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Lessons Learned: The Art of the Tactical Pause

April 01, 20248 min read

It was at this moment that I made the worst decision of my professional career as a Soldier and as a leader. - Stephen J. Morris

Introduction:

If I were to ask you, "What is the hardest lesson you have learned on your journey to becoming the leader you are today?" What would you say? How much did that lesson cost? Who was impacted by it? We are all filled with these hard lessons. Some are more painful than others, but the same: they are hard lessons that have shaped the person and leader we are today.

My story is similar to yours. It was a hard lesson that shook me to my core. This lesson has shaped how I make decisions, communicate, and even how I think of adversity. This lesson came at an extreme cost. Before I tell the story, please keep in mind that this was a training event, but it felt very real. This is how I learned "The Art of the Tactical Pause".

8 Reasons

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts. - Winston Churchill

During a training exercise, I could hear my sister team over the radio reporting: "This is Red 2 Romeo (the call sign of the team's radio operator), Contact North, OUT!" In less than a second of that report, the late-night sky filled with the sound of gunfire, and the reports kept coming in. "This is Red 2 Romeo, Contact East, OUT!" "This is Red 2; we are in an ambush just southeast of the city square! We have multiple casualties! Request immediate support! Send QRF (Quick Reaction Force)! OUT!"

Sitting safely in the wood line about a 1/4 of a mile from Red 2, I listened to these reports with my team, Red 3. I could hear machine gun fire bellowing through the night sky and the distant sounds of men shouting their commands. I grabbed my radio and called the unit commander:

"Red Actual. This is Red 3 Over!" "Red 3, Red Actual, send it!" "Red Actual, I request my team immediately moves to support Red 2, OVER!" "Red 3, negative! Sit tight for a minute, Red Actual OUT!"

Again, I could hear more reports coming in from Red 2. There were more casualties, more enemy combatants, and worst of all, they were starting to go black on ammo, which meant they were running out fast. It was at this moment that I made the worst decision of my professional career as a Soldier and as a leader.

I ordered my team to move out. We were going to save Red 2, and I would deal with the wrath of my Commander after I saved the lives of Red 2 and his team. We rushed from the wood line into the streets of the training city. We took a right down a back alley, moved at almost a dead sprint down two or three blocks to where the alley ended, and then turned left. Almost as fast as I saw Anderson disappear around the corner, I heard the explosion, and before I could do anything, I saw Smith disappear as well, trying to move away from the IED that had just gone off. In this effort, Smith sealed his fate as well, triggering the secondary IED that was in between two cars.

I had just lost my point man and number two in a heartbeat. We moved without communication to secure the area to allow Doc (the team's medic) to do his work. While Doc was working, I was trying to gather my thoughts to report to the Commander what had happened and give him our location to get my injured out so we could move on with my mission to support Red 2. At that moment, I heard a single gunshot.

"Report!" I shouted and looked around. "3 UP!" came the first report, and "6 UP!" came the second.

Where was 5? Where was Doc? My eyes scanned over, and I saw Doc slumped over the body of Anderson. No, I screamed in my head. A sniper. BOOM! Another single shot echoed through the night sky. I watched Wilson, my breach man, as the light on his vest lit up. The sign that he had just been shot and killed. I will spare you the rest of this fight. It lasted about a minute, maybe less. Myself and one team member remained and the sniper quick work of us.

LESSONS LEARNED: A TACTICAL PAUSE

Importance of Assessing the Situation

The chaos of the situation underscored the critical importance of assessing the full scope of circumstances before taking action. Rushing into a decision without a clear understanding of the risks and challenges ahead can lead to catastrophic outcomes. In hindsight, I realized that a brief pause to assess the situation thoroughly could have provided invaluable insights and potentially averted the tragedy that unfolded.

Moreover, the need to assess the situation extended beyond immediate threats to include a strategic evaluation of available resources and potential courses of action. In the rush to respond, I overlooked vital details such as our team's proximity to the injured, the availability of medical supplies, and the risk of encountering additional threats along the route. This oversight left us vulnerable and ill-prepared to address the unfolding crisis effectively.

Furthermore, the failure to assess the situation comprehensively hindered our ability to adapt and respond dynamically to evolving circumstances. Without a clear understanding of the broader context, our actions were reactive rather than strategic, exacerbating the chaos and confusion on the ground.

Value of Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking is essential for making well-informed decisions, especially in fast-moving and dynamic environments. My failure to pause and engage in strategic deliberation before acting was a critical error that cost us dearly. Taking the time to consider alternative courses of action, anticipate potential outcomes, and devise a comprehensive plan could have provided a clearer path forward and minimized the risks we encountered.

Furthermore, strategic thinking enables leaders to anticipate and mitigate risks effectively, ensuring the safety and success of their teams. By analyzing the situation strategically, leaders can identify potential threats, vulnerabilities, and opportunities, allowing them to develop proactive strategies to address them. In retrospect, I realized that a strategic pause would have allowed us to assess the terrain, evaluate potential ambush points, and devise a safer route to our objective, thereby reducing the likelihood of encountering enemy fire or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Strategic thinking fosters adaptability and resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity. Leaders can prepare themselves and their teams to respond effectively to unexpected challenges by envisioning multiple scenarios and considering various contingencies. In our case, a strategic pause would have allowed us to develop contingency plans for medical evacuation, communication breakdowns, and enemy reinforcements, enabling us to maintain cohesion and effectiveness amid chaos.

Importance of Self-awareness

Leadership requires a deep sense of self-awareness, including an understanding of one's own strengths, weaknesses, and emotional triggers. In retrospect, I recognized that my decision to charge forward was driven more by emotion and a desire to be perceived as heroic rather than a rational assessment of the situation. A moment of self-reflection and introspection could have helped me recognize the influence of my emotions and approach the situation with greater clarity and objectivity.

Self-awareness enables leaders to recognize and manage their emotions effectively, preventing impulsive decision-making and promoting sound judgment. Leaders can develop the emotional intelligence necessary to navigate high-pressure situations with composure and resilience by cultivating self-awareness. In our scenario, a moment of self-awareness could have allowed me to acknowledge my fear, anxiety, and sense of urgency without allowing them to cloud my judgment or dictate my actions.

Furthermore, self-awareness fosters humility and a willingness to seek input and feedback from others, enhancing collaboration and decision-making effectiveness. Leaders who are self-aware are more likely to acknowledge their limitations, seek assistance when needed, and learn from their mistakes, thereby continuously improving their leadership skills. Looking back, I realized that a humble recognition of my own fallibility and a willingness to seek counsel from my team could have prevented the tragic consequences of my rash decision.

In closing

Reflecting on the harrowing events of that training exercise, I am reminded of the profound lessons learned through adversity. Though tragic, the experience served as a crucible that forged my leadership skills, character, and resilience.

The importance of assessing the situation, engaging in strategic thinking, and cultivating self-awareness cannot be overstated. These lessons, hard-earned through trial and error, have fundamentally reshaped my approach to leadership and decision-making.

As leaders, we are often faced with high-stakes situations where split-second decisions can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death. In those moments, the ability to pause, assess, and strategize can be our greatest asset. Moreover, the journey toward self-awareness is ongoing and ever-evolving. It requires humility, introspection, and a willingness to confront our own biases and limitations. By embracing self-awareness, we not only become better leaders but also better human beings, capable of empathy, compassion, and genuine connection with others.

I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts." As we navigate the challenges of leadership, may we always remember the lessons learned from adversity, drawing strength from our experiences and using them to chart a course toward a brighter future, both for ourselves and for those we lead.

Leadership developmentTactical decision-makingStrategic thinking in adversityLessons in self-awarenessTraining event reflections
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Stephen J. Morris

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