"Come for the concepts, stay for the stories"
May 31, 2022

The Lesson Hidden Behind the Door

The Lesson Hidden Behind the Door


During a tactical training session in new agent school, I encountered a closed door. A room off a room in the parlance.  The door opened outward towards me, which meant I couldn’t just turn the handle and ride the door open (yes, a one-man room entry; new is the operative word here).  While I was working as part of a small team, they were handling their assignments and I was holding on this door.  Now these were the days before weapon mounted lights, so I had my 4 D cell flashlight in one hand and my duty weapon in my other.  To open the door, I’d need to holster the pistol or stow the flashlight.  Each decision had pros and cons. Having done searches in the real world as a patrol officer before, I muttered (mostly to myself), “I hate these.”  The instructor heard me and chuckled.  I made my decision and opened the door.  In the after-action review, he had me explain the situation and then explain my decision.  He even mentioned my comment on my reluctance to pick the “least worst” decision.  He then asked, “Why didn’t you wait a second or two and ask for help?” A tactical lesson learned; and later as a supervisor, one I should have remembered better.

As leaders, we often find ourselves trying to do it all on our own.  We know that leadership is influence and relationship built on trust and competence.  Our bosses must know we are capable of handling whatever comes our way.  We need to demonstrate to our troops that we know what we are doing. We want to show that we have the skill and will to not just get it done, but get it done right. In Steven Pressfield’s epic Gates of Fire, a Greek survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae tells the Persian king, “That which comprises the harshest burden, the king lifts first and sets down last.” [1] In other words, as a leader, you hump your own ruck; you lean forward in the saddle, and you make it on your own canteen. Pick your adage or pithy saying.  So, we go it alone, displaying autonomy, initiative, and tenacity. But is going it alone always the best option?

As leaders, we guide teams. We are part of bigger teams. What makes a team is a group of individuals working together and supporting each other toward a common goal whether that is accomplishing a mission, winning a championship, or launching a new initiative or product.  In other words, we have teams for several reasons, not the least of which is we can’t do it all on our own.  It is okay to reach out above, below, left, and/or right and ask for help, guidance, or thoughts on a challenge confronting us. In fact, doing so makes us a stronger leader, it shows others you have the humility of character and the inclusiveness of a leader to seek, listen to and consider options coming from someone besides ourselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t take any action without consulting with someone else, but you should have the humility and confidence to ask for help when you need it.  Chances are somebody in your sphere has dealt with a similar issue.  As the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck said, “Any fool can profit from his own mistakes – the wise man profits from those of others.” Including others builds morale, a cooperative culture, and high performing teams where people feel they are valued and listened to no matter where they sit in the chain of command.

Also, as leaders it is our responsibility to develop more leaders to take our place in the future.  By consulting or asking for our constituents’ input on issues and challenges, we develop their ability to think at or above our own level. We coach and mentor them to develop operational and strategic outlooks while they may still operate at the tactical level.  This also helps them develop problem solving and critical thinking skills, which are invaluable to both the leader and journeyman.

I would love to say that tactical lesson from so many years ago wasn’t lost on me when I entered supervision. Alas, there were too many times, especially in an administrative setting when I didn’t reach out when or as often as I should have.  Usually, a boss or constituent would nudge me to remembering that I had help available and all I needed to do was wait a second and be smart enough to ask for it.

[1] Pressfield, Steven, Gates of Fire, Doubleday, New York, NY, 1998