. From swiftly changing market conditions to frivolous lawsuits, from irrational competitors to even less rational bloggers whose journalistic integrity would make Rita Skeeter blush … operating in an entrepreneurial environment sometimes feels like brief moments of sanity in an otherwise ultra-manic universe.
The trick is to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’”, to paraphrase Kipling, and drive your vision through the gauntlet of crises achieving success despite them. Or perhaps because of them: “Sometimes a crisis is a good thing for a company. Recovering from a knockout punch often requires heroic efforts from the team,” wrote Fred Wilson in his blog post How Well Do You Take A Punch? How you cope, how well you turn adversity into opportunity determines your eventual success.
This post is about a “trial-by-fire” dose of instruction in the art of crisis management while serving with the Navy.
In 2002, I was deployed to Bahrain early in my first overseas “Long War” tour. This was a time when Afghanistan was still a pretty safe place to be in an unarmored Humvee, a time when no one really believed – I mean, none of us on active duty in the Middle East – that we’d actually invade Iraq. The war then was against Al Qaeda, and we were making progress. These were the salad days of the War on Terror.
On a particular early Spring day when the weather was amazing and the god-awful summer heat hadn’t yet started roasting the Persian Gulf, I was on duty at the military air terminal in Bahrain, a major logistics hub for Central Command. I had just enjoyed a stroll back to our side of the airfield from the little gedunk shack that served a terrific shawarma, when my Senior Chief came sprinting towards me across the aircraft ramp. “Sir! We’ve got a real Charlie Foxtrot!” he shouted. Charlie Foxtrot: mil-speak for Cluster F#ck.
The early signs of unrest in Bahrain occurred long before the Arab Spring started in Tunisia or Tahrir Square. Bahrain’s Shiite majority – about 70% of the population – has long felt oppressed by Sunni minority rule. And when I say long, I mean centuries-long. Bahrain was conquered by the Sunni al-Khalifa family in 1783, and they have ruled the country ever since. And in 2002, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa – who had earlier pledged to implement a genuine constitutional monarchy – was actively backing away from real reform and retrenching. The Shia felt betrayed and feared greater Sunni oppression, and sporadic protests broke out … a precursor to the troubles in Bahrain today.
Bahrain is home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and that’s why I was there, in the midst of a crisis that began to unfold around me on that otherwise pleasant Spring day. Then, as later, Bahraini opposition demonstrations often began at a place called the Pearl Roundabout (it is now destroyed). There had already been a series of protests over the past few weeks, nominally in solidarity with Palestinians against Israel. But the subtext of Shia-versus-Sunni and an anti-American flavor was strong.
On April 5th, just a few days before, 20,000 protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Embassy compound and breached its walls, with Bahraini anti-riot police stopping the demonstrators by using clubs, rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. A McDonalds that I’d been to was attacked as a symbol of America. Rumor had it that Shia doctors had set fire to their hospital in protest. A U.S. sailor was badly injured by an improvised explosive device attached to his car. It was a tense time.
The Pearl Roundabout was less than three miles from where I was at the military air terminal. On this particular day, the protest that formed there had the earmarks of a major civil disruption, a pre-planned event that could signal the beginning of serious sectarian violence – or so our intel people thought. They warned of 50,000 to 75,000 people, agitators embedded in the crowd with weapons, organization provided by Iranian-linked terrorists. It wasn’t clear that the Bahraini authorities could control or stop it.
And this crowd was supposedly marching our way to overrun and destroy the military airfield. All the makings of a lovely day.
The protocol for such events was simple, at least in theory: bring in the Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team; evacuate most personnel out of harm’s way, shred classified materials that cannot be removed; fly out all aircraft that could fly, tow any which couldn’t to the civilian-side of the massive airfield to buy time and allow the demonstration to dissipate. It should have been fairly straightforward.
But “the enemy gets a vote,” and in this case, one of our enemies was Murphy. As in, Murphy’s Law.
Just as we were thinking that we had a good handle on the situation, a C-5A Galaxy that was randomly and coincidentally transiting the theater at 35,000 feet declared an emergency and came screaming into Bahrain with a smoking engine. All of a sudden, we had a plane that couldn’t get out and that we lacked the equipment or time to tow away from the military air terminal.
A plane that was an awfully big, juicy symbol of America’s presence in the Middle East.
That would have been bad enough. But it got more interesting than that. On that C-5A was a contingent of special operations forces and their equipment. The Major in charge informed me that he wasn’t leaving the aircraft with its top-secret gear, and he’d defend it if necessary. When I told him that the senior officer present at 5th Fleet HQ had ordered him and his troops to leave the airfield and find safe haven, he refused and told me his orders “came from an authority higher than mine”. And then the Major began deploying his troops in a defensive perimeter around the aircraft.
SO… now we had an angry crowd of demonstrators gathering a few kilometers away, preparing to march on our position and supposedly lay waste to it. We had Marines with non-lethal gear ready to hold them off … but we also had specwar operators armed to the teeth – with quite lethal gear, as you would imagine – surrounding an airplane as big as a building ready to defend it at all costs (what the hell was on that plane anyway?).
This all developed incredibly rapidly, and there was a growing, palpable sense that things were getting out of hand. It wasn’t even clear who the proper command authorities were with the specwar guys added to the mix, and we now had a seemingly impossible mandate to secure the facilities in the face of an uncontrollable mob hell-bent on destruction.
It was starting to feel like I was in one of those military Operational Readiness Assessment exercises where they keep throwing increasingly difficult complications at you. Eventually, such exercises end up putting you in a preposterous situation, the Defense Department’s equivalent of the Star Trek Starfleet “Kobayashi Maru” no-win scenario … except that this was no exercise. We were most certainly on the verge of being “in the shit”.
To Be Continued in my next post…
Don Mathis is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kinetic Social, a company launched in 2011 with a core focus of marrying “Big Data” to social media on behalf of large brand advertisers. He also serves in the active reserve of the US Navy, where he is the Commanding Officer of a highly deployable, selectively staffed, joint-service combat logistics unit that supports forward deployed war-fighters.