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Leading The Way To Find The Heroes Among Us

It’s not always easy to identify the heroes among us.

Case in point: Little did I suspect during the welcome breakfast at the recent IHA Chief Housewares Executive Super Session that the young man with the polite Southern drawl and pale leather coat discussing his latest country music recording would turn out to be a former Army Ranger from the 1993 special operations mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, immortalized in book and film as “Blackhawk Down.”

And little did I suspect that the former Army Ranger, Keni Thomas, would deliver a stirring presentation that would transform his harrowing experiences from a day that left 19 of his fellow soldiers dead into an uplifting tale of leadership that ultimately saved the lives of so many more.

‘Fight As You Train’

Military strategy has become something of a cliché reference for business strategy. Thomas, nonetheless, drew a compelling line between preparing for the possibilities of ground warfare to preparing for the possibilities a company might encounter (while certainly less grave by comparison).

Thomas’ core message is simple and clear: “Train as you fight… Fight as you train… Lead by example.”

In his conclusions about leadership, colored vividly by the 18-hour firefight that ensued after the Blackhawk helicopter was shot down, are salient points deployable by decision-makers in today’s volatile business climate.

Here are some sound bites from Thomas’ presentation:

• “Standard Operating Procedures in the military are tried and true. When you start skipping steps, that’s complacency.”

• “If you have people that are not up to high standards, it can cripple you… You can’t stand over them and do the job for them. Don’t bring your standards down.”

What If?

• “Plan. ‘What if’ everything you can think of. Then train, train and train some more. You’re going to be hit with something some day. How you react will be based on how well you were trained.”

• “Each one of us was the single most important piece… [Your employees] need to know what it means to be counted on.”

• “Ask yourselves everyday: ‘How do I prove that I’ve set an example for others to follow?’ Because, there’s going to be a day when you’re not there.”

Thomas throughout his speech referenced a fellow ranger, David Floyd, an awkward soldier who became something of a whipping boy in the battalion. Thomas, a sergeant, often bore the wrath of his commander when Floyd didn’t complete his drills on time. 

Weakest Link

“We pushed that young man, and when he failed, we all failed,” Thomas said of Floyd. Wouldn’t you know it was Floyd who fired the crucial rounds that helped to stabilize the Blackhawk rescue. “All the training worked,” Thomas said. “The weakest link ended up saving us all.”

“You have no idea of the impact you have on people until it comes back to affect you,” Thomas continued, reminding the audience of housewares leaders that their actions deliver the desired outcome most effectively by preparing and entrusting each person needed to reach that outcome.

Thomas finished with a song, an homage to soldiers whose courage and leadership inspired him. The lyric— “The world becomes a better place when someone stands and leads the way, steps forward when they’d rather say, ‘Not me,’” sums up his message.

In combat, in business and in life: the heroes among us might surprise you.