The command post was tense. It was pitch black inside and the inside was illuminated by a few red lights intended to maintain our night vision as we managed the battle raging outside.
Our camp had 360 degree security, and I congratulated myself at having repulsed two assaults on the perimeter already. We’d correctly anticipated the enemy’s approach lanes and positioned ambushes along them that caught the enemy by surprise. The barriers on the perimeter were holding. In short, we were winning and I and the enemy knew it.
The enemy decided make a culminating attack just after midnight, beginning with mortars and small arms fire. I could hear the battle outside as I watched the map get updated and listened to the reports over the radio. But something was different this time: the sounds of the battle were different. Then came the call over the radio, “They’re wearing gas masks!” The radio net erupted in calls for clarification and new reports. There was so much chaos on the radio that it took me precious minutes to sort out what was happening. I asked if anyone could see anything besides one enemy wearing a gas mask, and no one reported anything unusual. Someone mentioned a “smoke grenade”, which I accepted at face value.
By the time I figured out we were under a chemical attack, it was too late: the exercise controllers had declared dozens of my Airmen casualties. At the very moment we were winning the battle, the enemy overran the south perimeter and was now fighting us inside the camp.
Yes, this was an exercise, not an actual battle, but I learned a very valuable lesson about thinking critically and checking important things personally.
Locked inside the command post, I had cut myself off from the battle by not observing it directly. Had I opened the tent flap and looked outside, I’d have seen the massive smoke plume (that represented the chemical attack) and made sense of the confused reports that came over the radio.
Leaders should ensure they are not just receiving information, or even receiving enough information. Leaders should ensure they’re receiving the right information. In my darkened command post, I had a lot of information flowing in: position reports, attack locations, type and disposition of the enemy, etc. I’d even received a snippet of information that indicated a chemical attack might be underway. What I lacked was the context to make sense of all the data; context I could’ve had with a 3 second look outside with my own eyes.
Figure Out What You Need to Know
In the information age, leaders have access to great volumes of information and the temptation is to allow the information stream to wash over them unsorted. These leaders are information sponges, consuming any and all data they can get or have their teams gather. The alternative vice is to become so detached that decisions are made out of context, or with leaders who are out of touch.
The antidote for both of these leadership mistakes is to deliberately think about what information leaders need to have to make informed decisions, with the realization that there is no such thing as perfect information. That kind of decision-quality information usually comes as a result of a collaboration with the team and familiarity by the leaders in the process. Leaders check small things, but not every thing.
Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with