The Mission, the Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander
Reviewed by Dylan Nigh
“We called ourselves the Wolverines. Our mission was marauding. We were five hundred miles behind enemy lines. I commanded the Wolverines. They called me Panther.”
These succinct yet powerful words open the stirring work The Mission, the Men, and Me by Pete Blaber. This 2008 book is a cornerstone of what has since become an internationally viral subgenre; military leadership books written by former special operators. Naturally intriguing subject matter and generic leadership lessons buoy the success of many of these works, but Blaber’s book continues to stand a cut above.
The thesis of the book is simple: being prepared trumps crafting the perfect plan, as a leader can overcome the complexities of any challenge by recognizing common patterns and sticking to simple principles. In 298 pages and 19 chapters, the author distills a handful of these principles from a litany of life experiences, ranging from his childhood to his time commanding in the early days of the fight against Al Qaeda. Blaber has decades of experience in elite units, but his digestible and authentic writing style mean he is far from reliant on the mystique of covert ops. Instead, he shares thrilling stories wherein he plays the role of the lifelong learner, giving the reader valuable lessons applicable to any leader.
A few such lessons and the experiences they stem from are briefly shared below, but the majority of what makes this book stand out needs to be read from the source to be fully appreciated.
The Three Ms
The ‘3 Ms’ is a method for refocusing on what priorities guide leaders’ decisions. When serving in Delta Force, a US special mission unit based on the British SAS, Blaber often faced conflicting motivations and outside influences. The books starts with his recollection of a secretive mission in Northern Iraq where his unit was engaged in an asymmetric firefight. They were tasked with impersonating a tank division to discourage Saddam Hussein and his officials from fleeing the country and became decisively engaged against a numerically stronger enemy.
His men reported the need to retreat, but his commanding general ordered him to continue the assault. As he debated the options, he remembered the three M’s; their mission to prevent Saddam’s escape took precedence, he needed to protect his men from an unnecessary sacrifice, and the fate of his career would be the last of his concerns. He quickly organized his priorities, ordered his men to pull back, and his career lived to see another day.
It is always wise to interrogate one’s motivations when making a hard decision. The three Ms are a simple device to do so that often reveals the obvious answer.
Humor Your Imagination
Creative problem solving should be a goal for any leader, but often the weight of bureaucracy and the tendency toward complacency get in the way. The book reminds readers of the importance of humoring one’s imagination and staying open to the unusual.
Early in his time in Delta, Blaber was operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina hunting war criminals with an undercover team. They needed to identify how to capture a target during his move across an unprotected mountain pass. Brainstorming in their safe house, each member was encouraged to bring their unique experience, talents, and ideas to the table. This open environment sometimes meant unorthodox ideas were pitched, but nothing was ever dismissed outright.
The team discussed the need to catch the target and his security detail off guard and debated a few options. An early version of tire spike strips was workshopped, a rifle fired device used to safely concuss the passengers was created, and a fake car accident was discussed. The exact plan that finally led to mission success is still classified, but it suffice to say that it featured a large gorilla suit and even larger helping of imagination.
When in Doubt, Develop the Situation
Complex situations can often leave those in charge with something close to ‘decision paralysis’. Rather than give into the temptation to rely on “one size fits all” plans, Blaber recommends an alternative option. Leaders are instructed to form all decisions around the goal of developing the situation.
This can help in three main ways:
- Innovation. Looking for gaps in understanding can lead to innovative solutions that may not have been apparent.
- Adaptation. Freedom of choice allows for a team to react to uncertainties rather than stick to an ill-fitting plan.
- Audacity. Success can often come from seizing opportunities instead of hiding from them due to risk aversion or rigidity.
Blaber relates this lesson to a missed opportunity for the US in what would become the Global War on Terror. US citizens like John Walker Lindh, finding themselves estranged from the larger culture, were becoming radicalized by Islamic terrorist groups. They would stumble into mosques looking for direction and purpose, work their way to madrasas or Islamic Universities in the Middle East, and eventually find themselves in the heart of major terrorist organizations. Lindh himself was able to personally meet Osama Bin Laden within a month of joining Al Qaeda.
The author posits that such figures displayed the possibility of infiltrating such organizations; a move the US could have made if leaders were focused on developing the situation from the start.
Always Listen to the ‘Guy on the Ground’
The ‘guy on the ground’ is a metaphor for anyone actually interacting with the environment. Blaber advises leaders to actively listen to these individuals as they hold “tacit” knowledge, which is rich in much needed context. This is especially helpful in vertical hierarchies like the military, where those with the authority to make decisions are often removed from the situation at hand.
This lesson was reinforced for Blaber when he and his team were executing mountain training in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana. The small team was set to backpack across the Continental Divide and brutal distances of snow covered, mountainous landscape. While the members were all in peak condition and shared a few decades of combined experience in orienteering, they were still open to the advice of those with more context.
Two such figures, a local Vietnam War veteran and a park ranger respectively, offered advice on equipment and route planning. The team overcame their pride, took the advice, and successfully completed the training because of it.
It’s not Reality Unless its Shared
Incredibly smart and talented individuals are often found making profoundly bad decisions. The author states that, in an organizational setting, this is often because of a lack of a shared reality. Ensuring a shared reality benefits a team in three main ways:
- Organizing. Forgetting the lines and blocks that make up organizational structures, leaders should look at a specific mission and ask themselves “how would we organize ourselves if we didn’t already know how to organise?”.
- Communicating. Communication should be boundaryless. While those in institutions like the military are often drawn to compartmentalization and secrecy, the most important label in successful teams is often “need to share”.
- Leading. The best way to ensure a shared reality is established is through common sense. Never be afraid to ask, “what’s you recommendation”.
This final lesson comes courtesy of Blaber’s experience commanding a unit in an early 2002 battle in the Shahi Khot Valley in Afghanistan. In what was called Operation Anaconda, Blaber’ small teams were tasked with infiltrating the mountainous strongholds of the Taliban surrounding the valley to aid in the larger effort of drawing them toward a conventional force in the valley floor.
Radio communication was lost, distant commanders were overriding the decisions of those on the ground, and unprepared replacement teams were being sent into the mountains following the success of Blaber’s teams. Ensuring a shared reality would have resolved these issues and prevented the subsequent loss of life.
Through stories and lessons like the above, The Mission, the Men, and Me makes a strong case for its thesis and manages to be deeply engrossing along the way. While military personnel in and outside of special operations will find the content relatable, any leader can benefit from the principles provided and relate them to their own experiences.
This relatability combined with concise writing is what sets Blaber’s work apart from cheaper imitations and has allowed it to withstand the test of time. Any reader interested in better preparing themselves for the leadership challenges that lay ahead would be wise to give this book a chance.
The reviewer: Dylan Nigh is a US Army Officer currently serving in the First Special Forces Group (Airborne) as the second-in-command for the Technical and Information Support Company. His passions include volunteering, reading, studying irregular warfare, hiking, and promoting leadership development.
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