By Don Mathis, Kinetic Social CEO
Continued from my last week’s post, Double, double toil and trouble Part #1
My last post described a crisis situation my command faced in Bahrain. It was 2002, and we had been warned that tens of thousands of angry demonstrators were heading our way, with the objective apparently of overrunning us.
The subject of the post was about how the Navy has taught me, among other things, to manage through a crisis. As I wrote last week, “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.”
But back to that day in 2002… in my last post I broke off just as, at the time, I was beginning to think we were in a true no-win scenario, that we might not actually get out of it unscathed. Or as we say in the service, we were on the verge of being in “a world of hurt.”
Watching how people reacted to all this was very interesting (I mean, in retrospect). Some folks fared badly. I remember one officer – not from my command (nor my branch of service I’ll add), and I won’t describe him further lest he someday read this – who was on the verge of real panic. He was planning to “commandeer” a vehicle and make a dash for it. He asked me if I wanted to come, as I caught him rifling through a cabinet for truck keys. And I’ll admit, it was tempting – staying where we were was beginning to feel like a death sentence. But I declined. Whatever the outcome, I understood that it was my duty to be there. It may have sucked, but I had volunteered for serving in the first place … abandoning that commitment wasn’t an option.
It was pretty much precisely at this moment that my Commanding Officer (CO) arrived on the scene. He didn’t need to come; he had left the safety of the main base to get there, and with the evacuation order in place and the Marines already deployed, he could very much have justified staying where he was. But he didn’t. Moreover, he would not have stayed away in a million years – we were “his people”, and he would have moved heaven and earth to be there and share the consequences with us.
This represents a phenomenon that I find is rarely understood by the “outside world” (i.e., those who haven’t served). When you have the privilege and responsibility to be a leader in the military, you learn quickly that it is all about your team, about your people. As a (different) Commanding Officer I once had used to say frequently, “take care of your people, and they will take care of you.” The bond you develop with your team, the sense of commitment to their safety and well being, goes far, far beyond what occurs in nearly any civilian counterpart scenario.
Back to my CO in Bahrain: not only did he come to join us at that moment, but he projected a vision of calm despite the overwhelming tension and impending violence. I’ll never forget the easy command he seemed to have of the situation … how he got the specwar commander to stand down his defensive perimeter and put away his heavy weapons, and yield the force protection mandate to the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team Marines with their non-lethal gear. How he got everyone aligned to complete the lock-down with order and discipline. How he ensured that we had at least a fighting chance to egress the area once our work was done and the violence had commenced.
It is a fair statement that without his leadership, people would have still been running about like headless chickens as the demonstrators crashed the gates. But this was a group that knew how to function as a team, and the CO had spent many months getting them to operate as such. He brought the team back to that level in a matter of moments. His transformation of the scene was almost breathtaking.
Long after, I asked him about that time. He admitted to me that he was as frightened as the rest of us. “But Junior,” he said to me, using the nickname that he had begun calling me on my first day reporting to him, “always, always keep your game face on.”
So what lessons can be drawn from this experience, lessons that transcend service in a war zone? A few, I think:
- First and foremost and always: the team matters, and it matters above all. The CO saved the day in Bahrain, but only because he had a good team in place already with mutual respect shared between leader and led. Note to the business leader: if you ever think that the story is more about you than your people, you are in real trouble
- Second: keep your game face on. Not because you are trying to present a false sense of security in the face of adversity, but because situations are influenced by people as often as the other way around. Psychology is a part of every issue. Embody confidence because you find the reasons to be confident, and give that confidence to your team. If the guy or gal in charge loses their cool, you can bet that the team will too.
- Finally: act. Action solves problems, and “analysis-paralysis” rarely adds value beyond a certain point. Too many business leaders get shell-shocked when facing a crisis. Personally, when things seem challenging I find it helpful to remember that history is filled with people who have faced situations far harder than my own. Determine a solution and execute … even if it doesn’t work, at least you are engaged, and perhaps you’ve generated new options as a result. The CO that day immediately commenced giving direction to his command, and that eliminated much of the hand-wringing and doubt around the viability of our situation.
My Grandfather, who was a Captain in the Merchant Marine, used to say “God damn it, do something.” Be proactive, make a decision and – as we were only half-jokingly taught in Officer’s Candidate School – if that decision happens to be right, so much the better. A bias to action will overcome many obstacles in and of itself.
How one manages when times are good is no indicator of competence… it is when the challenges are extreme that we see who we really are. I got to see that in Bahrain. I’ve seen it at other times during my military service. And I’ve seen it in my civilian work (albeit with less dramatic consequences).
In a future post, I’ll talk about a time when I put that learning to a pretty serious test in my civilian job.
Oh, by the way, as to the situation that day in Bahrain? It culminated in anti-climax (for the US military, at least) … but this message about crisis management wouldn’t have resonated as well if I told you that upfront, would it have?
In fact, what makes it possible to focus on general learnings from a tale like this, for me anyway, is precisely because it ended benignly. Most of us in the military have had experiences post-9/11 that were also, perhaps, great “lessons learned” events, but that are far too painful to openly discuss. Or to debase by translating them into a business lesson.
The demonstration that day occurred at the Pearl Roundabout, and the protestors did try to march to the military air terminal. But the demonstration was smaller than the intel folks had forecast, and the marchers never got to us. The Bahrain anti-terrorism police stopped the protesters on the way, in much the same way they have stopped protesters in the last few years of the Arab Spring: with bone-breaking tactics.
And while this is not a political post or blog, it merits noting: these strong-armed tactics may have worked to stop the protests in their tracks. But the sense of hopelessness that drove them in the first place remains as palpable as ever across the Middle East. It is hard to see how there is a happy ending under such circumstances.
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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.