I got to know Michael recently. He served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2014; the last two years supporting a 12-man Special Forces team and multiple tours in Iraq. Michael just turned 30, sharp looking, soft-spoken, and as articulate as anyone I’ve ever heard. He shares his story.
Imagine this: your job is to live in a war zone, using a cover identity, embedded in Iraq. You are there to hunt down the enemy, and yet, in order to survive, you have to create allies amongst natives in these war torn cities. Imagine trying to do that, and having a $100K bounty on your head because the enemy has learned who you are. And still, you have to build allies. On top of that, if any of the locals get caught colluding with you, assisting you, their families are all at risk, they would be murdered for helping you.
But, to do your job, to find to your targets, you have to build alliances and get information from locals.
And as I’m listening to Michael, it’s as if I’m watching a movie. That’s the only way I know how to process what I’m hearing. The images that are racing through my mind are that of our Soldiers wearing full body armor and carrying heavy artillery.
What he shared next absolutely stopped me in my tracks and dispelled all the Zero Dark Thirty misconceptions I had. Michael talks about a specific target they identified. He needed to learn more about this likely combatant, however the only way to do that was by gathering information from local people willing to help him. He talks about meeting this one particular native Iraqi, a husband/father, raising a family in the middle of this war zone.
Here’s the amazing part: when Michael meets with him, he has to go to the meeting with no weapons. And he talks about having to take off his body armor before walking into this man’s house. That was step #1 in building trust. Michael sits down in his living room. They open up with one another, and this man shares with him how all he wants is a better life for his children. That’s all.
But by sharing with Michael, his entire family’s lives are at risk. On top of that, he could kill Michael and get the Bounty. Imagine both this father’s situation, and Michael’s. I can’t.
After getting to know who this man was, that he just had a baby, Michael returns with a personal gift; a baby blanket, a symbol to him of trust.
There was such a paradox to me between the imagery of Body Armor and a baby blanket. But I remember Michael’s words so clearly when he said, “I had to take off the armor in order to build connection. Its about human connection.”
With me, he later shares the phrase their team used, “dropping the fig leaf” which he simply explains as, “I show you, you show me.”
So maybe the basis for trust, connection… winning over people’s hearts and minds; maybe it’s about “dropping the fig leaf.”
And we wrestle with vulnerability here, mistaking it for weakness. Although I only spent three days with Michael, I know this: I have yet in my life to meet a stronger human being.
By taking off the armor, Michael taught me that vulnerability and strength are not in opposition — they coexist. I can’t get the image of that baby blanket out of my mind.
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