Little Norway in Big America: Soft Leadership on the Modern Battlefield
He has shown calmness and ability to motivate that is rarely seen in the Norwegian Armed Forces today. He has solved missions and taken care of his men in an exceptionally good way.1
I would like to tell my story, primarily about my deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 as a team leader for a military observation team (MOT) in Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Meymaneh, and use it to draw some personal leadership lessons. Since I received the citation quoted above, it has inspired me to excel in my studies and practice of military leadership in the Royal Norwegian Navy. In addition, it has impelled me to strive to articulate my leadership philosophy. You must judge for yourself whether my experience, coming from Little Norway, is applicable to the United States and others, or is perhaps too insignificant for the greatest military power in the world.
The importance of the two episodes I describe is that my team overcame two of the most significant incidents in Norwegian military history, in terms of casualties, since World War II. Although my experience may look like a small step for some of you, it was a giant leap for me, and the lessons I took from it, while they might not apply to Big America, certainly apply to Little Norway. Maybe some of these lessons have applicability, even if not directly, and there may be some food for thought in here, regardless of organizational size, legacy, and prevailing attitudes. (To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. We'll see how it goes.)
I will begin by presenting a claim: that soft leadership is the solution to all of the issues and challenges arising in the complex and uncertain military context of the twenty-first-century battlefield. As to definitions and the scope of my claim, I should be more specific. Defining leadership is not at all straightforward; the research and literature are immense, and leadership is not necessarily the same as command. Nevertheless, the least common ground needs to be established; leadership is too important to be governed by "it depends," too many "buts," and the necessity for situational context. I believe that outstanding leadership is reflected primarily among a leader's followers, and the principle of a cohesive team is significant. "Soft" leadership has proximity with the democratic, charismatic, transformational, and servant leadership styles. Soft emotional intelligence and relation cohesion—in contrast to mechanical military leadership developed by ancient, albeit great, military leaders and based on task cohesion—is on the horizon for future leadership.
Soft leadership is basically a people-oriented approach. People are the most precious resource, and they constitute the social capital of any organization or team. The soft approach in military leadership does not diminish the ability for real command when it comes to combat missions and the need for dedication and discipline. Leadership is equal parts art and science; if it were all science, we would have undoubtedly won all wars. The art of leadership must be felt, experienced, and created. With that concept in mind, here is my story.
The Call: August 2009
Northern Norway, August 2009. The facial mosquito net was not helping me out. I was highly pissed off about being invaded in my personal space by a swarm of insects while trying to enhance my military mobility skills on the all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Between spitting out and chewing mosquitos, I felt my cell phone vibrate with a call that turned out to be from the executive officer (XO), Coastal Rangers Command.
"Hi, Boss. How are you?" I greeted the caller.
"Hi, I have a job for you."
"We're deploying MOT teams to Afghanistan. Which one do you want to command?"
"The second team: March to July."
"You got it. It's the most experienced team and it's all set. Pick your XO, and report back when you want to start pre-deployment training."
"Got it. We'll observe the Christmas break and meet early January. By March, we'll be ready to go."
I was excited and honored by the trust shown to me by a unit outside my chain of command. The mosquitoes did not bother me anymore. Earlier in my career, I had never dreamed of working in the Special Forces community. Several years before the call came in, my life had been very different: I had 10 years of service in the Navy, I had a significant other, and we had a dog. I assumed this lifestyle was irreconcilable with a life outside the conventional Navy. The significant other, however, became insignificant, and the dog got new owners. The Special Forces brochures I'd left on my dining table beckoned me, and I decided that I would excel in SF training. I told myself then that I was going to get a new job, and after a year of selection and basic training, I had a new job. One and a half years of advanced training paid off, and by late 2005, I was an FNG2 headed for Afghanistan, Regional Command South.
In 2008, I deployed again, this time as squadron XO. Now, however, I was also father to a one-year-old son—I followed him to his first day of preschool on the same day I left for Afghanistan. Back in Norway in 2009, my fiancée and I squeezed in a wedding, but by January 2010, I was ready to start predeployment training once again, with a new team. I said goodbye to my wife, who was expecting our second child, and our little boy.
I learned a lot from those previous deployments, and I am grateful to be in a community that emphasizes the process of turning lessons identified into lessons learned. I was determined to utilize my lessons. I had one goal: to build the strongest team possible to execute missions on behalf of the Norwegian government and its allies. I had a clear vision of what mattered: I wanted to start with my men and exemplify how a leader can inspire everyone to take action. In a small team, I could not hold myself superior; I wanted to be the leader who could be a follower when possible and a leader when needed. I wanted to be proactive in taking care of my men. I found it suboptimal to solve the missions first and then, only in the aftermath, take care of my men if needed; I found it even more difficult to pull the dusty "caring card" from some bottom drawer only when the shit hit the fan.
Caring for my men was, in my opinion, not solely within the welfare domain: it was one of the criteria for mission success and something that needed my direct attention from day 1. My key to mission success was to "solve" my team by emphasizing the importance of communication, commitment, and trust. I knew the missions were going to be intricate, I knew it would be difficult to measure immediate success, and I knew that independent operations in rural areas could place collective stress on the team. I needed a team that was robust emotionally as well as tactically. I needed my men to be able to utilize their full range of will and skills: my job was to provide them with opportunity. I worked through my men to crystallize the mission and the significance of its purpose; as the facilitator, I put myself in the outer layer of the team circle and the men at the center.
Meymaneh, Faryab Province, Afghanistan
Our deployment in 2010 turned out to be complex and necessitated adaptive leadership. The difficulty of the situation we encountered is hard to depict in words. Some of you may recognize some parts of the following story from your own experiences, but I will try to bring the events to life through detailed descriptions of the background, the context, and what actually happened.
The pre-deployment training went well, and in March 2010, off we went— 13 pax and a German shepherd—to Afghanistan, Regional Command North, for our four-month deployment. We were headed for the Norwegian PRT in Meymaneh, Faryab province. As a MOT, our mission was to be the eyes and ears of the PRT commander in the three districts of Ghowrmach, Qeysar, and Almar. We restated our mission and broke it down into four operational pillars: (1) developing sufficient situational awareness (SA), (2) supporting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), (3) IED-focused liaising, and (4) maintaining a presence in insurgents' presumed key areas.
Thanks to the previous team and their willingness to stay in the area of operations (AO) for two extra weeks, we had an extensive handover/takeover (HOTO). Operating together and gaining an in-depth SA got us off to a good start. We incrementally built and expanded our freedom of movement/ freedom of action. The hibernating insurgents were awakening: the IED threat was increasing, and the targeting of Norwegian forces was undisguised. In April, we were ambushed several times, and IED incidents occurred frequently. We took no casualties, but it was a ruthless period for our Afghan friends, the ANSF. They lost quite a few of their soldiers and officers. Nevertheless, the mission was successful: we taught the ANSF to respond in a safer manner when it came to IEDs. The district governor liked having us there. He would say, "You are only 15 men, and you do better than 100 Americans do."
2 May 2010: Ambush
At the end of April, the district governor asked us to provide limited support for a big, local operation that would take place in the early hours of 2 May, in the outskirts of Ghowrmach Bazar, an ancient town in the center of Ghowrmach district. This came at the end of a two-week period we had spent working in the district. We agreed to provide perimeter protection for the couple of hours the governor's operation lasted, and then we got ready to head out on a three-day mission. The national directorate of security, the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and the district governor were all pleased by the outcome of the operation.
The operation had taken place on the outskirts of the bazaar in Ghowrmach, so when it was over, we took a stroll in the bazaar and bought some naan, candies, and soda for the long day ahead, and then departed. We totaled 16 Norwegian soldiers and two interpreters, distributed in four light-armored vehicles and four ATVs; we drove southeast through the valley of Tutak, aiming for a layup position in Senjetak Jinab for the following night. Our mission plan was to return to previously visited areas, follow up on some earlier initiatives, and fill in any gaps that had been brought to our attention by the all-source intelligence cell. In the early afternoon, we traveled through a beautiful area— a postcard picture of a luxuriant Afghanistan landscape, filled with contrasts: a challenging dusty arroyo to navigate in, high wadi walls, small houses surrounded by dense vegetation, huge dunes, and on the horizon, the majestic mountaintops still covered in snow. A snapshot from a fairy tale.
Suddenly, the fairy tale vanished: beauty was routed by the beast. Fifty to 100 insurgents ambushed us. And they were shooting fish in a barrel.
The attack began around 1400 hours. Due to the relatively unknown terrain ahead (we had only seen satellite pictures) and the fact that we were coming under heavy fire, we decided to turn back and take another approach route toward Senjetak Jinab: the mission was still in play, despite some minor injuries to my soldiers. Until this moment, nothing had caused me to question our moving forward with the mission. Nothing had given me any reason to abort the mission, or to ask for reinforcements beyond armed overwatch.3
1610. Man down. GSW (gunshot wound). Paralyzed. Litter patient.
1615. Man down. 43 RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) shrapnel in his body. Ambulatory. Kept on fighting.
1618. Man down. GSW. Entry lower back, exit thorax. Litter patient.
The mission changed drastically as the attack continued—saving our lives became the only pillar of operation in play. We had known that an ambush was possible, but we had no forewarning of such a massive attack: 26 RPGs, massive close-range small arms fire, three cars on fire, one broken car, nine out of 16 Norwegians wounded, four broken and abandoned ATVs. Air support dropped no ordnance, only gun strafes and a couple of low passes.
Hindsight told us we had been followed and reported, and the insurgents had created a plan to disrupt the Norwegians' operational progress in our own backyard. For 16 hours, we struggled for a happy ending amid heavy enemy fire. Twelve hours after it was over, we returned to camp with over half of our soldiers wounded in action (four were evacuated by helicopter), a shitload of equipment left behind, and a team that was happy to be alive. As far as we knew, anyway, everyone was still alive. Two soldiers, one of them my XO, were strategically evacuated to Norway, their lives hanging by a thin thread. In addition, two more had to be replaced due to injuries irreconcilable with combat exposure. We had survived, albeit barely, the heaviest casualties in a single ambush of Norwegian forces since World War II.
Despite our damage, the enemy was not able to conquer us. The mission had failed, but we had succeeded in saving all of our lives. We started prepping for the way ahead. Returning to our base in Meymaneh, I put my original standing mission on hold; I shut off my cell phone and put my sources on hold for a couple of days as well. The criteria for success needed to be reestablished, and the objective was clear: replace people, get the new ones up to speed, and continue our mission on behalf of Norway and its allies. It was time to reorganize and reestablish the confidence to carry on: we still had two months left of our watch.
I had two avenues of approach to gain motivational momentum again: first, reestablish the criteria of success, and second, improve arrangements within the team and relations between team members. I used relationship-building methods to help the team refocus on the task, all aimed toward the end goal: improved combat performance. Our after-action procedures (AAPs) set the framework for the next 10 days. In conjunction with the PRT Meymaneh commander, I guided and conferred with the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, the military police, the investigation committee, the organic crisis support element, the chief of Military Hospital Meymaneh, and media officers, and plugged them all seamlessly into our procedures.
Three weeks later, we were back in the theater: four of the wounded men were replaced, our equipment was repaired, and a new mission in a new AO was on our plate. We all carried the stamp of the previous event, but it was a strong and motivated team that was back in business. The new mission was stated, and the objectives in Almar province were as follows: (1) initiate development projects to improve the security situation, (2) strengthen Afghan government influence with the local population, and (3) prepare HOTO for the next team taking over at the end of July.
27 June 2010: IED
My squad commander from previous deployments replaced my injured XO. He was my friend and mentor from my days as an FNG, back in 2005. We were determined to prevail, true to our operational pillars, and set out on a two-day mission in support of the ANSF. The district governor was the face of the operation. We brought along representatives from the Afghan Health Ministry, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S.-Afghan Atmospheric Detachment Team, the U.S. Police Mentoring Team, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as a U.S. engineer. We conducted successful meetings with local power brokers in both Ghalbala and Khwaja Ghawar. The agenda included facilitating a road construction project and a health clinic, along with providing guidance and advice to the local population concerning agriculture and water. Papers were signed, and land was allocated to future projects. The governor and the rest of us were happy. We shook hands all around and headed back to our base, via the governor's seat in Almar Bazar. Only five miles outside the bazaar, we entered an engineered gravel road that headed into an Uzbek-dominated area. My driver, the IED specialist, was unconcerned, as were the rest of us.
"IED, IED, IED! Back up, back up, back up!"
The last vehicle in the convoy activated a 40-pound pressure-plate IED. All four men in the vehicle were killed instantly. I sent four of my men and the German shepherd to the explosion site. I then located myself 100 yards away to gain SA, lead, and allocate our scarce resources. My immediate priorities were clear: uphold security and evacuate the dead soldiers.
Afterward, just like before, I had to pull out my standard operating procedures/ guidance for "measures after critical incidents in the field" and my AAPs from the ready drawer. I still had to plan for the remaining part of the mission: preparing for HOTO. In order to accomplish the mission, I found it crucial to focus on my men and lead them by providing purpose, direction, and motivation, while handling the loss of four fellow soldiers and preparing the next team to take up the challenging baton.
Once again, the mission had failed, and this time, we had failed in saving lives. Our long C-17 journey started: the whole team flew back to Norway with the four coffins, all with respective framed pictures affixed. After four funerals in Norway, we again returned back downrange with the new team to finish our deployment. Once again, the criteria for success needed to be reestablished, and the objective was clear: replace people, get them up to speed, and continue our mission.
One year after these two events, on 2 May 2011, I got a text message from my team members: "…no one could have stopped what happened, but no one else could have made the extent of damage so little, and gotten the rest of us up stronger than before. Thank you for being such a great role model."
Three Principles for Successful Leadership
Have we learned anything useful to help strengthen our teams for completing missions and taking care of our men? Can these lessons be utilized without being blindly deductive? I believe so. Leadership literature suggests several traits and skills necessary to be a successful leader. Whether your model for leadership is the 21 irrefutable laws of leadership,4 the study of leadership as the warrior's art,5 the study of masters of irregular warfare,6 or accumulated lessons from historical case studies, it needs to be made concrete, applicable, and coherent to and interwoven within the respective units and organizational culture. Here I've categorized my major lessons learned into two ideas: the Circle and the Triangle.
The Norwegian creed for leadership is captured in the saying, "Solve your mission, and take care of your men." I believe in changing the order of the nouns and the emphasis: "Solve your men, and take care of the mission." The Circle (see figure 1) illustrates my concept of leadership, which was inspired by Simon Sinek's Golden Circle.7 In the three concentric rings of the circle, I have deliberately placed the three major components of leadership—the men, the mission, and the leader—as I believe they should relate to each other. I can't agree with the traditional belief that you can have either a relation orientation, which is aimed at gaining low turnover and low grievance rates but also results in low performance, or task orientation, which is aimed at gaining high performance but brings high turnover and high grievance rates. I believe it is possible to achieve high performance, low turnover, and low grievance with a proactive emphasis on the men who are being led, a clear understanding of the mission and its vital importance for the legitimacy of the military force, and the leader's consciousness about his facilitating role.
"Solving my men" does not mean being nice. I do not shy away from open, healthy conflicts about any issues. Nice leaders are irresponsible and could cause dysfunctional teams. A conflict could be combat mission–related and quickly become a life-and-death situation: the caretaking does not take priority, but the deliberation about my men deserves my full attention. I do not care what you call it. Maybe it is emotional intelligence? Nevertheless, in my experience, relation orientation is a huge factor in increasing combat performance without compromising the mission.
As a leader, I "eat last"—yet another inspiring concept from Simon Sinek.8 In his latest book, Sinek concludes: "Great leaders sacrifice their own comfort— even their own survival—for the good of those in their care." Furthermore, "When it matters most, leaders who are willing to eat last are rewarded with deeply loyal colleagues who will stop at nothing to advance their leader's vision and their organization's interests."9
My leadership triangle (see figure 2) identifies three overarching principles: communication, commitment, and trust (CCT). All three of these principles are concerned with relation cohesion and are a prerequisite for task cohesion. I believe that understanding CCT, and deliberately using the CCT principles as building blocks for team building, is crucial to avoiding dysfunctional teams. Communication needs to be open, clear, and focused on the objectives. Commitment to both the group and the mission is tied to loyalty and cohesion. Cohesion is a positive principle. It does not mean obedience or uniformity; it means that team members should impel each other to strive for excellence, but disagreements cannot spill over from cause to person. Commitment flourishes when we know why we are doing what we are doing, and it is strengthened through participation in decision making. Trust is not magically given; trust can only be built. The basis for trust lies in both character and competence.10 Communication should be the way, commitment should be the means, and trust should be the end. I believe that a consistent focus on CCT creates good interpersonal skills and enhances emotional engagement, outshining simple transactional relationships. It also paints a clear picture of my role and my expectations of the team, and vice versa.
"I will be an operator when I can and the leader when I must." This might be the most controversial statement a military leader can make.
Does following this tenet result in ambiguity regarding the leader's authority? Is it a description of an inconsistent and insecure leader? No, I do not believe so. As I said previously, I cannot afford to be superior, and I cannot afford to be separated from my team. I do not seek leadership for the sake of the title or position; I am pursuing the tenets that make a great team and inspire everyone to take action. I am not a leader simply because I wear an "I am a leader" sign around my neck.
By being transparent and consistent in my deliberation of the Circle and the Triangle, I believe there will be no contradictions or ambivalence between me and my men. Fundamentally, it is a mission command style: being comfortable with relinquishing control and authority.11 Military leadership is all about action and accomplishing missions. I believe the marginal effect of squeezing that last little extra potential from my team is within the domain of relation orientation in the team. Being an operator when you can and a leader when you must might be a luxury. Taking such a position might be culturally dependent (e.g., nationality, service, history/legacy). Nevertheless, the lessons I have learned continue to work for me as a leader in the Royal Norwegian Navy. I will continue to utilize those experiences and search for new lessons in the future. To once again paraphrase Mahatma Ghandhi: Lead as if you were going to die tomorrow. Build leadership as if you would live forever.
About the Author(s): The author, a Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) master's candidate at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, was honored in 2010 with the Norwegian War Medal for outstanding leadership, personal courage, and bravery as a team leader in Faryab province, Afghanistan.
1. Report from the Commander, Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team Meymaneh, July 2010.
2. FNG: fucking new guy.
3. Air support.
4. John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1998).
5. Christopher Kolenda, Leadership: The Warrior's Art (Carlisle, Pa.: Army War College Foundation Press, 2001).
6. John Arquilla, Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (Lanham, Md.: Ivan R. Dee, 2011).
7. Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Penguin Group, 2009).
8. Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't (New York: Portfolio Hardcover, 2014).
9. Ibid., from the publisher's promotional material for Sinek's book.
10. Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006).
11. Eitan Shamir, Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011).