How This Army Ranger Stays Focused Under Enemy Fire

March 16, 2017, 11:30 PM UTC
Soldier with automatic weapon
Stocktrek—Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What advice would you give your 22 year old self today?” is written by Jeff Martindale, partner at McChrystal Group and former U.S. Army Colonel.

I could clearly see the objective ahead of me. The rocket launch pad, defended by enemy troops and illuminated by numerous spotlights, was now impossible to miss. As I lay exhausted in a desert ravine, surrounded by 150 paratroopers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, I knew that accomplishing the mission—to take and hold the facility and secure the rocket payload—would not be easy. But I felt confident that my Rangers would fulfill their team missions and overpower the enemy.

On my signal, we sprang into action and entered the compound. Our well-rehearsed plan unfolded with great precision as I directed our small teams across the launch site, engaging the enemy security forces along the way. The mission was going to be a success, and I felt a glow of pride in both my men and, to no small degree, myself. I had become a functional expert, and I was comfortable in my ability to do what I had done successfully now for several years.

Suddenly, an enemy force emerged from the mountains on our flank. Smaller in number, but benefiting from the element of surprise, they tore through our ranks, decimating my assault force while retaking control of the facility. Our mission, so close to being a success, was now a complete failure. This failure, I knew, rested purely with me. I had failed my men.

Fortunately, this disaster occurred in training during special operation exercises in the Nevada desert. I had unknowingly fallen into a common trap for the newly promoted who are adjusting to leading at the next level: I had focused too much on the leaders below me in rank, whose roles I had already mastered.

Instead, I should have embraced my new role and taken responsibility for the big-picture challenges on which the success of the mission depended—coordinating intelligence, air support, and other external resources, and communicating with headquarters. It was a critical learning moment in my career and one that I now witness often with new leaders across industries.

My commander took me aside at the conclusion of the exercise and delivered career advice that was vital to my success at the age of 22 and beyond: Focus on the things that only you can do, and empower others to do the rest.

The lesson is simple and applies broadly, but the difficulty comes in the execution. First, you must resist the urge to tell the person who takes over your previous job how to do it. Let your replacement do their version of that role, even if you feel like you could do it better or faster. Instead, focus on taking a new approach to your new role.


Second, identify what you are uniquely responsible for, communicate it to your team, and stick to it. By focusing your efforts on the things that only you can do in your leadership role, you will avoid doing unnecessary tasks that would be better suited for others.

Third, learn to accept that others are going to make mistakes. Instead of focusing on the negative, celebrate successful decisions and take responsibility for wrong ones, while sharing lessons learned with the rest of the team.

Make sure to preserve breathing room in your schedule to think and establish a proactive environment. This enables you to focus on the most critically important issues.

Focusing on what only I could do, while empowering others around me to do the rest, proved critical throughout my years in the military, especially during combat operations. It continues to hold true in my career in the business world.

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