Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A Leadership Story

As this is my inaugural post, I thought I might tell a little story about the first time I truly saw and recognized leadership in action. It was a minor event, but it taught me this central truth about leading: leadership requires the strength to trust your people despite the fact that they might fail. The trust relationship begins with the leader, and is returned equally by his charges.

I was a radioman in the Royal Canadian Artillery; this entailed sitting in the back of a tiny, cramped command post truck with three other people, a technician, a fire officer, and a command post officer -- we would receive target information from our forward observers, and give our guns the appropriate orders to hit that target. It was mad, harrowing work, with huge volumes of information flowing through us, to the computer, to the six guns at our command.

In the off hours, the radioman was the only person in the truck, though. We were required to monitor no fewer than three radio networks, representing three levels of command; you'll note that this outnumbered our ears, so we typically had two pairs of earphones on, and one radio set on speaker. We also had three handsets for transmitting, which were difficult to keep straight. The radiomen -- there were three of us -- were responsible for manning the radios 24 hours a day.

Of the three radio networks, one was used mainly for fire missions; one was used for orders at the regimental level, typically things like "move here" and "don't fire here"; and one was used at the divisional level, things like "we have 1000 rounds remaining" and "we have 45 men". The divisional network was used infrequently but we had to check in twice every day with our little list of stats. This network was run by a high-ranking officer, who is always referred to as "Zero".

We were on a two-week-long exercise, in my first year as a radioman "in the box". It was getting towards the end of the exercise and, for one reason or another, I had not been able to switch off with the other radiomen, and I was getting to the 20-hour mark of sitting in the chair, with only two short breaks to get food and use the field latrine (that is, a bush). I had not slept in over 24 hours.

The real problems began when I coded and sent my semi-daily report around seven in the morning. When I was finished, I found that another command post was in the middle of sending their report in. I did not know if I had been cut off or if he had. When he finished, I waited a few moments, then checked in.

I was told by Zero to send the report immediately. I did so. After a minute, I was told that it was gibberish and I was told to re-encode it and send it again. The codes changed every twelve hours, too, and I realised that I had encoded it wrongly. I quickly re-coded it and sent it in.

Zero came on again after a few minutes and -- in violation of radio procedure -- swore a blue streak at me. I was to send the report. I was to send it now. Report sent, I answered. But I was cut off by yet another radioman's report. When he was finished, I reported that my report had been sent. No answer.

I waited. Zero crackled again -- send the report. I picked up the handset and very deliberately, very carefully sent the report. Zero called again, with the order to fetch my commanding officer. I rogered and left the truck.

When Zero demanded to talk to the CO, someone was in real trouble. But my CO, with the rest of the crew, was off getting some breakfast from some trucks a mile away. So I was relieved to lean out of the truck and see an officer I knew, Lieutenant McNair, ambling past.

McNair and I came from the same place and even went to the same university. He had been in the army for a while and was a few years my senior, but he was always very friendly with me. He was not a part of the command post crew, but I thought he could at least drive out to pick up the CO.

I hailed him and explained the situation as best I could. At this point I was almost incomprehensible with both anger and fear. I had sent the report, and Zero was furious with me and wanted to talk to the CO. McNair nodded calmly and said "Let's go talk to him, then."

We entered the truck, and McNair sat on my little table as I tried to raise Zero again. Zero ordered to put the CO on, and I complied. I switched to the speaker and handed McNair the handpiece.

McNair asked what had happened, and Zero blasted me again. Wrong code. No report. No radio check. What was going on there? As the tirade continued, McNair reached over and turned down the volume.

"Bin," McNair said, standing up, "Maybe you'd better give me those headphones." I handed him the headphones, and McNair turned the speaker off. The blast continued -- I could still hear it, even though I couldn't make out the words.

"My signaller --" McNair said, but was cut off by Zero. McNair waited patiently.

"My signaller --" McNair began again, but was again cut off. He looked up and smiled at me.

"Bin," he said, "maybe you'd better wait outside."

I left the truck, closing the door behind me. I could hear McNair faintly through the plywood sides of the command post, shouting back at Zero. There were long silences, and then angry bursts from McNair. After a few minutes he came out, and told me that I should send the report to Zero now.

I went back into the box, sat down, and composed myself. I checked my notepads, my earphones, and my handsets. And realised, to my horror, that when I thought I was sending the report to Zero, I had been transmitting on the wrong radio. Zero had never heard my report. I had mixed up the handsets.

And McNair, seeing that I was frustrated, stepped in and defended me to my and his superior. On my say-so, he put his own reputation on the line to defend me. And whether I was right or wrong, in the end, was irrelevant.

I realised, then, that leadership is the ability to take that risk on behalf of your inferiors; to trust that they are right. And McNair earned my trust there; from then on, I would make sure that no matter what the circumstances, whatever the task, I would never fail McNair again.

That is leadership.


At 4:16 PM, Blogger Borscht said...

And THAT'S what I call an inaugural post. Matt -- that was poetry -- a beautiful thing, in the immortal words of one rotund former Yankees catcher.


Welcome to the group, sir, and I hope to be getting a heck of a lot more education out of you in the coming days.

I think I speak for all of us when I say...welcome aboard.

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Simon said...

Amen to that, Adam. Thanks for that first post, Matt. Adam said exactly what I would've said, had the site come up properly when I tried to comment last.

Sounds like your CO was the kind of selfless leader described in Jim Collins' Good to Great - a book I haven't yet read, but have read a lot of interviews with the author of.

However, real-life experience (like yours) beats the observations gleaned from an article about a book any day. :)

At 2:28 AM, Blogger M@ said...

Aw, geez. Thanks guys. Glad it was received so well.

I promise to keep my future musings a little shorter...


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