DECISION-MAKING

'Lone Survivor' Decision-Making and the Darker Side Of Leadership

An entrepreneur and former Navy SEAL shares his thoughts on the courage required for impossible choices.
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Great leaders master the art of making difficult decisions while maintaining high levels of emotional self-control. They also proactively deal with the repercussions when good decisions go bad.

"The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men." --Navy SEAL Creed

My path to becoming a Navy SEAL started with BUD/s class 235 in Coronado, Calif., in the fall of 2000. Two hundred and fifty of us began training and ultimately 23 graduated. One of the members of my class was Medal of Honor recipient, Mike Murphy. For those of you who have read Marcus Luttrell's book "Lone Survivor" or seen the movie that's currently in theatres, you will know who I am talking about. He's played by actor Taylor Kitsch.

From day one of SEAL training, you learn the importance of making good decisions quickly in highly chaotic environments. But nothing in training can compare to practicing this critical element of leadership in combat. Combat is scary, messy, and filled with anxiety, depression and self-doubt. Imagine being in a leadership position where mission success and the lives of your teammates rests in your hands and in your ability to make good decisions with only the information readily available.

The Story

"Lone Survivor" tells the story of Operation Red Wings which occurred in the summer of 2005 in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. The goal of Operation Red Wings was the disruption of anti-coalition ,ilitia activity in the region in order to further aid the stabilization efforts of the region. As part of this effort, a four-man element of Navy SEALs was sent on a surveillance-and-reconnaissance mission to establish the location of a known Taliban leader named Ahmad Shah.

Only hours after the insertion, the team was compromised by a pair of local goat herders. The SEAL operators had no choice but to jump out of their hidden positions, grab the older man and boy, and detain them. Then they had a very difficult decision to make. Their mission was essentially compromised, but to what degree they weren't yet sure. Capturing or killing Ahmad Shah had been high on the priority list for some time and the team's deployment was coming to an end. As the team leader and officer in charge on this mission, Mike had to make like what seemed an impossible decision.

The decisions made on that mountain have been analyzed time and time again. The options ranged from letting these two goat herders go and aborting the mission to killing them, hiding their bodies and carrying on. Right or wrong, ultimately the decision was made to let the goat herders go, move locations and reassess their options. One can assess that this was the right decision, since we do not kill unarmed combatants unless they pose a direct threat.

On the other hand, the uncertainty behind the decision was whether these men would reveal the position of the SEALs to the Taliban, which theoretically makes them a direct threat. I believe the correct decision was made.

But sometimes leaders can make good decision that have a less than optimal outcomes.

A few hours later, the SEALs were semi-surrounded from an elevated position by a much larger Taliban force. During a horrific gun battle, three of the four SEALs died, including Mike Murphy, as well as the entire Quick Reaction Force of SEALs and other special operations forces when their helicopter was shot down, making it the second largest loss of SEAL lives in one day since the inception of the Teams.

The Takeaway

Great leaders like Mike learn to master emotional awareness giving them the ability to avoid analysis paralysis and make decisions based on reason. Sometimes decisions need to be made quickly with the information available, and sometimes more data needs to be collected. Either way, great leaders learn to minimize uncertainty and control as many elements of the outcome as possible. Mike and his team made the decision to uphold the rules of engagement and not murder unarmed men. And it cost them their lives and the lives of their other teammates. But that's combat. Good decisions don't always lead to victory.

Effective decision making requires discipline, courage, and adaptability. A leader must manage anxiety and fear in order to think clearly.

Obviously the decisions of business leaders don't typically exist in the fine balance between life and death. But entrepreneurs, business owners, and managers still make dozens of decisions every day.

As companies grow, those decisions become more complicated, affect more people, and have a more significant outcome. Good or bad.

Good decisions are applauded, and poor decisions are criticized by those around you. 

But you can't let that scare you into not making any decisions at all. Use the data available, lead your team, and keep pushing forward.

IMAGE: ©Universal Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Last updated: Jan 20, 2014

BRENT GLEESON

Navy SEAL combat veteran Brent Gleeson is the co-founder and CMO at Internet Marketing Inc., a leading digital marketing agency and an Inc. 500|5000 company for the past three years in a row.




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