Three Leadership Lessons from a War Zone

‘Standby for a rapid descent’ yelled the pilot of the UN charter flight down the aisle of the 30-seater plane. I looked behind me to confirm that I was in fact, the only passenger on this journey from Amman, Jordan into Baghdad.

It was just me and John Mayer on my iPod, staring at the desert below. It felt like we almost lost cabin pressure as the nose of the plane screamed toward the tarmac in less than three minutes. Rapid descent: check. Only when I disembarked did the pilot tell me he was also dodging a group of local militia who were seen the day beforehand on the edge of the runway with a rocket propelled grenade launcher in the back of a four-wheel drive. I kept calm and carried on.

My instructions were to look for the five security guards who would escort me to the compound, a team of former special-forces guys, carrying AK-47’s, grenades and handguns. They ran through a security briefing in the searing heat of the undercover car park, which I couldn’t help but notice was riddled with bullet holes. I was handed a helmet, flak jacket and a burqa which I was to wear to avoid being kidnapped for ransom. Burqa on head: check. Working for an international aid group, my objective the following few weeks was to interview local Iraqis who had returned to re-start their businesses after being given micro-finance grants from USAID.

These stories would form a business case for the same aid programs being extended. This was a deeply insightful and rewarding project and it left me with three key lessons for effective teamwork in a chaotic and high pressure environment, lessons that are directly transferable to any workplace.

There’s no need to set an alarm in Baghdad’s ‘Red Zone’. Tragically, the workday started by being woken by car bombs shattering the morning markets. The gunfire was constant and happening just over the wall of the compound. On a less violent note I was personally distressed by the number of starving stray kittens. The level of distraction was off the charts, so every day it was critical to simplify our objectives.

Every morning we ran the checklist to keep us laser focused and on track. It’s a habit I maintain, having a master list beside me all day, shortlisting tasks and hustling to strike them off by 6pm. I don’t finish the day without my inbox being cleared to zero. When you’re clear of distractions and absolute about the objectives, there’s no downward drag in the day.

2. Get Comfortable with Courteous Confrontation

Everyone in the house slept next to a helmet and a torch, so if the compound was over-run, we could find our way to the roof. There were militia launching rockets from behind the fence of the compound. US helicopters on night patrol swept across the roof every 20 minutes, shaking the building as they passed, so sleep patterns were constantly broken. This was a seriously tense environment, which could easily trigger clashes between colleagues. The camera crew and I agreed that if something bothered us, we’d put it on the table. This policy removed any drama from the day and increased our efficiency. Courteous confrontation builds trust, confidence and keeps everyone playing the ‘outside game’ instead of wasting time on any form of internal politics or unnecessary drama. Never allow anything to undermine the spirit and cohesiveness of the team – there will often be a cost.

3. Give Everyone the Chance to Talk

One interview was held at Saddam Hussein’s former palace, which meant driving between the compound into the Green Zone. This involved a briefing with the security team who were in charge of the four-car convoy. In the driveway, the security chief gave everyone the chance to discuss the route and any new risks. In principle, this flat communication structure enabled a free flow of ideas and observations that ensured the safety of employees. Surveillance was everyone’s responsibility. And everyone on-site was important, not just the guys at the top. For any workplace to function effectively, we all need to feel included by having a voice, no matter how soft. Any observation of the marketplace you operate in could prompt a change in your business strategy, but as the hammer went down on the 737 for take-off from the Baghdad runway, I braced myself for the vertical climb out of the airspace. The aircraft was plain white – the less logos the less chance of being blown out of the sky, basically. My heart rate didn’t slow down until we landed back in Jordan. Then, the entire way back to Washington D.C., I thought about how it didn’t seem right to walk away from people who were still in so much need. The very least I could do was take every lesson with me, try to be a stronger leader where I had the opportunity and encourage others to do the same.

Andrea Clarke is a former Washington D.C. correspondent and international aid worker, now helping women across corporate Australia reach their potential with her online career development program, ‘Be the CEO of Your Career’

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