Chaos is a hell of a thing.
It's something that none of us want to deal with as human beings, and leading through chaos is that much harder.
In the late spring/early summer of 2005, as a Green Beret in Afghanistan, I found myself leading through the chaos. We had launched a mission, deep into the Hindu Kush mountains, to project an Afghan presence into an area that was a safe haven for Taliban senior leadership.
Operation NAM DONG
The U.S.-led coalition had never mounted a sustained presence in this area, and the Afghan military had never been there, either. We had volunteered to take a handful of our Special Forces teams, and a large contingent of Afghan soldiers — brand new and never-before tested in battle — into the lion's den known as Oruzgan Province. I was the mission commander of this operation, known as NAM DONG. (NAM DONG was named in honor of ODA-726, the Special Forces team that had been led by captain Roger Donlon in Vietnam. Donlon won the medal of honor after their firebase was overrun by enemy soldiers.)
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Our mission was to establish a forward Afghan National Army presence permanently in Taliban-controlled territory, and it wasn’t going to be easy. We infiltrated using helicopters, and only about 35 to 40 U.S. Army Green Berets and 300 Afghan soldiers. Almost immediately, we were engaged with enemy forces.
'I Wondered If I Would Wake Up the Next Morning'
We were up against a numerically superior fighting force and that was hard enough, but then we started getting reports that the Taliban — which had infiltrated this village — was planning on overrunning us at nightfall. Every night, when I'd lay my head down for an hour or two of sleep, I wondered if I would wake up the next morning. It was a constant threat, and it was hard to shake.
By the time we were done with this 14-day operation, we were conducting engagements with civilian leaders and tribal chiefs. We had helped moderate Islamic religious leaders, known as Mullahs, get into these rough areas. We were doing civil affairs projects. To this day, there are Afghan National Army battalion headquarters in the same area where we had fought for our lives years before.
We had moved from scarcity to abundance, from chaos to order. We weren't just surviving in those areas; we were thriving. But it was hard.
This reminds me of what so many of you are going through right now, as the shadow of the coronavirus spreads across the world. It’s chaos, and all of us are facing certain pain points that make handling this situation very challenging.
You're facing your own lion’s den, something that's as novel as the coronavirus itself. You're asking yourself, "Am I going to be OK? Is my family going to be OK? Are my loved ones going to be OK?" It's similar to when I would go to sleep at night for an hour or two in that bombed-out village in Afghanistan, wondering if I would wake up the next morning.
I've been through this. I’m familiar with having to deal with immediate threats to yourself and the people around you. I know how heavy that "rucksack" of stress is, how it starts to weigh on you and dig into your shoulders. And it's OK if that's kicking your butt right now. So how do we lead through these times? How do we lead through the chaos? How can you emerge from this crisis as a beacon of leadership strength, like we did with Operation NAM DONG?
7 Green Beret-Approved Tips to Lead Through Chaos
Tip #1: Understand That Chaos Is Inevitable
Your job is to figure out what you can control and what you can’t. You can bring order to what you can't control by constraining what you focus on. It starts with the order that we bring on ourselves.
Tip #2: We Must Lead Ourselves Before We Can Lead Others
We have to check in with ourselves. We have to get ourselves into a parasympathetic state through diaphragmatic breathing, as taught by Dr. Belisa Vranich in her book, Breathing for Warriors. Lead yourself, then lead others.
Tip #3: Leadership is the Management of Energy — of Yourself and Those Around You
Remember that everyone’s emotional energy is heightened in chaos. Your goal is to help them manage their energy and bring their emotional temperature down to a point where they are ready to listen.
Tip #4: Chaos Brings Out Fear-Based Behavior
You can look around you and see it happening now. Scarcity, status, hoarding. It can even get so reptilian that we hurt each other to try to preserve ourselves. Chaos brings out fear-based behavior. Don't let it bring it out in you.
Tip #5: Flatten the Communications
Avoid stovepipes and need-to-know information. Go across the lines of business. Avoid gaps and seams that prevent you from communicating effectively — up, down, and sideways. In complex situations, flat communication is everything. It saves lives in special ops, and livelihoods in business.
Tip #6: Think About Better Days
As a leader, I encourage you to think about better days. Do some writing about what life will look like after the dust clears, and it will clear. The sun will come up tomorrow. There will be better days ahead. Put some thought to what those better days look like.
Tip #7: Share Your Vision
Talk about it with the people in your arena. Give them psychological safety through human connection and shared vision to maintain a high-performing culture in chaos. If you're not talking about better days, the focus remains on survival. I want you to thrive.
You're facing chaos. You're facing challenging times, just like Captain Donlon's team in Vietnam and our band of Green Berets in Afghanistan. But you can do this. These tips will help you lead even when fear mounts. This is how Green Berets, and Spartans, overcome fear in the lion’s den and lead strong through chaos.
Scott Mann is a master at building relationships in high-stakes, competitive environments. As a Green Beret in the United States Army, he forged bonds and solved problems using values that moved people around the world to stand up for themselves. His secret? He was able to restore trust and create human connections in places where that didn’t seem possible. A speaker, trainer, and author, Mann is currently the CEO of Rooftop Leadership.