Leadership under fire

March 1, 2022

Family pain

I attended the funeral of my wife’s aunt today. It was a sad affair and the close family members were naturally emotional. She lived an ordinary and good life. She was just like anyone of us. No high office, no fame. She loved and was loved. Her last couple of years with us were a slow, tragic decline. Her husband absolutely did his duty and faithfully cared for her until the end.

I hadn’t met her often, but I was touched at the funeral by the obvious grief of the family.

While we try to ignore the fragility of life, it is the elephant in the room. I walked into the church, with ice running through my veins and all the cares of today and tomorrow on my shoulders. It didn’t take long before the tragedy of the situation leached into my soul. Thoughts of those I love dearly welled up inside me and I questioned my ability to manage future tragedy. Will I be the rock?

Responsibility asserts itself

Over the years, I have known challenging times - some loss both in terms of loved ones and money. Each punch was brain-achingly painful. I muddled through, but honestly, I didn’t rise to the situation. I scored C+ at best. In the past I could blame youth or inexperience, but now I realise I am at the top of the hierarchy now. The senior man of the family. Eyes are on me. I’m expected to have the answers. If I don’t, I’m still expected to show the way.

This is where the rubber meets the road and where character development meets individual personality.

The question for me is what does this look like and what resources can I draw on? While a lifetime of tribulation can shape us, we must always ready ourselves mentally for the unexpected dawn attack. I don’t know if the virtues required are innate or if we can develop them.

If you have been reading articles in this blog - you may notice that I’ve always been interested in the work of Albert Camus. One quote attributed to him is:

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend”

This has always resonated as I’m an individualist at heart. I have no powerful compulsion to make others do my bidding, and while I accept necessary authority, I have an aversion to the overbearing sort. I do, however, want to get close to people, to offer wisdom and friendship. To be strong, a binding link in the inexorable march of life.

I have often wondered how my approach squares with the archetypal view of the idealised leader. I’ve met a few of these in my time and I’m blown away by their presence, intellect, self assurance and integrity. It is one of those things you know it when you see it. It is awe - inspiring.

In a heart beat, life can pivot 180 degrees

Tragedy and hardship are a heartbeat away from all of us and sadly, most of us are not that idealised leader. Yet when trouble comes, do we take our responsibilities seriously or we allow ourselves to be pulverised under its weight?

Perhaps we have one of these idealised leaders who we think is leading the way. A stray metaphorical bullet can take them out at any moment and the question imposes Are you ready to take over? Have you been paying attention?

Lessons from Op BARRAS

I’m reminded of Operation Barras in 2000 - A hostage rescue mission in Sierra Leone - when the Officer Commanding A Company, 1 PARA, Major Lowe and his HQ group were taken out by a mortar round. Suddenly, a complex and dangerous operation was in jeopardy.

A young captain called Danny Matthews was told to take over. Bullets flying, he kept the assault going, finishing what they had started. He was later quoted as saying, “Having gained the momentum, what you can’t afford is to lose momentum and slow down”.

Important to note here was there was a clear mission and plan from the outset. Matthews knew what to do and when the order came to take over - without hesitation - he picked up the ball and ran. Hesitation can cost dearly. Territory can be lost and ground must be retaken. There is nothing more dispiriting than fighting over ground again.

Dealing with a Crisis - How must you lead?

Leadership will adapt to different circumstances and even if you think you are not a natural after some reflections, these are my thoughts on crisis leadership. These can be applied professionally, but I’m thinking more of the home front as I write them.


While we cannot know what will strike us during an idle Thursday in September, we can at least be mentally and spiritually ready. Living like we know that life is impermanent and could take a turn at any moment. Don’t be like the monkey with the apocryphal jar trap. Holding so tightly to the nuts, your clenched fist can’t pass through the neck. Use the currents and flows of life to aid your journey, monitoring the ultimate destination. The line is rarely straight and the difficulties are placed for a reason. From a Christian perspective, “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12. Life is hard, but we should not be discouraged, regardless of the circumstances. We should accept difficulty and suffering as it trains us to persevere, which gives us a strong character, the outworking of which is hope.


This is a word that rolls off the tongue easily, but it is a hard virtue to live out. It is a ubiquitous word used thoughtlessly in the Western world. Real courage takes guts - being prepared to lose everything for the sake of something greater in the face of pain, grief or difficulty. If we are honest, few of us are brave. It is too easy to live a compromised life.

You know you are being brave when the magnitude of the effort you need to take - seems to far exceed your capacity. When your stomach lurches at the mere thought of what you have to do. In what I’m writing about today, bravery for me is an act of defiance towards your circumstances. The ground wants to swallow you, yet you resist with every fibre, every sinew. You will not be taken alive. Courage begets courage. Every time you walk out of the gate of the known “Green zone” and move into the unknown “Red Zone” to face the enemy; that takes courage. When thrust into circumstances that feel beyond your control and you are reluctantly in charge, take some advice from Field Marshall Slim - “The courage of the officer must be a little different from that of the men. You will always take greater hazards than your men. You will always be the first in danger. Not only will you be braver than your men, but you will go on being braver a little longer than they are...There will come a pause when everyone will look to you. They will look to you for leadership. Believe me, when that happens, you will feel very lonely.”

In that loneliest of moments - know that the mantle of responsibility is yours to bear. Don’t shirk from your duty. Do what you need to do, not bothering much what will happen to you when you are doing it.

"Not only will you be braver than your men, but you will go on being braver a little longer than they are"

Plan and explain

There is a time for silent stoicism, but there is also a moment where you need to explain your plan. You are in charge and times are rough. Of course, present a calm, reassuring presence regardless of how you feel inside, but you need to tell those relying on you how you are going to get them to the other side. There may be dissension and disagreement and you will need to bear that out, but in the end if you are the leader, right or wrong you need to lead and this means knowing what you want to do and how you are going to do it. If it is dealing with death, a grim diagnosis or challenges your kids are facing in school, you must lay out what effect you intend to achieve and how you are going to do it and everyone’s role in it. Having worked with and in management and leadership for 25 years. Never underestimate people’s ability to not hear or understand what you are trying to say. The best way is to get people to explain back to you in their own words what you told them and to explain their role in it. When things are going wrong, fear is high, uncertainty neutralises logic. communication is not a one-time event.. This is a daily activity. It may be through word, text message, family meetings and through your very demeanour. It is not that you are any less scared or more able than others; it is that you are braver just that little longer than everyone else and you are staying ahead of the situation and working that bit harder.


My last piece of advice, when thrust into the eye of the storm, when everyone is looking to you to take charge, is to do your duty..This is ultimately a question of integrity. Doing what you should do, whether or not you feel like it.

If times are hard, you must be in the trenches with everybody else. You are eating the same rations and doing your share of the work. Your word is your bond. You prevail and whatever comes; you do not desert or fall asleep at your post until relieved. There is nobility in duty, it is unglamorous, and it does not seek reward. Your duty is tied to your role. Husband, father, caregiver. You will never get it right 100% of the time. After the battle is over. You will be forgiven much - even if your plan was flawed and badly executed, there is redemption. The hardest thing to recover from is desertion. No wonders that in previous times it had the ultimate sanction.

Parting shot

I write this post with a measuring tape run the length of myself. Many of us know what is required, but are we prepared to put in the hard yards? Will we step forward when the situation demands, when our kin cry out for leadership, will we apply our skills and talents to the problem? Will we stand our ground until we only have a single bullet left?