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No Excuse LeadershipLessons from the U.S. Army's Elite Rangers
By Brace E. Barber
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-48803-8
Chapter OneRANGERS are PERSISTENT
Brace Barber RANGER
Persistence does not exist without stress and pressure. You can't persist through a sunny day and an ice cream cone. Your goals will require persistence and patience. How many times do you have to get up after falling? One more time. Persistence isn't dictated by physical beauty or strength. It isn't influenced by a high IQ or perfect eyesight. Persistence is a personal decision made every day or every minute until you have achieved your goal. Persistence is the leveraging of time against the weight of a heavy goal. You'll see that persistence can force actions that are uncomfortable and awkward, and it can compel introspection.
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Before I attended, no matter how many people I talked to about Ranger School, the same picture remained in my mind. The night is perpetual, and day never arrives to dry the moldy rucksacks on our backs. Slimy vines from the jungle ceiling hang down to slap our dirty faces as we march forward on another patrol. The forest is a maze of trees, always anchored in marshy soil, which clings to our jungle boots with sucking teeth of mud. We march for days at a time, with no specific mission, just weariness and hunger to keep us company. It is a cold, lonely world, meant only for those who have been challenged.
The Ranger School graduates I asked had the same problem explaining the diversity of misery there as I do to the people who ask me now. How do you convey the feelings of frustration and anger at the paradox of being too tired to march anymore, yet aware that freezing is the alternative if you stop, or how the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee was worth more to a Ranger than the company of his girl back home.
Before attending Ranger School, I read the book Platoon Leader by James R. McDonough (Presidio Press, 1996). Early in the book he sums up the experience of Ranger School by saying, "It made me realize that I was not as tough as I pretended, but tougher than I thought." If every Ranger student were as tough as he acted, the school would be little more than a nine-week adventure camp. The only learning done by the students would be patrolling techniques, mountaineering, and swamp operations. Teaching these skills is only a small part of the overall objective of Ranger School. The higher intent is to teach each student about himself during situations of intense duress.
The desire to attend Ranger School did not start as a burning desire; it was more of a small fungus that grew into a tree over a four-year period at West Point. I did not even realize that the thought had taken root until it was almost an acceptable idea my senior year. I waffled on Ranger School so many times it became a habit. When I felt strong, "I am going." When I felt weak, "I'm not going." I finally made the fateful move of verbalizing my goal. I told both of my roommates, Pat Mathes and Brent Layman, that I was going to go to Ranger School. I knew that making a commitment to someone else and laying the goal on the table would force me forward. Despite committing myself when I was feeling strong, I still had to stick with my story through my not-so-strong times.
Mentally, I continued to struggle with the idea of putting myself into voluntary hell, no matter the payoff. To feed my hunger for information on the school, I attended a briefing conducted by Colonel Tex Turner. Colonel Turner was the head of the department of military instruction at West Point, and had at a previous point in his career run the Ranger School.
At the briefing, I stayed in the back of the auditorium as it filled with my classmates. The murmur of the crowd grew and at times got very loud. The cadets mingled and moved around like dark blue ants between the seats looking for a buddy or finding a place to sit. There was a lot of excitement in the room, as they were about to learn some of the truth about their chosen branch. Colonel Turner walked onto stage and the room got quiet.
He spoke at first about leadership and he related a couple of stories from his days in the field. Then he got to the importance of Ranger School. I stood in the back hoping to pick up any little bit of information I could about the course. I was still trying to figure out if it was right for me. Then he said it-"There are two kinds of officers, those who are Ranger qualified, and those with excuses why they are not."
For a second I felt it was just Colonel Turner and myself in the room, and he was looking right at me from two feet away. "Well, cadet, what's it gonna be? Ranger-or EXCUSE?"
I stuck around for the remainder of the briefing but did not hear much. I left that auditorium a future Ranger. I would not be denied.
Grasp the simplicity and power of No Excuses, and you have guaranteed success.
"Well, what's it gonna be? Wealthy-or excuse?"
"Well, what's it gonna be? Healthy-or excuse?"
"Well, what's it gonna be? A good parent-or excuse?"
"Well, what's it gonna be? A good friend-or excuse?"
"Well, what's it gonna be? A good employee-or excuse?"
"Well, what's it gonna be? A good leader-or excuse?"
If you set goals in line with your personal priorities, and never accept excuses for failure, you will succeed. The accounts in the remainder of this book are acknowledgments that it is difficult to never give excuses when you are shooting for extraordinary success. The characters show that despite the depth of conviction you have for a worthy goal, the pursuit of that goal will be filled with pressures and opportunities to quit. The journey will be full of chances and desires to make excuses and rationalize the abandonment of your goal. If it were easy to be wealthy, healthy, a good parent, friend, employee, or leader, everyone would be. Choose your goal, not the excuse.
This relates directly to leadership because leaders do not make excuses. I figure if you are responsible for others and you make excuses, you haven't led anyone anywhere and aren't a leader.
Be the Frog
I was on the top bunk, snuggled comfortably in my sleeping bag. All was quiet in the barracks except for the shuffling of the fireguard making his way back and forth through the old wooden building. The darkness outside was stiff, threatening the sun to stay away for a few more hours. My mind popped open, my eyes stayed closed, and my body lay still. Cocooned in my sleeping bag the way I was I could not tell what had awakened me. I listened for the commotion associated with first call, but could not hear any. It could have been midnight, or 0200, or God forbid, 0430. I dared not look at my watch, for fear of the last possibility.
I could still feel the weariness of my muscles pulling me into the mattress. The few hours of sleep could not begin to revive the strength I had expended in the previous four days. I drifted, and sleep quickly dragged me back. In what seemed like only a minute or two, I was awakened again by the yelling of the student platoon sergeant (PSG).
He was a large man with light hair and small dark eyes. He had a heavy face, the kind you could compare with his baby pictures and immediately see the resemblance. He yelled only when necessary, and waking up sleeping Rangers was one of those times.
I sat up slowly, letting my feet hang over the edge of the mattress. Invariably Hines, a private first class (PFC) from the Third Ranger Battalion, would sit up at the same time and bang his head into my feet, or get kicked as I swung them over.
Today, 8 November, was a day that found us dressing, although in silence, with a slightly lightened mood. Day five, the last day of City Week, was here, and so was the last physical training (PT) session, the last run, and the last bayonet drill. Something in the back of my mind said, "It's got to get easier after this."
All of my pretraining had been geared toward City Week, toward the 30 minutes of calisthenics and basic training type hazing. I could do push-ups until the cows came home and "run to Columbus just like this." Despite the training, I was tired after the first four days, and I prepared to give my last little bit for this final day of City Week. I swore to myself that I would never do this phase of the school again.
Although the weather in Georgia was comfortable, the mornings could be bitterly cold. We stomped out of the barracks as late as possible for formation. BDUs with gloves, running shoes, and black stocking caps were the uniform. We jogged to the PT pit in formation, stopped and downed our gear, moved into the dark brown sawdust, and prepared to start. To our front was our PT instructor, Sergeant Moreno, a short Hispanic noncommissioned officer (NCO) with a muscular body and a very large mouth. However, what waited behind him is what had our attention.
Behind him was the worm pit, Ranger School's version of an obstacle course. Included were most of the normal stations-pull-ups, crawling under barbed wire, a horizontal ladder, a low-crawl pit, and a rope climb. But all of this was augmented with a foot and a half of muddy, ice-cold water underneath each one.
We did our exercises, then went on a four-mile run, and returned to the PT pit for stretching. Steam was rising from our bare heads, giving us an angelic aura when mixed with the stadium lights around the field. No one had given us a yes or no when questioned about the worm pit. We had slipped by the first four days without doing it, and the hope that the winter might save us was strong among the 40 Rangers who now began to feel the cold penetrate their clothes and hot skin.
Even as the first platoon began moving to the start point to our front, we hoped beyond hope that we would not have to go. We were still stretching when the first set of 10 Rangers finished their pull-ups, and plunged, screaming, stomach first into the water. "Fuck," was the only thought that entered my mind, as I gave in to the reality of what was to follow.
In four days of Ranger School, I had already been kicked, slapped, and thrown in the hand-to-hand pit, and I had jogged down a dusty road with an 80-pound rucksack, but the first smashing, almost unbelievable reality of pain came when I fell into that ice-cold, dirty water at the beginning of the worm pit.
We stood in line, 10 abreast, waiting our turn at the pull-up bars. Each rank drew a different RI to guide them through the course. Much to our chagrin, we drew Staff Sergeant Yovan.
His six-foot, nonmuscular frame was capped with a crooked smile and a skewed mentality to match. I am sure that as a child he twisted the legs off of frogs and pulled his sister's hair until she screamed. He would take sincere pleasure in seeing us suffer through the worm pit under his control.
I let go of the pull-up bar and dropped to the ground. A second later, I was facedown in the freezing water, scraping my belly across the sandy bottom of the lane underneath the barbed wire. A shock had gone to my brain, and my breaths were quick and short as I tried to regain my air. Instantly I began to shiver, and my screams of motivation sounded more like a stubborn car engine on a cold morning.
I kicked with almost panic energy, sucking in more water than air, and scooping sand into my pants with my belt. "Push ... push ... push," I thought. "The end is getting closer. Push ... push ... push." I must have looked like a frog moving through the water-very little style, but a definite goal. Frustrated, I struggled through the first obstacle, kicking at the sandy bottom that gave way at my feet. My slow progress allowed time to think, to savor the misery into which I had just jumped.
None of us had a choice in the matter, and none had it better than the other. The worm pit was the first major indoctrination exercise into the Ranger mentality. Not a single person there wanted to do it, but we each knew that it was compulsory and expected. We simply had to do it, or leave. Performing a difficult and uncomfortable task was expected of a Ranger when the mission dictated it-no questions asked.
I have read that soldiers in combat do not turn and run in the face of the enemy because of their buddies next to them. People are concerned about their buddies' welfare and also the personal embarrassment running away would cause. It was impossible to think of walking away from the worm pit for those exact reasons. Ranger School had provided our enemy, tapped our basic fears, and expected us to drive on. We did drive on, not even knowing that the worm pit was as close to battle as we might ever come.
I kicked and scratched to the end of the wire obstacle, emerging from the muck resembling a swamp creature. "Arrrrgh! Hooahhh!" we all screamed as we rushed to the horizontal ladder. Through that, we dove once again into a muddy strip of water. There was no wire above our heads, just an RI. We were in the water simply to be in the water. The lane started out wide enough to accommodate all 10 of us, but in its 30-foot length it tapered to a small end like a funnel spout. We all began with the high crawl, hands and knees, moving as far into the funnel as possible. Sergeant Yovan called a stop to that quickly, and had us on our backs doing flutter kicks in the middle of the water. We rolled left, then right, and then we were instructed to continue down the lane doing the snake. He said it was his favorite: hands behind our backs, bellies in the mud, kicking and wiggling to the end of the lane. As the end closed in, bodies began piling up, and those in the lead inadvertently kicked the rest of us who followed.
Winded and tired, we made it through the snake. The end of the obstacle course was looming near, just a quick climbing obstacle, and then the rope climb. We tromped along, dragging our feet and holding our heads up trying to catch our breaths.
Ken stood in a trough of water three feet deep, and stared in distress at the 15-foot rope, which he grasped in his meaty hands. Ken was about six foot three and 230 pounds. He was a large man with a lot of strength, but not for climbing ropes.
"Wrap the rope around your foot, and step up onto that and then move it up as you go," we encouraged him.
He made two attempts at pulling himself straight up, resting his feet on the knot about two feet off of the water. Sergeant Yovan even cheered him on, offering a case of beer if he made it to the top.
Excerpted from No Excuse Leadership by Brace E. Barber Excerpted by permission.
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