Editor’s note: I recorded this as a podcast long after I originally published this post. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to hear more episodes of the Productive Flourishing podcast, you’ll find them in the Show’s archives.
The explosive blast and flash of the IED brought the convoy to a screeching halt. I sat in my Humvee for about 90 seconds before I decided to get out and see what was going on.
As I scurried up to the front of the convoy from the rear, I saw many airmen crouched underneath the hubs of the Humvees and five-ton trucks they were driving. They had dismounted properly and were trying to hold a secure position, but it was quite clear that they were terrified, confused, and lost.
Even more disconcerting than their sheer terror, though, was the fact that nothing was going on. No one was moving. No one was shouting battle commands. There was just an eerie silence.
When I reached the third vehicle in the convey, it immediately became clear why the convoy was silent and motionless. The IED had taken out the Humvee with the convoy commander in it. Despite everything we had told them to do, the convoy commander had his senior sergeant — the assistant convoy commander — in the vehicle with him.
I had seen this time and time again. An inexperienced convoy commander pulls in some additional help in his vehicle, thinking that they’ll be better able to figure out what to do. They almost never consider the contingency that their vehicle will be the one that’s hit, and more often than not, theirs are the vehicles that are targeted. Any experienced veteran can immediately tell which vehicle is the command-and-control vehicle, and you always strike at the head of the snake. Always.
This whole convoy was stopped because the only people who knew what was going on were dead.
I continued to move to the front of the convoy to see whether the convoy was in a defensible position. The lead gun truck was standing by, waiting for orders. At least this convoy still had some teeth to it, even though it didn’t have a brain right now.
Since by now it had been two and half minutes since we stopped, I figured that we had about three minutes before the IED strike team would start ambushing the convoy. I’d seen this before, too. They would work from the back of the convoy, where no one was looking, and slowly but surely take out every single vehicle until they reached the front of the convoy. We had about three minutes before an orchestra of death and chaos would interrupt the still sound of these huddled soldiers.
About two-thirds of the way into the convoy, I saw the highest-ranking sergeant still alive huddling under the wheel wells of his Humvee.
I walked up to him and asked, “What’s going on, Sergeant? Why aren’t people moving?”
He looked back at me and said, “I don’t know, sir. I don’t know.” He was clearly confused and scared, had no idea what to do next, and was just waiting for somebody to tell him what to do. (He was calling me “sir” because I was an officer who outranked him.)
I looked around and looked back at him and said, “Who’s the highest-ranking person around here in your convoy?”
He looked around and sheer terror came into his eyes. “I guess it’s me, sir.”
“All right. Who’s in charge here?”
“I guess it’s me, sir.” His voice and chin quivered as he said this — he was barely holding it together.
“All right, Sergeant,” I replied. “Here’s what’s going to happen. You’ve got about three minutes before this convoy gets eaten alive. You are the highest-ranking person here and you need to get up and get these people out of here. What’s your next move, Sergeant?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“The captain and the first shirt didn’t brief us.” (“First shirt” is what airmen call the senior sergeants in their units.)
I had already anticipated this response. I’d seen the two leaders together, and that’s usually a sign that they were hoarding information. Now this lone sergeant had no idea what to do.
“Well, Sergeant, you’re in a bad situation. You can’t stay here. You don’t quite know where you’re going to go, but if you stay here all of your soldiers will die. If you get them moving, you might live. Get up and get them out of here.”
He looked more ready to act but not the least bit more clear about what to do.
It was time to get going, so I gave him a head start: “Get accountability of your people first. Figure out who you’ve got left.”
“Oh, right!” Finally, some wits were coming back to him. “Smith, are you okay? Silverton, get a damage report from the rear of the convoy – I’m moving up front. Travis, grab your medical kit and come with me.”
It was awkward but beautiful to behold. As he started galvanizing his team, they started helping him get the plan together. They were going to make it.
As I walked back to my rear vehicle, I called in to the IED strike team. “We’re going to need to cancel that third engagement. They’ve had enough and have learned what they needed to learn.”
Luckily for that sergeant and his team, this was just a training environment that I had sculpted for a large Joint Force training exercise. Despite the fact that it was a training environment, it presented the terror, the confusion, and the brutality of what happens when a convoy is ambushed. The point of the training was to get teams to experience this before they went overseas — I didn’t want them to learn the hard way like we had. My job was done.
The Battleground of Business
A lot of the entrepreneurs and businesspeople I talk to aren’t that much different from that sergeant. They’re scared, they don’t know what’s going on, and they’re stuck under the wheels of their own business and creativity.
My heart reaches out the same way that it reached out to him. Their leaders didn’t prepare them for this and instead sold the dream of entrepreneurship and business. When things go smoothly, it’s all glory, campfires, and tall tales.
Or perhaps their leaders didn’t have the time or capability to tell them. In the midst of the busyness of business, we all have to make some tough choices about what we will and won’t share. People like the campfires and tall tales, and it’s also pretty hard to share your moments of “weakness” when people expect you to be strong.
At the same time, people weren’t told about the dark parts. They weren’t trained in what to do when their business isn’t working, or when their markets aren’t responding, or when someone they thought was a friend steals the idea for an offer they were developing.
There are plenty of good parts to this life, but sometimes it sucks. The truth of the matter is that at some point in their path, it’s been bad for everyone that it’s good for now. It’s not you — it’s just the life of business.
Fear, confusion, and inaction are valid responses to what’s going on, and it’s okay to feel them. In fact, it’s probably necessary that you do so.
But you can’t stay there and make any progress. The longer you stay under the hub of that wheel, the easier you make it for the strike team of time to pick you and your business apart one piece at a time. You can move on your own, or time will move things for you.
The way ahead for you is the same as it was for that sergeant on that summer day: get up and take care of your people. Sure, the way you do it may be awkward, but it may be beautiful as well.
It would be better if you were properly trained, confident, and prepared for this, but you’re not there. Welcome to the club of just about every other entrepreneur throughout history. You don’t get to pick what you start with — you only get to pick how you use what you have.
Get up and take care of your people. Now.
Michele Woodward says
Pitch perfect, Charlie. Wonderful.
I am so grateful you are in my foxhole.
I’m glad you liked it, Michele, and I’m glad to be in that hole with you, too.
Jennifer Hofmann says
Wow, Charlie. I’m thankful that neither my life or my people’s lives are in that extreme danger, but I feel really motivated by your call to action.
Customer service has been on my mind and plans a lot lately. “Taking care of my people” is an art for in itself and developing it is really critical – not just for the business, but because I believe that everyone has a gift that the world needs. Being effective at caring for my people allows *them* to make the contribution they’re called to.
This article reminds me that I am also one of my own people. If I don’t take care of myself, there won’t be any energy for those I serve.
Thanks for the healthy shot in the arm to help your readers assess what is most important. You rock.
I’m so glad you caught this and shared it with everyone. There are plenty of times where I personally need to unplug and take care of myself AND I also find that a lot of times, the best thing I can do is get out of my own head and just start helping my peeps. So for me, taking care of my people can also be taking care of myself.
And thanks so much for popping up today, Jen. I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently.
Sylvain OBEGI says
Awesome article and story, Charlie. Thanks for sharing it!
Sometimes people don’t share information because they want to keep power, and sometimes it’s because they don’t think they have information they can share. It is not easy to articulate the thoughts and processes of our craft, but it’s so much better when we do.
You’re exactly right, Sylvain. I’d also like to add that we often don’t share because we’re scared of what it would mean to admit that we don’t quite have a grip on everything. For some, rather than being a power play, it’s just a response to not feeling like they have the personal power to be what they think we need.
Sylvain OBEGI says
Exactly right. Like if we tell all that we know, and then lack some potential useful information, fear creeps up, “what’s my role if I can’t do more?”. But it’s so much better to be upfront and honest, true power resides there. I suppose that (not shared) information is still viewed as necessary power.
Leah McClellan says
Wow. That’s a great story, and I sure am glad I found out it was a training exercise because the tears were starting to well up!
Great advice. Gotta use what I’ve got right now and just do it, don’t worry about what I didn’t get or don’t know. Keep moving, take care of my people. Thanks 🙂
I’m glad you liked it, Leah, even if it was almost-tear inducing. :p
Tia Sparkles Singh says
Truly fantastic analogy, Charlie! This is the Gilkey Way speaking, loud and clear.
Thanks, Tia. And you’re right – it’s experiences like this that frame the way I view the world and lead others, and I haven’t done a great job sharing a lot of them. I may be able to share more by Veteran’s Day.
Charlie – great story and writing.
Jerry Kolber says
Absolutely spot on Charlie – as usual. Taking care of your people is not only the right thing to do, it gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning and something to look forward to when you go to be at night. I can think of no better use of our time on earth than supporting others, caring for them, motivating them, and helping them achieve their highest potential.
Archan Mehta says
Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. You are a good writer and should seriously consider writing novels too.
It looks like you are also a regular action hero like Chuck Norris, coming to the rescue of other people when they are in distress.
I think taking care of your own people is important in business. Empathy can endear you to your employees and customers and other stakeholders (and not just shareholders, by the way).
You also make it clear that the call to action needs to be in alignment with thinking that is based on balance and objectivity–another feather in the cap.
It is always a pleasure to read your blog and best wishes for a brighter day.
Thanks, Archan. I’m no action hero, though – I’m just a guy that’s seen a bit and wants to teach others.
While this post is slanted towards entrepreneurs and businesses, it applies more generally. Taking care of your people is the stuff of life.
This resonates with me deeply. Thank you, my friend.
You’re welcome, Spock Elf, and you didn’t have to go on a death march to hear this one. 🙂
What a captivating story, thanks so much for sharing it. And you’re right… life is unfair and sometimes you don’t get a break or 2 in business – that’s the way life is. All you can do it discern your situation, and choose the best course of action, rather than sulking, shrugging your shoulders and saying “I dunno, I want my mommy”
Yep. Hence why I love “fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
Linda Gabriel says
Wow. Just what I needed at just the right time. Thanks Charlie. And yeah, you should think about writing beyond the blog.
I’m glad I caught you at the right time, Linda, and I appreciate the kind words. I am working on something beyond the blog, too. 🙂
This post rocked my fricken socks off. Awesome stuff, Charlie.
Thanks, Mike! Although I wouldn’t want your feet to get cold, so find some more socks. 🙂
Charley Forness says
Newer to your site, Charlie, and not knowing your background I was like, oh my god, the Epic Shyt guy has combat experience, too..lol.
It’s awesome that you’ve been coachng military and this was really an effective way to get the message across.
Thank you for sharing it.
Ali Luke says
You’ve got a brilliant way with story, though I’m sure you already know that. Very nice piece – and one which has stuck with me all weekend.
This came at a good time for me, too; I had a bit of stuck (and a lot of moodiness) towards the end of last week. Thanks for the reminder about how to get up and get going again.
Powerful story and message, thanks Charlie.
The timing of this post is great as I consider how I can serve ‘better’ those I already serve rather than asking who else I can serve.
“you only get to pick how you use what you have” reminds me to start working with the gold I already have rather than looking for more gold.
Faye Riley says
Charlie, this was an incredibly powerful post and extremely motivating. It came at a great time for me, too. And I thought that it would make a great book.
Jef Menguin says
I thought it was real. You are a great story teller sir.
You are a great giver too. You shared with us a very important leadership principle. Thank you.
Jean-Victor CÃ´tÃ© says
It got me thinking about the missing people in my life. It sometimes seems to me as though I needed them to keep on going myself. But I will have to figure out how to do without those that are lost for good and try to be there for those who miss me.
Sherold Barr says
Charlie – you are a gifted writer and an amazing leader. I loved this article. What a leader you are. I look forward to meeting you at the World Domination Summit (I also live in pdx).