Leadership Academy

In Extremis Leadership


The first time I was pinned down by effective Taliban machine gun fire was a surreal experience for me, I felt like I was outside of my own body.  The small mud wall I was taking cover behind seemed meagre in its ability to protect me as the crack thump of the Russian 7.62mm PKM rounds resounded over head of my position.  I remember seeing big Mike laying behind the same wall covering his ears and shouting expressivities that our mothers would have washed our mouths out with soap for.  Time had seemed to stop, the leaves from the pomegranate tree near us were falling in the wind as the Beaton zone of bullets hit the tree. I looked up and down the wall where the section of paratroopers I commanded were all in various states of either returning fire or taking cover.  The Taliban machine gun position was able traverse up and down the wall effectively suppressing my entire sections ability to regain the initiative.  That is when I saw my second in command James run towards me through a hail of machine gun fire with a big stupid grin on his face. This courageous act was quite inspiring.  Truthfully, I had been in a state we as gunfighters refer to being in the “black.”  My body was pumping full of adrenaline and I entered a physiological state that did not support optimal functioning.  Seeing James running through a hail of bullets and me taking a few deep breathes snapped me back to the fight and we took a moment to discuss our plan.  We decided that we needed to create depth in our fighting position as there was another short wall about 100 feet ahead of us.  The only issue being that we would have to run through open terrain and a constant hail of machine gun fire bearing down on us.  James in his act of bravery that day had motivated me and filled me up with energy. I shouted out to the three soldiers I would take with me over the wall to standby! James would then have the remainder of the section lay down fire on the machine gun position as we made the mad dash, 1,2,3….  I jumped over the wall first, and started running as fast as I could with about 70 pounds of fighting gear on.  My men followed me without hesitation and we all made it across the field without taking casualties from the Taliban machine gun position.  Shortly after the Taliban lost their ability to suppress us effectively and the battle came to a quick conclusion. Leadership, by my definition is the art of influencing human behaviour through transference of your emotional state to whom you serve.  Leaders sell their state; their personal energy levels create a synergy in their team.  It is for emotional reasons that people will follow a leader, especially in extremis situations. We will later justify our reasons with logic, but emotions are the energy that inspires people to act.  The situation I described above is out of the norm and rather intense, but the transference of emotional state applies to all forms of leadership. I would like to write about when I first knew that I was a leader.  I was a 12-year-old boy that was in grade 6 attending Pleasant Public school in the North York district of Toronto.  It was the end of the school year and there was a competition day where each grade 6 student would be assigned a group of younger children who would participate in a skills competition.  I was not a popular kid at school and the group of children assigned to my team where all the misfits of their respective grades. I felt that we were comparable to the movie cast of the 1980’s hit the Goonies. That day I was motivated to win and was truly in a peak state.  I was able to motivate my fellow peers to come together and show up for the competition by putting themselves in peak states.  After a long hard day, we won that competition and felt on top of the world!  That experience was truly what I still consider one of my greatest leadership achievements to this day. A leader must be able to put themselves into a peak state at any moment.  You must have laser clear focus, have passion and control your own physiology.  This is 75% of the process.  Being in a peak state will allow you to share your energy for the task or mission that you want your team to accomplish. That day in the Panjawai James was able to transfer his energy to me and in turn to the soldiers that followed me over that wall.  When I was the grade 6 leading my group of misfits, I was able to share my energy and optimism with them.  I believed we could beat the popular kids and that day would see us to be victorious!  To become a leader, you need to learn how to manage your state. You can do this by understanding and managing three areas of your life. The first being is where your focus goes the energy flows, clarity is powerful.  What you focus on becomes your reality.  The second is the language we are using about the situation. What is the story we are telling ourselves in that moment? Leaders need transformational vocabulary skills to change the language of a situation.  When you change the language that you are using to define a situation you will change your experience of it.  Lastly is our physiological state. How are we breathing, what is our posture and body language like?  When you learn to control these three areas of life you can put yourself in a peak state as needed.  When you are emotionally powerful, in a peak state, people will follow your momentum.  Momentum is energy in motion. In human’s momentum is emotional energy in motion.  In learning to become a leader you need to put yourself continuously in a peak state and transfer that emotional energetic state to those you serve.  It is only then your team will follow you over that proverbial wall without hesitation.

Leadership and the “Art of story telling!”


“Tell me a fact and I will learn.  Tell me a truth and I will believe.  However, tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever!”   - Native American Proverb  Leaders must be able to tell powerful stories to build synergy within their team.  Humanity has always told stories, harkening back to the days when our stories were painted on our cave walls.  Our stories existed to pass on knowledge and teach our values and ethics to our tribe, our community and our nations.  Even to this day it is still the best way to teach our principles as leaders and helps us communicate objectives to our “Tribe.”  Stories surpass other forms of communication and technology and effect the brain in a much more holistic way than a simple PowerPoint presentation.  A presentation will affect only two areas of our brains, the Broca’s area and the Wernickes area. (The areas of our brains process language).  When a story is told that will change dramatically as at least seven parts of our brain light up and are used to comprehend, especially when the story is emotionally compelling.  Leadership, by my definition is the art of influencing human behaviour through transference of your emotional state to whom you serve.  A powerful story builds up an emotional urgency within your team creating momentum in the road you wish to head. When I became a commissioned officer in the Canadian armed Forces and later moved to the corporate world I was blessed to be exposed to many good leaders and a few great ones.   However, in my experience I found that the higher the rank of the leader the less they seemed to be able to communicate with their entire team.  They would tell stories about themselves, leading often with their c.v. or their own personal history.  This is a good way to create authority and let people know on a basic level who you are as their leader.  The drawback being that you can come across as an ego based, self serving leader. I remember a mentor of mine telling me that “Todd if you have a story to tell about yourself, let someone else tell it!”  As a leader we should seek to be known for our quiet professionalism while embracing humility as the highest of virtues. However, let us discuss how to be a great leader and sincerely show up for your team! The prodigious leaders tell stories and parables in a way that engages the subconscious to understand the lessons, values and ethics that we live by.  This creates an emotional bond at an esoteric level throughout the entire team.   Average and good leaders would go through their PowerPoint and c.v. then ramble on about details and what direction the unit or corporation was going.  They would unfortunately delve into details on policy and proverbial “Fine Print” that is superfluous and quite frankly squander the audience’s attention.  Trust me, everyone has already received the memorandum on the use of new cover sheets for faxing the company TPS reports, they do not need to hear it again from the you. They need to emotional connect with you and your vision, your mission and your energy.  Our email folders are already inundated with orders, policy and details from our respective department heads.  If you truly want to impact your team emotionally and show up for them as a leader try using a story or parable to relate your message.  As an example, if you are seeking a culture change of vison in your organization, trying using a parable like the wealthy man who was bothered by severe and chronic eye pain.  He consulted many physicians and medical experts who prescribed various medications to help, countless hospital visits, massive amounts of non-invasive surgeries.  However, the pain persisted, and he was tormented to no end.  He one day had met a travelling monk who understood his problem and said that he should concentrate at only looking at the colour green and not let his eyes fall on any other colours.  It was a strange prescription, but the wealthy man was desperate and decided to try it.  The millionaire got together a group of painters and purchased barrels of green paint.  He had his painters paint every object that his eye was likely to fall on green as the monk had directed.   The monk returned after a few days wearing his red robes and when the painters saw him they immediately painted him green lest their masters eye ache came back.  Hearing what had transpired the monk laughed and said to the wealthy man “If you had only purchased a pair of green spectacles worth just a few dollars, you could have saved these walls, furniture, and pots as well as a large amount of your fortune. You cannot paint the world green!”  The moral of this story being that we must change our vision and the world will appear accordingly.  It is foolish to shape the world, let us shape ourselves first. To create next level impact for your team and improve your ability as a leader, learn to tell stories to relay your vision.  Leave the details of explaining your concept to when you are briefing your inner circle. They will pass on the information through meetings, emails and memorandums to ensure your vision is understood.  This will help you stand out and show up for your team while taking your leadership communicative abilities to the next level! This is how you create an impact with those who follow you and how can you serve them better through art of story telling.  It is in our DNA, in our make up as the collective consciousness of the humanity.  The art of story telling will create synergy and momentum for your team, transferring your emotional state to whom you serve.

“All Men Have a Broken heart.” – imaginings of Captain Hazarat Wali of the Afghanistan National Army


During my last tour in Afghanistan I was assigned to serve with and alongside an Afghan Army reconnaissance unit in the Kandahar province.  We were a four-man Operational Mentorship Liaison Team (O.M.L.T) who specialized in high value reconnaissance missions. We were attached to the Afghan Army’s elite reconnaissance company and were living among the local populace in the Zanagabad area of operations.  The unit commander was Captain Hazarat Wali, a 47-year-old former mujahidin warrior who had been fighting wars since he was 15, starting in 1979 against the former Soviet Union.  On my previous tours of duty, I had a low opinion of the Afghan Army soldiers. I saw them as corrupt and undisciplined drug addicts who were self serving in their interests and not focused on winning the war.  When I met my dear friend Hazarat in May of 2010 I could tell right away that this man was different, he was a professional soldier whom carried himself with pride.   He was the cousin of the Kandahar province Corp commander and when we would attend the brigade orders group, his fellow Afghans would address him by his nickname, the “Gangster of Kandahar!”  I was truthfully intimidated by this man and wondered how I was going to be able to coach and mentor such a seasoned warrior.  We spent almost 10 months together and at the end of that tour I felt like I was the one who had been the mentored and coached by this warrior.  I often catch myself smiling thinking of him and how he is doing, how is family is doing in Kabul.  I remember fondly how we would go to brigade orders groups and all the other Afghan army officers would be dressed up professionally as they could, while the Gangster of Kandahar would walk in the meeting dressed in only his T-shirt and pistol strapped to his chest.  He commanded respect of his fellow officers and his history as a mujahidin warrior gave him street credibility from his commanders.   I would like to share with you the most important lesson of all the lessons that this phenomenal man taught me while I was presumed to be his mentor. It was mid November and my OMLT team was assigned to an interdiction task south of the Zangabad area.  With the “Obama” troop surge the horn of Panjawai was almost effectively bringing to a halt the freedom of movement of the Taliban fighters.  There were a few areas near the Reg desert in the proverbial no mans land that still had several rat lines where Taliban fighters could move unchallenged and reinforce their units with replacement soldiers, weapons and I.E.D.s.  The Afghan Army Reconnaissance company was assigned to go live in the desert and hunt down and destroy any Taliban using these rat lines to resupply their counterparts in the Horn.  We lived among the locals and travelling Bedouins of the desert region in austere camps with a few Humvees and our antiquated refurbished armoured fighting vehicle from the Vietnam war era.  We dug trenches and slept in fire positions where we could, ready to break camp at moments notice and act on intelligence of enemy movement in our area of operations.  The closet support was at least ten kilometres away, and at this point because of home leave my team was down to three personal.  We were living in the wild west of Afghanistan, feeling like we were gunfighters of the old American west.  Whenever we would have a lull in our operations I would get on the Satellite phone and call my lawyer in Canada. I was working through my divorce proceedings as my wife had left for Germany with my son in tow two days into my tour.  I was in a dark place, I really did not care if I survived and frankly was continuously looking for a scrap with the enemy to keep my mind off my problems back home.   One of my team members mentioned one day that he thought he had observed some Afghan locals emplacing an I.E.D. about 800 metres from our position at a cross roads.  I had just got off a clearance patrol over a mountain with a team of five Afghan soldiers and had dressed down to have my chai and a breakfast ration.  I decided to go investigate the suspected I.E.D. site, So I grabbed my weapon and some water, filled my pocket up with candy and left all my protective gear behind and walked off on my own to the crossroads.  Upon arriving at the crossroads, I took out my knife and began looking for the I.E.D. prodding the ground as I had been taught in my training.  I found nothing and decided to continue patrolling the local area on my own, no radio, no tactical gear just a rifle and a pocket full of candy.  I ran into some locals, they were quite friendly and surprised to see me out on my own away from anyone else.  I handed out candy to the children and drank tea with a local elder before bidding them good day and then headed back to were I had left my team and Afghan soldiers in our patrol base.   Upon returning to the patrol base I was greeted by Captain Wali and a team of his soldiers.  He was waving his arms in the air and if I could speak Pashtun I would have recognized many expletives coming my way.  He asked me “where I had been and why I had gone on my own?”  I related my story to him and he shook his head in disappointment and asked me not to do that again.  That next time I decided to patrol I should grab some of his warriors before heading out.  He also invited me to have dinner with him at his tent that evening.  I felt bad that I had acted so irresponsibly but I was truly depressed and feeling sorry for myself because of my own personal circumstances.  I felt like I was living my life with a broken heart.  I caught some sleep that day and later that night went to Hazarat’s tent to enjoy a dinner with him.  That evening we sat next to his tent while his cook prepared our food, typically chicken and basmati rice was the staple for supper.  I had brought my translator “Rocky” with me so that I could fully communicate with Wali as I was hoping to set up an ambush patrol the next day.  The topic eventually turned from war to me when he asked me what was going on with me, “why was I so troubled?”  I told him of my personal situation back home and how I was depressed.  I told him that I felt I had no control and that my heart was broken.  We sat in silence for a while as we sipped at our chai and stared out at the beautiful starry desert night.  I was smoking my cigarette and pondering my eventual return home and continuing to obsess about how messed up my life was.  He broke the silence with his deep Pashtun accented voice and said to me “All men have a broken heart.” Those six words hit me at a deep spiritual level.  It was a metaphor that had deeper meaning and it helped me to realign myself with the positive energy that lives in the heart of all warriors.  I remember looking over at him and for the first time ever saw his face in a different light.  Here was a man who had been fighting war for the last 32 years and his most distinctive features were his extensive laugh lines.  It occurred to me then and there that my problems and the story I had been telling myself paled in comparison to the life that this man had lived.  You see I understood in that moment of epiphany that pain is a part of living, however suffering in our pain is a personal choice.  Pain can be our greatest teacher if we choose to grow from the experience, reframe the story and create a new belief system that helps us to aspire to improve.  I had been stuck in my story of poor me, of how my life was the shits and in doing so I had endangered the lives of my team as well as my own life.  That night I decided to change my story and no longer feel sorry for myself.  It was time to acknowledge that I had been hurt badly but I was no longer going to let that continue to have power over me.  I had watched Hazarat over the last few months live a life of deep faith and spirituality.  He would often complain to me about the locals not being real Muslims as they did not really understand the Quran. He lived at the spiritual dimension of gratitude and compassion and that is how he kept himself together after all these years of war.  Everything in the universe is either growing or dying, there is no in between.  When you learn to accept that life is full of painful lessons but turn your expectations to appreciation for the present moment you can truly transcend suffering.   That was among the greatest empowering lesson I have learned in my life, how to let go of suffering.  Through my mentoring of this great Afghan Pashtun warrior, I learned so much from the way he lived and believed.  I thank you Captain Hazarat Wali my dear old friend for mentoring and coaching me to become the man I now am.  I promise that I will live a life of gratitude and compassion as you taught me, that I will learn from my pain and choose to grow from it rather than choosing to suffer.

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