Russell Reflects On Leading Under Fire
Former British Army Officer Speaks At Clough Colloquium
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2013 04:03
In the midst of violence and uncertainty, being a leader takes on a whole new meaning. Maj. Russell Lewis, a former officer in the British Army, explained how he acquired this meaning during his time in Afghanistan as part of the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics’ Clough Colloquium on Monday night.
Lewis was commissioned into the Parachute Regiment in 1994, and in 2008 he was appointed to command B Company, 2 PARA, a group of 200 soldiers from the regiment. His company was based near Sangin, Afghanistan, where they encountered temperatures of up to 115 degrees, brutal conditions, and transitions from desert to jungle warfare.
Samuel Graves, a professor in the Carroll School of Management, began by reading some quotes from Lewis’ book, Company Commander, and explained how Lewis’ advice can be applied to various types of leadership positions aside from the military, such as business and government. As Lewis began his presentation, he addressed some of the numerous challenges he faced, such as distinguishing between Taliban and ordinary citizens, and keeping track of every member in his company, even though the majority of them were out of sight at any given moment.
Lewis then continued to describe two different days that he experienced—a “great day” and “a very bad day”—to illustrate the extremities he faced in warfare and the lessons that he learned from them. During his “great day,” his company was given 18 hours to defeat a 40-strong enemy group, and after securing the high ground and enduring a two and a half-hour counter-attack, the enemy eventually disappeared. His “very bad day,” in contrast, did not end as well for his troops, yet the experience had lifelong effects.
“It taught me more about leadership in a time of a few hours than anything else in my entire life,” Lewis said. During this day, the goal was to gather intelligence and clear enemy routes, and after two and a half hours, the group began to run out of water and started to head back to base. At this time, an Afghan local stepped out of a doorway, and two of Lewis’ soldiers who spoke the native language approached to identify him. Unfortunately, the man was a suicide bomber and self-detonated onto these two soldiers, and Lewis soon received info that the enemy was ready to attack.
“I was confronted by this overwhelming vision of hell,” Lewis said, describing the ensuing events. Shouts for medics began filling the air, and he described how “time started to slow down,” and he experienced “sensory overload.” Despite the bloody scene and the panicking of soldiers around him, he had a “leadership epiphany,” and suddenly was able to compose himself in order to execute the necessary tasks.
“Security is priority—the medics will deal with the casualties,” Lewis explained. “You’ve got to be calm. People are looking to you.” Three soldiers were killed that day, which was devastating to the group, but Lewis learned that at times fear and sadness has to be masked for the sake of the other troops.
“[A leader is] the person you need to be at the time you need to be it,” he said. “Understand what your people need of you at any given moment.”
After recounting one of the most difficult days of his life, Lewis concluded by explaining the responsibilities and qualities expected of a leader: decision-making, being in a position to influence, and good communication. He noted that the lessons learned from Afghanistan may not coincide with typical leadership experiences, but the moral courage and unique perspective that he gained were indispensable moving forward in the military and in life.
“Chapter one of any leadership book says a leader must have trust, but I believe a leader has to have good judgment, because if you make good decisions, people will trust you,” Lewis said. “The popular decision is right for some of the time, but the right decision is right all of the time.”