As a young Army Lieutenant leading a Platoon in Iraq in 2006, I was faced with a crisis. Our platoon was continually getting ambushed during our patrols in sector. The uncertainty of waiting to be attacked, the physical, mental and emotional strain on the men, not to mention the damage to our vehicles and equipment, started to take its toll. The ensuing battles would generally last for hours. We would stay out in sector for upwards of 16 hours. This would only leave 8 hours to come back to the forward operating base, refit and conduct maintenance on our vehicles. This type of operation couldn’t be sustained. Our morale was starting to fall, tensions were starting to rise between my platoon and the maintenance crews servicing our vehicles. We’d bring in leaking, limping, bullet ridden trucks and expect to jump back in them and roll out in a matter of hours. In military terms, we had “lost the initiative.” That is to say, the enemy was dictating where and when and how the battle would go. We were only reacting. We were compelled to react to the enemy’s strengths and capabilities. We were treading water trying to stay afloat. In this crisis, my men depended on me to come up with a plan to take back control, or “seize the initiative.” The importance of having a plan is emphasized in Sun Tzu’s famous quote, “ Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” My platoon and I were at war, and trying to win.
The crisis I experienced in Iraq is similar to the challenges many executives face with regard to scaling. Granted, no one is shooting at them, but the enemy can represent any or all of the variables and uncertainty in the industry; the customer, the competition, the software, the hardware, the market, etc. Some executives find they are compelled to react to daily incidents, i.e. “lets just make it another 24 hrs without an outage,” and it’s a struggle to maintain, let alone scale effectively. Just like with my platoon, this type of operation takes a toll on an organization. Aside from being bad for business, it sows the seeds of despair, brings down morale, and possibly creates tension between the engineers and the business folks similar to that between my troops and our maintenance crews. The leader needs to take a step back, understand what is going on and figure out a plan to get his or her team out of it.
For me, the solution was counter-intuitive at first. I knew we needed to take time to regroup, but I hesitated to not keep pressing the enemy. I feared that we’d lose what little ground we had. Then, I remembered something my instructor told me while learning to navigate in the woods with a map and a compass. He warned us, “If you don’t know where you are going, don’t walk as fast. You’ll only get lost in a hurry.” In our eagerness to get out into sector and fight the enemy we were getting lost in a hurry. We had gone to war, and were now trying to win. It is a difficult decision to halt operations, or take a product offline. Aggressive leaders are often very successful because they persevere in the face of adversity. However, there is a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. I made the call to postpone operations. I needed time to develop an effective sustainable strategy.
“Seizing the initiative” requires leaders to make sound decisions under uncertain conditions and to anticipate events so their organization can recognize and leverage opportunities. The key to anticipating events is to understand the problem. In my case, we really did not understand the enemy. From an institutional standpoint, we had been training to fight the soviets for the last 40 years, and here we were faced against an adaptive and evolving enemy. We scaled our operations back at first, focused on reconnaissance and understanding the enemy. In doing so we were better able to anticipate events, and began setting the conditions of the fight. We were engaging the enemy when and where we wanted. We had seized the initiative. Regardless of your type of organization, if you are struggling just to maintain, if you have lost the initiative, the best solution is to take the necessary pause in operations, understand the problem, and develop a strategy for a sustainable effective approach.