On a mountainside in Afghanistan after a deadly firefight. Two of my soldiers were killed – to include a brilliant and beloved company commander – and a dozen wounded. That was 2007. Not a day goes by that I do not think of these paratroopers – these heroes – and their families.
I recognized then that all of our assumptions about the area were flat wrong. We needed to unlearn a lot of flawed ideas, diagnose the nature of the situation, and develop a winning strategy. We had 13 months to go.
We engaged everyone in the unit, from junior troopers and leaders to our senior leader team, our Afghan counterparts, local elders, and as much as we could read about that remote area of Afghanistan. We developed a highly unconventional – and controversial approach. One that received a lot of pushback from outside … until they saw it working. Two years later, this approach become expected practice for all units in Afghanistan.
What made this work was the leader development and team building we had done in the two years prior to deployment. This included reading, creating a culture for candid conversations and exchange of ideas, realistic training, tough and imaginative crucibles, and using old battlefields as classrooms to discuss new ideas and current challenges.
These shared experiences created a group of intellectually courageous leaders who could think creatively and systematically – and communicate complex ideas quickly and implicitly. This enabled us to learn and adapt effectively in a dynamic and dangerous environment. That unit became the only one to have motivated a major insurgent group to stop fighting and to eventually join the government. I have now met with my former adversary 10 times. His story is fascinating.
Those outcomes led to my service with three 4-star generals in Afghanistan and being senior adviser to the #3 person in the Pentagon. From those positions, I learned from some extraordinary leaders, who are mentors to this day. I grew to realize in those jobs and during my doctoral research that the U.S. government was great at making plans but inept at strategy and unable to manage powerful bureaucratic silos. American is paying the price in blood and treasure.
Inadequate leadership and poor strategic thinking played key roles in the 2008 financial crisis, which has cost the U.S. roughly $12.8 trillion. Similar problems were resulting in failures in business and non-profits, too.
The heart of the problems? Lack of GUTS.
SLA was born to address this problem.