Five characteristics of a great combat leader

In a firefight everything is chaos. Noise and dust fills the air, the enemies’ actions are unpredictable, your own life as well as that of your troops is at stake. The best combat leaders are able to navigate in chaos, face the danger, and make rational decisions under extreme pressure.

Danish officer directing mortar fire during operation operation "Panthers Claws" Helmand, Summer 2009

Danish officer directing mortar fire during operation operation “Panthers Claws” Helmand, Summer 2009

But I am not only talking about formal leadership. In combat everybody has some responsibility of leading: The soldier who sees the enemy must be able to react. The soldiers around him must be able to return fire and take up positions without waiting for orders. The point man’s actions sets the stage for the unit’s handling of the situation. The five characteristics are thus useful not only for the formal leader but also for the soldier on the ground. Let us have a look at them:

Leads from the front

Leaders who physically place themselves alongside the troops will gain respect from the soldiers. This creates follow-ship. Pick your own examples from movies or books: William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in Braveheart or in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

In combat I have known soldiers to hesitate. By personally leading the engagement from the front and constantly using the order “follow me!” I increase the probability that everybody moves. When the leader moves with his team and fights alongside the soldiers, the probability that they keep fighting is also increased.

Keeps calm and avoids panic

During a firefight it is crucial not to panic: A high pulse, tunnel vision or sounds that are suddenly higher or lower than normal are all signs that this is happening. In that state you are no longer able to make rational decisions. And panic spreads fast.

The cure is simple: Breathe and lower your pulse. Seek cover and concentrate on your breathing. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Concentrate on three breathes. And then back into the firefight.

Copes with uncertainty and chaos

The ability not to make decisions and to cope with uncertainty is undervalued. In combat only the most essential decisions need to be taken. Only the most essential facts need to be considered. To navigate successfully in chaos the leader must accept that there are a lot of things outside his control. He must never waste his energy on those things. Instead he must use all his energy to focus on the things he and the team are able to achieve.

Maintains focus on the objective

A leader must always maintain focus on the objective of the team. Regardless of wounded or even killed soldiers, focus must be maintained on the objective. I remember an episode from Afghanistan where our battle position was attacked by the Taliban. One of my machine gunners was hit. I also recall my initial thought: “Damn. Now we are missing a machine gun.”

Such a thought in a peaceful environment might seem cold and cynical. But in combat it is an example of maintaining focus. I had medics in my unit who could give him the best attention. We had already trained for such eventualities. Their job was to treat him. My job was to lead the unit and to deny the Taliban assault on our position. This new situation had not changed the objective. Had I failed to maintain focus we might have had even more casualties.

Knows the intent

The leader must know the intent of his mission. In chaos opportunities arise. The military leader must have the courage to seize the initiative and exploit opportunities. An open enemy flank can be used to counter attack the enemy, a sudden break through to bring him out of balance.

This is only possible if the leader has a deep knowledge of the plan, the intent, his tasks, and those of his colleagues.

Let’s talk: What about the best leaders in your industry. Do they have some of the same characteristics?

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