When the Minefield is Real
In business we often reach for military metaphors like “warrior” and “minefield” to express the many obstacles we face in the workplace. It lends dramatic flare to the discussion and invokes overtures of danger. However, I have a tale of standing in a real minefield, the lessons I learned and how to apply it in your business lives.
In February of 2002 I had been mobilized and was serving as an operations officer in the engineer section of CENTCOM in Kuwait. My life was not dramatic, just standing endless 12 hour overnight watches feeling like a fish out of water as a Marine in my first joint tour with the Army. Then one day my OIC said “hey Lozano, I need you to go to Afghanistan”. My job was to accompany some contractors who were bringing in mine clearance dogs into the heavily mined country. Nothing sexy, a just a few days in country and I’d be back.
When I arrived in Kandahar in March 2002, the war was still very new. There were approximately 2000 soldiers split between former Soviet airfields at Kandahar in the south and Bagram in the north. What I found when was dramatic and troubling. Both airfields were immersed in thousands and thousands of land mines and unexploded ordnance as a legacy of the Soviet invasion in 1979. This represented a significant threat to lives and operations, significantly limiting operations on anything but concrete. A number of soldiers had already lost limbs. There was not enough equipment or people and worst of all, nobody was in charge of the clearance effort and it really pissed me off.
That night I called my Army boss in Kuwait and informed him of the situation and that I would be staying to get it under control. I was polite but I was not asking him and he consented. I headed for Bagram which was gearing up for Operation Anaconda the attempt to corner Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. The situation was simple: we had 1500 soldiers from the 101st and their equipment starting to arrive and no place to bed them down or put their equipment.
First, I assessed what I had on hand: one company of Army engineers, one armored D7 bull dozer, one Norwegian sapper platoon and their flail (mine clearance vehicle) and four mine sniffing dogs. Next, I looked at the mission: clear enough space for a reinforced battalion of Army infantry and supporting aircraft and do it in 10 days. Then I began a survey of the entire airfield (no map existed), I mapped every minefield to find out how big, how deep, how dense was the threat. I began a continuous process of “operational synchronization” whereby I monitored work, priorities and equipment and made adjustments to keep us on track. Finally, I talked to operational commanders daily to align to their priorities and keep them informed of progress.
I quickly realized there was no way we were going to get the job done if we used conventional methods and there was no manual and no standard by which to operate, so I created one. I set the standards, processes, methodologies and finally success criteria so we knew when we were done. My requests for additional resources were made but their arrival would not be immediate so we got to work. What we discovered was we could stay ahead of the demand by applying the right amount of effort to meet the minimum safety standard I had set with a very dynamic priority list. I also told everyone to stay out of our business (a real danger of matrix’d organizations).
One day I was leading a survey of a minefield, many were already marked but many were not. We departed the paved road single file across an area my Afghan guide told me was not mined as we headed for the known minefield. The universal sign for landmines is an inverted red and white triangle with skull and cross-bones. The red side means you are looking into the minefield. The white side means you’re in deep poo because you are in the minefield.
About 50 yards off the road I came across a single white triangle on a stake another 50 yards in front of me. We were in the middle of a minefield. I raised my right hand in a fist to halt the group and calmly said “minefield don’t move”. My blood was cold as ice as I took a deep breath. Quick assessment? Move forward into the unknown or back into the sort-of-known. I chose the latter and had everyone turn around and to the best of their ability follow the footprints in the dirt back to the paved road. Once on the pavement we all had a good laugh of relief.
We successfully cleared the areas for forces flowing in for Operation Anaconda and I watched in awe as wave after wave of helicopters carried our brave warriors into battle. Then over the next three months we cleared more than 3,000,000m2 of infested land paving the way for future operations that continue to this day. We did suffer a few casualties along the way but mercifully no deaths for which I am grateful. After leaving Afghanistan and Kuwait I lectured at both Army and Marine Corps combat engineer schools and became the de facto landmine expert for a couple of years. It wouldn’t be my last day in a minefield but it remains the single accomplishment of which I am most proud of as a Marine.
In business you will also face poorly defined situations that cry for action but you will not have enough assets or time and have to operate in information vacuum to boot. Daunting? Yes, unfixable? Never! I have found this one truth to be undeniably true: every problem has a solution. It is your job to find that solution, whether you manage a team or are the CEO.
Carry these points forward with you into the fray. First, take charge and act with a bold spirit, it’s what leaders do. No, long faces, no hand-wringing just shoulder the load and get it done. Second, always assess your situation properly before you act. Act without thought and you are only guessing and risk needless danger. Third, define the way you plan, operate and measure progress because standard repeatable process yields standard repeatable results.
Finally, in spite of your best plans you will sometimes still walk into a minefield. Don’t panic just take a deep breath and think with clarity as if your life depends on it.
- Lt. Col. Chris Lozano (Retired)