To learn about leadership and adapting under fire, before you consult the nascent veterans of Covid, I suggest a chat with Sully, who’ll tell you about ‘Nam.
We should listen, and here’s why. I think many will come to see the pandemic as their war – the supreme challenge, the affirming test. Leadership is under the lens now: who is adapting, performing, creating new models that work under stresses undreamed? Can firms hold on to these leaders, they wonder, in our wandering times – cultivate them, use them to instruct the next cohort? Leaders, we now know, will one day need to create things unimagined. Can that skill even be taught? Well, we know the answer: it’s yes.
Go ask the Marines. Or, more specifically, my pal Sully.
He volunteered in 1966 – what he was thinking, he never said. Boot camp’s only challenge was not laughing at the drill instructors and their brutal antics, he said – they were bellowing with purpose, anxious to educate, but their purple-faced prose sounded silly. Sully was a surfer, so he was fit enough for any obstacle course. He passed out OK, as a lance corporal.
(Interlude 1: Sully’s training included sweeping a Vietnamese village – real as day, mocked up in South Carolina. The place was mined with quarter-sticks of dynamite – can’t hurt you really, but you sure don’t wanna, he said. When he arrived in-country, he was ready, said Sully. The trainers knew what they were doing, that it mattered.)
He deployed to Vietnam in 1967, into the deepest heart of the darkness. When he arrived at Camp Carroll – Apache country, he called it – Sully was 19. His first worry was his fellow Marines: black kids from South Bronx, white boys from Alabama, all armed as heavy as can be, in starkly divided days. It turned out the war movie stuff was true: they became closer than brothers, died for each other. When things got hairy, no one wandered off.
Sully walked point – he trusted no one else up front. The point needs eyes – for mines, angry water buffalo, Victor Charlie – and he must smell when it’s wrong: that movie junk again, once again real. He was sharp all right, but good won’t keep you on point forever.
He admits it did in his head: he’d shoot at trees, hallucinate enemies. Once, he lobbed a grenade at a bird, which makes no sense, so they made him the radioman. That guy walks last in line, but it’s a hard duty, with a battery of tough technical skills. It calls for a different temperament, too: unflappable, precise, decisive. The kid learned it, on the job.
(Interlude 2: Leaders burn out. A Gallop study in Japan, where breakdowns from ‘karoshi’, overwork, are common – indeed, they called it “death by overwork” – showed that the most effective personnel go down hardest and first. Today, mastering the arcane – new digital pathways, adaptive leadership, design thinking, working remotely, training for the unknowable – are the keys to business survival and success. Only the fittest will thrive. Sully, who later earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology, could cogently vouch for the need to switch things up, take a breather when needed, and always keep learning.)
He learned fast – a good thing. In October, his 30-man platoon was ambushed by 600 enemy troops. The Americans went down in the first gust of fire, except for Sully and his radio, their medic and a machine gunner. Sully stepped up. Calmly, he called in artillery. Then jets. Ships offshore. Twenty years old, the air full of lead and the cries of his friends. Forget about movies now, readers.
Sully got hit – shot right through the hips. He kept talking; the enemy closed in. Finally, he called in the big guns – right on his own position. “That kept them off,” he said. “I wasn’t worried. The ‘arty’ never hit what you aim it at,” and he laughed, and I still don’t believe it.
Years afterward, I read his citation. I’d heard the story and others – Nam wasn’t cool; don’t let the flicks fool you – but the bland Marine Corps communique made it stronger, if possible. I stared at my pal, wondering.
“Good thing they don’t give out anti-medals,” he said.
“For the days you screwed up. The weight of ‘em would pull off your shirt.” A funny guy, Sully.
(Interlude 3: Studies reveal that the finest leaders fail quite often. The higher you try to climb, the more chances to fall, hard. Nothing teaches like a rough landing, which isn’t so bad when it doesn’t involve flying bullets, and worse. Top management needs to tolerate failed projects, lost deals – to see the long trend. Everyone knows this, but when things go awry, it’s often forgotten.]
Sully’s mother uses his Bronze Star as a Christmas ornament, shining on that glorious morn to celebrate her son’s hairsbreadth survival. Sully lived with blinding pain from his wound, but he had a son later on. and nothing else mattered. “Don’t mean nothin’,” the pain that wracked him, he’d say.
One day, people will ask: what did you do in the pandemic? Did you step up? No blood’s been spilt, though lives have been lost just as tragically. Preserving a business may seem small bones – but no. That’s bread on the table, kids in a school, a hopeful future, without fail. A business is no petty indulgence: it’s somebody’s dream, and the way we all live. We need its vitality. The pandemic isn’t over, but the learning is well underway. Our war stories can come later.
We’ve written a lot on succession planning. Usually, we talk about replacing top executives who retire or otherwise move on. Nurturing in-house talent is on the agenda, too, and the pandemic is forcing firms to consider the mysterious, promising, threatening future, and all three at once. Who will lead when the next storm hits the fan?
Sully was trained to his job. His embraced technology, grabbed onto new skills that saved the boys’ lives. One time, they were “in the bushes” for ten days and hardly ate. Back to camp, the mess hall was closed, so no hot beans for the grunts. Their commander, sharp despite rank, abruptly uncaring of regs, said ‘do your thing.’ They tore the front right off the building. Some skills aren’t in the manual: action must match unbidden reality. And so, they all ate.