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Monday, October 29, 2012

Leadership, Teamwork, Marines, and Tough Mudder


First, let me be clear: I am not an expert on leadership, and I don't even have a clear grasp on the vocabulary of leadership. I also have professional buddies who work in the field, and I don't want to infringe on their turf lest the return the favor. Nonetheless, I gave proud witness to an event last Saturday that could have been scripted as a textbook example of systemic leadership and teamwork.

It is not hard to find people in any given workplace using words like teams, teamwork, and leaders. What's harder is to find substantive examples of these words and ideas. Oh sure, you can find glimmers, glimpses, and sparkles of hope everywhere, but my nigh on 60 years on this planets has found the vocabulary exceeds the reality by an alarming amount, and people still think of leadership as George Washington in that iconic painting as his army crossed the river.

I suspect that concept, if not the picture itself, has done more to hinder growth in leadership and teamwork than anything else. As was asked in a book I can't at the moment remember: Will the CEO of the Internet please stand? And yes, by typing it, I remembered it. (Systemic Leadership by Allen and Cherrey) Aging. Go figure.

So here in the spring of my second childhood, I entered Tough Mudder. You can read about that journey in earlier posts. What I'm writing about here is something I watched unfold during the latter half of the event.

We have been following a group of military runners. Marines, I suspect, but they could have been Army. About a dozen of very well put-together men. One was running on a blade, and the group moved as a loose knot. I don't think they were ever more than ten feet apart during the time I trailed them.

Yet, it is without doubt that some could have moved faster had they but chosen. Or needed. At one point, I watched in amazement as one in that team broke loose from the knot. He ran as a gazelle across the terrain they had just passed to recover a lost item. You might have thought he was a sprinter freshly entering the race, not a man who had just run 12 miles to engage two dozen obstacles.

They stayed together. They. Stayed. Together.

We reached the obstacle called Mount Everest. A quarter-pipe some 20 feet tall. You have to run up it. Some can make it to the top. Most cannot. Those who can make it reach back to help those who cannot. So what did the Marines do?

As a group, they stood in line until they were next, and then as a group, they moved to the base of the pipe where they systematically formed a prone pyramid along the surface of the pipe. With the pyramid in place, the Marine with the blade climbed over the pyramid to the top of the pipe where he turned and waited, likely not even hearing the cheers of the crowd. The members of his team collapsed the pyramid, returned to the top of the line where the rest of us waited, and then systematically, one-by-one, they launched themselves into the challenge. The man with the blade caught the first. Those two caught the second. This continued until those Marines defeated the Mount Everest.

The group probably had a senior officer, but I can assure you they had no George Washington. They had no Rambo. Their training made them a sentient pack. You would not want these men angry with you.

Bear in mind that I make no call to release us from independent thought, perhaps even action. There will always be that need. However, in the mightiest campaign, the lowest grunt on the field can halt that campaign with a single word when that grunt sees something wrong, and good leadership, confident leadership, competent leadership sets the stage to accept input from all levels, not just the pleasant few. I look forward to the day such systemic leadership not only trickles down from the military to the rest of our world but also to the day when organizations release the chains of hierarchical leadership and adopt systemic leadership, leadership through the ranks.


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