life lesson

Tactical Patience: Let the battle develop

The Thick of It

About 2/3 through my first deployment to Iraq, my unit went to the middle of the desert somewhere outside of Baghdad to train. It seemed really stupid at the time. We were literally deployed to a war, and to most of the junior soldiers (myself included) the fact that we had been a part of the initial invasion validated us as permanently trained. Training while at war just didn’t seem to make much sense.

As a junior NCO, I thought I knew everything there was to know about being a good tactical leader.

Looking back at it now, I realize just how much I didn’t know. And training while at war  is much more understandable.

As part of the training, we did a live fire training exercise that consisted of a squad attack on a bunker. Our weapons squad was attached, so they’d be using their machine guns to help. At the time, I didn’t really understand how my fire team fit into the bigger picture. I thought that if I could shoot, and my guys could shoot, and we could perform our tasks violently and aggressively, we’d be successful and win.

During the attack, the weapons squad opened up fire on the bunker and my squad leader released me to flank to one of the sides with my team. I’d call the shift fire and lift fire, and then we’d assault the bunker.

I moved quickly and made the calls. The firing stopped, my team rushed the bunker and we knocked out the bunker.

Within a few moments, ENDEX was called. I was pleased with how aggressively and violently we’d moved. We took the bunker quickly and it felt like a success.

In the AAR, the main topic of discussion was why we didn’t let the weapons squad fire up the bunker more.

“Who called the shift and lift fire?”

“I did,” I responded, confidently.

“Why didn’t you let the weapons squad fire more?”

“Uh, I figured it was better to knock out the bunker faster. Shock value, before the enemy knew what was going on.”

“Ok. Good initiative, but bad judgement. You have to have tactical patience. Let the weapons squad prep the objective a little bit beforehand. Don’t just rush the bunker. Let the battle develop.”

That was the first time I had heard the phrase “tactical patience” or “let the battle develop.” During a firefight, there is a tendency to want to move quickly and get things done in a hurry. The chaos, noise, and energy elevates your heart rate, and the fear and physical exertion pushes the action. For leaders who have to make important life and death decisions under these conditions, exercising “tactical patience” can mean the difference between life and death, success or failure.

Tactical patience is simply taking a moment before making an important decision to confirm that it actually is what you want to do. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do in practice.

In the example above, I would have exercised tactical patience if I understood how effective the weapons squad could be in degrading the bunker and felt more comfortable sitting there, waiting, while the bullets flew and noise filled my ears. In those moments, seconds feel like minutes. For the calm observer behind us, watching, he sees a much different picture. Because he isn’t “in” the fight, he’s able to assess from a removed position. A good leader is able to exercise that level of detachment while being in the fight himself – something that comes from a high level of self-awareness and experience.

While tactical patience obviously has great applicability in the military, I’ve found it useful in a number of situations outside its original intended scope. I try to exercise tactical patience before making a major purchase, for example. Something that I’m just about certain I want to buy one moment becomes suddenly less desirable if I’m able to resist the urge for just a day or two. When it comes to writing, I’m often tempted to “just post it” when I get done with the first draft. It seems good enough, after all. When I’m able to resist that urge and show some tactical patience, I find that upon second look I’ll often make some significant edits before publishing.

In college, I had a professor who was a former foreign service officer. He spoke about the constant writing he did as part of his routine duties. For most of his peers, their first draft was their final draft. He strongly encouraged us to start writing early – just get something down – and slowly polish it and grind it out as time goes on. Resist the urge, he pushed, to give a great first effort and submit. Rather, get it down, save it as a draft, and come back to it later. In time, ideas and input that may have not been evident initially might present themselves. Let the battle develop.

Conversely, if tactical patience is misapplied, you might find yourself in a position where you didn’t move quickly enough, or you may appear to be dithering. The same goes with “letting the battle develop.”

Exercising tactical patience and letting the battle develop are two little Army-isms that have helped me get along, both in the military and out of it. With practice, experience, and confidence, they can be used to great effect in regular life.

life lesson

Time Hacks and Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completionPatrol Base

I stood in the middle of the patrol base. It was completely dark, and I was giving orders to my team leaders. I told them to have the men pair up, and one at a time, pull off the line. One would clean his weapon while the other maintained security.

They dutifully nodded and made it happen, tired soldiers crawling a few meters back from their position to lazily wipe carbon and oil out of the guts of their rifles. They droned on.

I sat in the middle of the patrol base and worked on a sector sketch, feeling good about having given out orders.

The military trainer approached me and kneeled. I could barely see his face in the darkness.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m working on my sector sketch” I responded.

“No, what are your guys doing?”

“Oh, they’re cleaning weapons,” I said, looking over my shoulder at dark figures, barely moving.

“How long have they been doing that for?”

“Uh, about thirty minutes,” I responded.

“Listen, when you give out orders you need to give a task, condition, standard, and a time hack. Otherwise, they’ll just go on doing whatever it is you told them to do forever.”

This small piece of advice would be forever etched in my mind. I was 19 years old in the the woods of Fort Bragg, North Carolina and it was right there that I learned the importance of giving clear orders with an associated time hack. In this case, instead of simply telling the guys to to “clean their weapons” I should have said something like “pull out the bolt, wipe off the oil and carbon, dump some oil on it, put the bolt back in and then swap out with your buddy. You have five minutes to have both rifles clean. Go.”

The “time hack” is a leadership technique used to great effect by both small unit military leaders and field grade officers. If you tell a soldier to do something – whatever it is – without giving specific guidance on how to do it and more importantly, when to do it (or when to have it completed), you are leaving the task to the individual leisure of that soldier. If he or she is motivated and a go-getter, they may tackle it immediately with fantastic results. If he or she is a shammer, it will always be the task that they are right about to get to, as soon as they finish this other thing.

Years later, after I left the Army, I became really interested in “lifehack” blogs and “GTD” articles. Somewhere along the way, I came across “Parkinson’s Law,” which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That is, if you give someone a big chunk of time in which to accomplish a task, it is likely that they will use that time to its fullest. This is related to procrastination, in the way a student can knock out a paper they were assigned a month ago on the night before it is due, simply out of necessity.

The original essay was meant to be humorous and a jab at the British Civil Service – specifically, the British Colonial Service, which incidentally I recently mentioned in another post. Funny as it is, Parkinson’s law makes sense, and can be applied to both organizations who duplicate jobs and create “busy” work as well as individuals, for whom, as Gretchen Rubin recently posted about – nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Parkinson’s article is worth reading in its entirety. The manner and style is outdated, which is why I think boiling down the law to assigning “time hacks” is more digestible. Schedule a task and limit the amount of time you give yourself (or someone else) for completion, and you are more likely to see it to completion. Leave it floating out there in the ether to be completed at leisure, and it will never get done, becoming an exhausting nag that stares at you for days and weeks and months on end.


life lesson

Life Lesson: Have a “Capture Device”

During our initial inbrief at IBOLC, the battalion commander read off a list of ten things (I think it was ten) that would help us to be successful officers in the Army. Some of them were pretty basic, like be in good physical shape and try to get enough sleep. I dutifully copied down the notes, but became particularly interested when he said “Number 8, always have a ‘capture device.'”

I straightened up and craned my neck to listen.

Around the time I was getting out of the Army in 2006 and starting college, I became super-interested in all things “productivity.” I read all the blogs and articles and theories. I created my own monster of a “getting things done” system that I still follow and tweak today (a post for another time).

So when he mentioned something that sounded like it might fall into that realm, I found myself listening intently.

He went on to talk about how good ideas often present themselves at random and inopportune times, and without a “capture device” they will simply disappear.

A capture device can be anything, from a simple pen and pad to an App on your iPhone (I use Things, and to a lesser degree, Evernote).

It is some of the best advice I ever heard, and my feeling is that it was lost on most the young Lieutenants sitting in the room.

Did you ever notice that you’ll often have fantastic ideas while in the shower or during exercise? There’s a bunch of scientific reasons why that happens. When Don Draper is stumped on an idea, he goes to the movies and lets his brain rest. By the time he leaves, the idea is there waiting for him.

Only in real life, if you don’t have a place to “capture” that idea, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks hours later, staring at the floor with an outstretched index finger and scrunched face, trying to remember what it was you wanted to do.

When I get an idea for work, social life, a gift, this blog – anything – I will stop what I’m doing and go to my “capture device,” in this case, my iPhone, and capture it quickly, usually in just a couple of words, and then revisit it later. The idea for this blog post came after I got an idea for another blog post and went to my phone, realizing that it would also be interesting to write about that in the first place!

Those “good ideas” only last a few moments before I forget them, usually because I’m caught up in something I’m enjoying, like watching a movie or exercising. Without capturing them, I am essentially letting them pass, hoping they’ll return at a later time when I’m not so engaged – unlikely, says science.

Over time, I’ve collected lots of great ideas for ‘things,’ most of which amount to nothing, or sit on an ever-growing list of things that I may one day do. Others, though, have been fantastic and lead me down paths or allowed me to do things that I never thought I would do. That is why I almost always have my iPhone with me.

It is my capture device.


life lesson

Life Lesson: Treat the Body Strictly

No!As Seneca, the Roman Stoic who advised treating the body “somewhat strictly,” wrote in a letter: “Avoid whatever is approved by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm… They are snares… we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught. That track leads to precipices; life on the that giddy level ends in a fall.”

From the New York Times, October 12, 2008.