Leadership Lessons From Scout Alfa 33

Morning Briefing


W. Michael Phibbs

In folklore and romanticized movies the Army scout would come over the wide expansive plain and walk up to his commander and point, “The enemy is over there!” He would then turn, with arrows still protruding from his back, and fade into the distance only to reappear when danger lurked again.

In truth an Army scout’s job is not romantic and not a job for the solitary soldier. For the uninitiated, Scouts go miles out in front of the regular infantry companies. They find the enemy and report back to their commanders. They work as a small team and this requires incredible leadership abilities to get the team to be self-reliant and perform at these high levels.

Alberto had spent almost decade assigned to “regular strait leg infantry line platoon” and his transfer to another division didn’t surprise him; every three or four years everyone gets moved. As a team leader, he knew his craft: digging fighting positions, ranging targets, and a whole host of other seemingly mundane tasks which occur when a 45 man company goes into the bush. But all of that was about to change.

“Welcome to the Scout Platoon, Alberto,” said the Sergeant Major as he slapped him on the back. For an instant Alberto was elated. No more digging foxholes up to my neck at two o’clock in the morning. Then it hit him. If a scout needed to dig then it was too late. He was used to fighting with numbers of men, not sneaking around, finding targets, and relying on artillery to save him if he ever needed to evade an enemy. Scouts have always been highly prized prisoners. Hell, most scouts never made it to captivity and were simply killed where they were caught.

Regardless of Alberto’s rank, he was green to the ways of a Scout Platoon. He was told by his both his Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant that he would initially be under a junior NCO while in the bush. Until he proved himself that is. The platoon had been assigned to run scout missions for a battalion exercise somewhere in a jungle the next week. He only had a few days to ensure he had his equipment and to meet his new team. When First Sergeant Smith introduced Alberto to his new platoon, Alfa 33, all of the members seemed to stare at him disapprovingly. A Specialist named Ramsey pulled a map out of his pocket and unfolded it. “Word has it you are a “Strait leg” from a line company. Pointing to his map, can you get me from this spot to that spot without getting me killed?” “When was the last time you called for artillery or air strike?” “Never” replied Alberto. “Bullshit, he’s not leading me”, came from back of the pack. Alberto’s heart sank as “Welcome to the Scout Platoon” echoes in the back of his head.

Over the next year Alberto listened and learned. He learned quickly, because he had to in order to survive not only the “enemy” but further disfavor from the rest of the platoon. Learn or leave in a scout platoon was as synonymous as up or out for an officer. Movement to contact was no longer the name of the game. Scouts go out in five man squads look, listen, find the enemy, report what you find up the chain, and if all possible return alive where now his mantra. He started from the bottom, even as a sergeant, he began by carrying the gear; knowing at first, it was more important to the team to carry the gear than make decisions only his rank qualified him to do.   He watched the specialists and sergeants closely to discern not only the decisions they made, but the thought process behind it. Early on, he would be asked to create the navigation path they would follow on a mission. The first time he presented his plan he was immediately rebuffed, “That is a path a line company would take, the path of least resistance. That path would get us all killed.” A member of the team would then explain how scouts plan navigation plans to conduct missions. How staying at a distance, taking your time, and paying extra attention to the clues left around you provide a better picture than getting too close.

Alberto was not the most talented scout to ever enter the bush, but he could reasonably apply what he was learning. He did have a gift of making friends. He willingly helped out others, even of lower rank, not because he was sucking up, but he generally cared about the people he worked with. He took pride in knowing when someone else succeeded that he had played a part, even if it was sufficiently small. When Specialist Elridge arrived to the platoon he went to the bottom of the pack. It was his turn to carry the extra gear, to walk to the company command post and bring back supplies. Most people felt relieved to move up. Alberto took pity on the new guy. When Elridge was told to walk half a mile back to the command post to get water and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) Alberto jumped up and said he was going to help. First Sergeant Neirman said, “He needs to learn to follow orders and carry the weight.” “He also needs to learn how to serve and help others,” replied Alberto quickly catching up to Elridge.

Fast forward one year, while the sun rained down high into the triple canopy of trees, a down pour of rain still fell onto Alberto’s head. Alfa 33, team 1, was in their positions, and the other sergeants were huddled next to the new Platoon Lieutenant, when the RTO, Radio Telephone Operator, turned to the group, “They changed frequencies and never gave us the new extract. We are now on our own.”

“Well what do we do now? We are already 10 clicks in front of them.” said Fitz, the now the newest sergeant in the platoon. “I’ll tell you what we are going to do. We are going to do our jobs,” said the lieutenant. “We have our target list. We will check them out, and then we are going to look on the dumbest place to put a command post and go there. I bet they will be sitting there all nice and comfy.”

“Alberto, I’m sending you there,” the lieutenant said, as he pointed at the map. “It’s about 7 kilo’s out and   should take you two days to do it correctly. We are going to hit these spots and meet you at this point,” moving his finder up and over the grid lines to the bottom of a ridge line bordering a swamp. “Crap that is a long way with a lot of moving parts” was all Alberto could think. “You are going the furthest and therefore I will let you pick your own team,” said the lieutenant. “You got it, Sir” was all Alberto could say as he began to feel the depths of his self-doubt.

As word passed around the platoon that they had been left behind, the lieutenants resolve to accomplish the mission, and the gravity of the long range recon assignments, the other platoon members began to look deep inside. Some of the squads were stronger than other. Alberto was now good, but he needed people who were great to pull this off. As Alberto’s self-doubt crashed down upon his shoulders, Jones came up to him. “Heard you need a navigator.” Jones was the best in the battalion for creating navigation plans. He never got caught and never got lost, not even in jungles with few terrain markings. Philips simply walked over with the radio packed, “Got the internal ‘platoon freques’ and the batteries are still holding up.” Elridge came up and threw a small stick at Albeto’s chest, “Well, someone has to be on point. God knows where you will end up without me.” “Well, you’re going to need someone to carry your crap. You’re almost 30 and kinds of fragile,” said Dobson.

“Thank you” was the only thing Alberto could say. “Hell, you bailed us out when you didn’t have to in the past; we are only returning the favor, said Jones. “Thanks again,” Alberto said. “Now let’s start planning. Each had their part to play in planning their mission. Over the past two years, Alberto learned to let everyone develop their part of the plan; he simply needed to ensure everything was covered and all the pieces fit. If some part of the plan didn’t seem right he would ask for clarification. When Alberto asked Jones about a TRP, target reference point, on the map, Jones explained why he chose the point. It made sense perfect sense. Philips was packing more communications gear then necessary. Alberto told him that since they had no comms with the company that they only needed the equipment to stay in contact with Alfa 33 and Alfa 36. Leaving the other equipment would save 14 pounds. Over the course of two days, saving 14 pounds would mean a lot.

At 1830 hours, the group headed out. The years of being assigned to a line company know paid dividends to Alberto. He knew the signs to look for. Infantryman walk in lines because is easier to follow a path, instead of walking in wedge formations which means everyone goes through their own little hell breaking brush. Companies leave trash while walking in the woods, they knock over things, and generally “We’re over here” signs everywhere. By early morning they were in position.   As planned, they would split into two groups. Each group would work their way in a 180 degree loop. They would scout out the area, mark their observations on maps, and then regroup on the other side. The key was to stay at a distance: look for through holes in a the vegetation to glimpse small windows of what was occurring, listen for voices, sounds of vehicles, people digging, and cursing. From there they would call back a “Sit Rep” (Situation Report) and move back to the link-up point with the rest of the platoon.

That evening, both groups linked up in a swampy section on the other side of the ridge. “Legs” hate getting wet, which makes swamps a great place to link up because “Legs” are less likely to look for you there. They combined the information and submitted their “Sit-Rep” before moving out. Four hours later they linked-up with the rest of the platoon. They barely had time to rest before they were off again. The Lieutenant saying, ”I found the dumbest place on the map to put a Command Post.” Moving his fingers over the map and stopping on top of a ridge with three roads converging, “We’ll go there first.”

Six hours later the group walked unchallenged right into the command post. The Lieutenant had been wrong. He was off by 50 yards on his estimate of where the command post was located. The area where he had pointed was full of briars. The Command Post was placed in the wood line with more space to set up, and less briars. As they walked in, the Battalion Commander said it was great to see them, and asked how they found the Command Post. The Lieutenant simply requested to talk in private. A short while later, a battalion artillery section could be heard unleashing shells to destroy targets, and groans from “Leg soldiers” were heard as they were told to get up and prepare to move for an early morning attack.

The Lieutenant walked back from his private meeting and said, “Let’s move to someplace safe and get some rest.” Just like the myths of old, the Scouts came in, reported their findings, and slipped away back into the cover of nature. When they finally stopped, Alberto said to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I wanted to thank you for your confidence that I could do the mission.” The Lieutenant, simply looked up, “You’re a Scout right? It was your turn. If I didn’t think you could do it, you would have left here months ago.” As he turned to walk back to his team, Alberto heard “Good job,” come from the Lieutenant.

A month later, Alfa 33 had received orders it was going to deploy to the Middle East. The platoon was told to expect new members that afternoon. All had been transferred from “Leg Units.” “Fresh meet” said a senior member of the team. “Alberto, this time you get to see what you looked like when you showed up.” Alberto grinned. As Sergeants McRoy and Upton, along with Specialists Garcia and Smith, walked into the Alf 33 bay area they were immediately bombarded by questions they had no chance of answering. Alberto knew it was simply a test and welcoming aboard ceremony. Later that evening, Alberto found Sergeant McRoy sitting on a bench outside of the company compound. He looked shell shocked. Alberto walked up to him, slapped him on the back, and said, Welcome to the Scout Platoon. You ready to get started?”

Leadership Reference Points:

  • When you move from one assignment to anything new you will feel anxiety.
  • There will be new things to learn, but it was the same way when you arrived in your old job.
  • You probably will not be the expert.
  • Watch others, see how they make decisions, and apply the lessons where you can,
  • Learn to serve others. You never know when it will pay dividends.
  • Trust your people to do their assigned part. If they can’t do it then train them or move them out.
  • Look at your company’s strategy. If it is obvious to you, then it may be obvious to your adversary.
  • Help others build skills, and trust them to accomplish tasks that they may feel reluctant to accomplish.
  • When you see something wrong, tell someone. If you have to tell a superior bad news, do it in private.
  • Remember, most things are not as bad as they seem. A pat on the back can go a long way to building success for your team’s future.

Photo: Morning Briefing from http://www.zdnet.com

Leadership Lessons from “Fatboy Express”: The First Race

Bike race


W. Michael Phibbs

Liam “Fatboy Express” has had a great year since he began riding his bicycle. He has not forgotten why he designed his kit (A kit is what the riders call the shift and pants): Fat is an expression of wait and Express was a mindset. Many people had heard his story of determination and were inspired to take up activities that made them healthier and feel better. Some joined Fatboy Express on rides, other took up swimming or fencing, and some simply went for long walks. He did not set out to make an impact on other people’s lives, but he had. A few months ago, he started to enter amateur road bicycle races. Several small shops began to sponsor him, which meant he had enough money for gas to drive to event and register.

Today Fatboy Express was entering the most challenging race of his life; a century ride against people who not only rode competitively but had aspirations for the Olympics and professional teams. For Fatboy this race was as not about winning, it was only about facing his fears and taking on a challenge. The fear of looking silly whilst being crushed by the well trained competition and the challenge of doing something this hard. Before the race, he prepared his lime green Specialized bike. He didn’t have a race crew so he had to make sure everything was right. He donned his white, lime, and black kit and began to head to the starting line. He had number 76 on his back. 76 is the number where they ranked him when he registered. The last number was 82. As he approached he saw a rider wearing lime green and grey kit. His shirt had red letters on the front back with his sponsor’s logo. He had 14 on his back. He looked at the Fatboy Express Logo and simply quipped, “Fat Ass Express is more like it.” A rider next to the biker in grey, and number 23, glanced over his should and also saw Fatboy Express; “Simply- Ass” would be more like it. Fatboy Express just smiled and said, “Good Morning, lovely day for a race.” The others paid no attention.

At 0700 A.M. the race began. The race began very quickly. The peloton stayed together packed on top of one another. If one fell they may all may go down. Fatboy Express was not use to riding so close, so he stayed near the end of the pack. He was amazed that the other riders were having conversations with each other, like this was nothing. Some discussed strategy, others what they had done since their last race. Most said the real race would not really begin for several hours when the sandbaggers had dropped out. At mile three they hit the first hill. Fatboy Express dropped his gears and pulled heavily up with his clipless pedals. He was so used to working on riding hills back home that his hamstrings easily pulled him up the hill. As he went up he noticed something, he was actually passing people. Odd he thought. After the first hill he actually began to move up in the pack. As the went back down a large hill his weight actually propelled him faster still. At the bottom of the hill there was a tight turn, Fatboy still feared tight turns. As he approached the turn he tapped his breaks. Immediately he heard curse words from the riders following him. He tapped his breaks and now the peloton was careening over the place trying to avoid each other. With the simple tap he angered the other riders and lost many spots.

Next was a five mile flat land area. This is where the smaller riders were strongest and the bigger, less aero dynamic riders struggle. Fatboy continued to struggle to keep up. On lap three he was finally dropped from the pack. He felt bad. He had read what it means to be dropped from the pack. You are not good enough to keep up. But still he road on. He now rode at his pace. As he continued, he yelled thanks to the police who were standing on posts. They looked shocked at first, and then began to wave back in support of the struggling rider.

Eventually, something strange started to happen. Others were falling out of the pack. He spotted the number 14 on the lime green and grey shift moving back. As Fatboy Express caught up, he could have ignored the guy, or had his own fun catching the now struggling rider, but he didn’t. “Get behind me and I will pull you, Fatboy Express said. “Thank you was all he heard.” As they continued along Fatboy Express said he would continue to be in front and pull number 14 as long as he needed him to. Then they hit the hill again. Fatboy Express was already tired and the hill looked daunting. All of the sudden he heard, “Lower your gear to get more speed. Pull your arms in the let your upper body work harder, and pull with the hamstrings.” Fatboy Express did as he was told. Next came, “Spin those legs!” Fatboy Express was actually going faster up the hill than ever before. When they crowned the hill number 14 said, “Now get behind me, stick to my rear tire, do everything I do, and stay the hell off the brakes.” They zoomed down the hill. When they hit the turn at the bottom Fatboy Express held on for life. His bike stuck to the road. Wow, what a feeling.

As the two continued to ride, number 14 said, “I’m Phil.” Liam, said “Fatboy Express.” As they rode along Phil told Liam tricks and strategies to stay competitive. Each would now take a turn leading each other. Phil would give pointers to Liam. Liam would block the wind for Phil and help pull him up the hill. As they continued on, other riders were now beginning to be dropped from the pack. Liam encouraged them all to keep going on. He told each one to join their pack. Many had made fun of Fatboy Express before the race, and were astonished by his encouragement and giving. Many more soon followed the pack. As they would catch up to those who were also dropped, Liam would always shout encouragement and invite them into their ever growing pack. Phil began to explain how each had a job to do in the pack. Each had their turn at the front, and Liam’s lead was needed in the windiest areas. He was also the motivational speaker. The pack was coalescing, and they were coalescing around Liam.

Wham, all of the sudden, while going around a corner, Liam’s front tire slid out from under him. Sudden pain ripped up the side of his knee, leg, and shoulder. “I’m done” he thought. But as soon as he hit the ground the others were picking him back up. One sprayed his cuts with water. Another slathered an antiseptic on the cuts, and two more pushed him to get started again. Amazing! He yelled, “Thank you.” A guy wearing all yellow, and the number 3 on his back, said, “You didn’t let us go, we aren’t about to let you go.” With a grin, he said, besides, I need your fat ass to get me up that hill.” They were back off. Liam was still in pain, but he knew it was part of the race.

One lap to go. Phil and the other began to talk strategy. Liam found it fascinating. The group picked the people who were going to pull, when, and for how long. Liam was left out of the discussion; he was confused, but went with the group. Liam pulled when he needed and let the others take over when it was their turn. They eventually caught the main peloton. They began to mix in, Phil continued to give orders. With a half mile to go Phil yelled, “Fatboy Express get your ass in gear and sprint. Go win this thing.” Liam didn’t question. He powered down. Pushing down, pulling up, he took off. He was with the leaders. At 300 feet they were all side by side. At 100 feet Liam was nose to nose with the leaders. Then as suddenly as it began, it was over. Liam was 4th by .25 of a second. He eventually pulled over and pulled off his helmet. As the other members of his group came by he apologized for letting them down. The other riders slowly pulled up, “Let us down? Hell, you kept us together.” “I want to ride with you more” was heard many times.

(Picture downloaded from: suitcaseofcourage.typepad.com)