I got blown up over 30 years ago. Here are three leadership lessons I took away from that experience.

Richard Eaton

“’I am a soldier, and unapt to weep, Or to exclaim on fortune’s fickleness.”

Henry VI

In 1988 I was an Officer in Britain’s Parachute Regiment, one of hundreds of soldiers charged with countering terrorist activity in South Armagh, Northern Ireland. It was called Bandit Country for a reason. Of the more than 3000 people, mainly civilians, who were killed during ‘The Troubles’, about 400 perished in South Armagh. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), and their Crossmaglen Active Service Unit (ASU), were responsible for the majority of these deaths, at fairly little cost to themselves. It was pretty much like fighting heavily armed ghosts.

On this, my third tour, I was to be based in Crossmaglen. Ground zero for the UK’s ‘War on Terror’ at that time. It was almost a certainty that we in Crossmaglen, branded XMG by an abbreviation mad Army, would be hit at some point during our tour. XMG was the IRA’s backyard, and to leave a military unit untouched during a full tour of duty there would have been an unacceptable blow to IRA prestige.

Being skilled insurgents, the IRA had a wide variety of tools in their armoury including car bombs, incendiary devices, grenades, heavy machine guns, long range snipers and, a South Armagh specialty, enormous bombs (IEDs) containing enough explosive punch to wipe a small city block off the map. Our training prepared us well for all these dire possibilities, of course, but the one weapon that was the hardest to counter was the mortar bomb attack. Within a couple of hours of stealing a truck, or lorry as the British say, the IRA could weld a battery of 10 large mortar tubes to the back, put it in a camouflaged firing position with a timer attached, and be back across the border to Southern Ireland, their safe haven, well before the bombs dropped into our base locations. These were big mortar bombs, equivalent to a heavy artillery shell in destructive power, usually fashioned from large propane tanks stuffed with high explosive and fitted with detonators. One bomb could ruin your whole day. Several bombs could, and had, killed many people in a single attack.

When we deployed to XMG, threat levels were high. A month or so before our deployment I visited the base to meet with the regiment we would take over from and gather information to help us to better prepare for our own deployment. In the few days I was there a helicopter was shot down in a heavy machine gun ambush, a dog handler and his dog were killed with a remotely controlled IED, and another huge IED was discovered, dug up and, thankfully, neutralized. I got the hint: this was not going to be a walk in the park.

On return from my fact finding trip I worked with my boss to help craft our own approach to deal with these real and present dangers. Our strategy? We would be hard to track, operating unseen as much as possible, and then move quickly to concentrate and surprise them when and where we were least expected. You know, kind of like they were doing to us. And this approach worked great, for the first couple of months. Through July and August of that year we got the message that the IRA were having a hard time figuring out our patterns and planning their attacks on us. This was a great validation of our approach. The flip side, however, was that if they couldn’t successfully take on our patrols in the countryside, they would have to try and hit one of our base locations. And one day, in September 1988, they did just that.

I remember being near the operations room, inside the main building, when I heard the first bomb land. Then the blast forced its way through the building via an errantly open outside door. Being the Operations Officer for our unit I, of course, ignored all the training we had been given about what to do during a mortar attack – take cover, wait for the other bombs to land, etc – and immediately headed for the Ops Room, my place of duty. I earned myself a flying door in the head for my troubles. The rest of the day was a blur of activity as we made sure that we had no casualties (thanks largely to a dozen miracles, everyone was fine), and then managed the follow up, clearance operation, and the million other details that are an intrinsic part of such incidents.

Since that time I’ve often wondered what could be learned about leadership from this somewhat unique, and fortuitously non-fatal, experience. Here are three things I took away from getting blown up 31 years ago:

1. Just because you got blown up doesn’t mean that you have failed

As I heard the first bomb land I recall thinking something counter-intuitive along the lines of ‘Yay! Our plan is working!’. When you find yourself intentionally immersed in a tough situation, where the risk of being attacked or otherwise failing some way is almost a forgone conclusion, you need to acknowledge and embrace reality, then build a strategy to deal proactively with that situation. In our case, we realized that operating in a high threat environment using tactics familiar to our enemies would likely get the wrong people killed. By playing ‘hard to get’ we presented the IRA with the problem of how to kill us without being able to track us. This resulted in a successful mortar attack on a hardened security forces base by a frustrated bunch of terrorists resulting in no Army or civilian casualties which, coincidentally, is the perfect win-win scenario: the IRA saved face, and we saved lives.

2. Success is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration

In retrospect it would have been much easier to just adopt the plans and practices of other units, but we knew what that would likely get us: body bags on a helicopter. If you could find enough body to put in the bag that is. So we spent the majority of our time preparing for an incident just like the one we eventually experienced. Much of our training and preparation was tailored to match the strategy we had devised based on sound data. We went over contingency plans carefully and updated them as the situation warranted. We experimented with novel approaches to patrolling the countryside, reaching out to engage external assets to help out, and built and maintained strong connections with the police, and others, who we knew were a critically important part of the solution. All of this preparation and maintenance was continuous, hard work. When the inevitable happens, and the bombs start dropping in, then it’s time to execute on your plans, through perspiration dappled personal example as required, to help ensure that everything goes right in the heat of the moment, and that others see you sharing the risks.

3. Be hard but fair

There is much talk these days about being ‘soft on people, hard on the problems’ and other such inspirational messages. Our approach was based on nothing of the sort. To be successful, our strategy relied on deploying highly trained, tough, wily and committed leaders and teams, well selected and prepared for lonely, physically arduous, dangerous work under the worst possible conditions. These teams needed to be fully mission focused, and identify and seize emergent opportunities independently while keeping the higher level mission in mind. They had to do all this, of course, while understanding that they could be blown to bits at any moment. We had to train really hard, with a ‘no slack’ approach. Fortunately, we had some of the best raw material in the world to work with as Britain’s Parachute Regiment soldier is the product of some of the toughest selection processes in existence. But we also had to apply the rules fairly. We made it painfully clear when anyone, including those of us who could be described as ‘the Boss’, weren’t measuring up. As long as the standard remains the highest possible, is fairly applied to all, and continuously improves through shared learnings, hard but fair leadership will always tend to outperform others in most situations: life and death included.

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