Lessons from an Army Ranger

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Now, onto Issue 43.

Lessons from an Army Ranger

I drove across America a month ago.

On the trip, I stopped for a night in Northwest Arkansas and met up with a friend (Raye) in the morning to train. Raye was an Army Ranger for nearly 15 years and did 11 deployments in the Middle East.

We found a 10-story flight of stairs at a trail running park and did stair repeats for an hour in the July humidity.

As we trained, I peppered Raye with questions.

  • how to train and develop people

  • the stresses of combat

  • the toll high-stakes work takes on your family

  • how to make impossible decisions

  • how to execute like a professional

It was a blessing to spend a morning with him.

Today, I want to share 10 lessons I learned in our time together. I haven’t stopped thinking about these since.

1. Three levers for growth

After serving as an operator for years, Raye was tasked with overhauling the Ranger training pipeline. He deeply understands how to develop people and pull potential out of them.

He said there are three primary levers for growth:

  • Mindset

  • Skill

  • Environment

Raye used an ice bath example to explain how all three work together.

When people get in an ice bath, their first instinct is to freak out. It’s freezing cold. The first step to learning how to operate effectively in freezing cold is to accept that it will be freezing cold. Instead of fighting the cold, shift your focus to how to work with it. This is mindset.

Once you accept the cold, there are some tactical things you can do. Breathing techniques is one example. Controlling your breath will enhance your performance. Knowing these breathing techniques is skill.

Now, let’s say you’re around people every day who’ve been doing ice baths for 10 years. You get to study them, ask them questions and learn from them. They give you little tips to apply in your next ice bath. Access to these people is environment.

Put mindset, skill and environment together, and it’s impossible not to grow.

2. Planning is priceless, a plan is worthless

I asked Raye how Rangers think about executing a plan when out on an operation.

His response surprised me:

“Planning is priceless, but a plan is worthless once the fight kicks off.”

The military has a saying regarding plans: “The enemy always gets a vote.”

Meaning, you can have the best plan, but there will always be unexpected variables that come up once you’re on target. Intel won’t be exactly accurate. There will be surprises.

The same is true in business. Markets are unpredictable. Customers will have a say. You never know as much as you think you know.

So, if a plan is “worthless,” why build one at all?

As Raye put it, the process of planning is priceless.

During this process, you learn about yourself. You learn about your teammates. You develop your ability to adapt. You become prepared for the unknowns.

Be diligent in planning. Be adaptable in executing.

3. Minimal vs. optimal information

When Raye and his unit were preparing to assault targets, there was a minimal amount of information they needed and an optimal amount.

“Name and location,” he said. “That’s all we need.”

There’s this bad guy in that location. Go get him.

That’s the minimal amount of information needed.

The optimal amount includes the “why.”

This is strategically important, because the why reveals other bits of information that can dictate strategy and tactics. How much time do we have? What are various ways we can attack this problem? What are the tradeoffs of each approach?

What dictates whether you have minimal or optimal information is time.

“Sometimes, we didn’t have time to understand the why,” Raye said. “We got a name and a location, and we just needed to go.”

If you’re leading a team or working on a project, know the boundaries of minimal information and optimal information.

If time allows, seek optimal. If it doesn’t, be confident with minimal.

4. The “how” is figured out live

Let’s say Raye’s unit had optimal information.

  • Name of target

  • Location of target

  • Why they’re hitting the target

What they almost never had was the “how.”

“The ‘how’ is figured out live,” Raye said. “You need to be comfortable with that.’”

This would come back to training and the process of planning.

Rangers — and all special operators — can figure out the “how” on the fly, because they have years of training reps together. They know how each other thinks, acts and moves. They know how to identify risks, mitigate them and adapt.

In life, we often want to plan everything. We want to reduce the unknown. Our brains like certainty.

But it’s impossible to eliminate all unknowns.

Build the skill of figuring out “how” live. Get comfortable with accepting you don’t know how things will unfold, while being confident that you have the skills and resilience to figure out how to execute in real time.

5. How to make impossible decisions

On one deployment in the Middle East, Raye and his team were hitting a target to get a highly coveted individual.

Inside the compound, there were gun fights raging on Raye’s right and left. His job was to breach a door that led to an interior room where this individual was supposedly hiding.

Raye put the charge on the door. Seconds before detonating the bomb, he heard a sound coming from behind the door.

A baby crying.

He had two options:

  • Proceed with Plan A, blow the door down and send his team in. This would be the fastest and safest for his team, but the baby would probably be a casualty.

  • Go to Plan B, remove the charge, knock the door down, throw a flashbang in the room, then send his team in. This would take longer and put his team at more risk, but they had a chance to save the baby.

Put an innocent baby at risk, or risk the lives of your team. In the middle of a highly secured compound with gun fights surrounding you and no time to waste.

“That’s an example of having to decide between two impossible decisions,” Raye said.

“So how do you make that decision?” I asked.

“Which decision can you live with?” Raye responded.

6. Be willing to be wrong

Raye shared numerous times where he had to make decisions in combat that could go terribly wrong.

If they went wrong, he’d be criticized and questioned. In extreme scenarios, he could even lose his job.

“Good decisions can turn bad,” he said. “That’s reality. You don’t control everything or know everything.”

To be a good leader, he said, you must be willing to be wrong (and then be willing to accept the consequences).

7. Looking ready isn’t being ready

When Raye ran the Ranger training pipeline, he noticed something.

The guys who looked ready for combat weren’t necessarily the guys who were actually ready for combat.

“Some guys looked the part — Division I athletes, strong, good endurance, skilled, did almost everything well,” Raye said. “Then in combat, they got exposed.”

What Raye came to learn was the difference between looking ready and being ready was usually cognitive.

What’s needed in a chaotic environment like combat is the capacity to handle extreme stress and the ability to make good decisions on the fly.

Every job requires certain tactical skills. These are obviously necessary to perform. But what usually separates top performers are the skills that are harder to see — cognitive skills that aren’t fully revealed until you’re in the middle of chaos.

Pay no attention to looking ready.

Give all your attention to being ready.

8. Three types of advantages

When executing a mission, you can have three types of advantages:

  • Surprise

  • Speed

  • Violence

Surprise is catching the enemy off guard. Arriving stealthy in the middle of the night and executing the mission when you’re not expected.

Speed is executing swiftly. The enemy may know you’re there, but you move so quickly they can’t wage a counter-attack.

Violence is brute force. In the absence of surprise or speed, you overwhelm the enemy with aggressiveness and firepower.

Ideally, you always have two of the three, Raye said.

This applies the same to competing in the business world (although I’d replace “violence” with “intensity”).

The key: “Whatever advantages you have, there can be no hesitation,” Raye said. “On target, you need to execute immediately.”

9. Think about your thinking

I asked Raye how do you develop people to have the cognitive capacity to handle stress, make good decisions on the fly, decide between impossible decisions, etc.

“You have to do it, and then you have to think about your thinking,” he said.

In training, Raye would do AARs (After Action Reviews) after every exercise. In those AARs, he’d teach guys how to evaluate their own thinking.

The core skill is asking incisive questions.

  • What was I thinking in that situation?

  • Why was I thinking that?

  • What did I do because I was thinking that?

  • How effective was that action?

  • What would have been a better decision?

  • What can I do next time to be better prepared?

Most of us probably spend very little (if any) time dissecting our own thinking. Life is busy, and we just plow ahead.

Think about your thinking often.

10. Frustrated people lose

In training, Raye would often design exercises to push people until the point of frustration.

He wanted to see how they’d respond. It generally wasn’t good.

“Frustration serves no purpose,” Raye said. “It just wastes time and energy.”

This isn’t to say you won’t ever be frustrated.

The key is to recognize when you’re feeling frustrated and adapt.

You can come back later to have a conversation about what happened and why it frustrated you.

“But in the moment, frustrated people lose,” Raye said.

Those are 10 lessons I learned in my time with Raye. I hope you get something out of them.

If you do, pass them along to someone else. People like Raye are gems, and we all can benefit from their experience and wisdom.

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