In the summer of 1983 I was chosen to lead a squad of soldiers through a night navigation on foot. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Remember, there was no GPS. navigation yet and this was done using compass, azimuths and other methods of rote memorization. We had trained for weeks on navigation and successfully completed daytime exercises in places like deserts, remote forests, mountains, valleys and rocky stretches of land. None of the exercises were near any roads with signs. The area chosen was selected for its remoteness. There were several beduin encampments with some fixed buildings, but not much else. During the day we were told to familiarize ourselves with the area. Essentially were given a 12 Kilometer “Tour” of the area on foot by our leaders during the day. We all knew that at night everything looked different. I was chosen as one of the leaders because I had aced all the navigation tests and repeatedly had proven myself to be reliable and accurate when quizzed on locations and routes. Navigation seemed to come naturally to me and by that point I was downright cocky about my ability to find my way. That was my first mistake: being cocky.
As in all military scenarios the Army had chosen to train us all week and of course deprive us of sleep for the entire week. It was now Thursday and this was the final exam in our sleep deprived and exhausted state. Sleep deprivation is done to simulate the stress of combat and in our training this was standard. We’d already spent 5 weeks sleep deprived so what’s another week like that? Of the 8 man team, 8/8 including me were suffering from the ill effects of that middle eastern bacteria called “shil-shul” that makes laughable western versions of stomach/bowel problems like diarrhea. Shil-shul was akin to dysentery. When you had to go, there was no waiting. Add to that the fact that it liquefies your internal digestive system. It’s disgusting. We also had the 108 degree weather to add to our state of mind during the day and the fact we had been in the field all week and had been drinking from our fungus’d and molded canteens which despite the cleansing with toothpaste made the water taste like clean smelling mold/ fungus. Make that hot mold/fungus water. Did I mention that no one had the chance to shower since two weeks prior? Anyhow, this was a typical training scenario near week’s end and Thursday nights were legendary for the last push before the week-end.
As I was briefed with the other squad leaders we were all given different objectives and routes. We had 10 minutes to memorize our routes and make our plans. We were all given maps to study. After ten minutes the maps were sealed. If you opened the maps on the course it was an instant fail. I sailed past my ten minute briefing with no problem. I knew my route and had my plan, no problem.
As the squad leaders circled back up our Officers and NCO’s wished us good luck and told us the sooner we made it back the sooner we could sleep. First squad back would not post guards so they would get a full night sleep. I’ve never forgotten my Commander’s final words: “we’ll see you all back here around 1-2 AM. If you get lost, circle up, sit tight, we’ll find you in the morning.” I wasn’t worried. We’d be back first and we could get 3-4 hours of sleep! No problem.
What happened that night is etched in my memory. We jumped off at around 9 PM. As we started to walk the first trail I heard someone jump into the bushes on the side of the trail. This was to start an all night ritual of stopping as people had to rid themselves of the bacteria poisoning their digestive tracks. As the night wore on, I became disoriented and lost. Somewhere around 3 AM I opened the map and broke the seal. I’d failed the exercise but I had to get the squad back to the bivouac. The squad had been battling since midnight about opening the map. It was not just a fail for me, but for the entire team. By 1 AM I had a mutiny on my hands as we had argued about the route, where we were and why it seemed we were in an endless loop in the same valley. (of course chosen by the Army for that exact reason). The fighting became severe and several times myself and my number 2 had to physically prevent violence including at one point people threatening to shoot each other. No joke when everyone has M-16’s and live ammunition. The group was disintegrating before my eyes. About 50% had lost faith in my leadership. By 3 AM I’d had enough. The soldiers were sick; over tired; and some were starting to display severe symptoms of dehydration. My only goal upon opening the map was to get them back to the bivouac and get them atropine tablets and clean water.
The map wasn’t as helpful as I wanted at first because I wasn’t entirely sure where we were. I picked a direction and path where I thought we could get to a point where I could triangulate on three villages. Where they would appear on my horizon would tell me where we were.
We made it back to the bivouac at 0730. My Captain looked at me, smiled and said, “Congratulations. You failed. You failed because you went over the time; you failed because you led your team to the wrong place; you failed because you didn’t pick up not even one way point correctly; and you failed because you got lost. By the way, there’s one other team out there, we’re on the way to get them. In the meantime your squad will tear down the entire camp and load it onto the trucks as your reward for failing so miserably. I expected more from you.” As the US Navy SEALS would say, my team was 4th loser. We had to be punished for this sin. .
Guess how I felt? About the size of peanut. A colossal fail.
That night I learned a lot of life lessons. Have I always applied them? No. However when I think back to that night what an incredible education. I learned about finding my way that night. Finding my way as a soldier, as a leader and as a builder of teams. That night I didn’t get to pick my team. In business we get to pick out teams. What a wonderful luxury. More about that in another blog. Starting a business is always a journey. Finding your way is part of the challenge. No doubt about it, we’re finding our way!