by Pete Blaber
Published by New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 324 pages, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-425-23657-4 Paperback $15.00
In a time when military officers take leadership cues from Chinese sages, business executives and football coaches, it's clear that notions of leadership are diverse, if not confused. That’s why it is illuminating to read a book containing practical leadership maxims written by a man who has commanded at every level of 1st SFOD-D (Delta) during campaigns from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan. In The Mission, The Men and Me, Pete Blaber presents his hard-won principles of leadership and illustrates them with intense personal stories and accounts of leadership amidst chaotic modern warfare. The leadership principles ring true and have a commonsense appeal. Also, the “peek behind the curtain” look at Delta should please fans of special operations.
Blaber’s first principle is also the title of the book -- the “three Ms” of leadership. This list of priorities should be familiar to anyone who has served. The Mission comes first, followed by the welfare of the Men. The leader’s welfare, promotion, and career must come last. Blaber puts the Mission and the Men first in Tikrit, Iraq, as Delta battles a large force of Saddam loyalists just prior to the capture of Saddam. It is interesting that his examples of this principle usually included the Delta Commander standing up to a senior officer when the Mission and the Men are on the line. Despite threats, his career remained intact, the missions were accomplished and his men lived to fight another day.
He follows the “three Ms” of leadership with some less conventional gems: “Always listen to the guy on the ground;” “It’s not reality unless it’s shared;” “When in doubt, develop the situation.”
These leadership ideas and their examples seem to be tailor-made for military commanders in the information age. In fact, some of the most memorable lessons learned in this book are rooted in modern dilemmas like tactically-focused Generals, overreliance on technology, information overload, and information-sharing challenges. His treatise on command and control is on point: Many leaders hear, but do not listen to the guy on the ground. “The guy on the ground” is a metaphor for an individual who is physically interacting with their environment. They are the best source of information about the reality of the situation on the ground. Readers of the book will experience total frustration as General Officers ignore the guy on the ground and micromanage tactical operations from air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away. Blaber says that doesn’t turn out well.
The guy on the ground is not given a free pass either. Blaber points out that they are responsible for communicating their tacit knowledge: “It’s not reality unless it is shared.” This means that without communicating or operationalizing tacit knowledge, it doesn’t do any good. He further trumpets the importance of information sharing by declaring that “need to share” is the most important label any file can have. Participants at the 2010 Joint Warfighting Conference agreed. This annual event brings military and industry leaders from 21 nations together to shape future military strategy and warfighting platforms. They named improving information-sharing as a top priority—nearly nine years after Blaber had carried out his first operations in Afghanistan, and thirty years after the same lesson was learned in Delta’s first mission, Operation EAGLE CLAW.
In another head nod to the importance of information in combat, the author urges leaders to take action to find information: “When in doubt, develop the situation.” He contends that while information technology is a great asset, intelligence based on “snapshots of reality, frozen in the past” are not sufficient. The best information is real-time situational awareness based on what is actually happening on the ground right now. As such, it is vital to study and interact with the operational environment. Anyone who uses the management-by-walking-around (MBWA) strategy can appreciate the value of developing the situation. MBWA — in which leaders get out into the trenches and engage with the workforce — was put in to practice by technology giant Hewlett Packard in the 1940s and was made famous in the 1980s by business guru and best-selling author Tom Peters. The basic idea is that nothing is more instructive than seeing what actually transpires in the real world and learning from it.
Blaber’s many ideas about information and command are complimented by his theories on planning and decision-making. His number one decision-making recommendation is to focus on pattern recognition, because “patterns reveal how the real world works.” The idea that life and history repeats itself can be used to understand and master the future. He goes so far as to say the "most effective weapon on any battlefield is our mind's ability to recognize life's underlying patterns." To succeed at pattern recognition, the mind must be saturated with facts about the situation on the ground. Then, time must be taken to incubate so that patterns can be recognized. Finally, when the ‘Eureka’ moment happens and the pattern is illuminated, courage is needed to act upon it. This process is reminiscent of the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act), and it is used to great effect by Delta. In a chapter titled “Gorilla Warfare,” (that’s right-- ‘gorilla’) Delta uses pattern recognition and a costume to catch a high value target.
While it contains some historical details, readers looking for information regarding the origin, training regimens, or specific tactics used by Delta may not be fully satisfied by this book. For a less leadership-oriented, but more organizationally-focused view of Delta, readers should consider Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counterterrorist Unit co-written by Delta’s founder, Colonel Charlie Beckwith and Donald Knox. For an outstanding compliment to this book, readers should also consider Not a Good Day to Die by Sean Naylor. It provides context as to the role Blaber played in Operation Anaconda.
For a book on leadership, The Mission, The Men and Me is absorbing and well-written by someone who has led under difficult circumstances. Blaber layers the book with characters, humor, and leadership lessons that are reinforced with every good (and bad) command decision made. Judging by the reviews in book, its leadership principles appeal to a broad range of people. A CEO of a large corporation and a Chief Scientist wrote rave reviews. President Barack Obama is said to have read this book and Pete Blaber is still applying these principles as an executive in the world’s largest biotechnology company. Junior officers and Noncommisioned officers will benefit from reading about how Blaber applied his leadership philosophy in the field. The book is compelling because it emphasizes leadership principles that have withstood the test of time and adds new principles needed for leading and Commanding in the information age. Blaber’s book should be labeled, “need to share.”