Leadership is Knowing When to Follow

Leadership is Knowing When to Follow

Posted on May 7, 2024 at 9:00 pm by Steve Solex

April 13th, 2004
Fallujah, Iraq

The night before the op was oddly quiet, especially for Fallujah. This place had been rocking and rolling for days on end, motherfuckers dying every goddamn minute. Every night mortars and machine gun fire rumbled the ground underneath our feet. The cocksucking insurgents that had moved into the city as we took Baghdad had a stranglehold on this place. My team and I were brought in to try and push them back, even if only a little and even if only temporarily. Everyone knew that we weren’t going to win Fallujah this time around, hell, we knew before we even got here. But if we could put boots on the ground of the city and kill a few of these fuckers, we’d consider it mission accomplished. 

We were holed up in a makeshift command post, the only light we had came from our red lensed flash lights, and it barely did the job. It was April, and we were about to enter in to what would become one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and my guys and I…we were looking forward to it.

I could feel the literal weight of the mission weighing down on me. I knew that any decision I made could mean life or death for my men. Being a squad leader of a Spec Ops team is no fucking joke, and it was a job that I didn’t take lightly. 

This was how we made our fucking money.

I remember giving my gear once over – shit, it was the fifth time I had checked it; not even gonna lie – when I heard a whisper from one of my guys, “Hey, Chief. You might wanna take a look at this.” It was Corporal Jensen.

Jensen had joined the team only a few weeks prior to the deployment, but he had quickly gained my respect during a firefight the week. His instincts were keen and he was more intelligent than an Operator should be…I liked that.

“I’ve been looking at the intel and the maps again,” he started, his voice low and shaky. He was nervous, and rightfully so. We were about to be in the shit, and we all knew it.

“What’s up, big guy?” I asked, still going over my gear.”

“Well, Chief. I think there’s a better way into the city than what we’ve got planned. This route, it’s out in the open and sketchy as fuck,” he said as he laid the map out on the Iraqi sand and pointed to the route I had chosen earlier in the day.

The audacity, I thought, but I let him plead his case.

“This road here will skirt us around the city, and will give us the cover of the main structures on either side of the road. The route that we are planning to take is very direct, and it will put us right into the heart of the city. The intel reports I’ve read have said that this route has been inundated with IED’s and ambushes over the last 72 hours. I know you read the same reports, Chief, and I trust your judgment. But I think this is a better way.”

I put my flashlight on the map and studied it carefully. His route was less direct, and gave us cover on either side. He was right, but it was a gamble. I put my flashlight on his face, trying to catch a quick glimpse of his expression.

He was fully confident in his plan, I could see it in his eyes.

“Alright, new guy. Lead the way,” I said, handing him back the map.

I knew that going with his plan was a risky as fuck, but the confidence and steadiness in his eyes had me sold. I made the decision quickly, but I didn’t make it lightly – I knew that my ass was on the fucking line if anything went sideways.

That night, as we moved quietly through the hidden alleys on the outskirts of Fallujah, I jumped at every fucking shadow that popped up. But, in the end, Jensen was right. The Corporal’s plan had us slipping right through the insurgents’ fingers right before they even knew we were there. By the time we had reached our objective, it was very apparent that taking the less expected path had given us the upper hand.

After the mission, back at our makeshift command post, we cleaned our gear and patched up some wounds. Jensen, who led us the whole way through, sat up against a mud wall and puffed on a Marlboro Red. The look of satisfaction on his face is something that I’ll never forget.  I told him what a good job he had done, and that his plan had literally saved lives.

We expected to lose a guy or two that day, but thanks to Jensen…everyone stayed in the fight another day.

That op taught me more about leadership than any bullshit training exercise ever could. It taught me that being a leader doesn’t mean you always have to be right and it doesn’t mean that you have to be out front and shouting out orders. It taught me that it’s about listening to your team and knowing when to follow instead of lead. It’s about seeing the strength in your team and giving them the full trust and confidence to lead when it fucking matters. 

May 5, 2024
Solex Ranch
Basement Gym

The heavy clank of metal on metal echoed throughout Solex’s basement gym as he pushed through another relentless set of squats. Each rep was a testament to his regiment and discipline, the barbell loaded with enough weight to break a normal man. As he completed his set, the barbell clanged back into the rack. He grabbed the towel that had been slung over the pull up bar and wiped the sweat from his brow as he took a deep breath.

The sound of the door across the gym opening caught Solex’s attention, and quickly he turned to look just as his friend, “The Pastor of Disaster” Seth walked through the door. Seth wore his usual plain  and cargo pants, the perfect compliment to his hulking frame. His eyes were hidden behind his Oakley Prizm sunglasses, and his Glock branded, camo-patterned baseball cap sat propped back on his head, covering his thinning blond hair.

“Making those weights cry for mercy again, I see?” Seth joked as he walked toward Solex, his booming voice echoing off the gym walls.

Solex chuckled as he continued to try and control his beating and said, “Someone’s gotta let these bitches know who the boss is.” 

Seth smirked and reached into the gym bag that was slung over his shoulder before tossing it over to Solex.

“Get some of that water in ya’ and get hydrated. We got more work to do.”

Solex caught the bottle and took a long drink, killing nearly half of the 20oz bottle in a matter of seconds. “Sounds good, bossman. Not an easy week this week, that’s for sure.”

Seth smiled as he leaned up against a nearby weight rack, watching Solex get lay back onto the bench press.

“You know, Solex. I know that you have this primal instinct to lead. It’s in your DNA man, I know it. I can see if every time you talk. I saw it the day that you saved my life in Afghanistan. I see it every time you step into the ring, and I saw it last week when you lifted Bobinette Carey into the air and instructed John Sektor to help you drive her headfirst into the mat with the Freedom’s Fall Spikedriver before you pinned her in the middle of the ring.”

Solex laughed as he grabbed the cold barbell over that was above the bench press . “Preach, Pastor. Preach,” he joked as he took in a deep breath and unracked the weight.

A smile tugged at the corner of Seth’s mouth as he took up the position of spotter behind the bench. “You know, leading isn’t always about being the man in front of the attack. Sometimes to lead, you have to learn to follow.”

Solex immediately racked the weight on the bench, the weights clanging together. Solex shot up and looked over to Seth.

“Talk to me, Goose. What are you trying to say?” Solex asked with an eyebrow raised.

“Look, you know this. These are basic leadership principles, man. What I’m saying is, this week you are going to be partnering with the freaking GOAT. The Tom Brady of football, and if there was ever a time to lead by following…this is going to be it,” Seth explained.

Solex stood up from the bench and folded his arms.

“But, follow? You know that’s not my style, bro. I have to be out in front, it’s just what I do,” Solex said, attempting to plant his flag on the topic.

“I know, I know,” Seth said, raising his hands in a placating kind of gesture. “But think about it, bossman. Just like in combat, knowing when to step back, and let someone else take point – even for a moment – can pay dividends in the long run and can be just as impactful as leading yourself,” Seth continued to explain.

Solex sighed and looked toward the ceiling.

“It’s counterintuitive for me,” Solex said, as he began to pace the room. “I’m used to being the pace setter and calling the shots. In the field, and in the ring…I’m the fucking guy.”

“And brother, you’ve done well in the lead. You are probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever met, and you know…you’re pretty okay in the ring too,” Seth joked.

Solex shook his head and smiled, “Fuck off, man.”

“That’s one way to talk to a man of God, I suppose,” Seth quipped as he rolled his eyes. “Look, knowing when to follow is something that you taught me. Remember the story you told me about your door kicking mission in Fallujah during OIF 2? That story is what inspired me to come up with this entire strategy. It was a time that you stepped back from your role, and the result was literally life saving.”

The mention of Fallujah recaptured Solex’s attention, but it also darkened his demeanor momentarily.

“True. Following Jensen’s call made all the difference in the world. It sucks to admit, but yeah…taking a step back, it gave us the advantage,” Solex said, continuing to pace the room.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Seth exclaimed as he clapped his hands together. “When you get in the ring, and Mike Best is at your side…he is Jensen. The two of you are a freaking unit by yourselves, and as a team no one is going to be able to stop the two of you. There will be moments when you are in that ring that you are going to have confidence and trust in his judgment, and he’ll have to do the same for you. The easiest way to get there, is to give the trust out first…he will reciprocate,” Seth explained, driving home the core of his case.

Solex nodded and took in the advice, but a bit of confusion came over his face and he asked, “Trust?”

“Yes,” Seth said. “You’ve got to trust him.”

Solex let out a deep breath and shook his head.

“Seth, the guy has been one of my closest friends for nearly two decades, but trust is something that I don’t just hand out like fuckin’ candy. Mike, lately, even with all of the support he’s given me…hasn’t been earning a whole lot of it.  Did you see March to Glory? Did you see him take out the referee right away? How can I trust him when I don’t know if that whole thing wasn’t his plan and not Davidson’s?”

“Trust is never easy, boss. But it’s absolutely necessary in a situation like this. The two of you are in the foxhole together, and you’ve got to watch each other’s backs. The only way to get him to watch your back, is to watch his. The two of you need to work together like a well-oiled machine, just like you and Sektor did last week. You need to be able to switch your roles seamlessly, going from leader to follower in the blink of an eye,” Seth campaigned.

Solex smiled and said, “Switching roles, huh? Kinda like Rocky II? Starting righty, and finally switching to southpaw in the end?”

Seth chucked, “Yeah, except Rocky never switched. And this ain’t the movies, boss. This is pro-wrestling.”

“Either way, I dig the plan, Pastor. This could totally throw Mitchell and Witness off their game. They know that both of us have egos the size of Mount Rushmore, but if we have some humility in our game…they’ll never see it coming,” Solex said, fully buying into the concept.

“Exactly right, boss,” Seth affirmed. “It’s about being fluid, unpredictable, and adaptive…just like in combat. This will give you guys the edge, and it will catch Mitchell and Witness completely off guard.”

Solex slapped Seth on the shoulder as a determined expression appeared on his face.. “I’m sold, bro. I’ll call Mike tonight and talk this one out; make sure we’re on the same page.”

“Let’s freaking go!” Seth shouted out, doing his best Tom Brady. “Now let’s knock out this workout, grab a drink and then you can call the champ.”

Solex smiled as said, “Maybe I’ll get an LSD Championship match after this.”

“Maybe,” Seth said with a wink.