A Personal Account of Mindset Shift in Afghanistan
Even the word Afghanistan instills fear. Kandahar, a province well known as the birthplace of the Taliban, represents fear at its very core. I am not talking about fear of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), camel spiders, snakes or scorpions. This fear is more profound; it warps your sense of trust and decision making and is what I will simply call failure . The last place a leader should come from is this place of fear, when the result of failure is dead friends, colleagues, citizens or yourself. Ironically, fear is the basis of primary decision making at home, on the battlefield, or at any level of business or government. It manipulates us into the practice of playing catch-up with competitors or enemies. In military terms this is known as losing the initiative, or dropping the ball: SNAFU – A descriptive military acronym used to describe loss of control. How do you transform yourself, your organization, or your business from this negative life of catch-up to a positive life of leadership?
The process and tactics of slowing down became common practice for our Counter-IED (C-IED) team when disabling bombs in Afghanistan. Slowing down is expressed directly in an act, or commitment to enable a greater perspective, clearing the mind of fear before going into very real danger. It may include slow breathing, meditation or even sharing a cigarette. The physiological and psychological effects of slowing down are trainable, and achievable for just about anyone. Slowing down provided an ontological perspective – the study of the nature of being, or essence – that I wish to share.
During a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 - 2010, I operated in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). Coalition and Afghan troops on the ground realized the improvised explosive device threat in only two ways: through the keen senses of hyper-vigilant soldiers, or explosions. The most difficult part of the job is when these two are combined, resulting in despair and an indescribable feeling of failure. I felt an overwhelming desire to make a difference while serving in Afghanistan yet I remained detached and disconnected from most people to avoid being hurt. This was my way of dealing with things until the fateful day that I met Sgt. Kamir of the Afghan National Army.
Like many Afghans, Sgt. Kamir’s body language prompted the team to distrust him from the start, making us uncertain as to what side he was on, ours or the insurgents. Sgt. Kamir’s mission was to patrol along an assigned route, to locate signs of roadside bombs and report them to coalition forces. His uncanny ability to find these buried devices built even more distrust, and created arguments of where his loyalties lay. Our interpretation was that no one could be this effective at locating IEDs. Week in and week out we responded to his finds and dealt with the dangerous job of disposal, made even more precarious by the fact that Sgt. Kamir’s attempt to disarm the bombs, prior to our arrival, left ‘ticking time bombs’ which we refer to as ‘pissed-off IEDs’. No amount of instruction, through an interpreter, could stop him from doing this. To most Afghan men, this is a show of bravado, and for him to do otherwise would lessen his manhood. His actions and our distrust became a recipe for disaster.
Knowing what I know now, I was coming from a place of fear. Fear of death for myself and that of others, fear that I wouldn't do it right; of failure. I believe this to be nearly every soldier’s fear. I constructed a mental barrier to protect myself from feeling the pain of loss, defeat and failure. Again, not a good place to come from as a leader, mentor, teacher and bomb disposal technician. I'm not sure exactly when, but there came a time when fear was slowly replaced by a greater sense of purpose. A greater place of being which allowed me to gradually accept Sgt. Kamir. We had finally connected, developed trust and a friendship that was from the heart, and the fear had gone.
While the team maintained their distrust, the connection we had realized became more real. You have undoubtedly felt this feeling at some time in your life. It may have come to you as a little voice, visualized as an angel and devil; one on each shoulder. I made a decision to break protocol in that way, facing repercussions from my team and chain of command. Gradually, the team bought-in and together we brainstormed ways to keep Sgt. Kamir, others, and ourselves alive by providing him with the necessary equipment and skills. This marked the beginning of empowerment and leadership.
Shortly after developing strong trust and connection with Sgt. Kamir, the team was transferred to a different area of operation (AOR), and we would not see him again for nearly three months. Two of those months were challenging and defeating as we struggled to connect with the troops we were attached to – troops who felt there was nothing anyone could do to mitigate the IED threat. Again, not a good place to come from as the EOD Team Lead. It was with this defeated attitude that we returned to our previous AOR where we finally reconnected with Sgt. Kamir. The team now accepted his smile as genuine and there was no longer any doubt he was an old friend. His eyes beamed as he shook our hands, one by one. We had made a real connection, one of trust and loyalty; a connection from the heart. Little did I know as I shook his hand that he had already saved me from nearly certain death.
As the team prepared tools for an IED disposal and helped to get me dressed in the 40- kilogram bomb suit, I did not recognize that confidence and complacency had overpowered my sense of good judgment; a deadly combination. The team planned the obvious, and ordinary task of investigating an antenna on a buried mound of Afghan earth. Oblivious to me, this IED was there with the sole intent to kill me – no one else. Six months into a seven-month tour, I was unaware of the trap laid out by my enemy; a cunning enemy who had studied me, and others to gain greater comprehension of how to kill and destroy us.
It was then that Sgt. Kamir appeared, excitedly awaiting praise for his diligence. As our Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) was already visually scoping out the IED, he requested we look inside a previously locked compound gate. The ROV navigated into the unknown, behind 10-foot high mud walls. Sgt. Kamir exuberantly pointed to the ROV camera monitor. There, up against the adjacent wall, only five meters and hidden from my targeted IED, stood six 5 gallon buckets containing homemade explosives with a remote-control device. The equivalent of over 200 kg of high explosives was lying in wait for a complacent operator – me. Sgt. Kamir had used the skills and tools we shared with him to effectively neutralize the immediate threat and, more importantly, recognized the explosive threat to any bomb technician who would be responding to the other, more obvious roadside bomb.
One of the greatest parts of ontological life coaching is learning to distinguish between operating from fear, and operating from your being, or essence. Your self defence mechanism is crucial to your survival but can be equally detrimental if interpreted the wrong way. Fears are designed by default to keep us alive, and will often trump our own way of being. If not for the practice of slowing down as a daily routine on the bomb site, we wouldn't have recognized this way of being. Coming from a world of fear, our distrust would have left us in a misinterpreted place of security and safety. How much of your own life do you live in fear? This is not a good place to come from, whether it’s in leadership, transitioning, business or relationships. Live and lead from your essence. Getting you there is what I do.