The Mission, the Men, and Me

Lessons from a former Delta Force commander


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-0425236574
  • My Rating: 5/10

What is it about?

In The Mission, the Men, and Me, the author shares lessons he learned on missions around the world as a Delta Force commander.

My impression

My impression of The Mission, the Men, and Me is mixed. On the one hand I found it interesting to get a glimpse into some missions of Delta Force, a special operations force of the US Army. On the other hand I didn't like the author's writing style, with its many repetitions and a lot of patriotism. And somehow it feels like the author couldn't decide whether to write a leadership book or his (incomplete) memoirs, and so the result is a mishmash, unfortunately.

My notes


"The 3Ms are the keys to being successful in life. They stand for the mission, the men, and me. [...] They're all connected. [...] So if you neglect one, you'll screw up the others. The first M stands for the mission; it's the purpose for which you're doing what you're doing. Whether in your personal or professional life, make sure you understand it, and that it makes legal, moral, and ethical sense, then use it to guide all your decisions. The second M stands for the men. Joshua Chamberlain [...] once said that 'there are two things an officer must do to lead men: he must care for his men's welfare, and he must show courage'. Welfare of the troops and courage are inextricably linked. When it comes to your men you can't be good at one without being good at the other. Take care of your men's welfare by listening and leading them with sound tactics and techniques that accomplish your mission, and by always having the courage of your convictions to do the right thing by them. The final M stands for me. Me comes last for a reason. You have to take care of yourself, but you should only do so after you have taken care of the mission, and the men. Never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men..."

How I Got Here: Patterns of Hindsight

How do we end up doing what we do in life? How do we become what we become? How did we get where we are today? At some point in our lives, we all ask ourselves these questions. Of course, there's no single, causal explanation or answer, but by looking back through the pattern-revealing lens of hindsight, we can recognize some of the defining activities, experiences, ideas, and opportunities that ultimately shaped our paths. History reveals patterns, and patterns reveal life.

Natural Selection: Getting into Delta Force

Getting treed by a chihuahua is a metaphor for making decisions without context. Context is the reality of the situation around us. Without context, our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts and recognize patterns that aren't really there; we connect the dots without collecting the dots first. Overreacting, underreacting, and failing to do anything at all are all symptoms of "getting treed".

In combat, when leaders make decisions without context, the cost is mission failure, and all too often, the price is paid with the blood of their men. "Don't get treed by a chihuahua!" Before making mission-critical decisions, always ensure that you have context.

Gorilla Warfare: Imagine the Unimaginable, Humor Your Imagination

At the very essence of a Delta operator is the ability to think creatively and make adaptive decisions, but to take action on those decisions, we also have to be superbly physically fit. Each of us has to be both a thinking warrior and an athlete warrior.

When your mission is to protect someone, you have a ruthless optic on the everyday world. Security details don't have time to think about life's day-to-day trivialities. They have to get the person they are protecting from point A to point B as expeditiously and safely as possible. So whether it's an accident or a good-looking woman, security details have no time to debate what to do. There's only one option: keep going! In fact, when your life revolves around detecting threats, you get to a point where every vehicle that is broken down or otherwise blocking your path instigates a higher state of security consciousness in your already very security-conscious mind.

"I'm thinking about these boys driving down this lonely mountain road. They're security-conscious, so they're all probably looking for the usual ambush tricks: broken-down vehicle, fake cops, you know the deal. But if we find a spot on the road that has a sharp hairpin curve, preferably on an uphill grade, simple physics will force them to slow the vehicle down before they make the turn, and when they come around the curve, there's this gorilla walking down the road." He did a good knuckle-dragging ape walk imitation as he continued. "The shock of seeing a freaking gorilla walking down the road, along with their uncontrollable curiosity to understand what the hell it's doing in the middle of Bosnia, may just make them pause a couple of more seconds, which ought to create the perfect conditions for us to fire the rounds and conduct the capture."

The ability to imagine previously unimaginable uses of fire and water, of animals and plants, and of wood and mud are what saved us from extinction. Imagination allows us to break out of the prison of precedence and free our minds to recognize patterns and options that we've never been able to see before. A free mind is such a beautiful thing because it allows us to say and do things others can't imagine. It's how we discover, it's how we invent, it's how we innovate, and ultimately, it's how we adapt.

Outrageous thoughts are barrier busters: they wipe away the vanilla mental models stored in the first layers of our minds and reveal imaginative, out-of-the-box thoughts just below the surface of our consciousness.

History has proven that it's not the quantity of men or the quality of weapons that make the ultimate difference; it's the ability to out-think and out-imagine the enemy that always has, and always will, determine the ultimate victor.

Lewis and Clark Discover Osama bin Laden: When in Doubt, Develop the Situation

In those days when we traveled for training, our standard operating procedure was to share hotel rooms to ensure that we were good stewards of government money. We had to request a special exception to that policy for Val, because no man wanted to share the tight confines of a hotel room with a practicing nudist.

Although the distance between Kandahar and Khost was less than four hundred miles, it was a twenty-hour trip by car when the weather was good. The road that connected the two towns was a road in name only. Pockmarked with bathtub-sized craters and cracks, and in many places lined on both sides with Soviet-laid minefields, the treacherous journey was an endless series of stop-and-go zigzags that required intense concentration by the driver and extreme patience by the passengers to complete.

UBL [= Osama bin Laden] was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, and the privileged very rarely have the discipline to choose the hard right over the easy wrong. And UBL proved to be no different.

Terrorists are by nature paranoid. People who are constantly plotting to kill other people have a tendency to think everyone is just like them, so they naturally think everyone is out to get them; it's one of the reasons why it's so hard to catch a psychopath.

Instead of focusing on the opportunity at hand, risk-averse leaders get treed by the potential risk, and fall victim to the greatest operational failure of all: the failure to try.

One of the most unfortunate by-products of risk aversion was, and still is, something we called the footprint paradox. To obviate any risk to the small number of men needed to conduct high-risk operations, the upper echelons of the military believed they had to employ massive armadas of helicopters, jets, vehicles, and people to address every possible contingency.

The question that high-ranking leaders always seemed to inject in any risk-averse-oriented discussion was, "Is it worth getting a man killed for?" Forty thousand people die on our highways each year, but when you get into your car each morning, do you ask yourself if driving to work is worth getting killed for? The main question that high-level leaders should ask is whether the mission is important to our country. If the answer is yes, then we in the Unit had no issues with laying our lives on the line to accomplish it. Could someone end up getting killed? You bet – we're talking about combat. But we had no intention of ever letting that happen.

"This is Afghanistan, and we're talking about a way of life that is almost incomprehensible to us. Trying to come up with a credible way to get this guy from here in North Carolina is like asking a caveman to put together a rocket ship; the caveman can't do it because he's been living in a cave all his life, and he has no idea what a friggin' rocket ship is. [...] But you know what? If you let that caveman out of his cave, give him enough time to study and play around with those rocket ship parts, and let him talk to a few people who know what a rocket ship is or maybe even how to put one together, the caveman may just be able to figure it out. He needs the time to build up his situational awareness so he can figure it out."

The Embassy Bombings: The Only Failure is a Failure to Try

The cruise missile response wasn't just inefficient and ineffective, it was hugely counterproductive. Afterward, UBL and his key lieutenants realized with great certitude that they were the primary targets of the American military and technological juggernaut. As a result, UBL's inward-facing paranoia went global. After the cruise missile attacks, UBL stopped using his satellite cell phone, which up to that point had provided the only empirical confirmations of his location or intent. He also stopped traveling in his obtrusively conspicuous Toyota Land Cruiser convoy. UBL now knew he was a wanted man, and men who know they're wanted are very hard to capture.

The Infiltration of Al Qaeda: Discovering the Art of the Possible

Developing the situation is the common-sense approach to dealing with complexity. Both a method and a mind-set, it uses time and our minds to actively build context, so that we can recognize patterns, discover options, and master the future as it unfolds in front of us.

Understanding what you're looking for is helpful but not required. All that's needed is the motivation to find your path.

Whether you're discovering a continent, exploring new directions in life, or searching for ways to solve complex problems, your thinking [...] should shift away from traditional planning processes and focus squarely in the direction of developing the situation. Despite the perceived lack of structure involved, the relative advantages of developing the situation over traditional planning are both significant and self-evident. The advantages include, but are not limited to:

  1. Innovation: discovering innovative options instead of being forced to default to the status quo.
  2. Adaptation: freedom of choice and flexibility to adapt to uncertainties instead of avoiding them because they weren't part of the plan.
  3. Audacity: having the audacity to seize opportunities, instead of neglecting them due to risk aversion and fear of the unknown.

[...] the human mind works in three elementary phases: saturate, incubate, and illuminate. Time allows us to saturate our mind with context, so we can incubate and spark the eureka moments of illumination that connect the dots, snap together patterns, and discover the options that allow us to find our paths. When we understand that most time constraints in life are self-generated, we understand that we almost always have time to develop the situation, whether in three minutes, three weeks, or three years.

Think of developing the situation as enlightened procrastination. Instead of indecision, going off half-cocked, or doing nothing, we understand that time is an ally that allows us to actively build context and uncover the options hidden from those who create "traditional plans" based on limited information that's frozen in the past – before most options and opportunities have availed themselves. Developing the situation treats life like a movie, not a snapshot.

No environment is ever static. As the environment around us changes, developing the situation allows us to maintain our most prized freedom: the freedom of choice – to adapt our thinking and decision-making accordingly.

Developing the situation provides us with the freedom and flexibility to choose and hedge as many options as possible. Options provide us with choices, and choices allow us to adapt to the naturally unfolding opportunities in front of us instead of being forced to bypass them because they aren't part of the plan. This means we should feel comfortable changing our minds and our methods and, whenever possible, hedging our options.

Audacity isn't taking senseless risks, or being rash; it's a natural byproduct of developing the situation and understanding what's going on around us. Audacity is really just another name for courage of our convictions to take action!

Walking the Bob: Always Listen to the Guy on the Ground

In the Unit, we had to prepare for any eventuality – anytime, anywhere, anyhow. As a commander, I left the individual skill training to my men; they didn't need me or anyone else to tell them what they needed to do to sustain their individual skills or how they should strive to get better. My responsibility was to focus on our collective training, to ensure that, as a group, we best prepared for whatever future missions might come our way.

Not only was the Bob a great fit in terms of mountainous terrain, but also, if we could move a hundred miles through the mountains without being detected by a grizzly and its supersensitive olfactory sense, we felt like we'd be well prepared to infiltrate unnoticed past Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or the FARC guerrillas of Colombia.

One of the keys to survival in the wilderness is quality preparation. If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

When it comes to understanding what's going on around you, there's no better external source of reality-revealing context than to always listen to the guy on the ground. "Guy on the ground" is a metaphor for the people who are actually interacting with the environment. Whether on the front lines, the front office, or in an isolated forest ranger outpost in Montana, they're your best external source for understanding the reality of the situation on the ground. Listening is just that – listening – it doesn't mean abdicating responsibility or doing everything the individual(s) says, although you might – it only implies that you listen to him or her as one of your primary inputs.

The type of knowledge that makes guys on the ground [...] so valuable is called tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is contextualized knowledge of people, places, ideas, and experiences. It involves knowing how to obtain desired endstates, knowing what to do to obtain them, and knowing when and where to act on them. It's knowledge in practice that's developed from direct experience and action, and usually is shared only through highly interactive conversation, storytelling, and shared experience.

Tacit knowledge is a web of networked and multidimensional knowledge; as such, it is also difficult to articulate or write. (Imagine trying to teach someone how to swim over the telephone or e-mail.) Thus you usually need to do two things to access it: you have to seek out and make face-to-face contact with the source, and/or you have to ask context-specific questions to uncover it.

If someone has enabling information that can contribute to accomplishing our goals, we must be willing to add their talents and their skills to our own, no matter how different that person is from us. Even if it implies that everything we planned or thought we knew was incorrect. To do this we must be capable of divorcing ourselves from our emotions. Pride and hubris are two of the most common derailers of a person's common sense.

[...] until we get on-the-ground input, we should expect that most of what we think we know will likely turn out to be incorrect or incomplete.

Calm Before the Storm: The Man-Huntin' Project

We spend billions of dollars on bombs and bombers to destroy men and machines, when the reality is that more often than not, it all comes down to finding and locating individuals – manhunting.

9/11: The Four-Inch Knife Blade

[...] the terrorists who masterminded 9/11 were able to imagine the unimaginable with regard to what a hijacked airplane could do when fully loaded with fuel and flown into a high-rise building in a large city, because they also were able to imagine and accept the fact that they would be killing themselves in the process.

Imagine Everyone's Potential as the Guy on the Ground

At no time during the first few weeks after 9/11 were my comrades and I in the Unit given the mission to find, follow, and capture UBL and his key associates. Rather, our unofficial mission, in those first critical months after 9/11, was like the rest of the military, to find targets to bomb or attack. Satellite photos were scrutinized; old intelligence reports were dusted off; and in the end, two targets were chosen by someone or someones in our higher headquarters. When an intelligence officer first presented "the targets" to us in a briefing, he nonchalantly added that there wasn't any enemy on either target.

[...] good leaders don't wait for official blessings to try things out. They use common sense to guide them because they understand a simple fact of life in most organizations: if you ask enough people for permission, you'll inevitably find someone who believes that they should tell you no.

Imagine How to Seek Out the Guy on the Ground

"How do you infiltrate cities such as Kandahar and Kabul?" - "You dress like women and wear burkhas. In teams of two, no one will bother you because the Taliban forbids men from talking to women in public. Just walk away if someone tries to talk to you. You can conceal your weapons under your burkha very easily, and when you get to your target you will have achieved complete surprise. You only need to do this once, and you will have terrorized the enemy. They will envision commandos under every burkha. They will be forced to take drastic measures to check every woman in the city. They will never allow women to go without burkhas, so you will paralyze their security infrastructure."

The first concept we came up with was to fly over Kandahar in C-130s and drop parachutes attached to giant ice blocks in the hills around the town. The goal of the phantom parachute drops was to strike terror in the hearts of the enemy by making them believe that the hills were alive with commandos. Once the ice blocks hit the ground they would melt away into the desert, and each parachute would blow free across the hills until it was captured and reported by whoever came across it. Where are the commandos? they would wonder. We would follow the phantom parachute operations by dropping resupply bundles around the same locations a few days later.

We later learned that the phantom parachute drops not only confused the enemy, they also terrorized the enemy. Once they discovered the infiltration evidence, every bump in the night, and every seemingly out-of-the-ordinary occurrence around the town of Kandahar was attributed to the phantom "American Commandos".

Imagine How: The Counterfeit Double Agent


On the Ground in Afghanistan: Riding the Edge of Chaos


It's Not Reality Unless It's Shared

To understand the way others interpret reality, we have to interact with them, and we have to share information. Sharing information creates a shared reality. Not only does it make the whole wiser than the individual parts; it also serves as an effective system of checks and balances to correct misinterpretations by individuals who don't have all the pieces of the puzzle.

Organizing for Combat: Dealing with a Natural Disaster


Exploring the Frontier: Recognizing Enemy Patterns

The art of war is the art of outthinking your enemy with strategies and tactics such as disguises, deception, diversions, and stealth. There are no shortcuts; you have to immerse yourself in the essence of the situation and imagine every possibility. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the medieval mindlessness of the head-on assault. Once it's decided that helicopters will be used to attack a target, there's no longer any perceived need to develop a high-resolution understanding of the enemy situation, and no need to develop out-of-the-box options to address them.

Defaulting to helicopter-centric operations is an intellectual cop-out from a leader's responsibility as an artisan of the art of war. Planners spend all their time focusing on weather and fuel loads instead of whether the enemy posts a guard at night, or when the enemy gathers for their daily meals. Helicopters also usually end up becoming the end-all component of the mission; in other words, leaders end up making key decisions about the mission based solely on the capabilities and limitations of the helicopters instead of how to best take advantage of the enemy situation to accomplish the mission.

Most everything they came up with they came up with on their own. My job as the leader wasn't to try to tell them how to do their jobs; rather, it was to provide an environment that fostered experimentation, followed by thoughtful and honest reflection on what we learned and how we could apply it.

Reality Check: What's Your Recommendation?


The Battle Begins: Stay Calm, Think!


Takur Ghar: When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow

Organize for the mission. Forget the line and block diagrams; their only true function is administrative. They create boundaries to sharing information and accomplishing your mission. Throw them out with every new mission you undertake. Imagine a natural-disaster scenario: What would you do if your people were cut off from all their different headquarters and all their institutional histories? Constantly ask yourself and your organization this question: How would we organize if we didn't know how we were supposed to organize? Then do it!

Communicate with one central philosophy: boundarylessness. Boundaryless means no borders, and in all directions. Openness is good; compartmentalization and secrecy are not. Sharing information is how we create an accurate portrayal of reality. It not only makes the whole wiser than the individual parts, it also serves as an effective system of checks and balances to correct misinterpretations by individuals who don't have all the pieces of the puzzle.

Let common sense guide your thinking, your decision making, and the way you operationalize both. The single best thinking and decision-making tool a leader has is to consistently conduct reality checks by asking a profoundly simple question: "What's your recommendation?"