I've been toying with a story and possible speech for some time now, but I'm unclear how to present it. It is related to one of my more popular posts: HD vs. Black & White, in that it is about how one makes the transition to HD over time, and can get used to anything in a rather short time.
More than a decade ago, I was 23 years old, just over a year out of college, and deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. I deployed as one of the Strategic Planning Officers for an Armor Battalion. It's a fancy name for Gopher and peon, which is exactly what you expect for an unproven 2nd Lieutenant (2LT) deployed to a combat zone. Iraq is hot, sandy, and because we were in a valley between two rivers, humid. You woke up sweaty, went to bed sweaty, and itched constantly from the sand, sand fleas, and, of course, being sweaty. Not a fun environment.
However, I had one advantage that nearly all of the rest of the battalion did not. I had a set of rare and mysterious skills: I understood computers, could follow directions and understood "commander's intent." This meant that I had the enviable position of running the battalions brand new computerized planning system, which happened to be located in a box on the back of a HUMVEE. Did I mention the box was air-conditioned? There was typically only space for up to 3 people, and my first job after setting-up camp at Camp Warhorse, Baqubah Iraq in 110+ degree (Fahrenheit) heat was to work on a computer for up to 20 hours a day in the only air conditioned box in the battalion. How good can it get!?
Fortunately, for my leadership growth, it wasn't to last. After almost 2 months in country, I was told: "Grab your gear and rifle, you're going out with a platoon." This was surprising, but I figured they wanted to make sure that all us butterbars (a fairly common semi-affectionate term for 2LTs) got experience outside the gate. I jumped in a HUMVEE and was dropped off at a vehicle checkpoint run by a tank platoon. I spent the next 4 hours observing the platoon, watching them stop and search vehicles, patrol around the checkpoint, and I even searched a vehicle or two myself. 4 hours later I got back in the HUMVEE thinking "At least now I have a story I can tell." I climbed back into my air conditioned box, finished the next day's maps and orders, then hit the cot.
The next day, I was back in my air conditioned box when the door swung open, my boss' head popped in and I was told "Pack all your stuff, you're out of here in an hour." The door swung closed on what must have been a comically confused face, no further explanation provided.
Being the dutiful LT, I left the comfort of the air conditioned box, went to my cot and packed my stuff. I was ushered to another HUMVEE, and as we drove to a base affectionately named "FOB SCUNION" an interesting conversation started:
"Morey, you remember that platoon you were with yesterday?"
"Congratulation, they're your platoon now"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"We're pulling LT A and putting you in. It's your platoon now."
"Sir, why me, why now?"
"Let's just say that we aren't happy with LT A's performance. Don't screw-up, this is a big opportunity for you. Okay, here we are, good luck."
At which point I was basically kicked-out the side of the HUMVEE and the Sergeant who was riding with us grabbed my gear and tossed it on the ground in front of the 4 tanks and 15 guys who were suddenly my responsibility.
I grabbed my gear, made introductions and met with the Platoon Sergeant (who really leads platoons when a brand new LT shows up) to discuss what the current mission was for the platoon, and what were the expectations from the Company Commander, who was out on patrol when I arrived. I wouldn't meet him until the next day.
In addition, we had a mission that night: Form a perimeter and guard a bank deep in the city which was just resupplied with cash.
An hour later I rolled out the gate for the first time as Platoon Leader of Blade Platoon (2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-67 AR). We arrived at the bank, set up tanks on the four corners of the wall surrounding the bank and then proceeded to fend off what felt like hundreds of kids and teenagers trying to sell American soldiers trinkets, food, or contraband. It was a different experience.
As night fell, it became a completely different experience. The kids vanished, and we started to hear gunfire from all around us, but not necessarily aimed at us. If I had to guess from the tracer rounds, most of it appeared to be aimed into the air.
I've fired weapons most of my life and even been in combat simulations as part of my training with the Army; but in those cases the guns were aimed at targets, typically safely in a direction not at me. Add to that training enough of an understanding of physics to know that what goes up must come down, and if people were shooting into the air, then the bullets had to land somewhere. It was a terrifying thought!
But as I looked at my tank, and then visited each of the other tanks in turn, everyone appeared calm. I realized I needed to at least portray calm so that my new platoon wouldn't lose confidence in their new "leader." That night I thought I did well, but looking back I realize that I probably failed miserably.
After finishing my rotation, I went to take a quick nap before my next round, as most of the rest of the platoon not on watch were sleeping on the tanks already. I unrolled my GORETEX sleeping cover, crawled in, and zipped up the cover over my head; mostly so that the platoon couldn't see that there was NO WAY I WAS GOING TO SLEEP. Remember those bullets that were shot into the air? In my wisdom, I setup my sleeping space by attempting to crawl into the crevice between the turret and hull of the tank, thinking I would minimize my exposure to falling rounds. Everybody else found a flat spot on the tank and slept fine. Me, I spent the intervening hours curled up under an inclined metal plate, trying not to flinch at every noise (including gunshots) I heard around me thinking I was looking calm and brave by "sleeping."
We survived the night, and nothing too dramatic happened. As the days became weeks, and weeks turned into months, I started to acclimate to the new standard of life. I didn't flinch at gunfire, wasn't surprised by explosions, and in general, was hyper-aware of my surroundings but not overly sensitive about them (remember, HD vs. Black & White).
What really brought this home, however, was about 6 months later. We received a brand new batch of privates from Basic Training, fresh from Fort Knox. They were young (although the youngest was only 5 years younger than 1)! Looking back it reminded me of a scene from Starship Troopers where a bunch of new faces showed up:
Rico: Who are all these kids?
Ace: We got reinforced. Most are fresh out of boot
Rico: We're the old men, Ace
The day the new boots arrived, they parked their gear and were just joining us on the maintenance line with our tanks. I started introductions and explaining what the rotation would be for the next couple of days:
"You joined us at a good time. Things have been relatively quiet for a while. We're in a maintenance cycle for the next couple of..." BOOM, BOOM, BOOM
Three mortar rounds exploded in the distance. Most of the platoon turned their heads and looked in the direction of the explosions:
"Huh, they're early today. It's not even 11:15 yet. As I was... wait, where'd Teddy go?"
Teddy was one of the new boots, who insisted on being called "Teddy" by the way.
"Down here, sir! Why didn't you guys find cover?"
Teddy dove between the treads under the nearest tank at the first explosion. The other two fresh faces were now dirty faces in the oily sand and mud. The rest of the platoon stood there while listening to the explosions.
"Teddy, get out from under there, and you two stand up! Those were mortar rounds and they landed at least 500 meters away; besides it happens every day around 11:30. It can't hurt us at that distance. If it was close enough to do damage we would have heard the whistle as it came in."
How quickly we become jaded! I shook my head as Teddy climbed out from under the tank, finished my briefing and then walked away to check on equipment status of our new transmission pack for one of the tanks, wondering how I was going to toughen up the kids.
Here's the lesson to this long winded story. As you work with new teams, incorporate new team members, or find yourself in new situations, remember a couple of things:
1. People become acclimated to their situation, including in the most extreme cases. A reasonable person probably wouldn't be comfortable in an environment with bullets flying in the air or mortar rounds dropped regularly nearby, yet people can get so comfortable that they don't even pay it any attention. Good situations or bad, people become comfortable with continued exposure. When a person becomes comfortable, they don't tend to embrace change (even for the better or safer).
2. Think about your own journey. When have you been in a new environment, or experienced something outside your comfort zone? How did that make you feel? Can you use that to relate to those you are leading?
3. Try to take into account those thoughts and feelings when you are bringing in new team members, or going to change a way of working, introduce a new process, or require a new tool.
By being aware and remembering these things, you will be better able to lead your team through tough times and changes. Good luck!
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